Hidden champions: Three German companies doing things differently

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/MariellaMcNeary
Pic:getty/MariellaMcNeary

Related tags: Germany, Entrepreneurship

A wine cooperative that considers itself craft? A distillery that embraces mushroom flavours? And a juice company which isn't about juice? Labelled as 'hidden champions', these German companies are trying to do things a bit differently.

The entrepreneurial minds behind Deutsche Spirituosen Manufactur, Kale&Me and wine cooperative Lauffener Weingärtner EG took to the stage at BrauBeviale in Germany this month to explain what makes them 'hidden champions' - companies finding a new edge with their business ideas. 

“We want to completely redefine the concept of premium!”

When Deutsche Spirituosen Manufacktur launched its Berlin spirits company a year ago, it planned to launch with 30 products. But before it had even opened, it was so convinced by demand that it debuted with 70.

Entrepreneur Tim Müller’s team includes a pharmacist with a PhD in Natural Sciences, who seeks out hand-picked raw materials to create unique spirits. The distillery’s point of differentiation is it is ultra-premium, with a focus on handpicked, high-quality, mainly organic ingredients that could be cucumbers from Germany, roasted mate leaves from Brazil or Italian hazelnuts from Piedmont. It never adds artificial flavours or colours, and sugar is only used where indispensable (such as in liqueurs).

The company champions its approach of working closely with suppliers - such as site visits - and are prepared to pay a premium for premium ingredients.

As a result, it now boast an impressive portfolio of unusual ideas: take for example, No 555 German Mushroom Plant (a herb with ‘an unusual mushroom like aroma somewhat resembling that of oyster mushrooms, champignons and porcini mushrooms… we recommend using this spirit with anything that goes well with mushroom-like notes such as soups, casseroles, stews); No 685 German Autumn Leaves (the spirit macerates newly-fallen leaves); No 435 Brazilian Pink Peppercorn; or No 507 Albanian Common Myrtle; 

And its this attention to detail that resonates with today’s consumers, says Müller: “I’m convinced only authentic marketing in the spirits sector can reach premium consumers.”

While the spirits can be stocked in the drinks cabinet, used in cocktails or given as a classy gift, they are also designed to give a new sensory experience when used in food dishes. Spirits are even sold in a spray bottle, opening up opportunities to use in cooking, baking or mixing or in desserts.

Small batch production is both a blessing and a curse, says Müller. The blessings are an exciting culture of fun, experimentation and overcoming challenges; but its production method requires exacting standards (each batch, for example, has very different sensitive aromas – meaning extensive cleaning of equipment between batches to avoid cross-contamination of flavours and aromas).

Moving forward, the challenge will be to balance the ultra-premium ethos with that of growth.

Natural functionality

Kale&Me was founded in Hamburg in 2015 by friends Annemarie Heyl, Konstantin Timm and David Vinnitski. Its focus on juice with a high vegetable content has seen success in its native Germany but also now across Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The drinks are raw and preserved using HPP (high pressure processing) technology, using pressure rather than heat (as with pasteurisation) to destroy germs while preserving nutrients. While this gives a shelf-life of several weeks, it does mean products need to be refrigerated. And yet, the vast majority of Kale&Me’s business is done through online sales: with juices sent in thermal packs and straw insulation to keep products cool and fresh.

Kale&Me has moved away from the concept of ‘detox’ and rather uses the idea of ‘cleanse’ – ‘the topic of detoxification is very controversial: we are convinced that most people who follow a healthy and balanced diet and exercise regularly do not need extra detoxification’,​ it explains.

The company now produces juices, shots, celery juice and a new functional brand called Carus+. While juice makes up the majority of sales, the company’s ethos is not about an individual product, but about the concept of products with an additional value over ‘just juice’. Selling online fits into this concept, with consumers able to find all the products in one place and in one order.

Celery juice was launched in response to consumer demand as the latest trend among health and wellness followers. And the latest launch, Carus+, was released in August, with Heyl identifying natural functionality.

Carus+, which was launched in Germany in August, responds to the latest trends in the marketplace, says Heyl: that of national functionality. The juice is a blend of apple juice, avocado puree, spinach juice, broccoli puree, lemon juice and ginger juice: boasting high levels of Vitamins C, D and K.

Craft meets wine

German wine cooperative Lauffener Weingärtner EG prides itself on thinking more like a craft beer company than a traditional wine company.

Its 1,200 members are situated around Baden-Württemberg, in the Neckar Valley between Hilbronn and Stuttgart. The soil in this area has always been considered fertile and agriculturally versatile, with a warm climate allowing viticulture to thrive since Roman times.

One aspect that helps define the region is its steep terraced hillsides (which accounts for around 120 ha of the members’ collective 880 ha). Given that these areas are often unsuited to machinery, a focus on premium craftsmanship was the obvious selling point for the cooperative’s wines.

And stemming from that is the concept of ‘craft wines’, explained Marian Kopp from the cooperative.

The brand policy has always been to focus around innovation, again tying in with the craft idea. Its communication is around innovation and the product; the cooperative does not concern itself with industrial economies of scale; it values employees’ skills in harvesting and making wine; and it has a focus on sustainability: essentially, “everything that we’ve done is craft!”​ says Kopp.

Added onto this is a focus on premium: with its member wineries often having connections with local restaurants and food.

Whyne – a red wine that is stored for two months in Scotch whisky barrels – was launched by the cooperative earlier this year. Its bottle shape – more akin to that from the spirits category than the wine category – helps it stand out on shelf, says Kopp. At around 10 euros a bottle, the wine comes in at the premium end of the wine market.

Related topics: Business

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