A Goat Farmer and a Neuroscientist Researcher Are Making the World's First 'Superbrew'

September 11, 2019

By Cortney Clift, September 11, 2019

The beginnings of Willie Fenichel and Nico Enriquez’s friendship reads like the opening page of a YA novel. The two met in 2004 on the beach in Cape Cod in the midst of a volleyball game. Fenichel and his family, full-time residents in the perennially popular destination; Enriquez, a seasonal regular who spent the summers nearby at his grandmother’s house. 

As the summers wore on, Enriquez bonded with Fenichel’s family, regularly enjoying meals cooked in their wood-fired stove while watching the sunset over the bay. It wasn’t until about three years into their friendship that Fenichel finally asked Enriquez to try a homebrew he’d been working on. Enriquez remembers this moment vividly. “He came over with this 12-ounce brown plastic bottle that had warped out into a balloon shape because it had fermented inside,” he says. “I opened it and was immediately hit with a crazy burst of ginger and lemon. It had a funky, fermented, sweet tang to it.”

The mystery concoction was Fenichel’s ginger beer, a brew with a kombucha-like ABV that he’d been perfecting in his kitchen for five years before he offered his friend a taste. After helping his mother ferment wine, Fenichel decided to continue experimenting with homebrewing. He stumbled upon a recipe for ginger beer online and decided to give it a go. He swapped out dextrose for cane sugar, subbed in Champagne yeast, and loaded each batch with a generous serving of ginger.

Enriquez was only a teen when he first tried the ginger beer, but he immediately told his friend, “This is special. We should sell this. Other people have to try it.” Fenichel just laughed in response, but a seed was planted in Fenichel’s kitchen that night. 

Fenichel and Enriquez make something of an unlikely pair. Enriquez is currently 26 years old while Fenichel is 21 years his senior. Enriquez towers over Fenichel’s pint-sized frame. Enriquez hails from Mexico City while Fenichel has spent most of his life between Massachusetts and New Mexico. Both, however, rock unruly redheaded manes. 

When the two first met, Enriquez was already well on his way to becoming a promising young neuroscientist. He began working in synthetic biology labs at 14 years old. As a sophomore in high school, he completed work that would later be published in a paper alongside Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Hamilton Smith. In his early years as a student at Brown University, he was offered a $50,000 research grant by his professor. 

Willie’s flavored brews taste more robust than a hard seltzer, less vinegary than kombucha, and not nearly as sweet as most American ciders. It’s a peculiar combination of all three.”

Concurrently, Fenichel spent this time working as a goat farmer in Cape Cod. The farm was yet another idea sparked by Fenichel's crafty mother. The family originally invested in just a few Nigerian dwarf goats, but today, a whopping 17 of them roam their property in Truro. Pass by Fenichel’s house at the right time and you might see him and the entire herd out for their daily walk. 

Fenichel and Enriquez’s professional worlds began to collide after Enriquez realized he was reluctant to accept his professor’s research grant offer. “I’d been on this road since I was little,” he says. “I had my whole life in front of me. I realized I can do something different. I looked at what I enjoyed most and that was being with a group of people who I really care about, which included Willie, his family, our friends, being outside, and trying to build things—making a structure from the world that’s a little more positive, a little more fun.”

Six years after he first proposed the idea, Enriquez called Fenichel to revisit the ginger beer business. Again, Fenichel laughed, but this time he added, “If you’re in, I’m in. Let’s do it.”

Over the past five years, that idea has morphed into Willie’s Superbrew. The hyperbolic “superbrew” category is something the brand made-up. It’s a bold claim for a company still very much in its youth, but ultimately, the phrase hits the mark. Willie’s flavored brews taste more robust than a hard seltzer, less vinegary than kombucha, and not nearly as sweet as most American ciders. It’s a peculiar combination of all three.

If Willie’s did have to squeeze into one of the three categories, it would likely identify closest with a hard seltzer, primarily because it also uses fermented cane sugar as its gluten-free alcohol base (it’s now brewed to 4.5% ABV). Unlike most of its many competitors in the exploding hard seltzer market, Willie’s opts out of extracts and flavorings in favor of brewing with thousands of pounds of real fruit and spices. As a result, the flavor is fuller; the liquid is actually the color of the fruit it was brewed with; it bears a smoothness its competitors often seem to lack. 

The original ginger beer recipe (now referred to as the Ginger & Lemon flavor), has an ingredient list that’s short and sweet: alcohol from fermentation, ginger, brown sugar, lemon concentrate, and turmeric. That same sort of simplicity can also be found in the company’s other three flavors: Pomegranate & Acai, Mango & Passionfruit, and the recently released “cold-weather flavor” Pear & Cinnamon

Fenichel and Enriquez both pride themselves not only on using real fruit and simple ingredients, but also on making sure it's easy for customers to know exactly what they’re drinking. Although it’s still not required by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, both an ingredient list and nutritional label appear on every can. 

Today, Superbrew HQ is located 70 miles north of its Cape Cod origins in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s no longer just Enriquez and Fenichel acting like mad scientists in an old house on the bay–although Fenichel does still develop new flavor combinations out of the same kitchen they started in. The brand is now distributed in 1,200 locations across the Northeast and employs a team of 16 people. 

Despite the company’s move, Cape Cod has clearly made a lasting impression on its environmental values. Enriquez says, “Every year, Willie and I see the erosion on the dunes and the weather changing. I think the Cape has really influenced us to be like, ‘We can’t just make a consumer product. We have to try to create something better for the world.’”

In an effort to put its money where its mouth is, Willie’s Superbrew donates three percent of its annual gross profits to an environmental cause. This year, the founders are also adding smaller monthly donations to support additional causes. August’s donation was sent to the Rainforest Alliance to help stop the forest fires in the Amazon. 

As small companies experience immense growth, friendships-turned-business-partnerships are often put through the wringer, but these two still seem to be that quirky pair who met up for nightly games of beach volleyball a decade ago. When asked how their bond has shifted since starting the business, Fenichel is quick to respond. “I feel closer to Nico than I did before,” he says. “We hang out more. We get along better.” 

Enriquez immediately echoes his friend’s sentiments. “We’ve lived very different lives and we have very different perspectives, but we have a shared care for things,” he says. “Very few people on earth care about animals and people the way Willie does. Truly, that’s something I’ve been able to see more and more through us working together.” 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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