You might never know what your true dream job is until you hear someone speak passionately about their own line of work. Marie Wright, Chief Global Flavorist at ADM Nutrition, is someone whose enthusiasm for her profession—developing the flavor profiles in the snacks and beverages you consume every day—is positively infectious. While Wright works with many categories of products that range from sweet to savory, much of her work involves an area of the food industry that’s currently booming: hard seltzer. What’s it like flavoring those tall, skinny cans that Americans can’t get enough of? How does the right combination of fruit juices drive a $3 billion business? The Takeout spoke with Wright about the daily task of catering to America’s palate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Takeout: In your line of work, working from home right now is not feasible, is that right?
Marie Wright: Correct. We have been working right through COVID so far. (We’ve started a roster to split the workforce so that there’s more space.) We’ve got to physically be making things, tasting things, as an essential business. People have been at home eating more from the grocery store, so that puts more emphasis on our operations.
TO: Walk us through your responsibilities as president of creation design development and chief global flavorist.
MW: I lead the creation teams, the product development teams, color, [and] extraction on a global basis. If you’re a flavorist, it’s something you tend to be very passionate about—which I have always been.
Every day is different, and in a global role, I could be (though not at the moment!) in Asia or Europe working with the team on a project. My background is cross-category, so I’m skilled in both savory and dairy, sweets, confection, beverage flavors—right across the board.
The mornings are the best time to taste. That’s when we’re the most sensitive. We do spit when we’re tasting. There are some times that we do need to swallow in order to get the whole experience, but if we start swallowing everything—first of all, if it’s in the alcohol sector, we will be drunk by nine o’clock [laughs]. But also, we’ve found that if you fill yourself up, how you taste becomes a little subdued. My sense of smell and my sense of taste are much stronger when I’m a little bit hungry, a little bit thirsty. If you’re starving, you really enjoy food—that’s why if you go shopping and you’re starving, you buy everything, right? So if you keep swallowing everything, you’re going to fill up, you’ll feel bloated, and you just won’t have that sensitivity to tasting.
Unfortunately, now if we’re working on something, we’ve got to send samples to customers’ homes; we can’t invite them in [due to COVID-19]. Generally, we like to invite them to one of our customer innovation centers and work with them on the project, because we can get instant feedback and prototype very quickly. It just promotes that technical relationship and understanding of what the customer’s truly looking for. Now it’s different. We’re doing virtual tastings. You always find a way, and people have been flexible and versatile as we’ve moved into a virtual relationship.
Then there’s the creative time. A lot of the creativity and formula work that I personally do may be when I run in the mornings, for example. I think about formulas, I think about the taste of things. It’s almost like a skilled chef who spends time thinking about the ingredients and then brings it all together. You make something, you send it out, you get feedback, you might set up a virtual tasting at this point, and then you’ll move into modifying it.
TO: How long do you spend working on a particular flavor? Days, weeks, months?
MW: Honestly, it can be any of those. It depends on the customer’s launch date and when they need their formula locked in. Most of our work is pretty fast-tracked, especially in the hard seltzer arena. Once we’ve created the flavor, it’s got to go into the product, it’s got to sit in the product before we can taste it—that whole process can be pretty quick from the initial development. But once something is selected, it needs to go into stability trials. The shelf life of hard seltzer should be around a year. So you’ve got to set up tests to make sure that the product is going to be stable; creating that flavor takes maybe a few days. Flavor and taste are why you buy something again, isn’t it? Whatever it is, you hone in on one variety and you stick to that because you love the taste. But in the development timeline, the smallest amount of time is given to developing that piece. For smaller customers, we can create a product and get it to market within six weeks. But with the bigger customers, it can take a year, yet your development time is a month or two.
Especially with the hard seltzer category, which I happen to really enjoy, it’s so exciting to see the way that it’s developed, and the speed with which it’s developed. This market has grown in the past two years specifically.
TO: Why do you think hard seltzer has exploded in popularity over the last two years?
MW: It’s always a mixture of things, isn’t it? There had been hard seltzers before the explosion, like Henry’s Hard Soda. What the explosion is all about, though, is that the Zoomers and Millennials are not really into hard alcohol. They love cocktails, but not hard alcohol. There’s been a trend toward something more refreshing, lower calorie, and then, boom—once a trend starts… White Claw. What a name! What a brand! It became so trendy, and these particular generations may not drink anything else. Beer consumption had started to drop before then. Seltzer is a very refreshing, low-calorie, clean-tasting beverage that suits almost any occasion. And a lot of beverages, when they emerge, become gender-specific. But this isn’t. It’s perfectly cool if you’re a guy to drink it as it is for a woman to drink it.
The growth is extraordinary: in 2018 it was worth $400 million. In 2020, the market is [projected] to be $4.3 billion. It’s incredible. That kind of growth is exceptional, for sure. It’s also gone from being seasonal to being an all-year beverage.
I don’t know if this is true, but this is my perception: It’s sold in Whole Foods, which gives the perception that it might be healthy. I can’t help it myself, I love Whole Foods! And they have that image of an absence of anything artificial or synthetic. I don’t think that hurt things. LaCroix was definitely one that Whole Foods pushed as well.
TO: Is there a particular set of challenges unique to flavoring hard seltzers? What are the obstacles?
MW: What’s lovely about it is that it showcases flavor. In some products you’ve got a multidimensional experience. You’ve got a lot of other ingredients and it can be extremely complicated—something like a plant-based burger is complex. But when it comes to a hard seltzer, it’s alcohol, water, and sweetener. Maybe some juice, maybe a little bit of acid, but it’s a very simple formula. When you’re flavoring something that’s very simple, the challenge is making sure that the flavor really pops, stands out, has an appeal. Someone is only going to buy that again if it tastes good.
Certain flavors, because there isn’t anything around it to support it, can start to taste a little artificial. Something like a strawberry, even if you squeeze fresh strawberries and put that in there, doesn’t taste as good as something citrusy. There are challenges when you go for a certain line of flavors that don’t really deliver upon the authenticity, and you really want them to be authentic. Although, having said that, it’s interesting that one of the most popular flavors is Black Cherry, and it’s far from authentic to a black cherry. It’s much more how we expect a flavored cherry to taste, with the almondy notes accentuated.
Also, stability: You want this flavor to last the shelf life of 12 months and be as good as it was on the first day. That’s something that we have to think about when we’re creating the flavors. Citrus flavors are prone to oxidation, which means that the taste changes. It doesn’t taste horrible, but it doesn’t taste as juicy and fresh. We have probably the biggest citrus capability in the world, where we can actually create very stable citrus flavors that deliver upon an authentic profile and last 12 months. Even though you see a lot of varieties [of hard seltzer], when you look at the top sellers, it’s still citrus, or a combination of citrus and berry, that do the best. Maybe that’s also about when people drink it. On a hot day, it’s more refreshing to drink lemonade.
TO: Is there any hard seltzer flavor that is requested by customers that just doesn’t work as a seltzer?
MW: Most are pretty executable, but it depends. I know there was a project for grape. And if you think about grape, what are we left with? A Concord grape? If you think about white grape, it’s hard to get that taste. But a Concord grape is a little artificial-tasting, because it’s what we call “foxy.” It has a lot of foxy, musty notes. I think that’s very hard to deliver on in a hard seltzer, to make something really delicious. When I see projects like that, I’m not super excited [laughs]. I get much more excited when I see things like blackberry lime and things that people are really going to enjoy drinking. Some of the unusual citruses like yuzu, combining yuzu with blackberry or something, could be really interesting, even though they’re hard.
Cucumber is also difficult; I’m not sure that works so well. You’ve got the freshness of cucumber, but you’ve also got a fatty note. Over time, it becomes more fatty—it’s not terribly stable—then it becomes waxy. So what starts off as a fresh-tasting cucumber can end up being something that we would call “hairy.” Like animal hair.
TO: Do you have a favorite hard seltzer flavor? Mine is pineapple.
MW: That’s a good one. I really like the kind of oranges that have more of the citrusy, clementine notes. But you get a lot of aroma with pineapple. That might be what you like about it.
TO: You’re right—it smells exactly like slicing into a ripe pineapple!
MW: I love the aromatics. And you love the smell of it, so it obviously makes a connection with you. That’s something that can be challenging with some hard seltzers: they don’t all live up to their name when you smell them. So we need to make sure that we deliver on aroma. And, of course, the sweeteners paired with the alcohol. [Whether it’s] Stevia, natural sweeteners, or low sugar, we’ve got to deliver on sweetness. We love fruits when they’re ripe; that’s when they’re sweetest.