Kal Freese is a two-time Finland National Barista Champion (2013, 2015) and part of the founding team at Sudden Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sudden Coffee helped launch a new category of specialty instant coffee—a wholesale rethink of the product that is still making waves around the specialty coffee world. Freese left Sudden in 2017 and is now the co-founder of Taika, a company that is today debuting a new line of ready-to-drink adaptogenic infused coffee beverages.
Taika, which means “magic” in Finnish, is launching with three plant-based coffee beverage offerings: a sugar-free, keto-friendly macadamia latte that Freese says “tastes like melted coffee ice cream,” an oat milk latte, and an unsweetened black coffee. All contain the same adaptogen blend of Cordyceps, Lion's Mane, Reishi, Ashwagandha, and L-theanine designed to balance out the effects of caffeine and to, according to Taika's website, keep the drinker “calm, focused, and clear.”
James Hoffmann—the London-based coffee vlogger, author, product spokesman, and World Barista Champion—is one of Taika's early investors. He tells Sprudge he's excited to work with Taika for several reasons.
“Firstly, and most importantly, they're focused on the destination, where coffee takes you, how it makes you feel. Secondly, they really understand what great tasting coffee is and how hard it is to do well. This means that the moment they told me about the products, I wanted them in my fridge at home and at my office too. Most of the time I drink coffee because I either enjoy the taste or because I want focus and productivity, so that Taika does both without compromise or making me choose makes it incredibly compelling.”
Not bad as far as introductions go, but we just had to learn more. I spoke with Kal Freese digitally and asked him a range of questions about Taika, adaptogens, price points, and what he sees as the future of coffee.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hey Kal—thanks for speaking with Sprudge. How long has your new project Taika been in the works?
Kal Freese: I started working on Taika with my co-founder Michael Sharon in early 2019. Unlike most other CPG companies, we started by selling the coffee to our friends and their offices in private beta from the very first batch. This allowed us to get immediate feedback, iterate really rapidly, and sell over 50,000 cans before even launching publicly.
What's in a can of Taika?
Both Michael and I love coffee (surprise). Alas, over the past few years caffeine started giving us nasty side effects many people are familiar with: anxiety, jitters, and heart palpitations. Decaf wasn’t the answer: most of the time we wanted some caffeine, but not too much.
This is when we learned about L-theanine and other adaptogens—natural plant extracts and functional mushrooms—that support the body’s ability to deal with stress. We started researching and experimenting with these compounds. Adaptogens turned out to be a game-changer in balancing the caffeine and reducing the side effects.
However, keeping a bunch of random capsules with you and remembering to take them every time you have coffee sucks. So we set out to create a coffee that’s absolutely delicious and perfectly calibrated with the highest quality adaptogens so there are no compromises.
We only use FDA GRAS certified natural plant extracts and functional mushrooms that have legit scientific evidence validating their effectiveness and safety. They also have a long history of demonstrated use in many cultures. For example, L-theanine is naturally found in green tea and has very robust evidence proving its effectiveness in working synergistically with caffeine.
We were also frustrated with so many other delicious drinks being so full sugar. We wanted to make Taika authentically good for you by not adding any sugar. Instead, we use a combo of monk fruit and allulose, a naturally-occurring rare sugar that’s found in figs and wheat. It’s almost as sweet as sugar but has 10% of the calories and no impact on blood sugar.
Most canned coffees are actually too high in caffeine: around 200mg per can. For most people, this much caffeine is counterproductive as it creates too much stimulation. Based on scientific research and our tests, the ideal amount seems to be around 100mg per can. During our R&D process, we ended up developing a method which we’ve now patented for adjusting the naturally occurring caffeine in coffee. We use this to dial the caffeine for every batch we make.
How important was it that this coffee product tastes like *good coffee*?
Taste is the most important thing. Our focus has always been on taste, health, and wellness—in that order. Right now, most beverages are either delicious or healthy but rarely both. We wanted to create something that’s both uncompromisingly delicious and authentically healthy.
Our coffee is roasted by 49th Parallel in Vancouver, BC. They’re one of my absolute favorite roasters in the world and I’ve been working with them since 2015. Their direct trade sourcing practices are among the best and their roasting is consistently on point. If you’ve ever been in a cupping with me, you might have heard me complain about underdeveloped roasts. That never happens with 49th.
What category does this product belong in? Are there any other companies doing something similar?
Roughly speaking, Taika straddles two categories: premium ready-to-drink coffee and functional beverages. That being said—taking a step back, we see this massive trend emerging at the intersection of taste, health, and wellness. Functional foods, plant-based meats, keto cereals, and similar products are seeing rapidly growing demand from consumers who want easier ways of living proactive, healthy, and joyful lifestyles. We call this stealth health.
Stealth health means creating products that are uncompromisingly delicious, authentically good for you, and tap into existing behaviors like your daily coffee ritual. We believe that there’s a huge global demand for these stealth health products, so we’re starting by reimagining a beverage that’s a global commodity and gets consumed more than 2 billion times a day: coffee.
Tell us about the price point—when Sudden launched it was $6 per cup and the big question was how to scale and bring that price down. Is this a consideration with Taika?
After working in coffee for more than a decade, I started to see this big discrepancy between the specialty coffee industry and the mainstream consumers. We in the specialty world are obsessed with the origin: what makes our coffee special. However, for the vast majority of people, coffee is a functional beverage that can also taste nice. Over indexing on the origin alienates us from consumers who care more about functionality, ritual, and convenience. Billions of people in the world are physiologically dependent on coffee’s functionality but I’ve seen virtually no brands trying to improve this.
Instead of the origin, Taika is focused on the destination: how the coffee makes you feel. This doesn't mean we don’t care about the origin. We work with 49th Parallel to source amazing single-origin coffee and do everything in our power to make sure the sourcing practices are top-notch; we just don’t put all that in front of the can.
There are plenty of origin-focused premium cold brews at the $5 price point. Taika is not an answer to the lack of good coffee, but rather to an abundance of it. We believe that for anyone looking to get more out of their coffee, we deliver significant value that justifies that price point.
There's a lot of magical language on the can itself. Is there a balance between magic and science when it comes to adaptogenic coffee products?
One of our customers in NYC made a point that it felt almost magical to get a case of delicious yet healthy macadamia latte delivered to her within two hours in the middle of a pandemic, especially when a typical Amazon or grocery delivery now takes several days or a week.
This is the perfect example of the “wow” experience I love to create for my customers. I closed my cafe in Helsinki and started Sudden Coffee to make great coffee more accessible on a bigger scale. With Taika, we’re building the version 3.0 of what I call “scalable hospitality:” leveraging technology to accentuate the product experience and enable our customers to connect with the brand in a fun and accessible way.
In the beginning, I put my personal number on the cans so people could text us feedback and order more. It worked so well that we decided to put the number front and center. We’ve had some hilarious philosophical discussions with people trying to figure out whether they’re talking to a bot or a human. It’s fun and weird—a pretty good substitute for not being able to go to your local coffee shop right now.
You're debuting Taika during an unprecedented historical moment—has the launch strategy changed?
In early March, more than 80% of our revenue was coming from office customers. That disappeared overnight with the shelter-in-place order and we completely pivoted our beta to a DTC approach.
We were originally planning on launching in April and decided to push that back by a month. I know this is a really hard time for a lot of people, including a huge part of my beloved coffee community. It feels weird to be launching a new product now because there’s so much uncertainty and so many people are suffering on many different levels.
On the other hand, we’ve been running this private beta for over a year and the feedback from our friends and beta testers about the benefits of calming, immunity-boosting WFH coffee has been unequivocally positive. We feel like providing this product and a fun, lighthearted approach to the space at this time is a way for us to help people cope. To address concerns around social distancing, we also launched two-hour contactless deliveries in SF, LA, and NYC.
In addition, for every case sold we're donating a case to our heroes, the frontline medical workers. So far we've handed out over 1,200 cans. If you know someone in the frontlines in SF or NYC who could use coffee, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where will this be available?
Taika is currently available for contactless local delivery within two hours in SF, LA, and NYC and select retail stores, including Erewhon in LA and Bi-Rite, Rainbow Grocery, and Good Eggs in the Bay Area.
What's the next step?
Growing our team, expanding our retail presence in SF, LA, and NYC and starting working on some new, exciting stealth health products beyond coffee.