Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in partnership w/ AVLtoday.
Ben Colvin of Devil's Foot is everything you'd expect of a Southern man who makes a natural non-alcohol beverage. Cool, passionate, intentional and charming. I've come to know Ben is many capacities. I drink his products. We run in similar circles. He's sponsored my events, etc. So while I'm definitely biased, he is also just a really nice guy and he makes really good products. And that goes a really long way.
I love that this interview series allows us to profile a myriad of business types. And, as self-proclaimed business nerd, my favorite type is the mom-and-pop type of business. No trendy-based marketing, no gimmicks. Just a product that feels necessary. One that is done by people who need to work, want to work, and take pride in doing their job well. Ben Colvin is that guy.
The American Dream personified, Devil's Foot is bringing you product they believe in. They are engaged in the community and they are aware of their privilege. And thus, they govern themselves through an intersectional lens that is full of integrity to create products that taste good going down.
So I know that your name comes from the way Ginger root looks. But do you get tired of explaining your name to people? Ha! I love talking about the name -. Hell, I just like talking about our company, our people and our product whenever I get the chance. When we were test brewing at home, early on, fresh ginger root littered the kitchen counters and my wife noted 'what is going on with all of this gnarly devil's foot all over the kitchen?!!"! The name really stuck - Fresh Ginger Root DOES kind of look like a gnarly devil's foot! There is a Sherlock Holmes case of the Devil's Foot and the name is used for rock crags and landmarks around the world - kind of like Devil's Courthouse here in WNC.
In beer city, why did you decide to make a non-alcoholic drink? I'm quite fond of a good Moscow Mule or Whiskey and bit of Ginger - but bars typically only offered the overly-sugary, sweet and artificial Ginger Ale. So the backyard brewing trials and the search for balanced sweet, spice, citrus and complexity began. We soon found crazy good flavor and depth that was also lower in sugar, thus a little dry... and just delicious. Just then, we discovered that we were pregnant and took friends to Burial Beer to celebrate. (I realize the bad move in taking a pregnant wife to a brewery to celebrate!) At the time, our Asheville breweries typically served water on tap or commercial sodas. Neither are celebratory nor exciting, which is a definite prerequisite for preparing for a child's birth! It became crystal clear that we should bring to Beer City a nonalcoholic craft soda that compliments the craft beer scene - a bubbly, sparkling, celebratory drink as an NA option for drinkers, for families and kids, and even for expecting mothers!
Are you all working on new flavors? We are always working on new flavors and have a lot of tricks up our sleeves. We package our craft in BPA free aluminum cans and as fast as we can build into brew schedules and business plans to bring on new flavors and cans, we jump at the chance! We also love collaboration. This always brings out creativity and unites people and ideas. In 2019, we produced about 4,000 cans of a collaborative brew -Tartberry - a Nonalcoholic version of the beer of the same name from Green Man Brewery. Combining strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and the tartness of fresh lime, we really nailed that one.
How is your product different from standard soda? Devil's Foot is North Carolina's craft soda - crafted locally and blending techniques of craft brewing that allows us to draw big fresh flavor and do so with much less sugar than commercial soda. We keep it simple and we keep it fresh. The fresh produce, brewing techniques and connection to community really sets us apart. We continue to grow our scale, but remain our focus on being craft - that includes being rooted in the community, working with local vendors and organizations, farmers and distributors. We will never be a cold, stale factory -- where's the fun in that?!
If you could make a cocktail out of one of your drinks, what would it be? Moscow Mules - definitely. The Mule is now the world's most popular cocktail, surpassing the Margarita. The many variations of the Mule make it versatile and we brew our ginger beers with less sugar and a good fresh ginger spice and carbonation to make a dang good mule! (try the Gingerberry can to make a blackberry mule, or try vodka with the lemonades and limeades... so good, much less sugar and refreshingly light!)
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned since launching Devil’s Foot? The life of an entrepreneur is wild. A week can look like cleaning tanks and brewing one day, canning the next, pitching to investors or colleagues the next, building on the business model and financing the next.. oh, and trying everyday to be a good father, partner and friend! Entrepreneurship requires taking on a ton of stress, a lot of responsibility, loads of planning, plenty of hands-on laborious work --- but it's also incredibly rewarding, exciting, risky and joyful. I love sharing our story and encouraging others to take the leap into business, working for yourself, taking risks and doing good in the world.
What exactly is “farm-to-can”? Commercial soda tends to be a big, industrial, impersonal process that uses syrups, artificial flavors and chemical sweeteners blended in large factories and concentrated into syrups or overly processed gloopy messes -- and is disassociated from place and from people.
Devil's Foot is the "un-soda." We use organic roots and fruits from small farms - including ginger that is washed and processed the day after it's harvested in Peru, organic citrus fruits from the South. We sweeten with a blend of organic cane sugar and regional honey from small beekeepers in the Carolinas and we process fresh fruits and berries from regional small farmers. Brewing in the style of craft beer allows us to control quality, to showcase organic produce and local farmers, and to maintain connection to our places and people. You can literally follow a blueberry from the bush on a small North Carolina farm to our kettle, to the can and to the shelf.
Why did you all start with a Ginger Beer?
*Cocktails, universal appeal as an NA beverage and celebration. We wanted to create better cocktails, to make healthier, higher quality Nonalcoholic 'un-sodas' and cocktail mixes - and we wanted to offer celebrations in a can. Ginger Beer is also fairly universally-enjoyed... from craft beer and cocktail drinkers, adults and children and families alike, Ginger Beer is fairly approachable and loved.. We also get requests for our ginger beer all the time from expecting mothers, from people celebrating sobriety, from wedding parties, from breweries and bars wanting to introduce an exciting NA option....It feels great to be able to support and bring a smile to so many different customer types.
What is it like running a family business? Whew... It's a little tough, but we built this business around family and friends. When days are long and laborious and you know you still have to get home to work on administrative, finance or email communications, it is a big bonus to know my family and friends are there for support. We look after each other and I think the strength of family leads to further strength in the company.
I know you’re entering into a partnership with YMI. Why do you think it’s important for businesses to take a stand on social/political issues? After 16 years of work in conservation nonprofit fundraising and directorship, I started Devil's Foot. As a nonprofit professional, I had worked with a number of for profit businesses that supported my causes and I built Devil's Foot to grow on that ethic of philanthropy. The mission of Devil's Foot includes an emphasis on being a leader in community and local organization support that allows us to use our voice to create change. In the few short years of our work, we have supported many environmental, educational and social organizations, including Asheville Greenworks, LEAF, the Asheville Downtown Association, Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, Asheville City Soccer Club, Warren Wilson College, UNC Asheville, the ACLU, My Daddy Taught Me That, NAACP, Hood Huggers International, and many more. In my 15 years of living in Asheville, I have personally held events and attended events at the YMI. I have toured the gallery, dined and danced at Goombay, and learned much about our city's history - all thanks to the YMI. It is important to always say 'thank you' and to give back whenever you can, and I hope this is just the start of what we can do with the YMI. I am looking forward to supporting with donations of product and finances, I am looking forward to sharing my experiences as an entrepreneur and nonprofit professional to help guide young Ashevillians with whatever I can offer, and I hope I can further the causes and works of the YMI.
In this time, more than ever, I believe it is vital that businesses stand on their character and values. My folks always told me on my way out the door, "Remember who you are, and who you represent". As individuals, and as businesses, we should heed that advice and aim to act, to voice and to support for that which we believe is right, just and beneficial for others. We should own our failures and shortcomings as well as our successes and accolades.