Something New Is Always Bubbling at the Polar Beverages Flavor Laboratory
In a small, rectangular room overlooking part of the city of Worcester, it’s not uncommon to hear burps coming from the people sitting around a large conference table during executive meetings at Polar Beverage’s headquarters.
“It definitely happens,” said Elizabeth Crowley-McKinnon, director of marketing for Polar Beverages, and a fifth-generation family member working for the New England-based beverage company.
It’s hard to hold in all the CO2 when testing the flavors that will eventually fill the cans and bottles of Polar’s specialty drinks. During these regular sessions, cup after cup of samples are handed to employees, who sniff and taste the seltzer flavors that are conjured up by Polar’s resident flavor-maker. “The concepts start right here in the building, which is like the ‘idea building,’ and then they execute them across the street,” said Crowley-McKinnon.
Each test brings the crew one step closer to figuring out which balance of a combination of tastes—concocted from a natural, oily mixture called “essence”—will be the right one to reach shelves. “We sit in new product meetings every other week,” she said, sitting at the table with several rows of clear drinks from the company’s selection. “It can be a long process.”
But it’s a process that has brought Polar’s seltzer line back to life in the last half-decade as more consumers turn to healthier, calorie-free beverage options as well as mixers for alcoholic drinks that aren’t bogged down with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring. “We have made a big push through social media to lead the charge about the flavors we offer. There has been a huge response for us that continues to grow,” she said.
Where Polar goes from here is something the company keeps a tight lid on. But if the experimentations at the company’s headquarters, matched with the innovative process behind creating new flavors, are any indication, then possibilities seem endless—and that’s a good thing, because there’s never a lack of test subjects willing to put back a few samples before the flavors are approved, bottled, and shipped off to market.
A Brief History of Bubbles
Polar Beverages as a whole, which includes the seltzer collection, can be traced back to the 1880s. The company was founded by Dennis Crowley, who acquired the J. G. Bieberbach Company and mashed it together with his liquor business. When the Prohibition Act came into play in the 1920s, it forced Crowley to forgo a life of selling whiskey, and shift his focus. “He had to shift gears. Dennis Crowley, my great-great-great grandfather, quickly dipped into the carbonated beverages business,” said Crowley-McKinnon.
Crowley, an Irish immigrant and bartender, saw seltzer as a lucrative way to avoid the legal issues that plagued the liquor industry. The beverage company started off as the “J. G. Bieberbach Company,” and changed names a few times over the years as it swallowed up competitors, but it eventually took on the Polar name—and polar bear mascot—in 1916.
Fast forward to the present, and Polar now has operations in Worcester, New York, and Georgia, and employs 1,300 people, more than half of which are locally based. The company has also expanded into bottling and distributing national brands including 7Up, Sunkist, and Snapple. To this day, people from the Crowley family tree still dominate the company, including Crowley-McKinnon, who joined the ranks just several years ago and is flanked by her uncles and father at the helm of the Polar proprietary blends.
While Polar has other lines of drinks within the company, such as club soda, tonic, mixers, and regular sodas, they pride themselves on being innovators in this specific category of seltzers. “[We] have tried to stay ahead of the trends. We have had seltzer forever, but it’s becoming more and more popular,” said Crowley-McKinnon.
And a lot of that popularity has to do with how they manage to squeeze the unique “essence” into the fizzy drinks.
Flavors Come, Flavors Go
The team at Polar is always working on something new by relying on three core ingredients: water, bubbles, and a natural flavor. Trying to differentiate itself in a competitive beverage market, the company looks to go beyond the standard varieties when creating its flavors, according to Crowley-McKinnon.
To do so, Polar maintains a core of 18 year-round seltzers and mixes it up a couple of times each year by rotating in seasonal flavors. Sometimes, if a flavor proves popular enough—like the release of Pear Vanilla or Granny Smith—it manages to sneak its way into the core group for good.
The seasonal flavors are pegged to winter and summer. For example, when it’s cold out, they release flavors like Mint Chocolate or Butter Rum. But once the sun starts blazing, it’s back to tropical, fruity blends. Two of the most popular flavors from each season are kept on for the following winter or summer, and then the company comes up with new ideas to join that line-up.
Polar employees made a Boston reporter promise not to reveal which seasonal flavors from this past summer and winter would make a return to store shelves, and they also wouldn’t go into specifics about what flavors are on the horizon. But the summer flavors, along with the new beverages, will be revealed to the public soon, according to Crowley-McKinnon. “We are taste-testing tons of different options right now, but it’s not finalized yet,” she said.
In addition to an extensive taste-testing process, there’s a lot of customer research that helps to drive their flavor trends. Suevia Greloni Pierri, brand activation manager (and lover of Polar’s Cucumber Melon flavor), spends time at events along the East Coast, watching how bartenders and customers use Polar drinks.
“Are people drinking directly from [the bottle or can]? What beverages are people pairing them with? It’s not just people—it’s bartenders, too. We get together to see what the trends are, and what the trends are going to be. Maybe we are looking at things that are upcoming so we can stay ahead of the curve as much as possible,” Greloni Pierri said, adding that she just returned from New York Fashion Week, where people were swilling on Polar’s flavored seltzer. “Then we taste test constantly throughout the year, and have consumers tell us what they want us to create.”
Of course, in the end, it all comes down to one thing: “We have ideas, but if you can’t make it taste that great, it’s not worth going forward,” said Greloni Pierri.
New Flavor Alert
Polar has a new flavor hitting the market, which was expedited over a three-month span and specially made for one of Boston’s favorite holidays: St. Patrick’s Day.
A limited supply of Irish Coffee-flavored seltzer will hit shelves in March, and it marks the first time the company has offered this particular blend. “It’s a small-batch option, so only about 2,000 cases will go out,” said Crowley-McKinnon. “It will only be around for two weeks at most depending on how quickly it moves through stores. We worked feverishly to get it done in time before the holiday.”
The process to get the Irish Coffee flavor out the door was a speedy one—even for long-time “mixologist” Keith Anderson—but after going through a few sample rounds, Anderson landed upon the right mixture of coffee with just enough minty aftertaste. “He’s a genius, he really is,” she said, referring to Anderson. “He’s my go-to guy.”
Boston was able to taste-test a series from the 10 prototypes that led to the final product, which ranged from an overpowering mint flavor (reminiscent of their Mint Chocolate seltzer) to one with a strong coffee flavor that tasted like a cup from a diner. The final version falls somewhere in between, and the company thinks it’ll be good as a stand-alone or mixed with some whiskey, a hat-tip to the company founder’s original business model. “Smell is really important,” she said, prompting Boston’s taste-tester to catch a whiff before putting it back. “It sets up what you’re expecting to taste.”
Then comes the flavor, which is seeped into the C02 drinks using the “essence,” which is extracted from various foods by outside companies. On its own, the oily liquid is potent, Crowley-McKinnon said, but by balancing it the right way, it gives off an aroma for a flavored beverage. “There is definitely a lot of science involved,”she said. “Smell is a big percentage of what you’re experiencing, so we smell test and taste test, everyone gives their feedback, and we work through it until we have a product we are all satisfied with.”
The process for taste-testing isn’t limited to the top executives, either. Polar tries to get the new samples out to factory workers, and anyone in the main building sitting behind a desk. “They will make sample bottles and they will get ranked on a scale of one to 10, and we will scrap anything that’s not doing well, or doesn’t smell strong enough, or if, say, the mint is overpowering. We take those comments and say, ‘this is worth tweaking,’ and then we revise them from there.”
While many of the drink varieties in the seltzer category have relative success—with some leaving customers begging for an extended run in the supermarkets—some flavor combinations never see the light of day, despite employees’ wishes to keep them around.
One example was the banana split-flavored seltzer from a few years ago that wound up on the cutting-room floor for the time being. “Banana is just really hard to figure out and get right,” said Crowley-McKinnon, admitting that she has been doing flavor tastings since she was young, when her father would bring home samples being created at the plant. “What’s great is there will always be other new favorites, though, and we are working hard on getting new top flavors all the time.”