Joris Van Velzen is a Dutch photographer, who now lives in Berlin, and has created a soft drink inspired by Russia. WOSTOK. WOSTOK was started in 2009 and has already sold more than 300,000 bottles and expanded into 4 new countries. Not bad for a drink with an advertising budget of zero. Dizzy Frinks was lucky enough to sit down with Joris today and quiz him on the pine needle lemonade.
So what is the history of WOSTOK? How come a Dutch photographer has started producing a “Russian” drink in Germany?
Well i spent 18 years as a photographer in Russia, starting out covering the Soviet Union and then moving into advertising. Whilst there i became fond of a soft drink called Baikal. This was the Soviet answer to Western soft drinks. However the fall of the Soviet Union saw the fall of Baikal as Coca Cola and Pepsi moved into the market and wealthy Russians embraced these brands. You can still find Baikal in Russia, but you wont find it in any trendy bars or restaurants and is rejected by the middle class and wealthy due to it’s Soviet connotations.
So i moved to Berlin, and i was sitting in the same bar we are having this interview and had just finished my second VitaMalz when i suddenly had a real pining for Baikal. I thought there are two possible reasons why i cant buy it here. Either the taste is too “funky” for Germans, or it is something they have never experienced. I decided on the latter and 5 months later WOSTOK was born. (Watch the alternative video history here).
The recipe is pretty much the same (i even went back to Moscow to research it). The two major differences are the colour (i decided on a lighter shade of brown rather than the traditional cola colour) and there is no St Johns Wort in the recipe (banned in beverages in Germany).
So when was WOSTOK reborn?
Just 18 months ago in 2009.
Why do/should people drink WOSTOK?
What i am really pleased about is the way the drink polarises people. Some people claim it tastes like their dirty bath water, and some think it is the best thing they have ever tasted. You rarely find someone who finds it boring.
Due to the drink not being nearly as sweet as your standard coke, WOSTOK is probably more suited to the over 25s. The WOSTOK drinker is likely to be an educated city dweller and part of the “creative class”.
Where does the name WOSTOK come from?
WOSTOK (pronounced Vostok) means “the East” in Russian. It was also the Russian space program that was the first to put a man into orbit.
Can you tell us some more about the label, and how this came about?
The label is that of a Russian worker. Not a farmer (Russians can tell the difference). Most people from the East of Germany seem to recognise it as some kind of propaganda poster, but it is actually based on a girl who currently lives in Berlin. I just tried to give it the feel of former Soviet times. I also have a picture that i put together of WOSTOK being developed back in Russia by the “State Institute for Non Alcoholic drinks, Beer Brewing and Wine making of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences“.
How many people are involved in the marketing of WOSTOK?
Well there is me who works part time on Wostok. I still have my photography business, but Wostok is slowly taking over. At the moment nearly all the profits the drink makes gets re-invested back into the brand. I also have 2 full time employees who help with the day to day running of the drink and getting us in more bars/cafes and drinks shops in and around Berlin. Then there are freelancers in various cities around the world who get paid when they find places to stock WOSTOK.
Where is WOSTOK most popular at the moment?
Well we are still most popular in our home town of Kreuzberg, Berlin. There are some bars and cafes where the drink has really taken off. And we have recently started to go international. WOSTOK is currently popular in Poland (well Krakow at least), so much so that we will soon be printing Polish labels for our bottles. We are also in most of the major cities in Switzerland now and a fair number in Austria as well as Barcelona in Spain. In the spring i will be sending our first shipment to the USA.
Going International is the fun part. We dont need to deal with the German “pfand system” (customer incentive for taking bottles back to supermarkets/shops). Whilst the “pfand system” is good in theory (i.e. helps with recycling) it can cripple a small business. So much of your capital can get caught up in waiting for the bottles to be returned, and then trying to find new bottles in the mean time.
Are there any advertisments in the pipeline for WOSTOK?
Well we have our first couple of video advertisements which you can watch on YouTube. Stay tuned for more coming in the near future.
Other than that there are some POS Materials, such as table cards.
What are the future plans for the drink?
Well later this year we are hoping to launch our Winter Edition of Wostok. The drink will be red, and a much muskier, spicier affair. The idea is that it is available from October through to February.
And finally, what is your favourite fizzy drink apart from WOSTOK?
I would like to say a big thank you to Joris for taking time out of his busy day to speak to Dizzy Frinks.