Off Notes— Q+A with Jess Messer of Savouré
One major perk of living in northern Vermont is that my husband and I get to steal away for a quick trip to Montreal from time to time. In under two hours, we go from our rural town of long dirt roads and open farmland to bustling city streets where we can get our fill of all things Quebecois. On one such trip in early spring, we visited Boucherie Lawrence to peruse the well-curated shelves stocked with charcuterie, pates, jams, and the like. When I spotted the distinctive bottles of Savouré Soda in the cold case I announced in my loudest American accent (to the unlucky souls in my vicinity), “This is from Vermont!”—as if I could stake some claim to the product by mere proxy.
When something is so good and so unique and happens to be from the place you live, it’s natural to feel a little pride in it—n’est-ce pas? But it wasn’t until I spoke with Jess Messer, founder of Savouré, that I realized the company wasn’t a Vermont native at all, having begun in Montreal in 2011—which, come to think of it, explains the French name, not to mention the tagline: né a Montreal / made in Vermont. So much for my high-school French.
At the height of summer Jess and I sat at the long farm table in Tandem, the workspace/event venue in Bristol she co-owns with chef Lauren Gammon, to talk (in American accents, thank you very much) about bubbles, business, globalization, and the beauty of limitations.
How did this whole soda business get started for you?
My background is actually in human rights and international development. I worked at Think Tanks in New York and then when I moved to Boston I did more national political stuff and worked at the Kennedy Library. Then we moved to Canada, but finding a job in that field was super hard.
Then this friend of mine who I met through my kid's school ran a series of farmer's markets around Montreal. She had a little bistro at the markets and they sold ready-to-eat food and drink that was made only from things that they got at the market. And she was looking to step it up and make it a little more fancy and wanted me to do condiments and drinks. I grew up cooking—my parents and my family are super into food.
Where are you from originally?
Massachusetts and Vermont. We've had these two houses for my whole life, so we spent summers in Vermont and I went to school in Massachusetts. I’m from a huge family and the youngest of nine—lots of cooking, canning, gardening, goat milking, cheese making, all that stuff. I think, because it was fun but also because it was necessary. There were a lot of mouths to feed.
So I had these skills, and it felt like a good time for me to make a career change. I have epilepsy and I started having major light sensitivity and I thought, maybe I can't get paid to think anymore and just look at screens all the time. My kids were little and we were learning a new language and living in a new country, it was a great way to get to know a culture and a language, through food.
Business was great, super fun, learned a ton, all new. I hadn’t worked at a for-profit since I worked at Christmas tree shops when I was 15. We were in Montreal for five years. Then came life stuff, visa stuff—we wound up deciding to move back here to Vermont to take over my family home and transplanted the business. For a whole lot of reasons, it seemed to make more sense to focus on the soda.
When I was in Montreal I started bottling my soda, but I did it by hand, which was insane—it was so much work. And here I wound up taking time to find somebody who would allow me to continue to make my product in the way that I want to, which is kind of atypical and a lot more labor and cost-intensive. I work with farmers and have people grow things for me. I try to make food that's in season. There's a huge difference between going to a bottling facility and having ginger juice and sugar, as opposed to dumping 60 pounds of lovage and celery leaf into a big steam kettle. It's just a different process. There's a guy in Williston whom I've known for years, he's my co-packer, so I basically go in and use his stuff and his staff and I'm still very much a part of the process. I also still have a lot of clients who buy my soda on tap; I make it in those five-gallon kegs and I just make it one pot at a time here, at Tandem. But when you're bottling 3000 bottles at a time, obviously I could never do that in this space.
Can you go into the details of how you make the soda?
Typically, I try to work with foods that are in season and, to the extent that it’s possible, stuff that grows here. I have a ton of different flavors, but the formula is more or less the same. It's like a fruit and herb, typically some kind of citrus. And then usually something . . . a little something . . . it’s like spice or peppercorn or orange blossom water. . . my husband calls it: high note, low note, off note.
High note, low note . . .
Off note. The process is basically like a steeping. It's just whole food . . . Some people call it juice and some people call it tea and it's not really either of those things. It's not a syrup because there's not very much sugar in it. There is just enough sugar to bring out the flavors. I don't really like things very sweet and I wasn't raised drinking soda, I wasn't allowed to, but I do really like having something that's nice and complex, bright and lively. And I love bubbles, so it's non-alcoholic even though it makes a really good cocktail mixer. It's also really nice for me to offer something like this, especially around here.
I appreciate that because here it's all about the beer, cider, spirits, and some wine. Your product is so smart because it's the one option that’s a soda, other than Kombucha which is a different thing.
Which is a different thing. I'm trying to create this market. There was an article in Imbibe last year that was talking about how the whole craft cocktail thing is out of control. I mean it’s amazing, but also super intense and a lot of these bartenders are now sober, right? Because there's only so much time you can spend doing that. But they also still really want to have that craft, you know? From a bar perspective, mocktails are money losers. The amount of time you have to put into it and ingredient costs and all of that, you could be making three times that amount on a cocktail.
I'm trying to build that market. And around here it's crazy. People are like, "We just don't have the tap space." And I'm like, "Maybe you can have 24 local brews instead of 25,” you know?
Whenever I see your soda in a restaurant or bar, they win points in my book for sophistication.
Thank you. I know and love every place that sells my stuff. There's one main bar in Montreal that sells my soda that’s been with me from the get-go, Alexandraplatz—they’re my “ride-or-die”. And Lawrence. The butcher shop sells my soda and I made the celery soda with that place in mind because it's so perfect with traditional meat, or porchetta because the crisp cut-through of celery up against a meaty, girthy sandwich works. And then there are a couple of bakeries that I love like Patisserie Rhubarbe.
In Vermont, it's Honey Road, Hen of the Wood, Monarch and the Milkweed, Philo Ridge Farm, Shelburne Farms. Scout & Company was the first place to carry my stuff in Vermont and they're amazing. Then there are a couple of places in Massachusetts, like Sofra Bakery, which is part of Oleana. There are probably 40 places total that sell my soda which is great for me for now.
Most of those places just came to me or were through recommendations. I'm a horrible salesperson, I'm a horrible capitalist. I’ll often say, "Well, it's not for everybody." My husband is like, "Can that not be your official tagline?"
You’re okay to let the business unfold organically?
That's where I'm at but I'm also at this point where I just need to step it up. That said, I want it to be a higher price point and I want it to be something special.
I miss the regionalization of food and products in general. Globalization is amazing, but it's also a little bit sad to me because I remember traveling and getting my first bottle of Orangina or the Laughing Cow cheese when I was in Europe. There was just something really cool about it being specific to place, that doesn't really exist to the same degree anymore. It's just everybody is all about being everywhere at every time, and I don't think that I want that.
I'm not a natural capitalist and I also am not a "think inside the box" kind of person. So it's been kind of a cool intellectual experiment if nothing else, just to think about growth and what it means and what success means. I don't have my eyes set on selling to Pepsi for 60 million dollars. What if I just had a business that was successful and small and I could pull a salary from and it helped the local economy and it was just that? Maybe that would be okay.
Sounds pretty cool to me.
But it's not what people in food want, you know what I mean? When you make these leaps, there's just this mythical bubble of venture capital money and people don't talk about the costs of that. You have to be careful. I think that it's really easy to be dazzled by that. Of course, you always need money for growth and it's awesome to have investors, but it's where do you go from there?
Right. Then you're beholden to something or someone.
Right. And at the end of the day, I make soda that sells for four dollars a bottle. How much do I have to sell to pay back a couple of hundred thousand dollars? I'm just a little bit wary. But I think I'm at a point where maybe the organic unfolding is going to have to get a little kick in the pants.
Okay, so you do want to grow . . .
I do want to grow.
But you want to keep it regional?
Definitely. Ideally, I'd like to keep it regional. If for some reason it winds up that somebody wants to have it in a different region, I'm okay with that, but I'm not going to start using essential oils and "extracts of" to get it to a price point where that makes sense. It's important to me that it maintains its integrity for a whole lot of reasons.
Who are some of the farmers that you're working with?
I mostly work with Julie Rubaud from Red Wagon Plants. And John Hayden from The Farm Between. Beyond that, there are a bunch of locals, this guy Omar who grows these amazing berries called Omar's Uncommon Fruit. He's super under the radar and grows gorgeous gooseberries and all kinds of currents and stuff like that. And then there are strawberries I get from my neighbors. I mix soda with hops that I get from Homestead Hops.
And I'm keeping my formula fluid, which is my scenario on tap. People are like, "What have you got this week?" Then I give them a roster of five different options depending on what herbs are in season. I have some people foraging for me, so there's no static menu of things that are always available. And I'm okay with a little scarcity.
So you tell a client, like Honey Road "I have this and this right now.” It's just improvising.
Totally. Honey Road is a good example. They will email me and ask, "What have you got?" They'll have it for six weeks and then they're like, "Okay, we're ready to mix it up." And I say, "All right, here's what's in season . . . " It's really fun. I actually have a buy-back policy with all of my on-tap clients because some of my stuff can be really weird, but I'll always find a place for it.
I like the evocative nature of food. And that's why I went with the branding that I did. Food is all for me about people and place, you know? It's about the people who grow it and the people who make it and people who consume it. And it's not just a commodity. I like the story and everything that goes into the bottle.
That's exciting. You're really playing with seasonal flavors.
Yeah. For example, I have a bottling run tomorrow of this one flavor that everybody loves. The peach, yuzu and geranium. It's definitely my most popular flavor. I was going to do a different flavor—raspberry and elderflower —but we had that super rainy June. I was emailing back and forth with John Hayden, and he said it was going to be really hard to get raspberries and elderflower at the same time. So I'm pushing back my bottling dates so I can get it from the tree. And it's really amazing to have that flexibility. Maybe I'll never be able to do a certain flavor again, but that's okay, you know?
And it makes it more desirable if something is hard to get?
It does for me. I know that that's not for everybody. It's really about the ingredients. I have a rhubarb soda that Didier and Julianne Murat, the original owners of Vergennes Laundry, offer at Red Wagon Plants. They actually go through a surprising amount of soda there. Julianne asked me about the rhubarb soda and I told her "The rhubarb's done." Her response was, "I like done." That’s the perfect client for me. I need to have clients who say, "Great, cool, it's over. Maybe it'll come back, maybe it won’t."
There's this fluidity and this ephemeral nature to my business. It's not for everybody and I get that. But it's nicely self-limiting and maybe that will change, but for now, it totally works.