Runa energy drinks, and the power and health benefits of caffeine

Shaun Weston27 Jun 2013

The Runa brand began when two students teamed up with Amazonian communities to share the guayusa 'super leaf' with the world. Runa is now winning praise for its range of functional beverages. Hannah Oakman talks to Runa's co-founder and CEO Tyler Gage to find out more.

Tyler Gage first came across guayusa, which is grown in the Napo Province of Amazonian Ecuadorian, while conducting linguistic research in the area. He witnessed the trade-off indigenous communities face: while they wish to preserve their cultural and environmental heritage, they also need to earn cash and feed their families in an increasingly globalised world.

Later, he tasted guayusa (pronounced gwhy-you-sa), a traditional beverage the native communities drink in the early morning, and was amazed by the focused energy it gave him, along with the great flavour.

Together with the communities, he began imagining how a fair trade business could share this rich-tasting beverage with a global audience, and pioneer a proactive and culturally valuable way for the Kichwa people to participate in the global economy.

Dan MacCombie, Runa's second co-founder and Gage's longtime friend, meanwhile, travelled to Ecuador during a semester off and observed many development projects that had the best intentions but little financial stability or buy-in from communities. Subsequently, he dedicated himself to study high-impact, non-profit management and envisioned bringing a business ethic to social work.

The duo teamed up in an entrepreneurship class at Brown University in 2008 to write a business plan for their dream, and moved to Ecuador in January 2009 to build the world's first value chain for guayusa tea. Today, they are committed to their mission of creating livelihoods for indigenous Amazonian farmers.

Runa's RTD beverages, energy drinks, infusers and loose leaf guayusa all offer a clear, focused energy by balancing as much caffeine as one cup of coffee with twice the antioxidants of green tea.

The company, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, has 17 staff in the US and 40 in Ecuador. Runa also wholesales guayusa to a variety of other tea companies so that it can reach more people in many more varieties. Major companies such as Stash, Harney and Sons, Oregon Chai and David's Tea are successfully selling guayusa to customers, helping make it a hot, new ingredient in the beverage industry.

How does the Fairtrade business model work with your partners?

Tyler Gage: Guayusa is one of the only tea-type beverages in the world that's exclusively grown by independent family farms. Runa sources guayusa from over 2,000 indigenous Kichwa families in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and generated over $100,000 of direct income to these farmers in 2012. We guarantee a minimum purchase price to the farmers and provide ongoing technical assistance to train farmers in organic farming practices.

Guayusa is also grown in a traditional forest garden that protects the Amazon rainforest.

How important is the social responsibility element of what you are doing?

Tyler Gage: We don't call it 'social responsibility'. We exist because of our mission, and are using markets as a tool to support sustainable development. We're not a standard business that also tries to help people on the side. The core operation of our business is generating income for farmers, promoting indigenous traditions and protecting the Amazon rainforest.

What are your main brand lines?

Tyler Gage: Our main line is our ready to drink (RTD) guayusa beverages. With as much caffeine as coffee, double the antioxidants of green tea and either 0 calories or 50 calories per bottle (depending on the flavour), it's a complete package that offers 'clean energy'.

Our RTDs were awarded 1st place in the Ready-to-Drink Herbal Tea category during the 2012 North American Tea Championship's annual competition.

What message are you trying to send out via the brand?

Tyler Gage: We are targeting 18-34-year-olds; young professionals. Runa is a smooth, sustainable and smart option. It's energy for people doing awesome, everyday things.

What are the health and functional benefits of guayusa tea?

Tyler Gage: Guayusa contains the same amount of the world's most prized stimulant, caffeine, as one cup of coffee. There's a lot to love about caffeine and research continues to show improvements in mental ability, memory and overall brain function in individuals that consume caffeine.

Guayusa also has twice the antioxidant ORAC value of leading green tea products. One bottle contains 150mg of chlorogenic acids, and contains two promising flavonoids, Kaempferol and Rutin.

Where do you get your flavour inspirations?

Tyler Gage: We wanted our flavours to be accessible to the average person and have an exotic twist. For example, lemon is the most popular RTD flavour, so we added lemongrass to give it a more sophisticated edge.

Hibiscus-berry is our best seller, combining the familiar sweet berry taste with the health appeal of hibiscus.

How do you plan to expand the brand and product line?

Tyler Gage: Focus is our main priority and we're cautious not to overreach too early. We have two lines of products that are doing very well in the few thousands stores they're in, and our goal is to go deeper in our early markets for now.

In response to consumer demand for products with absolutely no sugar, we've recently created two unsweetened RTDs that have just been launched. Because guayusa has no tannins, our unsweetened products maintain a smooth, clean taste and expresses the natural flavours of the other ingredients. The unsweetened line is available in lime and guava flavours.

Do you believe it is a competitive marketplace?

Tyler Gage: Absolutely. We compete at the intersection of tea and energy, two of the most competitive beverage categories. If we were just another green tea or another energy drink with weird chemicals and the same mix of vitamins, we would consider ourselves dead in the water.

It's the unique functionality of guayusa as a simple, natural source of energy, combined with its clean flavour, that allows us to offer a product that is truly different and unique. Retailers understand that we're working to expand their categories, which they love.

Hannah Oakman is deputy managing editor magazines at FoodBev Media.