Austin Ashley of Wisco Pop
We love hearing from the unique food artisans in small communities around the country. Wisco Pop, based in Viroqua, Wisconsin (pop. 4,362), is a craft soda maker doing wonderful things with real ingredients, such as ginger, lime, lemon, Wisconsin honey, lavender, famous Door County (Wisconsin) cherries, vanilla, cinnamon, maple syrup, raw sugar and real herbs. No high fructose corn syrup in these sodas. Austin Ashley, CEO, founder and “chief bottle washer” of Wisco Pop, says that where the ingredients are sourced from is very important to the small soda company.
As an example, he says about the source for their ginger, “There’s a cooperative called La Grama [in Peru] and I did some reading about it, and some of the social programs that they have networked there in Peru just touched me. And it just feels like the right thing to do. Not only that, they just have an excellent product. It’s spicy, a little bit floral, but it’s not like the Hawaiian ginger that is more floral.”
Austin not only thinks carefully about the source of the ingredients, but what they do in our bodies. Regarding sugar, he says, “I don’t like anything that’s sickly sweet…I’m not looking to activate my dental plan—that’s one thing. The other thing is I don’t want to consume more calories. I’m cautious of what I put in my body. And it’s actually interesting because honey does actually absorb in your body differently than regular, normal sugar does. So yeah, I definitely thought about it a lot.”
We hope you’ll click below and listen to this interview with Austin Ashley of Wisco Pop. And here’s a video that shows the personality of this fun business (and their support of other small businesses in their town!).
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. Today I’m delighted to introduce to you Austin Ashley. Austin Ashley is the CEO, he’s the founder, and he’s the chief bottle washer of Wisco Pop. Only two and a half years old, it’s an all-natural, craft-brewed soda with no high fructose corn syrup. It’s delicious! Please enjoy this interview with Austin Ashley as he talks about how Wisco Pop came into being.
TM: Hello, Austin!
AUSTIN ASHLEY: Hello!
TM: It’s so great to have you speaking with us today. And what fun, Wisco Pop! I love that name. Did you think of that name?
AA: Yeah, I did think of the name. I was talking with a friend, Andy Hatch, from Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese, and he was just talking about Wisco cheddar. And I’d never that term, “Wisco.” And I’m from Texas, so I was like, oh, that’s such a funny word—I’d never heard that before.
TM: Yeah, me neither. And I love the idea that we have our own soda here in the Heartland, Wisco Pop, in Wisconsin. And so what a great name, and what a great and delicious soda. For our listeners, I’m drinking the ginger right now, and it’s just lovely. And so what got you interested in going into the pop business?
AA: I actually started a small fermented foods business in Madison in 2004, and so I started playing with fermenting ginger beers as well. And that’s what really got my heart—like, making sauerkraut was kind of boring to me. I loved making kimchi, but then I started making these really great ginger beers, and my family and the extended family was just really loving it. So I just kept experimenting, and making some terrible batches of root beer, but the ginger beer always stayed really consistent.
TM: It is so clean tasting, and for those of us who love ginger, just a delicious ginger flavor. But I also love the fizziness of it. And so how do you get that fizziness?
AA: Well, we brew it much like a beer is brewed. So first we boil all the ginger inside a kettle, and then it’s pumped over to this really large tank that’s able to accept pressure. And then CO2 is slowly trickled into it. So whenever they make beer, it’s the same kind of process. It gets put into what’s called a bright tank, which has a stone in it that trickles the CO2 into it.
TM: Austin, it sounds to me like you know a lot about beer making too. Am I right?
AA: I know about anything I have to figure out.
TM: What do you think got you interested in just this whole fermentation business?
AA: Yeah, it was kind of just reading… We were into the Weston A. Price Foundation, the Nourishing Traditions, this cookbook, and then another one called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. And we’ve just always been involved—my background was in the culinary world, learning about the local, or what the chef I worked for called the “local agrarian movement” at the time, in 1997. And I didn’t know what that was. I was nineteen and working in a French restaurant. We had gardens in the backyard of this restaurant, and so I learned a lot. I got really excited about it, and I always liked making things from start to finish and seeing the whole process.
TM: Interesting, Weston Price Foundation, they’re doing some very great work. For those of you out there, you should Google “Weston Price.” Very healthful, really interesting, and you might say a little bit radical in the way that they are approaching food and the health benefits of a lot of different food, including fermented food and raw milk and so on. I know the big raw milk—
AA: Yes, right. I mean, that’s kind of how we started with that, was we started getting raw milk all the time. And the next thing you know, we have Sally Fallon eating at our dinner table, so it was pretty funny.
TM: No kidding! Isn’t that great?
AA: It was really fun.
T: Yeah, and you’re living to tell about it, aren’t you? Yeah, I raised my kids on raw milk, and sometimes I’ve talked to people and they’re horrified by it. But anyway, if you all are interested in that topic, certainly the Weston Price is good. And you know, you say “we.” Is this you and Hallie, your wife?
AA: Yeah, me and Hallie. We’ve always been kind of doing these things together.
TM: So you and your wife Hallie have really done some tremendously excellent entrepreneurial work here. When you were growing up, did you ever think to yourself you were going to be an entrepreneur?
AA: You know, I was kind of thinking about that. I grew up playing music for a long time and kind of self-promoting. And I was always reaching out to kind of do something that made me money. So it’s kind of, I’ve just always been that way.
TM: Yeah, and now, you started in 2012, I understand, even though you’ve been “fermenting” the idea for probably ten years, almost, weren’t you?
AA: Yeah, it was a long time.
TM: And so that’s the sign of a real entrepreneur—you know, it’s in your mind and it won’t go away.
AA: It would not get out, and no matter how much I wanted to kind of skirt around it. But the time kind of just came all right, and I’ve had a lot of great things happen just by doing everything at the right intuitive moment.
TM: Wow, yeah, a lot of intuitive things, and timing is everything, as they say, on these things. For our listeners, Wisco Pop has three wonderful flavors. I’m right now drinking the ginger, which is quite delicious. Do you want to say a little bit about the other two flavors?
AA: Yeah, well, I’ll just say all three, is that the ginger brew is Peru ginger, lime, lemon, honey from Wisconsin, a hint of organic lavender. That’s really good. We process all the juices in-house. The other one is our cherry soda, with Door County cherry juice, whole vanilla beans, cinnamon, lemon, and then once again some really good basswood honey that we just procured. And then we have a root beer, which is just a bunch of different herbs from around the globe and a raw sugar called demerara, and maple syrup.
TM: Peruvian ginger! Some reason why that Peruvian ginger is special?
AA: Yeah, for one thing, there’s a cooperative called La Grama, and I did some reading about it, and some of the social programs that they have networked there in Peru just touched me. And it just feels like the right thing to do. Not only that, they just have an excellent product. It’s spicy, a little bit floral, but it’s not like the Hawaiian ginger that is more floral. So I was kind of going after the spicy edge more.
TM: Nice—good spicy ginger. And you know, it seems to me, Austin, that I’m hearing that you really care about where all your ingredients come from.
AA: Yeah, that’s one of the things I really enjoy thinking about, especially like what we were saying, we’re using honey. I mean, I could just be saving on cost of goods and start being able to use organic sugar, and I’d probably s—
TM: High fructose corn syrup!
AA: —or high fructose corn syrup, yeah. That’s the other problematic thing. But the thing with the bees and honey is something that I’ve just kind of… We’re slowly emerging and trying to get enough volume to where we can support these local apiaries and kind of guide them in the direction that we want to see the honey be made.
TM: That is so excellent, and thank you for doing that, actually, because I think so many of us out there are pretty darn worried about the bees and the other pollinators. And so it’s great that you have incorporated your own values into this. I’m really also thinking about there’s a lot of values that go into trying to be an entrepreneur, decisions that you make. It sounds to me like you definitely decided, “No, I’m not using high fructose corn syrup.” But what are the other things that you think are part of your business that are important to you in that way, besides the delicious flavor and putting out what is a top-notch, excellent product?
AA: Yeah, I think it’s just connecting to… I mean, like I went and drove out to a farmer’s house to talk with him, and he’s pushing like seventy and I’m buying honey from this guy. And you just see all this knowledge behind it, and it just seems like the right thing to do, to try to put money into something that’s creating change in a very positive way. I mean, 40 percent of pollination is done by bees, and we need that. So if I can buy more honey and he produces more honey, it’s kind of a win-win thing.
TM: This whole sugar is a big, big topic right now in the news and with our health—the obesity crisis that we have, where for so long fat was demonized and it turns out in fact maybe it’s not fat but maybe it’s the sugar. You know, while I’m sitting here sipping on my ginger, I’m really feeling it doesn’t feel oversweet. Like you don’t even notice the sugar—you know you’re drinking something sweet but it just isn’t overwhelming. Did you consciously try and reduce the sugar profile or the sweetness profile in some of the drinks?
AA: Yeah, I like something that’s balanced. That, and I just don’t like things to be too sweet.
TM: Yeah, well, I don’t either, and I just want to say I really appreciate this. It’s so refreshing and it doesn’t overwhelm me with sweetness. But you know, it’s so hard to be an entrepreneur. I guess I’ll ask you, when you dove into “Oh, I’m going to do my own business,” and you and your wife grabbed it and said “We’re gonna do this,” did you have a moment where you stopped and thought about, wow, is this too risky? Am I risking something? Or were you just so gung-ho? Like what put you over the edge to say, “Yeah, I’m going for it”?
AA: Well, I was kind of working at a job where I was only making ten dollars an hour. And I had a little free time at my work, so I could write things out on a journal or something. And I just kept thinking about, it’s like, I could make ten dollars an hour doing this myself, so it’s either I waste my life away, sitting here, doing… It was good work that I was doing, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. But I sat on the ledge for a long time, thinking about how I was going to make it work, and it just didn’t seem… It seemed like a really hard thing. I mean, in order to bottle the product, you need about $150,000. And for somebody who doesn’t have that money to start up with, it’s pretty daunting.
So I started off with the kegs, and I said, well, I’m going to try it out at the farmers’ market and see how it goes. And it started to go really well. I started getting feedback on what people thought of the product, and then I kind of tailored the recipe a little bit more and made it more of a balanced, not so spicy but a little bit spicy product.
TM: You did, instead of going out and doing really, really expensive focus groups, like if you were going to be working for General Mills you would have been out there spending a million dollars. And instead you started out with kegs, right? And you sold it in bulk in, what, restaurants and in—
TM: —events. And then you focused people and they told you what they liked and didn’t like. And how did that work out? So you sort of like did on-the-ground research to tweak and come to refinement of your recipes?
AA: Yeah, and just, you know, I do have friends that are all… Mostly everybody I know is a foodie, so it was really nice to always get feedback from others and hear what they like, and just kind of trying to reconcile that, what I hear externally and then go back, taste everything, and just keep tailoring it that way. I think I went from…I used to do half lemon, half lime juice, and now I do three-fourths lime and a quarter lemon.
TM: Really, did people say, oh, the lemon’s too strong?
AA: No, I think that’s probably my granny coming through. My granny always made limeade, so I really like lime.
TM: Oh really, that’s so cute! Go Granny! What kind of surprises as an entrepreneur have you had?
AA: Mainly just how much people, if you’re really living what you want to do, how much people are just willing to help you. I meet people all the time that just give advice or look at something for you or give an opinion, or sometimes I’ve even had people help me with spreadsheets to kind of get that going. And it’s been really interesting.
TM: And like, I’ve actually, in the last couple years, I have had your root beer and your ginger; I haven’t tried your Cherry Bomb yet. But starting with this “keg” business, so unusual, what gave you the idea that you might be able to do that?
AA: Well, it was really nice, I met a man via Facebook in 2008, I think. I was just surfing the Web and found this guy called Rookie’s Root Beer. And he’s in Vermont, and he was really nice, and he was willing to talk to me at long length. And he said, “Man, just go out and buy some kegs and do it. Don’t even think about it—just go do it.” And I didn’t just go and do it—I thought about it for two years after that, you know. But he was giving me all this really nice advice, and he was just sharing with me how it’s gone for him in Vermont, which is… He’s in Burlington, so you can imagine the response for a local food in Burlington is really good, so…
TM: Yeah, so you had someone who just encouraged you to do kegs. So how long did you do the kegs, and how big did your business get, the keg business, before you said, okay, time to bottle?
AA: Well, it was a little limiting, and I knew that. And living so far away from market, it’s harder to do sales. I’d get one time a week, really, when I’d do distribution, driving it there myself. I would do like sixteen-hour days, all the way to Milwaukee, and you know, trying to get new accounts. And so I think that part of it was really limiting. And then trying to sell them five gallons rather than a case of soda. So I had, once again, help from another person, who is Sue Noble, over at Vernon Economic Development Association, and she helped me procure about $80,000 for some of the equipment. And then we did a Kickstarter, which was about $25,000 for equipment, and then we got another $15,000 from Buy Local Wisconsin.
TM: And so this was the bottling equipment.
AA: This was partially bottling equipment—most of it was bottling equipment and then a little bit of it was just some operating capital.
TM: And it sounds to me like, you know, you are everything. You’re making the soda, you’re distributing it and bottling it, and—
AA: Yeah, I just mopped the floors today, too.
TM: And mopping the floors. You know, that’s, I think, what it really takes, isn’t it, to be an entrepreneur today. And your wife, Hallie, does she like do the books and things like that?
AA: Yeah, Hallie worked at Kickapoo Coffee for a long time, doing the book work there, and learned a lot alongside of them and has brought that into our business. She quit working there in like 2013, I think.
TM: Great, and now works full-time with Wisco Pop?
AA: About two days a week. We’ve got it kind of efficient at this point, because we have three kids.
TM: Pretty soon the whole family will be there making pop! And I know that, now, you’ve got this pretty sweet little bottle and everything, and so that allows you probably to go into bigger distribution. Are you being able to do that?
AA: Yeah, I’ve worked out deals with a few distributors, one in Madison, two in Minneapolis. There’s one up north in Wisconsin. And then I’m working out some details with another one that I think I’m going to enter Chicago with.
TM: Nice! I think Chicago would be an excellent market for you. And so are you getting mostly sold in the natural food stores?
AA: Yeah, and that’s basically what I’ve focused on. I have picked up some stuff where it’s more of a grocery store type thing, and it just doesn’t do as well there. I think the value proposition that we’re offering, even when you pick up our label, you see, right away the first thing you see is ingredients matter. And you can turn around the bottle and look at the ingredients list on the side, and I’ll prove it to you that it’s all fresh ingredients.
TM: Yeah, that is so unique, isn’t it? This is not a “me too” drink. It’s really a stand-alone, isn’t it?
AA: Yeah, that’s right. And one of the things that I kind of was wanting to do is to be very transparent with the marketing material, because a lot of the times it’s smoke and mirrors, and then you turn on to the side of the ingredients, and you’re like, “Oh, come on—this isn’t the real deal.”
TM: You can’t read it unless you have a magnifying glass—and a PhD.
AA: Yeah, and some people aren’t really…you know, they just grab it, they see it, it’s like, “Oh, that speaks to me,” but then later on you’ve drank three-fourths of it and you look at the side and you’re like, “Aw, come on…” Or maybe you drank four or five of them.
TM: Yeah, soda has got, now, not the halo anymore that it used to, although a product like this, I think, moms could feel a lot better about. How does it compare in price to your Coke/Pepsi—
AA: Some of it’s been kind of funny, because if you look around on the shelf, like Mountain Dew just put out a Throwback Mountain Dew, and on the shelf it was $1.69. And I was just so surprised that they had such a higher-priced product than what they had had. And they’re really scrambling to grab as much market share as they can. I mean, they’ve got the money to try to figure it out. Even, like you touch the label—it’s kind of like our label, it’s got this nice little gritty hand feel to it… I think I’m selling Mountain Dew right now.
TM: Don’t buy any Mountain Dew, you guys out there. Remember, high fructose corn syrup, it’s terrible for your kids—it jacks them up.
AA: Well, that’s what they’re marketing it with, is cane sugar. So that’s the next thing, and so Coca-Cola’s doing this, Pepsi’s doing this. Pepsi has a product out called Caleb, which is the original formulator of Pepsi was named Caleb, so they’re trying it out on the East Coast.
TM: And it’s not high fructose corn syrup, it’s sugar?
AA: It’s not, it’s all cane sugar.
TM: It’s all cane sugar. Still and all…
AA: Yeah, no, I’m totally with you. And even when I meet somebody who’s really enthusiastic about our product… I mean, I’m all about sales and I really do need to make a living, but at the end of the day I need people to be here so I can stay in business, and not be dependent on insulin and all that kind of stuff.
TM: Well, you know, you have such great stories behind each one of your flavors. And I’m wondering, do you use any of those stories or any of this idea of knowing where your food comes from, in your marketing of your soda?
AA: Yeah, a little bit. I’m kind of rounding the corner of just being in the production side of things all the time, to where I’m kind of shifting gears to where I can start using the rudder of marketing with a friend of mine, and we’re working out our plan.
TM: That’s great.
AA: Yeah, because it’s not… We’ve done a pretty good job with the package part of it, but there’s more stuff, I think, we can help to raise awareness, especially around the honey piece that I think we’re all focused on, just because we all really love farming.
TM: Yeah, and it is a crisis, the bees, it really is. How about organic? Have you thought maybe of trying to do an organic soda?
AA: Well, you know, as well as if you look at the ingredients, you’ll see that almost all the ingredients are organic except for the honey, and honey is one of the hardest things to certify organic, just because how much radius. And I know that the organic standards are actually changing for honey. They’re coming up with some…somebody just passed that along to me recently.
TM: I just think that would be a tremendous market advantage for you. Yeah, because you know, a lot of moms don’t really want to deprive their kids of sodas, because you know, a lot of times deprivation, as a parent, doesn’t work—it makes kids want it more. But they want something that they feel that they can feel good about. So it’ll be fun to see what kind of marketing angles that you can come up with that really show that this is not a “me too” soda. This is different. It’s in a class of its own.
And if our listeners want to check out you more, you must have a website?
AA: Yeah, it’s WiscoPopSoda.com.
TM: WiscoPopSoda.com, folks. So go ahead and take a look at Wisco Pop on their website. And also, I know that you are in the local co-ops here in the Midwest, and also Madison, Minneapolis, Milwaukee?
AA: Yeah, all over Minneapolis, Milwaukee.
TM: I hope you don’t mind, can I go back to your price? I think it would be great to say how much is a, and this is a twelve-ounce bottle of Wisco Pop in the co-op?
AA: It’s about $2.29.
TM: $2.29? That is a very good price for a nice soda.
AA: Yeah, I think so, with what’s in there.
TM: Cheaper than a latte!
AA: Cheaper than a latte.
TM: How about new flavors?
AA: Last research and development stuff I did was a strawberry soda using, SnoPac has a strawberry line. And it took about 173 pounds of strawberries to make 217 gallons of YumYum,(?) or soda. And it was really so good. But now it’s just kind of, we’re at this point where we’re doing a lot of planning, and so to bring on another flavor, it’s just not quite there yet. Probably by this coming summer though, for sure.
TM: It’s interesting, the soda companies are all going into the milk business. Coca-Cola just released a milk, and so on. And so it’s almost kind of like the soda companies are saying, huh, the future is not in soda drinks. But I think that you’re taking that whole soda category and you’re elevating it, which is something I really like. But does that worry you, that the soda companies are under attack a lot because people feel that they’re creating diabetes and an obesity epidemic and things like that?
AA: Yeah, I think to the discerning consumer, I don’t think it really affects them. I think to certain people who maybe have been on the Coca-Cola train for a long time… I mean, I stopped eating McDonald’s and Coca-Cola probably 1997 or something like that—maybe occasional Coca-Cola, but you know, just not a frequent thing.
TM: Well, how about Coca-Cola, Pepsi—have you ever thought of trying to do a Wisco Pop of that variety?
AA: Yeah, and I’ve done research on all beverages, and I know quite a bit about the history of root beer and the history of cola. And it’s pretty fascinating stuff. So yeah, I have tried—I’ve tried like making the original recipe of cola, and it tastes pretty interesting, but it doesn’t taste anything like Coca-Cola, you know. I mean, the first thing was like I want to make root beer, and that was the first thing. And then when I started playing with that, I was like, this is hard. And then I started using sassafras, which was the main constituent in root beer in the 1960s but then got taken away in 1966 by the FDA because it contained a component called safrole, which caused cancer in laboratory mice. And so they withdrew, every root beer manufacturer had to reconfigure their root beer.
TM: Interesting. How come they don’t—
AA: It seems like it was actually Coca-Cola that was probably putting pressure on things to get rid of root beer and make Coca-Cola the, you know… That’s my thoughts.
TM: Interesting. I mean, certainly we have a ton of pesticides right now, sprayed on our food, that causes cancer in rats in laboratories, and they’re not withdrawing those.
AA: Yeah, the FDA’s a mystery, isn’t it?
TM: Yeah, it really is a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? You know, I’m just wondering, you do so many things. You are in R&D, and you’re in sales, and you’re in distribution, and you’re in production. What part of your job do you like the best?
AA: I love going out there and talking to the farmers. That’s pretty fun. Yeah, they’re usually just… And they’re always all different, and they have different opinions. You know, being a farmer, I think, is pretty hard; not everybody makes a lot of money doing it. It’s just close to my heart, I guess. That’s all I could say.
TM: I guess I’m interested in your, have you had other ideas of other products that you think would be part of your future that you’re interested in?
AA: Yeah, definitely. Definitely eventually marketing honey. Once we get that, figure it out how to transition some of the bad habits we see that beekeepers have and create good habits. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make it a hundred percent organic or what, but trying to start with something like that and have a four-year exit plan of like, this is the strategy that we want to have for how the bees are going to be kept, and then we’ll be able to supply that honey on shelves, and then we’ll also be able to use that for our product. But that’s my longer-term—
TM: Have you ever thought of a honey soda?
AA: Yeah, back in the earlier 1950s there was a, it was called a white soda. And I’ve been kind of thinking about that a little bit, like just honey and lemon would be kind of fun, because you need a little bit of acid to have the right pH for shelf stability.
TM: Well, awesome. I am so excited about your product and about the way you’re approaching it. I think it’s so great to be able to say this is a unique product and it has a different kind of message. And so I really want to just wish you huge luck. So why don’t you give us your website one more time.
AA: It’s www.WiscoPopSoda.com.
TM: Yeah, I’m just going to with you the best luck in everything you’re doing, Austin and Hallie.
AA: I appreciate that.
TM: Thank you so much.
AA: You bet!
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