Meet Will Fugard, the drinksmeister behind Gusto

The world of Gusto Organic Drinks may have originated with Craig Sams, but today’s incarnation is run and largely concocted by Will Fugard, a passionate foodie who is at his most serene when combining natural flavours to create the latest Gusto sensation. He does this from the table of a charming countryside cottage, where he divides his spare time raising chickens and children (not necessarily in that order).

In fact, it’s in this very setting that we meet him to chat about the new Gusto drinks that have been edging their way onto shelves across the UK (and beyond), and to find out what it is that sets this amazing line of soft drinks apart.

“Our approach to flavour has always come down to the fact that we like to make really great-tasting drinks”

There are new Gusto Drinks sneaking onto the shelves, Will. Tell us about them.

Well, we brought out three new drinks in April, which is hugely exciting for us. They really allow us to flex our muscles outside of just being known for making delicious colas.

What have you got for us?

So, we developed a sparkling Sicilian blood orange, made from organic blood oranges from the slopes of Mount Etna. It’s a very simple drink, blending spring water from Devon with a wonderful, complex-tasting blood orange. It’s got sort of raspberry and strawberry notes, and it’s a lot less head-banging than conventional orange, so I think it makes a really good partner for food and is just a little bit more grown-up in terms of flavour.

We Also produced a ginger drink, which is a strange one as it wasn’t actually a drink I set out to create. It kind of came upon me, and it’s really special. You’re not meant to have a favorite child, but it is definitely the one to look out for. We’ve used fresh organic ginger juice blended with Indonesian and Nigerian ginger, and we’ve spiked it with a little bit of Mexican chipotle. So, you’ve got all of that earthiness, and all of those green  flavors coming through the ginger, and then you’ve got this heat at the end from the chipotle – this lovely smoked chili endnote. We are sweetening that with Fairtrade agave and Fairtrade apple juice. It’s just a really tasty drink. I hate to say it: I’ve taste of lots of other people’s ginger drinks and this one knocks them out the park.

Why is that? What do you think might be wrong with other brands of ginger drink?

They’re quite anodyne. I think it’s because ginger itself is a strong flavor, and it’s quite a complex flavour in terms of what it delivers on the palate. One of the ways you can combat that is by throwing a lot of sugar at it. So, conventionally, ginger drinks are the sweetest drinks on the block – they’ve got 55-60 kCals, so they have a really high sugar content – much more than regular colas.

A lot of people make the assumption that they’re having something relatively healthy when they’re having a ginger drink, don’t they?

If you go back to Confucius and even before that, ginger has always been an absolutely pivotal part of Chinese medicine as a curative and as a medicinal botanical.

But presumably not when you put 12 teaspoons of sugar in it…

No! But I think you could do a lot worse if you’ve got a really nasty cold than have a bottle of our ginger drink, but we certainly don’t sell any of our soft drinks with health claims.

That said, we do focus on trying to create healthier versions of some of the more common big-brand drinks. We’ve made a policy of avoiding refined sugar across all of the drinks in our range. We’re not trying to give people 100 per cent low calorie drinks – we can’t because we’re organic and we’re not allowed to use artificial sweeteners and maintain our organic certification. But what we’re trying to do is reduce sugar, so we use an ingredient called blue agave which is from a cactus in Mexico. It actually has a much more beneficial glycemic index, so it doesn’t spike your blood sugars in the way that refined sugar does. When you drink it, you also perceive it to be sweeter than sugar, so you can use less of it. It allows us to create a ginger drink which is less than 100 calories per bottle and about 30 or 40 per cent less than some of the big-brand ginger drinks which are on the market. So, you know, we can manage the calories down by using nice, natural ingredients rather horrendous neurotoxic artificial sweeteners.

“We made a cherry cola using Madagascan vanilla, lovely cola-nut from the rainforests of Africa, our own blend of spices and essential oils, and real organic cherry juice. It’s just very naughty and very indulgent.”

That’s across the brand, isn’t it?  

It sure is. It’s across the range. We’ve got our Gusto Original, which we’re famous for, which we sweeten with an organic Fairtrade apple juice. We also use grape juice in our lemonade and we use a lot of agave. And those tonnes of agave are supporting a really credible Fairtrade project in Mexico which is paying 2.5 times the average agricultural wage and is focused on sustainable communities, gender equality, protecting indigenous people – a lot of things that aren’t just lip service, but actually have direct benefits for farming communities.

Watching you work on the Gusto range, it often seems as though there’s a kind of alchemy going on. You’ve just mentioned creating lemonade using grape juice. What else are you up to?

I think that our approach to flavour has always come down to the fact that we like to make really great-tasting drinks. I think most people add sugar to a drink purely to sweeten it, but if you add apple juice or agave or grape juice to a drink, you’re not only sweetening it, but you’re actually bringing some flavor detail and depth to the drink. Agave, aside from being quite a clever way of sweetening your drink and significantly ethical, actually tastes really good. It has a nectar-like flavor. It’s incredibly comforting. Grape juice has a unique flavor profile as well, and it works very well with certain flavors in combination.

Apple Juice is the same. You put apple juice in with a ginger drink and it’s a fairly logical pairing. It works very nicely and it balances some of the earthy, astringent, almost citrus notes you get from ginger. So, it is about balancing flavor and exploring flavor, and marrying flavors together to create complexity. And those complex flavors are how we try and approach the world of soft drinks and create adult soft drinks as opposed to soft drinks that are perhaps a little bit more predictable and singular in flavor.

We’ve mentioned blood orange and we’ve mentioned ginger and chipotle, but there’s a third newcomer to the Gusto Organic range, is there not?

Yes. We’ve created two very successful colas, and I’m just aware that there’s another cola flavor out there which is almost like a dirty secret for a lot of our customers: cherry cola. A lot of people like it; a lot of people won’t admit to liking it. It quietly sells bundles with the big brand soft drink companies, but you look at the label of those drinks and they don’t have an awful lot to do with cherries. They’re full of phosphoric acid, they’re full of sugar or artificial sweeteners – all the things that we’re really not about as a brand. The further we looked at it, the more we realized that there wasn’t actually an organic Cherry Cola on the market, which, you know, for us that was a red rag to a bull!

So, we made a cherry cola using Madagascan vanilla, lovely cola-nut from the rainforests of Africa, our own blend of spices and essential oils, and real organic cherry juice. The cherry juice is an obvious flavour note – you might say we’re very cherry-forward! The result is this incredibly luxurious cherry cola – very cherry-like. It almost tastes like an alcoholic drink; it tastes like some kind of cherry cocktail. It’s just very naughty and very indulgent.  

You mentioned phosphoric acid earlier, and I know that’s a big red card for you. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Phosphoric acid has been used in soft drinks since way back in the 19th century. It was used as a kind of digestive aid and acidulant, but in essence phosphoric acid is an industrial chemical used for the removal of rust, and that’s its most common usage. What it does is it gives bite. When you’ve got an intensely sweet drink, the way you can get people to drink it without throwing up or gagging is to create this incredible, acidic bite, that kinda takes their minds away from the level of sugar they’re consuming. It’s just not a good ingredient, and it’s not something that people should be putting in their bodies.

There is research coming out of the U.S. that links the consumption of phosphoric acid with reduced bone density. So, when you’re drinking drinks with phosphoric acid in them, your body is combining calcium with that phosphoric acid and making calcium phosphate and you’re weeing out calcium – you’re actually leaching the calcium reserves in your bones. And I think that’s a concerning situation and not one we want to be anywhere near.

Something I feel quite strongly about is that, in this country, big name organic retailers sell unusually large amounts of this stuff. We have a kind of a blind spot when it comes to the drinks which are in the chiller. So, they’ll be organic all the way through the store and then you look in the fridge and they’ve got some of the more concerning ingredients that conflict with their ethos. I Think it’s time we were a little bit more thorough about natural and organic, and didn’t just – for commercial reasons – let certain beverages and certain ingredients through the door.

“At Gusto Organic we use cola-nut. It’s a seed from a tree, even though it’s called a nut, and it contains an active ingredient called theobromine, which literally translates as “food of the Gods.”

You’ve talked quite a lot in the past about the problem that we have with synthetic caffeine in the soft drinks world. Can you go into that a little?

OK, so we’ve got three Colas and all of them use African cola-nut. You could argue that you shouldn’t really be able to sell a drink called cola if it doesn’t contain cola-nut! There should be a sort of requirement for that ingredient to be in there and, if there was, it would probably bring a lot of prosperity to Nigeria and Sierra Leone and an area of the world that could do with a very beneficial cash crop. But the truth is that the world cannot produce enough of these ingredients to support the caffeine required in the US alone. So, synthetic caffeine is what’s used, and that’s a petro-chemical caffeine which is in the majority of big brand stimulating drinks and colas. Now, synthetic caffeine is an ingredient that was developed by the Nazis in the second world war. There’s nothing very nice about it, its a process that take Ammonia as the raw material and turns it into methylated theophylline, otherwise known as synthetic caffeine.

And that’s a provable fact?

Its worth searching out the book ‘Caffeinated’ by Murray Carpenter for the story of caffeine. The Nazis developed synthetic caffeine in 1942 to keep supplies running during the war. By 1953 Monsanto and Pfizer had factories producing synthetic caffeine in America.

At Gusto Organic we use cola-nut. It’s a seed from a tree, even though it’s called a nut, and it contains an active ingredient called theobromine, which literally translates as “food of the Gods”. It’s a lovely ingredient. It’s used in ceremonies, so if you have a wedding in Nigeria you’ll bring a bowl of cola-nuts to the wedding and give it to the bride and groom. It actually both stimulates and opens up your capillaries, so it can help you breathe as well. In the West Indies it’s used for stomach complaints. It’s a really interesting ingredient and one which we think is a much more wholesome way of approaching the cola proposition.

And, by the look of things, your approach is appreciated among an increasing number of customers.

We’re seeing, by all reports, large brand soft drinks starting to see sales plateau.

Why do you think that is?

I think people are wising up to sugar and artificial sweeteners and to the potential harm that sugar, aspartame, sucralose, phosphoric acid, fake caramel, petrochemical vanilla can do. These are ingredients that people don’t really want to give to their kids anymore, and if they don’t want to give them to their kids, they think twice about giving them to themselves as well.

So, we’ve experienced exponential growth in the last year. We’ve more than doubled our sales at a time when we’re seeing big brand soft drinks receding in their sales volumes. It’s an interesting time for us.

And it’s not just about the contents of the bottles, either, is it?

People have come around to the idea of glass being a very good way of selling products. Plastics are getting a hammering, and rightly so. If you drop your bottle of Gusto over the edge of a boat, time and tide will turn it back to sand. If you drop a plastic bottle over the side of a boat, over hundreds of years it’ll break down into micro particles of plastic that will end up in the food chain.

So, packaging-wise, we’re in an interesting place, and ingredients-wise, we are very, very honest about what we put in our drinks, and our ingredients are plant-based and natural. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing in the last year, and we’re starting to find ourselves in places where previously we didn’t get a foot in the door.

Can you give us an example?

Most recently we’ve been asked to be the main sponsors for the Tour of Britain, which is the biggest professional cycle race in the U.K. There’s a women’s tour in June and a men’s tour in September, and these are the British version of the Tour De France, going from city to city. It’s an enormous race covered by ITV, and Gusto Organic are the official soft drink and energy sponsor. We were approached by them and they said, “we want to work with you – we love your ethos; we love the fact you’re British, ethical, refined sugar-free, organic, and we think that is more in line with cycling enthusiasts and fans of cycling who are conscious in the way they consume”.

It’s very refreshing to find that decisions are being made away from the obvious big brands towards brands that have a more organic and ethical proposition. It’s a good sign for the future and I think some of the big brands should start feeling justifiably worried when these decisions are being made.

“It’s very refreshing to find that decisions are being made away from the obvious big brands towards brands that have a more organic and ethical proposition.”

What is the future for Gusto? Are you sat in your shed making plans for the next range?

We have a very, very tasty lemonade which we developed. We hope to bring that out at Christmas. It’s very grown up and it has a rather lovely Japanese citrus involved – not to give away too much rather obvious information! Other than that, I think we’re just consolidating where we’ve got to – really growing our foothold in the UK.

We’ve been a big success story with exports, and we export now across the Nordics and through Europe, and as far afield as Singapore and Japan and that’s continuing to motor. Now we have a range that’s understandable to buyers and consumers, so I’d like to try and replicate some of that success we’ve had abroad on our home turf and really face up to some of the bigger brands and give an alternative to customers.

So far – fingers tightly crossed – that seems to be heading in the right direction. We’ve been listed with the likes of Fortnum & Mason and Sourced Market and we’re in Ocado, Whole Foods Market and all the cafes of the Tate. We’ve got some exciting stuff going on and we’re talking to some of the slightly larger players in the retail world, and fingers crossed in 2019 you’ll see a lot more of our honest, craft and  slightly-better-for-you approach in cafes, restaurants and grocery stores across the UK.