Transforming ‘Waste’ into Wow-Worthy Beverages

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #70, Tera chats with Paul Evers, co-founder and CEO of Bend, Oregon-based Riff Cold Brewed , about the successful startup’s origin story, the power of a strong brand and upcycling a would-be waste ingredient into a crave-worthy craft beverage.

Unlike most food and beverage entrepreneurs, Paul’s primary priority was to create a brand that really resonated with consumers; next, he decided which products to pursue. With a background in brand-building and creative services, and as co-founder of Crux Fermentation Project, a craft brewery in Bend, he was well-suited to take the emerging cold-brewed coffee category by storm.

After assembling a skilled team of founders that includes a cold-brewed coffee pioneer, Nate Armburst, and his son, Bobby, Paul and Bobby embarked to Colombia to learn all about coffee production from small, independent growers and brewing techniques from local cafés. Their trip was transformative and informed both Riff’s product development and design of its Taproom—the brand’s epicenter of innovation and consumer connections. There, Riff tests out new beverage concoctions on visitors and uses their immediate feedback as R&D.

The Colombia excursion also opened Paul’s eyes to something unexpected that has shifted the brand’s purpose and mission. He learned that after the coffee bean (which is really a seed) is separated from the surrounding fruity pulp, 70% of the coffee fruit is thrown to waste. However, the sweet-tasting pulp, called cascara, is far from worthless: It’s packed with nutrients and caffeine and can be transformed into delicious foods and beverages. But because there’s very little market demand for it currently, cascara winds up in waterways and landfills.

Shocked by this practice and the lack of information about it, Riff sponsored a study, supervised by a senior climate change scientist at Oregon State University, to accurately estimate the magnitude of discarded cascara and its environmental impact. The researchers determined that 100 billion pounds of cascara goes to waste, generating up to 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Determined to do something about this issue—and simultaneously reduce the footprint of its coffee-making endeavors—Riff began turning cascara into a line of natural energy drinks dubbed Alter Ego (named for being coffee’s lesser-known counterpart). The beverages were set to debut at Natural Products Expo West, where the brand would also participate as one of ten semifinalists in New Hope’s pitch slam, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Alter Ego launched online and at retail in the Northwest this spring, and distribution is expanding quickly.

With its eco-forward mission firmly entrenched, Riff joined 1% for the Planet and the Upcycled Food Association and is teaming with fellow cascara product producers to create a cascara trade association. While Paul didn’t start this journey with cascara or even necessarily cold-brewed coffee on the brain, his story is an inspirational example of what brands can achieve when they remain open to all possibilities.