Death Wish Coffee (@DeathWishCoffee) CEO Mike Brown (@MikeBrownDWC) joins us to discuss the recent nitro coffee recall as well as the explosive growth that Death Wish has experienced since their inception in 2008. Death Wish has had some huge media appearances, from Good Morning America, to a 30 second spot in the Super Bowl, to the recent nitro can recall. All that said, Death Wish Coffee has built a brand and a large, loyal following.
Highlights & Takeaways
Death Wish Coffee is sold primarily online and in supermarkets / they keep business simple by carrying a very limited number of SKUs
The Death Wish nitro can recall was voluntary and precautionary
30 second Super Bowl ad drove over 100,000 people to their website within the hour – that converted to over $250K in sales
Death Wish is looking into retort processing in order to get their nitro cans back on the market
Episode 80 Transcript
Brendan Hanson: Hey there, thanks for tuning in. You’re listening to another episode of The Drips and Draughts podcast. On today’s episode, we’re talking with Mike Brown, the CEO of Death Wish Coffee. This episode actually came to be due to all the questions we were getting via phone call, email and on social about Death Wish Coffee and their recent recall. We had quite a few listeners reach out and ask, “What exactly happened? Can you guys get Death Wish on the show?” That’s what we did. We reached out to Death Wish and Mike was nice enough to carve out some time for us to hop on the show and answer some questions.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Death Wish Coffee prior to this episode other than we’ve had a guest or two on in the past who mentioned it and said that they drank it. One, in particular, was stationed overseas in the military and he said he had some crazy hours where he’d have to work 18 to 24 hours some days. He said Death Wish Coffee got him through it. Anyways, prior to this episode, I started looking into the company a little bit more and they have experienced some insane growth since the time that Mike started the company up.
One article in particular that caught my attention was from Forbes Magazine. It stated that in 2013, Good Morning America opened their show drinking Death Wish Coffee, they came up to Mike’s shop. It states that millions of people saw his coffee for the first time and says that his customer base doubled. If that wasn’t enough, Death Wish Coffee won into its Small Business Big Game contest, which gave them a free spot in Super Bowl 50. They got an advertisement in Super Bowl 50. That’s something that I asked Mike about it. How has a small business, you not only prepare for that but how you handle it once it hits.
We’ll get into that in a lot more detail in today’s episode. Speaking of today’s episode, if you’re looking for links or show notes, you can find those by going to dripsanddraughts.comm/80. That’s going to do it for the intro. Let’s get into the interview with Mike Brown from Death Wish Coffee.
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Brendan: All right welcome back to another episode of The Drips and Draughts podcast. As always, I’m Brendan Hanson. Today I’m joined by Mike Brown from Death Wish Coffee. How are you, Mike?
Mike Brown: I’m great thanks for having me.
Brendan: Absolutely. You guys were in the news a bit recently for a recall, but before we get into that, could we get a quick background on you and how you got into coffee?
Mike: Absolutely. I actually didn’t even start drinking coffee till my mid to late 20s. I was an accountant for the state of New York and that really wasn’t very exciting for me so I quit, hung out on coffee shops a lot until one day I decided– Well, actually my friends decided. They’re like, “Hey, Mike you’re becoming a bomb. You need to do something with your life.”
I decided to try to open up coffee shop and I did that. That was in 2008. I’ve had that coffee shop, Saratoga Coffee Traders in Saratoga Springs, New York ever since then.
In 2011, that’s when I started Death Wish coffee. It was just a blend of beans I threw together that was super strong, highly caffeinated. I created an online company, an online brand and started selling coffee that way. It was a slow road at first, but we eventually picked up some momentum. Here we are now.
Brendan: Nice. From accounting to a coffee shop owner. That’s a pretty big flip.
Mike: Yes, it was totally different. I was sitting behind a computer screen all day balancing bank accounts and then fast forward, two or three two years down the road and talking with every member of the community every single day in my coffee shop. It’s definitely a big contrast there. It helped me get over my fear of people by being behind the
talking with everyone [laughs]. Now I’m back behind a computer screen all day. I’m running Death Wish
Brendan: Death Wish is primarily online?
Mike: Yes, primarily. We’re in some grocery stores now. I believe right about 600. We’re in about 300 at safeways, and about 200 to 300 grocery stores in the Northeast. Price Choppers, Hannaford’s and a few other small local grocers in the Northeast.
Brendan: Right on. What was it that made you want to make and sell what you call, world’s strongest coffee?
Mike: I think at the time it was out of desperation. I wasn’t really doing well with my coffee shop. I was failing pretty miserably. I wasn’t great at running a business, but I was learning a lot. I thought if I could create my own brand and sell it online, that the margins would be better one, and two, I wouldn’t have to rely solely on the seasonality of my coffee shop. That was the initial reason I did it. Then I ended up throwing together this just blend of coffee. It was a Robusta-Arabica blend that made my jaw lock up. It was so strong and I’m like, “Oh man, this is some crazy stuff.” I didn’t think coffee could be this strong. That’s why I started marketing it the way I did. People liked it. They still do, thank God.
Brendan: It’s just a unique blend of a couple different types of beans that you found that’s got just outrageous caffeine potential in there.
Mike: Yes. That wasn’t even the focus, really, but it doesn’t like caffeine and it tastes great too. That’s where my focus was, really. It was all on flavor. I’m one of those guys that when I drink coffee I like to taste it. Not only the beans but the roast. That’s what this is. It’s a medium-dark roast, probably right around a full city. Yes, it’s flavorful.
Brendan: Right on. Well, I got to ask you about last year’s Super Bowl ad. You guys were featured during the Super Bowl. As a small business owner myself, I know having an ad during the Super Bowl can probably just wreak havoc on a website and a web server. What was that like for you guys? Did you have to do any preparation?
Mike: That was a wild experience. Speaking from the web server side, we’re on the Shopify network. We notified them ahead of time, and they had 12 techie people just sitting around making sure the servers didn’t go down. I was able to watch from my cell phone. I was able to watch the traffic come in and we were able to go from about 100 people to about I think it was a 115 or a 150,000 people all at once within 10 minutes. It was a crazy jump in traffic.
Brendan: No kidding? You guys were able to handle the traffic. Did that translate to a lot of sales or did you notice it was just a lot of curiosity? Or a little both?
Mike: A little of both, but definitely a lot of sales. About a quarter of a million dollars came in that hour, which is nuts.
Mike: That’s a tall $20 bags of coffee. You can imagine. It was a ton of coffee. We had about a month and a half to prepare for this. We had optimized our website for easy conversions. We brought in some third-party roasters to help us out because we were still at that point a pretty small operation. I think there’s less than 10 of us at that time. We were pretty small operation. We got some good roasters that we partnered up with, they helped us out. My team really stepped up to the plate. They worked non-stop. We made a checklist of best-case scenarios, worst-case scenarios, probable scenarios, plan A, plan B, plan Cs. It really went off without a hitch, people- [crosstalk]
Brendan: As good as it could have.
Mike: -have asked me what I think was the most difficult part during the– What did you wish you knew? I was like, “Everything actually went perfect.” People probably hate when I say that, but it really did. We did a lot of planning and it paid off.
Brendan: No real growing pains there. It was that you guys planned well. It all worked out well.
Mike: Yes, it worked out as good as could be expected. How we got there, is we entered into its Small Business Big Game competition, where they had
[00:10:45] 15,000 small businesses all submit a profile and answer questions. Basically, it is like American Idol type contest where America would come in and vote for which small business they would like to see represented. They’re representing all small businesses in the Super Bowl. Out 15000 businesses, we won. I can’t believe it, but I’m happy and grateful. It is amazing.
Brendan: Yes, no kidding. Well, that’s great. I was looking through your website, your product line looks like you guys keep it pretty simple. You just got your Death Wish branded coffee and then you’ve also got your Valhalla Java?
Mike: Yes. That’s a coffee we do in collaboration with Zakk Wylde. He was Ozzy Osbourne guitarist. He’s the lead guy in Black Label Society. He does a lot of solo projects out there. Coffee lover, good partner to have. He’s got a giant audience online, who’s very passionate about the coffee and passionate about his music. We found it was a great fit. We worked with worked closely with him on that.
Other than that, we don’t try to be the best at everything. We focused on our one blend and we make an amazing coffee. We do do some seasonal coffees on occasion. I think they always turn out amazing. Like I said, that’s just us playing around. It’s not our focus. Our focus really is on that one blend.
Brendan: That’s awesome. Keeps it keeps it simple.
Mike: That’s right. Keeps it simple, keeps inventory simple. Even though how will we make it very complicated
It’s supposed to be simple.
Brendan: Jumping back into what we let off with. I mentioned you guys recent recall for your nitro cans. How long have you guys been doing nitro coffee in nitro cans?
Mike: Yes, that was a bummer.
We’ve been working on it since– This is our second year. We worked on it all last year and now trying to find the best process. I’m sure your listeners have done this too. You try about 100 different ways to brew this cold brew to get it to be the strongest. We actually started working with a local brewery and we actually were able to get a dedicated tank from the brewery and we made all these custom pieces for this tank and with agitation. I don’t know what you call them, these things that agitate the coffee and the water and all these type of centrifuge, filtering. It was a crazy system. Even still we are going to go back to. We’ve been working [unintelligible 00:13:39] for a while.
Brendan: Some of our listeners have reached out. We’ve got you know small coffee shops, roasters who are doing cold brew. I think the one question I kept hearing was, “What was it in their procedure that went wrong or what happened?” Or what did you or what didn’t you do in the procedure that made you guys issue this recall?
Mike: Like I said, we started putting this product together in the beginning of last year. We had a product together in the middle last year. We have been sending our product out pretty regularly to get tested by different labs. I think we mostly worked with Cornell. Basically, we wanted to make sure the product was safe first and foremost. We have them tested for bacteria mold and a hundred other things I can’t remember the name.
Basically, just tested to make sure there’s nothing growing, there is no toxins in there that’s going to make anybody sick. We’ve been doing that for a while. It was coming back is very clean, great product, nothing dangerous. Because of that, we decided to do our release in February. That went off great, customers loved it, no problems. We were trying to get a good, very accurate shelf-life on the product or a best by date.
We started with 30 days just because we saw other companies in the industry range rocking around 90 days they were put on their products so we put it on ours. I didn’t really feel great about that. I’m like, “Well, let’s get the actual date data.” They were actually doing a shelf’s stability study where they didn’t refrigerate the product, which I was like “Fine, let’s see what you come out with.”
After 14 weeks of being on the shelf at room temperature, still find no problem with the coffee, there’s no harmful toxins, no bacteria, no mold, nothing. At around the 15th or 16th week, we get an email from Cornell telling us that they have another scientist that took a look at our product once he noticed that we used nitrogen in our product. He didn’t like that. The reason was because, apparently, there’s a heat-resistant mold spore that can and does thrive under low oxygen conditions at certain temperatures. I was like, “All right.”
Mike: Yes. We asked him what he recommended. He said, “Well, you should probably recall. Just try do a recall, get this back. It could cause [unintelligible 00:16:54].” We’re like, “Okay, well, that’s extreme, but I will take that seriously.” I took all the product off my shelf and I reached out to another scientist who gave me very similar advice. I, at that point, reached out to my retail partners. I notified them that they should take it off the shelf until I find out more information.
Once they took it off the shelves, I actually notified the FDA at that point because I wanted to let them know what I was doing. They recommended I do a recall as well and that there going to help me through it. We just recalled them off.
Brendan: It was a totally proactive recall on your part?
Mike: Yes. Nobody was injured, nobody I heard- [crosstalk]
Brendan: You acted [unintelligible 00:17:48] end of it.
Mike: -never even found any toxins or bacteria in my coffee. I am not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be one. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the process since I’ve been talking with those scientists, the FDA and additional of food scientists have reached out to me in the meantime. The problem they saw with the procedure was that after we had canned the product and used, we dosed it with nitrogen, we didn’t have a widget. We had a nitrogen doser. After that was done, we put it through a lime pasteurizer, which they didn’t like.
They said that might be worse because through a lime pasteurizer, even though it puts the product under heat, it still doesn’t kill the heat-resistant molds spores. If the product wasn’t kept under 40 degrees, if there was a break in the cold chain, then because coffee is a low acid beverage, it could develop an environment condusive for the [unintelligible 00:19:08].
I don’t know. I have to agree with them because, like I said, I’m not a food scientist. But they never showed up in any of my tests.
Brendan: Yes. You can’t guarantee that all the customers are going to be keeping it refrigerated. Somebody might take it home and just throw it on the shelf.
Mike: Yes. There is that and we ship it to our customers, direct to customers and if there is ever a problem with the shipping process, there could be a break there in the cold chain. I didn’t want to risk it. That’s why we did the recall.
Brendan: Makes total sense. Do you guys have any planned changes for your process or procedures or is it still up in the air what’s need to be dialed in?
Mike: No. It’s actually easy fix. They just said that instead of pasteurizing it, we should use a retort system. I read a retort system does is it puts the product under pressure and heat for a longer or intense period of time, which will not only pasteurize but will sterilize the product killing any heat resistant anything, like toxins. We’ve been pricing out retort systems. They are expensive, but the product is good.
I think even after we– Here’s the problem with me. Once we get this retort system and start implementing it, I think it’s going to change the product a bit because the products can be under more heat for a longer period of time. We’ll probably have to go back to the drawing board a bit just to make sure we get the correct flavor that we’re trying to get.
Brendan: Change the recipe a little bit huh?
Mike: Right, there might be some experimentation there, but that was basically the only recommendation. That said, “Once you do that, it’s going to have a shelf life of a Twinkie, which is forever, I think.
Brendan: I’m sure you like to hear that.
Mike:[ Yes, not really. That was kind of funny.
Brendan: Will the nitro cans be back on the market soon? Is this something you guys are actively pursuing right now?
Mike: Yes, we’re actively pursuing it. These retort systems, like I said, they’re not cheap and there is a waiting list to get these things right now. The quickest one I can get is early next year. If I could get it sooner I would, then there is that whole, I’m going to be a little safer than I already was this time and I’m going to bring some actual food scientists to verify the whole procedure before moving ahead with anything. That’s the lesson I learned there.
Brendan: That’s the key there.
Mike: Not sure what that’s going to calls us, but, like I said, I have a lot of smart people reaching out to me. I met a lot of people in this whole process, which is nice. We’re definitely going to available for it. It wasn’t as a killer product, it was [unintelligible 00:22:27], it tasted great, it was refreshing, it’s strong, woke you up in the morning. The nitrogen made it and it tastes almost creamy and smooth.
Brendan: Hey, Mike, I know you are a little bit pressed for time today, but before I let you go, can I read you some of these headlines they were out there? Because they’re-
Mike: Oh God, I read them. Read them for everyone.
Brendan: Can I read you a couple and just get a couple word response on each one because some of these are pretty outlandish [laughs]. USA Today said, “Death Wish Coffee recall. Nitro Cold Bew can kill you.” What else, we got Fortune, “A coffee called Death Wish has been recalled because it might actually kill you.” These are just-
Mike: Yes, they ran with it. I would’ve done the same thing. I try to put myself- [crosstalk] shoes.
Brendan: They were taking some liberties there.
Mike: If somebody served me up a headline like that as a reporter, I would have run with it too. It’s too easy.
Brendan: Yes, BuzzFeed, “Don’t drink Death Wish Coffee Cold Brew, unless you actually have a death wish [laughs]. Has this turned out to be a case of any publicity is good publicity for you guys with how-?
Mike: I just tell myself that. I don’t know if that’s actually the case. However, I was in New York City at a PR event on Thursday and I talked to this gentleman. He’s like, “Hey, I would’ve never heard of your coffee unless I heard about it on the news yesterday.” I was like, “All right, well, that’s good I think.”
Brendan: Getting in front of a new market [laughs].
Mike: Yes, but when you call yourself Death Wish Coffee company and you have a skull and crossbones as a logo, it’s almost like we’re asking for it in a way.
Brendan: No doubt.
Mike: I’m a realist. I get it [laughs].
Brendan: Cool man. I appreciate you joining me today. Where can people go to find your coffee or where can they go find you on social media?
Mike: Yes, once again, I’ve been telling people this. This recall is just on the Nitro Cold Brew cans, not any of our other products. Our other products, 100% safe. There’s no risk in the procedure, the process or the final product. You can find us at deathwishcoffee.com, you can find us on Amazon. We’re typically the number one or number two selling coffee on Amazon. We have a podcast called Fueled By Death Cast that goes off every week. You can find us iTunes and we have an active blog too on our website.
Brendan: Well, I’ll make sure that we put links to all those in the show notes. Again, thanks again for carving out some time for us. We appreciate you coming on today.
Mike: Yes, no problem. Thanks for having me.
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Daniel Browning: I got on the internet and started looking around. I found Keg Outlet’s Ultimate Guide to Cold Brewed Coffee and read it a couple more times than I’ve read anything in my life. That was pretty much all the research I needed.
Voice-over: If you’re looking to start your journey with cold brew or draft coffee, check out The Ultimate Guide to Cold Brewed Coffee and Serving Coffee on Draft, a free 34-page ebook offered at kegoutlet.com. You can get there through The Drips and Draughts website by going to dripsandraughts.com/ultimateguide.
Brendan: All right. Once again, thanks to Mike Brown from Death Wish Coffee for joining us today. Thanks to all you listeners out there who reached out to us and suggested that we get Death Wish Coffee on the show. Without all those requests, this episode probably would never have happened. After talking with Mike, it became pretty that the recall of the nitro coffee cans was entirely proactive. It’s great to know that they’re staying ahead of the curve, staying out in front these problems or what could have been a problem and actively looking for ways to resolve them.
Mike mentioned the retort process. That’s something that we’re going to start looking into. Hopefully, we can get somebody on the show, maybe a food canning scientist to talk about the retort process and what it is and what it does. My little bit of research into it, it looks like high pressure processing which we actually had somebody on a previous episode talking about HPP. That was way back on episode 19. If you’re interested in listening to that episode, you can find that by going to dripsanddraughts.com/19.
Actually, it sounds like the retort process is a combination of HPP as well as heated pasteurization. It’s putting the product under intense heat as well as pressure. At least that’s my take on it. That’s what I’ve gathered from just doing a couple of Google searches. Don’t trust me there. I’m looking to get somebody on the show to explain that process in a little bit more detail. Stay tuned for that.
Thanks for listening today. If you’re getting any value from this podcast, hop onto iTunes and leave us a review. It helps the show out and we’d appreciate it. As we’re coming into the holidays, it gets harder for us to line up episodes and get guests on the show, just because people start to get busy with the holiday rushes. If you’ve got somebody or if you want to be on the show, reach out to us. Hop onto our website. There’s a couple different links on there. There’s a be a guest on the show link. There’s an ask a question link, where you can click on that and actually record a question right from your web browser or you can always feel free to email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last little note here, this is just total coincidence, but we’re releasing this episode on Friday the 13th. Our guest was Death Wish Coffee. We did not plan that, just total coincidence. Just thought that was kind of funny.
All right, that’s going to do it for today. Make sure you guys go check out Death Wish Coffee by going to deathwishcoffee.com. Check out their podcast too, the Fueled by Death Cast. Once again, if you’re looking for links or show notes for this episode, you can find those by going to dripsanddraughts.com/80. That’s going to do it for this week. Thanks to Mike Brown from Death Wish Coffee, I’m Brendan Hanson and we’ll see you again next Friday on the Drips & Draughts Podcast.
Mentioned in this Show
Fueled By Death Cast the Death Wish Coffee Podcast
Some of the outrageous headlines…
Death Wish coffee recall: Nitro Cold Brew can kill you via USA Today