The Milwaukee-made Calypso lemonade is going global. Here’s how the brand has found a niche in the non-carbonated drink sector.

Calypso lemonades are a big part of the business at King Juice, which is bottled on the south side of Milwaukee.

While National Lemonade Day approaches on Aug. 20, Milwaukee based King Juice, 851 W. Grange Ave., is seeing an increase in interest in its Calypso lemonade sales. 

Since 1999 the company has been making Calypso lemonade on the south side of Milwaukee, just west of the airport. The shelf stable drink now comes in nearly 20 flavors and is sold internationally. Founded in 1985, King Juice was sold in 2017, and David Klavsons took over the role of CEO.  

Calypso non-carbonated beverages — lemonades, limeades and “teamonades” — are the biggest part of the business. During the past few years, the Calypso brand has nearly doubled in growth, and interest is growing in the no sugar options. Now, as the brand expands internationally, the company has signed a deal with Refresco in France to build a manufacturing line specifically for Calypso in Europe.

Klavsons, a New York native with a career path that has included Pepsi Co. and Glanbia Performance Nutrition, talks about how a Milwaukee brand is finding its niche in the non-carbonated drink sector, and what’s next for the product line.

What’s the story behind Calypso lemonades? How did you become involved with the business?

Calypso has been around for about 21 years, and King Juice Company since 1985. Tim Kezman is the founder, and he still works with us. He just decided it was time. I knew the business from a bit of a distance, and I knew Tim. I did business with him when I did business at Glanbia Nutrition and he was (co-packing) Isopure. 

I’ve been with this business about four years in November. Mason (Wells), a Milwaukee private equity firm, they bought the business and brought me on to lead the business. It was a business that was doing OK, a great brand and great product, it just didn’t have investment and scaling it needed to grow. That’s what we’ve done. It really worked. After the first year we were up 33%.

This is one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of and most fun I’ve ever had, and one of the most challenging. 

Where are Calypso beverages distributed? 

They are national in the U.S., and international in over 30 countries. … Internationally we’ve expanded significantly, we’ve been able to get the trademark in all of these countries. The brand has taken off especially in the UK, parts of the EU, Mideast and Australia. 

It has found consumers across the globe. We’ve expanded the flavors we offer. … Then we’ve gone into a light line. We’re a full sugar product, a permissible indulgence, but we also knew there was a consumer we wanted to capture in the no sugar part of the business. 

So what do your no sugar options use to sweeten the drinks?

Sucralose. It is really difficult to make a great tasting (no sugar) lemonade. If you think lemonade, you think sugar and lemons. Sweet and tart. 

For some perspective, the carbonated soft drink category about 25% of that category is low and no sugar beverages. Not as big as you think, as 75% is beverages with sugar. In lemonade, that (low and no sugar) is only 10%. There is a reason, it is hard to make something that tastes good and non-carbonated and is lemonade. We spent a year formulating the (no sugar) product.

While the lemonades got their start here, where is the product most popular?

The brand started up and down the street in independents. For a long time, people thought it was just something for inner city markets. Our research proved that wrong. …We expanded distribution. We’re in just about all the major chains, including Kroger, Safeway. We just got shelf placement at Walmart, which is a big, big deal. …

We had very low distribution in the Northeast. We added Big Geyser as our distributor in New York City, and that significantly increased our business. … We about tripled our number of employees, a good chunk is at our plant in Milwaukee.

Was it taste, sustainability, or something else that made glass bottles your go-to? 

Everything tastes better in glass, especially in lemonade with the citric acid and lemon concentrate. Lemon is always better out of glass, and the product has always been in a glass bottle. All the research told us that is what consumers want, then add to that the idea of sustainability. Our package is fully recyclable, and there is no plastic.

Citrus has been hit in some regions by climate and other issues affecting growers. Where do you source your citrus? 

Our sourcing is South America, Brazil mostly. We have not had any supply issues so far with the lemon product we get. We do source other elements, pulp out of California, and all of the elements of that supply chain have been fine. Our biggest challenge this year has been freight. 

Do you have a favorite flavor, or one that’s unusual that you love to introduce to people?

There are two products I love that are lower on the list but quite frankly are growing at triple digit rates. One is a cucumber limeade, and it is fantastic. Another is Jamaica, a hibiscus product that has a bit of spice to it. That has done very, very well. Those are at the top of my list. There’s also pink guava, grape berry, and coral blast doing very well. 

Island Wave, that was the very first new product we introduced when we took over the business, and that has gone from nothing to one of the top five items. A bit of an early press release here, we’re formulating a light zero sugar Island Wave. I actually just tried it this week.

Kristine M. Kierzak, Journal Sentinel

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