· By Richard Roy
UNH grads' ‘bubble-free boozy water’ in fruity flavors now made in Seabrook
SEABROOK – Less than two years after the new alcoholic flavored water named NOCA hit store shelves, its University of New Hampshire alumni founders are expanding and moving to manufacture their product in Seabrook.
Friends from UNH’s Class of 2016 — Granite State natives Alex Febonio, Richard Roy and Galen Hand — knew while they were studying for their finance degrees they wanted their own business one day. The question wasn’t if they would do it, but finding the right product or service they could build into an enterprise that could succeed.
Oddly, it was a mundane summer chore that led to the brainstorm they would brew into a unique product line launched in 2019. According to Roy, Hand was mowing the lawn and drinking a can of alcohol-laced seltzer, but the carbonation was bothering his stomach.
“He was like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone come up with a non-carbonated version of this?’” Roy said of Hand’s idea.
Hand reached out to Roy and Febonio. All three would gather in Hand’s parents’ Newmarket home to create the business plan that became NOCA (short for non-carbonated).
“It was in the loft above Galen’s parent’s living room,” Roy said. “If you knew the size of that loft, you’d think a garage was preferable.”
The three left their full-time jobs in the world of finance and dedicated themselves to developing the product and business plan to pitch to investors. The company’s headquarters are in Newmarket, but the business is incorporated in Delaware, as many corporations are due to the state’s tax laws.
Initially, they just left a spiked seltzer out long enough for it to lose its carbonation, Roy said.
“Actually, that didn’t taste very good,” Roy said.
They went to a California company to create the formulation of a drink made from a fermentation of cane sugar, Roy said. NOCA’s original three flavors were watermelon lime, dragon fruit mango and a combination of blueberry, raspberry and blackberry for the triple berry option.
They took the formula to a Maryland manufacturer and found a wholesaler to handle distribution in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for the product that’s categorized as a malt liquor, as is beer.
“I’d say we started working on it around August-September (of 2018) and took it to investors for the first time in March (2019),” Febonio said. “We launched it in May 2019.”
With only 95 calories and 4.5 percent alcohol by volume, NOCA’s demographic market was intended to be millennials, or those in the 21 to 35 age group seeking a healthy lifestyle, Roy said, but it has caught on with those older as well. Oddly, it appeals equally to men and women, he added.
The product is sold to those looking for a beverage with both reduced alcohol levels and calories. Plus, it doesn’t have the thing some find unpleasant, carbonation.
NOCA doesn’t cause its consumers to burp, nor does it burn their throats, according to its three 27-year-old founders.
It’s “bubble-free boozy water,” and though they had one competitor when they launched, according to Roy, NOCA is now the only beverage of its kind.
It’s in about 500 outlets in New Hampshire, such as Market Basket, Shaw’s and Hannaford, as well as other establishments where beer is sold. In Massachusetts, it’s sold in about 1,000 locations, such as the Kappy’s package stores. NOCA is expanding distribution throughout New England.
And it’s doing well.
“We had a 270 percent increase in sales in 2020,” Roy said.
Are they surprised?
“Yes, but we try not to dwell on being surprised,” Hand said. “We try to just keep moving forward.”
Instead of sitting on their laurels counting their cash, the three men are releasing five new flavors in April: lime, pineapple, cherry, peach and lemon. They have also simplified two of the original flavors into watermelon and mango.
They reformulated the recipe a bit to eliminate the sweetener Stevia, Roy said. The drink is now flavored with an all-natural cherry juice to provide its sweetness, he said.
NOCA is sold in two different 12-packs with four flavors in each, or a 12-pack of the best-selling berry version for about $15 to $16.
Living now in South Boston, the three UNH grads are supporting themselves on the company’s revenues, but investing profits into the business. They have hired five employees who focus on sales.
They are also moving manufacturing to Seabrook, to the 30,000-square-foot facility of NOBL Beverages, founded by another UNH graduate Connor Roelke. According to Roy, NOBL was launched to produce canned cold-brewed varieties of coffee and teas, and will now take on NOCA’s production.
As both friends and business partners, Roy, Hand and Febonio say so far they are getting along well and able to keep their personal and corporate relationships separate. They work hard to ensure business comes first, Febonio said.
The three are planning on bringing new products to market, Hand said, but it’s too soon to reveal them. Those who’d like to keep an eye out for a sneak peek of NOCA’s progress should check social media outlets, he said, such as Instagram @drinknoca.
By Angeljean Chiaramida, March 24, 2021
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