Paul Evers: CEO & Founder of Riff Carbon-Negative Energy DRinks – Ep. 111

About Paul Evers & Riff:

Paul Evers is the CEO and founder of Riff, a carbon-negative energy drink made from the waste products of coffee production.

Paul did some research and discovered a massive problem, 70% of the fruit that surrounds our beloved, sacred coffee beans goes to waste.

And this fruit? It’s a superfruit (if such a term exists) that also happens to be caffeinated.

Paul discovered a way to make a carbon-neutral energy drink from this, helping out farmers, the planet, and consumers in the process.

It’s the exact kind of idea that I love so much, and it’s hard to believe that no one has done it until now. His Oregon-based start-up has already raised several million in funding and has been featured on many of the world’s top media outlets.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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1:35 – “I remember reading quite a while ago about an architecture group that was re-laying out the pathways for a university, or maybe it was – I think they built the buildings first and they didn’t build the paths. And what they did was they planted grass and then they just let people define which were the most efficient and effective and most useful paths by wearing down the grass. And then they paved those paths. So that was completely avoiding any kind of predetermination or theory as to how people would best use or get from one building to the next and just let the actual human experience define what those most efficient paths and best paths were.”

3:34 – “As an entrepreneur with consumer packaged goods, you’re humbled on a continuous basis because we think we have a great idea. We think we know what people are going to like, and then they remind us all the time that we don’t quite have it right. The key is how do you gain that insight and have confidence moving forward with a product design, a brand positioning, all those things, and to make sure that you’ve got something that actually resonates with consumers. And so you have to listen. You have to listen. And so I think that exercise, that architectural exercise with defining paths on campus was more about listening first and then design second.”

5:57 – “Coffee has been around for 400 or 500 years. It was started in countries like Yemen and Ethiopia. And so it was introduced into the US in the mid-1800s…they were drinking coffee on the Oregon Trail. The coffee back then was a lower grade coffee, as you can imagine. Right. I mean, we’ve got specialty coffee now. It’s really beautiful, wonderful coffee. Back then, it was pretty low grade coffee…when it was first introduced to the US, the industry said, ‘we know it tastes bad, but if you just add these two other ingredients, cream and sugar, it’ll actually taste quite nice.’ And I can’t imagine introducing any kind of product today and saying ‘just buy these two other things to make it taste good.’ When you’re brewing black coffee, it has a high perceived acidity and bitterness and so people are always looking for ways to balance those with a sweetener or dairy. And when we got into coffee, we were kind of purist. We were studying coffee and the coffee flavor wheel, which has such an incredible range of flavors that are naturally inherent in coffee when you’re looking at all the beautiful, wonderful specialty coffees that are produced today, a range of flavors that includes, you know, floral, citrus.”

Coffee’s Dirty, Not So Little, Secret
*9:50 – “We started experimenting with coffee fruit or cascara, and that’s everything but the bean, basically. And what blows me away, when I found out that coffee was a fruit, I knew it was a fruit, but I didn’t realize…the coffee beans was surrounded by a wonderful fruity pulp that was naturally sweet, naturally caffeinated and had really interesting and wonderful exotic flavor profiles of like dried fruit, and has sweetness, had a tartness. So it was really incredible. And so we started experimenting with this, and then we were so intrigued by the exotic flavor notes. And then we also learned about its nutritional value. It’s actually a superfruit. It scores very high on the superfruit scale and is loaded with antioxidants, magnesium, potassium, iron, polyphenols. It’s really an amazing fruit. But because coffee has been around for 400-500 years and so deeply entrenched in everybody’s conscious of what coffee is, it is black roasted beans that we grind and we brew hot. Maybe now we brew cold but we have no idea that there’s this red, luscious fruit that surrounds the bean – the beans actually to add a seed. So we started doing our own desk research and reaching out to trade organizations and trying to learn like, what are people doing with this? What is the standard use of coffee fruit or cascara? That’s when we stumbled upon what we believe to be a massive sustainability issue in what we discovered to be, what we call, coffee’s dirty, not so little, secret.”

11:53 – “Coffee is a massive industry, right? It’s one of the world’s largest traded commodities, agricultural commodities. So the industry is all about producing beans, with a blind eye to the fruit and I think there have been brands and large coffee companies that have tried to do something with it. And there are some that are making inroads to it, like ourselves. But nobody’s really telling the story like we are. And we wanted to tell the story with integrity. So we partnered with Oregon State University, a senior climate change scientist there, to partner on an in-depth environmental impact study. And that’s where we learned these numbers – that 70% of it is thrown to waste. So there’s about 25 billion pounds of green coffee produced for export annually across the globe. That yields about 100 billion pounds of this luscious coffee fruit or cascara, of which 70% is thrown to waste, 30% is converted to biofuels or composted, converted to fertilizer or used as animal feed. And the 70% is wasted in a variety of ways, sometimes in the back corners of coffee farmers plantations, some of it is dumped into rivers and streams where as it decomposes, it depletes the water of oxygen, killing off fish and aquatic life. But the majority of it is hauled off into landfills and piled into mountains.”

It’s Mind Boggling How Massive This Issue Is
*13:31 – “Coffee, I think, maybe is a bit as an industry, is embarrassed that it has created this massive sustainability issue because as this fruit is wasted, thrown to waste and decomposing in landfills, etc., it’s producing methane gas equivalent to 14 and a half million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. That’s the same level emissions as 3 million automobiles. It is unbelievably, it’s mind boggling how massive this issue is and why isn’t anybody really doing anything about it? There are few that, like I mentioned, that are doing something which is great, but it’s just, it’s a result of lack of awareness, which leads to lack of demand. And so, it’s an amazing opportunity to do right by coffee, do right by coffee farmers, do right by planet, by translating/upcycling this traditionally wasted fruit into food and beverage products that appeal to a mass audience.”

16:58 – “We were already experimenting with cascara, that’s the dried form of the fruit that is imported. And we were amazed by the flavor profiles and so we created a product line. At that time we called it Alter Ego, but that was our cascara product line. So we’d already produced that. And then we started wondering about how other people are using this. We believe is the first sparkling cascara beverage on the market, the first that actually positioned itself as an energy drink. The reason why it’s positioned as an energy drink is because it’s naturally caffeinated.”

18:10 – “That’s how we started. And then we conducted the study, we continued to refine the formulation, the branding. We conducted our own research connecting with college age folks from up and down the West Coast and get their input on brand positioning, messaging, hierarchy, and then also on sensory taste and product experience. The more and more we learned, what that led to was really a significant transformation. What Riff was as a brand from being a brand really focused on bringing a craft sensibility to the coffee space, redefining what coffee was, exploring more opportunities within coffee, and then this whole experience and learning about this massive sustainability issue and the incredible promise of coffee fruit, what it has to offer. And then we transformed into becoming a purpose driven company.”

20:06 – “We’re saving an incredible super fruit from going to waste, converting traditional waste streams into revenue streams for coffee farmers who are struggling to make a reliable living. 80% of the world’s coffee is grown by smallholder farmers. These are farmers that have plantations of five acres or less. They’re typically carrying on a multi-generational legacy of growing coffee. And it’s really, really, really tough right now. So doing that and then translating that traditional waste stream into a revenue stream not only for farmers but also for exporters and mills and importers. And then taking the wonder of coffee fruit and translating that into products that benefit human health and well-being. So solving a lot of problems with this and we believe we’ve landed on what we call a perfect overlap between an altruistic purpose and an enterprise opportunity where you have everything seemingly in alignment. The only super challenge is that we’re in a highly competitive category of energy drinks.”

21:26 – [On how much caffeine the fruit has] “It’s lower than beans, but every part of the coffee plant actually has caffeine. It’s a natural insecticide, I guess you would say, that protects the bean. But so it’s lower. So, a 12 ounce can that’s going to be significantly lower than a cold brew. But inherently, and it depends on the source, where you’re getting the fruit from, but typically it has like 40 to 50 milligrams of caffeine. So we’re augmenting that with caffeine from green coffee to position as lined up with other energy drinks in the category at 120 milligrams or ten milligrams per ounce of caffeine. But it is inherently caffeinated. And I think what we’re going to be looking at is line extensions that would include a lower caffeine version, which I think would be appealing to a segment of the consumer audience out there. We hear often that people have sensitivity to caffeine.”

24:02 – “I think for people too, we’re ritualistic, right? And when you say we’re ritualistic, so I maybe on some days I don’t need a cup of coffee, but I have one because psychologically it gets me into the right frame of mind. It’s sort of like a batter, when they’re getting into the box, they have this ritual routine. Maybe they undo their straps, re-do them. Step here, step there. They do a couple of things, and that’s all getting the mind into the right mindset, you know, setting it up for a hit and there are routines like that that do that for you and one of them is the ritual of enjoying a hot cup of coffee in the morning, which I do myself. I’m a cold brew coffee guy and a cascara coffee fruit guy. But I enjoy a hot cup of coffee in the morning every morning.”

24:54 – (Ross) “I cannot begin my day without a French press, that’s the first thing I do every single morning…because I’m often up very, very early in the morning or even have to be ready for stuff like this. And it’s just it is definitely a ritual for me and in my life, I’m very fascinated with things that make you more healthy. So I try to eat healthier. I try to eat a whole foods, mostly plant-based diet. I try to replace things that are unhealthy for my diet, and I try to exercise and try to generally optimize parts of my life. I have given up various things at various points in my life. I’ve given up alcohol before. No trouble. Giving up caffeine for a month was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was really tough. I was so sluggish. I felt just like my brain was in a fog. I just couldn’t get started in the same way because when I hit the ground running, I don’t have any warm up time. When I begin my workday, I literally open up my computer, power it on, take my first sip, and I go. There is literally no ramp up in my work. I just begin at full speed and then go for several hours until I wear out.”

32:02 – “The other thing I think is really important on the landscape now is just climate change or what we now know as climate crisis and what’s happening with these ever increasing, significant weather events. I feel like I read about one almost every other day, if not every day, what’s going on out there. So people are now actively seeking out products that are sustainable, you know, responsible either in the making of the product or the packaging. And Riff Energy Plus is the first energy drink in the country to be certified carbon neutral, might be the first energy drink in the world to be certified carbon neutral. And so that’s a differentiator. So, more and more Gen Zers millennials, they’re not just shopping for or against a set of needs. They’re also shopping against a set of values and wanting to do right, wanting to make a difference in the world.”

Win, Win, Win
*34:13 – “On your website you use the language win, win, win, which is a term that I’ve used on this show a lot. And it’s basically the purpose of the show. The other term, you said, is meandering off the path, and that could also be the title of this podcast. So they’re both ideas, but the win, win, win, in your case on the website is talking about the win for getting rid of this waste stream, the win for sustainability, the win for the planet, the win for the coffee farmer themselves, because what was once garbage becomes a new source of revenue. But it’s also a win, win, win, when you create a business like this because you’re trying to make your own personal life better, you’re trying to enrich yourself while solving these other problems. And I love the idea of that.”

36:12 – “We talk to a lot of people, strategic advisors or potential institutional funding for a later round to help us grow. And the aversion to this category is really pretty significant. It takes a lot to win. But when you’re driven with purpose and you feel like you’ve identified something really has significant promise and solving on these problems, making life easier for so many people throughout this supply chain. It causes you to do crazy things. Makes you go the extra mile. I mean, it’s all of these things that you read any of these stories about some amazing discovery or maybe an amazing development. And usually it has a story kind of like this. But for every success, I know there’s thousands of failures. And so you have to be willing to take that risk and not be afraid. And so when you have purpose, actually it grounds you.”

We Live In A Very Consumerist Society
*38:52 – (Ross) “We live in a very consumerist society where people love unboxing things. Let’s unbox all of the cheap crap, plastic crap over and over again. The most popular YouTube channels just unboxing cheap plastic crap. We can’t get enough of consumerism. And if you tell people, ‘hey, maybe, maybe tone down your own consumerism without anybody telling you that it’s illegal, but maybe because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do,’ people just say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, back off there, buddy. Don’t tell me how to live my life.’ So you can’t really force this message, even though you might see that we’re headed towards a global catastrophe, that none of us may have a choice in 50 years, 100 years if we’re still around. So the initial metaphor that you used of the path and seeing where people go first and then building the path there is very apt for this scenario because people use energy drinks. They like energy drinks for better or for worse. It’s a part of our culture. And rather than try to fight what is, you have found a way to fit this problem into something that people already use and like and know that they like and know that they use. I think that’s a really cool concept.”

40:16 – “We feel like we didn’t choose the energy drink category, it chose us because cascara coffee fruit is naturally caffeinated…But we want to make sure that we’re delivering a product that actually meets the desires and needs of the consumer, that the sensory – so how does it taste and how does the functional benefits of caffeine or energy and the immunity, how does that affect the way you feel about your body? How does that deliver and translate for you? So you’ve got to deliver that first because nobody’s going to buy a sustainability story and compromise their need for something tasty, delicious and refreshing. So you got to make sure you meet that.”

54:11 – “If they’re just starting coffee, if the industry were just starting now, we argue that this is actually the better half of what the coffee plant has to offer. But if coffee was just launching today, I guarantee you it’d be about the fruit. But it’s just, you know how you have this ritual. We were talking about ritual before and habits, and you become blind to certain things that are just so obviously wrong or an opportunity that you’re completely overlooking because you’re about the efficiency of your routine. And that’s the coffee industry. It’s a lot. It’s very disruptive to say, ‘oh, now we’re going to process this other thing and how do we develop that? How do we develop a market for it?’ All of these obstructions or obstacles to getting to anything with scale are very, very real. And we’re talking to multinational coffee companies who are reaching out and saying you’re like 15 steps ahead of us. They’ve been growing coffee for decades and exporting green coffee and managing this waste issue. And they haven’t figured out for themselves because large corporations, as you know, it’s like an oil tanker. And to try and get them to change direction is sort of like them having to make a U-turn in a bay. It’s little brands like Riff that are going to lead the disruption. Not the industry, not the standard bearers of the industry.”

56:19 – “My own personal motto is to build meaningful relationships. And the key to building meaningful relationships is, when engaging with the other, whether that’s the planet or coffee farmers or friends or relatives, to be more interested than trying to be interesting.”

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