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Drink Different

In conversation with Ryan Hanson of non-alcoholic wine company, Surely

When Ryan Hanson was brainstorming names for his non-alcoholic wine brand, he picked Surely simply because it sounded nice and approachable. But since he launched the business in 2020, the moniker has come to truly represent the ethos of the brand. “We didn't put a lot of thought into it, but as the brand has evolved, the mission has become about creating this confidence around not drinking,” he explains. “The word ‘surely’ literally means to ‘express confidence or assurance.’”

To instill this confidence in Surely’s target customer, the millennial who wants to cut back on drinking, the brand aims to make non-alcoholic wine a desirable option rather than an inferior alternative. Ryan designed every detail with this goal in mind, from the contemporary, minimalist aesthetic to the use of high-quality bottles and cans to—most importantly—the complex flavors that mimic traditional wine.

Here, Ryan shares why he started Surely, how he makes compelling non-alcoholic wine, and what he envisions for the future of the brand.

Mast Journal: Why did you start Surely?

Ryan Hanson: My first part of my career was corporate finance and I wanted to get closer to things that I was passionate about. That led me to come to Austin and get into CPG, better-for-you, health and wellness brands. I've always been somebody who has sensitivities to food and alcohol and all that stuff. So I've always just been on the lookout for what is the new clean ingredient or healthy alternative. I was really early into paleo and that led me to this keto business in Austin, where I got connected to this whole ecosystem down here.

I met my Surely co-founder, Justin Mares, who was the founder of Perfect Keto. He had also founded a bone broth company before that. It was just this really exciting time where a lot of different things were happening. I was also in my late twenties in Austin going out a bunch. And I was just really disappointed and frustrated with the lack of quality non-alcoholic options. There was always a stigma around not drinking because the options were so inferior. I really just wanted to build a brand that gave people confidence in choosing a non-alcoholic option. Something wanted and desired and that you were looking forward to versus this inferior thing you were stuck with.

MJ: Totally. And did you have any prior wine experience?

RH: Interestingly enough, I had no wine background at all. It has been a super fun part of the process, just learning about the rich history of wine. Justin and I knew a winemaker in California, so that was the first light bulb to be like, ‘Okay, let's give this a shot and see if this is something we can do.’ We tested a bunch of products over the course of a year and we finally landed on the sparkling rosé that we were both super excited about actually enjoying and sharing with people. 

As soon as we launched that first batch online in late 2020, it sold out super quickly. I think it was 30 days. It was like 50 cases in 30 days, something crazy like that. It was a still project at that point, and I think that was just the final light bulb we needed to be like, ‘Okay, let's go all in on this.’ I left my role full-time as president at Perfect Keto and decided to go jump in full-time on Surely. We’re three years in now.

MJ: How did you learn more about wine?

RH: The first thing I did when I decided to go all in is I actually moved up to wine country. I wasn't from the wine world and I was managing a wine production remotely from Austin. All these people were asking me about the specs of the wine and how I wanted it treated and all these specific things about the manufacturing. And I was like, ‘I'm not the best person for this.’ So our winemaker at the time helped me out through that. But I realized that if I was really going to be all in on this, I wanted to be all in every single way. 

I literally just packed my bags and lived in a hotel in Napa Valley for two weeks while I tried to find a place. I landed in Calistoga and quickly hired another winemaker to the project. We hired a head of wine operations and I just spent so much time driving up and down Napa Valley meeting with cork suppliers, bottle suppliers, wine producers, and manufacturers. It was a really special time to spend up there. I have a real appreciation for that community that's so tight up there in Napa Valley.

MJ: Napa Valley is the perfect place to learn about wine. It’s such an incredible place and an incredible industry. And wine people are happy people, generally.

RH: They're really happy people and they're really welcoming. Even for a non-alcoholic brand. I get the question a lot about, ‘Oh, were they standoffish because you're non-alcoholic and you're competing?’ But they’re all just really excited about new experimental things, new innovative products, and I think they know that this is just what the wine drinker wants. They want really great non-alcoholic options. They still want amazing full strength traditional wine options. And it was cool to see how they were about it. 

MJ: That’s amazing. How does the production of non-alcoholic wine differ from that of traditional wine?

RH: It differs in the sense that there's actually more steps in the production process. Surely is actually a dealcoholized wine product, so that means that it goes through all of the traditional steps in making wine. It goes through fermentation, which creates the compounds that we love and look forward to in wine. In addition to that, there's dealcoholization process. We use a vacuum distillation method called spinning cone column, and it effectively separates the ethanol molecules from the rest of the wine. 

That dealcoholized wine is our base product for what ends up becoming Surely. It has all of the same aromatics and flavor compounds, but I think it lacks that body when you remove the ethanol. So we have a winemaker and a flavor chemist working to rebuild the profile with natural ingredient additions to mimic the wine experience that I think people are looking for when they love their wine, but they're looking to cut back on drinking. They want something that still puts them in that place and still fuels their wine ritual. 

MJ: Definitely. Can people taste the difference between Surely and traditional wine?

RH: I do feel like the sparkling wines are a really good representation of what I call a one-to-one match. Carbonation just really helps to bring the flavors forward and it adds that mouthfeel. Non-alcoholic still wines are definitely a really challenging product exercise. We really thought outside the box this year and came up with this complex blends project where we took blends of dealcoholized wine, organic teas, different extracts, and other natural ingredients to come up with these really unique, complex non-alcoholic wine alternatives. They're not intended to be a one-to-one replacement for a cabernet. Our messaging is, ‘This is a really unique sip and it's something that really pairs well with food.’

It has all those same characteristics of wine, it alters when you sit there and swirl it, but it's its own unique thing. We label them ‘red blend’ and ‘blanc’ because we don't want to set that expectation with the customer. We’ve found that when the customer is open minded, they really enjoy the product. But when you call something a Sauvignon Blanc, they feel like it is not delivering on that expectation. So we've taken a new approach this year and we've gotten really great feedback from the customers, especially when they go in with that open-mindedness. 

MJ: That makes a lot of sense! What are the flavors like?

RH: We've always wanted to go really dry. That was a primary attribute we wanted to have across all of our products. When we were starting the business and we looked at what non-alcoholic options for wine were out there, it was a lot of sugar bombs. But people are looking for body and mouthfeel. The easy, cheap shortcut in most product categories just adds a bunch of sugar. The sophisticated wine drinker isn't looking for that type of profile. And if we're also trying to be healthy, when you cut out alcohol, you're not trying to add a bunch of sugar to your diet, right? So our sparkling products are really dry, really crisp, they have really good acid. Our still products are definitely dry as well, but those are not carbonated. There's not a lot of non-alcoholic still options that have that kind of complexity.

MJ: Did you always know you would expand from sparkling rosé and brut to still wine? 

RH: Yeah, we always wanted to. Our core customer is somebody who loves wine, but is looking to drink less alcohol. And of all wine consumption, only something like 20 percent is sparkling. We knew we needed to have an answer for 80 percent of the time that people want still wine. So it's been on the roadmap since day one. It just took us a little bit longer to deliver a product that we thought was good enough to go to the market. We just launched a red blend in late September, which was our core project for the entire year.

MJ: Congratulations! And you mentioned that Surely is meant to be paired with food. Does that mean it can be found in restaurants?

RH: Surley is in select restaurants, but it hasn't been a core focus for the brand. For the first couple years, we started with the natural grocery channel. Sprouts was our first really big retailer that picked us up. We're launching in Target at the end of this month. 

MJ: That’s super exciting.

RH: When we started the business, we knew to be successful, two things would need to happen. We needed to make a product that tasted great and we needed to make it truly convenient for people to interact with. We started as an online business, but our plan was always to allow people to get it at the grocery store. I want people to get it at their local bodega. I want people to get it online as part of the wine club if that's what they want to be a part of, but I also want people to be able to get it on the menu at their favorite restaurant. We've really focused on the grocery piece for now, but our next focus is going to be getting it on menus at different restaurants. 

MJ: For a brand that launched in 2020, grocery stores definitely was the way to go. 

RH: That seems like forever ago, but there were some harsh realities of launching a business during that time period for sure. We were in the works on this idea before we even knew the pandemic was going to be a thing. It definitely helped accelerate the adoption of this category because people were drinking a lot during the beginning and then looking for alternatives as they got into the pandemic. And a lot of people were shopping online, so brands that launched natively in the digital space were able to capture a lot of that attention. I'm grateful that it got more attention to this category. All these brands in the space are trying to reeducate the customer that these things can actually taste good.

There's a lot of preconceived notions out there that non-alcoholic is a kid's drink and it's not sophisticated. It doesn't have craftsmanship behind it and all that stuff. But there's a ton of cool brands that are doing really great work. All the trends are showing that these products are in demand. This is a permanent shift in how we drink. I just want non-alcoholic to be really integrated into the broader drinking culture. That's where it becomes an option. I think that's when I'll feel like we've succeeded, if it's truly an option whenever you want it, versus right now, as these brands are building, it's in select locations. 

MJ: Definitely. What is your favorite Surely wine to drink?

RH: I rotate all the time. I don't have a favorite child. But I would say that the bubbly red and our red blend that we just came out with are really unique. The bubbly red is not traditionally how red wine is presented to you, bubbly in a can, but it's definitely lambrusco-esque. It's got a unique profile that I don't think you can get anywhere else. There's also a really easy way to make a cocktail with it. You take a bubbly red can, three to four ounces of that, and three to four ounces of your favorite cola. Then squeeze a lemon in there. And it's like this kalimotxo non-alcoholic version that's super fun, super refreshing, easy to make. I've done it a couple times at dinner parties and everybody's like, ‘This is my go-to for the rest of the night.’

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