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Case Study: HOMES (& Smooj)

A small Michigan brewpub created a monster with its increasingly popular smoothie seltzer, expanding its footprint and inspiring imitators.

Kate Bernot May 5, 2021 - 11 min read

Case Study: HOMES (& Smooj) Primary Image

Tommy Kennedy and Smooj. Photo: Putu Aryanto, Avimaging

HOMES Brewery in Michigan has the Midas touch. For four years, the Ann Arbor brewpub has been building a reputation as one of the most popular IPA and fruited-sour producers in the country, collaborating with the likes of Speciation Artisan Ales, Foam Brewers, and Weld­Werks, while drawing flocks of devotees for its COVID-era curbside releases.

“Quite honestly, with the beers they brew, it’s like everything they touch turns to gold,” says Harry Weaver III, cofounder of the Detroit-based Brewz Brothaz podcast. “They were among the first to serve notice that Michigan is turning out New England IPAs that are as good or better than anything I’ve had from anywhere else. They’re a pioneer in that way.”

HOMES owner Tommy Kennedy credits that success to a few early choices: staying small, staying narrowly focused, and staying nimble.

First, there was the decision to sell beer only out of HOMES’ brewpub—a decision that remains in effect, despite the brewery’s growing popularity.

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“We were inspired by what was happening along the East and West Coasts,” Kennedy says. “We wanted to emulate that and focus on staying small [and] pouring everything we have in small releases, with no staple brands.”

Second, there was the commitment to brew almost exclusively IPAs and fruited sours. The goal was to build a reputation on those two popular craft categories; because the brewery could barely keep up with demand for those styles, there wasn’t any reason to dabble in less-popular ones. (Incidentally, the two fastest-growing craft-beer styles in IRI-tracked retail sales during COVID have been IPAs and fruit beers.)

Third, there was a decision to build HOMES with Kennedy as sole owner, so he could make fast, decisive calls about hiring, equipment purchases, and other business priorities.

That decisiveness helped HOMES quickly scale its latest project, one that’s poised to surpass the popularity of even its double dry-hopped IPAs and lactose-spiked, fruited kettle sours. That latest smash hit is a little beverage called ... Smooj.

Meet Smooj

Smooj is a 5 percent ABV “smoothie seltzer,” a new type of beverage that has already spawned competitors. Kennedy says the name Smooj is a portmanteau of smoothie and juice: “It’s fun to say, a little risqué, and playful. Because of that, it’s memorable.”

Smooj begins as a neutral hard-seltzer base to which fruit puree is added. Kennedy declines to say anything else about the process, adding that the production method is something that’s taken his company months to develop. He does say he’d originally hoped to find a contract brewer to produce Smooj, but none that he spoke with had the equipment or flexibility to make it according to the process and ingredients Kennedy wanted.

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So, Smooj is still produced at HOMES, but under the company name Troobado—a sub-entity of HOMES. Smooj is currently available in strawberry-banana and piña colada, with more flavors on the way.

While skeptics may find Smooj gimmicky, its instant popularity is hard to overstate. The first batch of Smooj, which had no official launch announcement or marketing when it appeared on HOMES’ curbside menu in June 2020, sold out in a day. The second batch sold out in two hours. Demand for the third batch crashed the brewery’s online ordering system. HOMES prices Smooj at $18 per four-pack, roughly in line with its other beers.

Unlike with its beers, HOMES now sells Smooj through distribution; it’s available in 200 stores in Michigan, including the Kroger grocery chain. There are plans to expand distribution to Pennsylvania and California by April.

In Detroit, Brewz Brothaz’s Weaver calls Smooj “a phenomenon,” even among normally seltzer-averse drinkers. Weaver himself says he doesn’t enjoy any hard seltzer, but when a friend convinced him to try Smooj, he couldn’t deny it tasted “absolutely amazing.” He’s since noticed nationwide demand for the brand. That popularity is likely fueled to some degree by Smooj’s appearance among the top-ranked breweries on Untappd. “People are wanting to trade ridiculous beers to get their hands on this thing that we can get in the grocery store,” he says. “It’s a phenomenon. They found the cheat code.”

Seeing early success, HOMES is building out a larger production facility next to its current 10-barrel brewpub to keep up with demand. (Kennedy declines to give a barrelage figure for the new facility.)

“We’re really treating this like a separate business that could grow and be big and not impact our small HOMES brewpub,” Kennedy says. “The stability of the overall group of businesses is key.”

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Setting the Smooj Stage

During COVID-19, without beer festivals or conferences, Kennedy found himself with more time on his hands. Like other on-premise-focused breweries who had their indoor seating limited or eliminated, he needed to diversify revenue streams. The idea of a non-beer product that could be sold in wide distribution—totally separate from HOMES—began to take shape.

Smooj struck him as a natural marriage of two existing, white-hot products: hard seltzer and beers with heavy fruit puree additions. (HOMES had already found success brewing and selling another hybrid product: sour IPAs.) With a texture and flavor like a piña colada or daiquiri, Smooj also seems to have some overlap with the fast-growing category of ready-to-drink cocktails. Kennedy says early chain-grocery sales prove it appeals to a wider demographic than HOMES beer ever has.

“We’re seeing it overlap with that heavily fruited beer craze; there’s even overlap to White Claw and Truly drinkers,” he says. “We even get a lot of wine drinkers who aren’t looking to crush a lot of volume but are looking for something that’s gluten-free with fruit flavor.”

HOMES-Smooj-2

Branding Latitude

Though Smooj shares characteristics with fruit puree–added beers, the brand’s ethos is almost entirely different from that of HOMES. If HOMES is a true craft brewpub business, Smooj is a widely available packaged consumer good.

“We want HOMES to stay small and nimble and without staple beers,” Kennedy says. “Smooj we see being a reliable brand and striving for consistency. At HOMES, our marketing plan is that we will not spend a dollar on advertising. … So that didn’t jibe with our vision for where Smooj was headed.”

Kennedy hired Detroit-based Skidmore Studio to develop Smooj’s branding and marketing, which is playful, pastel-colored, and deliberately a bit silly. Separating Smooj entirely from HOMES freed it from any tonal constraints that might come with craft-beer marketing.

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“There’s a license here to try something that’s not like traditional beer because it’s not beer,” Kennedy explains. “The seltzer thing gave us this latitude to explore and do whatever was best from a marketing strategy and flavor side.”

Kennedy sees a long runway for Smooj and whatever other products Troobado might come to encompass (and he hints at a potential canned coffee drink down the road). But he doesn’t want that future to mess with the separate success of HOMES—hence the dual entities.

Never Duplicated?

Skeptics who would dismiss Smooj as a novel outlier may want to reconsider. It’s already spawned at least one imitator: Smooshie, a 3 percent ABV smoothie seltzer from Stonecloud Brewing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They first brewed it in February and sold it from its taproom.

“I’ve personally never tried Smooj, but it’s all people are talking about,” says Stonecloud’s production manager and head brewer, Nate Roberts. “Our customers are saying, ‘We’ve had this, and can you do something like it?’ Of course, we can; we already have a seltzer program.”

To make the inaugural run of Smooshie, Roberts brewed a 100-barrel batch of hard-seltzer base, then split some of it into batches that would become the brewery’s Solo Spritz hard seltzers. He reserved some for a trial batch of banana-strawberry-flavored Smooshie, which he created by adding fruit puree to the fermented cane-sugar hard-seltzer base.

It’s the first time Roberts has added unfermented fruit puree to any of Stonecloud’s products. He says that he’d be more hesitant to add unfermented fruit puree to beer, not just because of quality-control concerns, but because of his adherence to traditional brewing techniques. However, he echoes Kennedy’s distinction between beer and seltzer: “Seltzer is something so new to me that I don’t know how to take it as seriously as beer,” Roberts says.

Like Kennedy, Roberts has been shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response to a smoothie seltzer that has more in common with a mimosa than a beer. Even other brewers in the area are telling him that they can’t deny that they love Smooj—and now, Smooshie.

Roberts says he recalls standing around the brewhouse with Stonecloud’s production team after he’d brewed the first batch of Smooshie. He poured small tastes for everyone and watched as they each took a sip. “We all sat around the tanks and it was like, ‘Okay, who’s going to be the first one to admit it’s amazing?’”

Kennedy actually has a phrase for this: “Smooj face.” It’s a visceral reaction of surprise when people try the product for the first time and realize that they like it, maybe in spite of their expectations. It’s created a “virality” around Smooj, he says—a kick that people get out of being the first to introduce their family members or beer-snob buddies to the brand.

It’s not unlike the reaction of customers who came to HOMES expecting to dislike sour IPAs, Kennedy says. He saw how memorable an experience it is for people to change their minds about something and be happily surprised—and he thinks that’s what Smooj can do in helping to create an entirely new beverage category.

“It’s powerful; people discover they like something new.”

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