Starting the journey of introducing a new beverage product into the market is an expensive, competitive endeavor and there’s a lot of pre-planning to be done prior to filling your first bottle. The work you put into this process beforehand often determines your success, so it’s important to do your homework and create the strongest product possible.
As a small business owner, it’s your responsibility to perform the due diligence required to ensure your communication with the co-packer will be seamless. The following guidelines will help you begin the process toward being a successful beverage entrepreneur without making costly mistakes.
4 Tips for Launching a New Beverage Product
1. Start with Small Batches
We recommend starting the process by charting your small-scale feasibility batches. Identify variables that can be derived from the product documentation, including specifications, manufacturing directions and analytical test methods, and then create a similar chart for the proposed manufacturing process.
It’s best to look at every nuance that can be derived from the available development report documentation, validation reports, batch records, and comments from the batch records, or virtually anything that provides insight into bringing this product to fruition.
2. Base Formulation & Testing
Have your base formulation well documented, prove out it’s consistency, and run a scaled-up test batch (100-gallon minimum). Include specifications, manufacturing directions, and analytical test methods, then create a similar chart for the proposed manufacturing process. It’s important to understand that a scaled-up batch may be very different from its original formulation. For example, water at the bottling facility may have different mineral content, commercial ingredients may behave differently than your store-bought ingredient, or process controls may not be as tightly controlled.
After completing the original test formulation and the scaled-up version, send it to a laboratory for specification documentation. Specifications to document could be pH, Titratable Acidity (TA), Brix, Color, and Specific Gravity. You may also test for micros such as e coli, yeast, and plate counts. The most important aspect of this process is pH as this will determine whether your product is a low-acid (pH above 4.6) or high-acid food (pH below 4.6). The pH determination will then lead you into the next decision point which is a suitable processing method. For process authority help, we recommend The National Food Lab www.thenfl.com, and for Laboratory testing we prefer UL www.ul.com .
3. Choose a Processing Method
Hot Fill: During the hot fill process, the liquid is heated to a specific temperature, where it’ll be hot enough to sterilize the inside of the container. It’s then capped and cooled. The cooling of the product creates a vacuum, which seals container.
Retort/Tunnel Pasteurization: Tunnel pasteurization uses multiple stages of heating a beverage within its packaging to target temperatures. Both are held for a predetermined amount of time to ensure microorganisms are eliminated.
Aseptic: Aseptic fill is a technique where the product is flash pasteurized by heating to 180-220 degrees for a few minutes, then cooled and filled at room temperature. The container and closure must also be sterilized prior to filling, and the filling process takes place in a controlled, sterilized environment.
4. Find the Right Co-Packer
Looking for a co-packer may seem daunting, but a little googling, in addition to the pre-work listed above can go a long way as you consider different options. As a starting point, we recommend searching the SQF Institute website www.sqfi.com. Look for safety and quality. The SQF site will also help you answer many of the following questions:
- What are your food and employee safety policies and procedures?
- Have there been any food quality or safety issues? If yes, what were they and how did you resolve them?
- Are there HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plans in place?
- Who audits your facilities and how often? What actions were recommended during your most audit?
- What certifications do you have in place (kosher, gluten free, organic, non-GMO, SQF, etc.)?
Assess your needs as a customer: For example, if you don’t have a lot of resources, a turnkey operation would be your best fit since the co-packer may we willing to source your ingredients, package material, warehouse, and even stage/ship your products. However, if you’re operating an established business and manage most of the supply chain and logistics, then it’d be a good idea to keep those roles in house and outsource whatever packaging aspects you cannot do with a co-packer.
Also, always ask the question “what are your minimum runs?” Many of the larger co-packers will offer a significantly lower fill cost but require much higher volumes and have six to eight week lead times. Find a co-packer who’s flexible with startups both in batch sizes and lead times.
Trust is a must: Communication is a crucial aspect in any relationship and your co-packer is no different. If your co-packer doesn’t respond back to calls or emails in an appropriate amount of time, or their answers are vague when you do get a hold of them, then they probably can’t meet your needs or expectations. Look for co-packers who are engaged and transparent because at the end of the day, your partnership with a co-packer is one of the most important your business will have.
Location: Look for co-packers close to you and your customer base. Long distances may create logistical problems with transportation and warehousing, increasing the costs of travel to oversee production runs. Plus, having them close makes it easier for you to visit the facility.