Jake Baez grew up drinking Tepache. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the '80s, and he fondly remembers sipping on the fermented pineapple wine during family trips to Mexico City. Now, he and his fiancée are planning a wedding, and they intend to serve their guests an artisanal, custom-brewed tepache-style…seltzer?
Baez and his fiancée are two of 300 co-creators at the pH Experiment, an innovation arm of Anheuser-Busch with the ambition of creating the future's favorite beverage. The collaborative comprises creatives with strong opinions on the beverage industry, and brewmaster Thomas Bleigh, who brings those dreams to life. The co-creators are scattered across the country, but the company is based in Portland, where it pumps out minuscule batches of category-crushing drinks.
In physical form, the pH Experiment is a science lab currently occupying the old Widmer Pub on North Russell Street at Interstate Avenue. Taps that used to pump out the official craft beer of the Portland Timbers are now filled with ciders masquerading as aperitivos and freeze-dried collard greens suspended in kombucha.
The endgame of the pH Experiment, however, is much less tangible. "I'm trying not to envision it," says general manager Karmen Olson. "I'm waiting for creators to tell me what they need."
To make that happen, Olson and Bleigh work with co-creators across the country to forget and reimagine what they know about a good drink. They pour these dreams into limited-edition cans and gather feedback from their imbibers. Past experiments include a pickle juice gose, carbonated sangria, nitro hard chai tea and a liquor-free tequila soda.
"One of the flaws in the craft beer community," Olson acknowledges, "is that we have become such an echo chamber, and it's gotten us to a place where we go to a grocery store and see 75 versions of IPA on the shelf."
This is what co-creator Maya Massad calls "the mushy middle." For Massad, the ideal drink is either nostalgic or jarringly novel. She cites perfumery as an industry that's taking fruitful, if polarizing, risks: "Not everything is floral and pleasant and clean anymore; they're not afraid to get dirty and a little murky."
Massad picks up on something that the pH Experiment, unlike standard consumer research panels, understands, too: It's OK—in fact, preferable—to create a polarizing beverage if it's beloved by at least one community.
Brewmaster Bleigh produces these could-be cult classics by marrying his 20-plus years of experience as a brewer with the memories and traditions of the PH co-creators. For any company, let alone a branch of a beverage conglomerate, this degree of mutual development with consumers is unique.
"PH trusts me to inform them on how you'd approach brewing a drink using true-to-the-home-country methods," Baez says of collaborating to craft his nuptial libation. "That's an incredible thing that I've never before encountered."
Bleigh's chemical knowledge was further tested when one co-creator came to him with the idea of fermenting jun—kombucha fermented with honey instead of sugar—with hand-juiced collard, mustard and turnip greens.
Called Green G Jun, the drink was created by Deoshia "Dee Dee" Hopkins to raise funds for Exit the Maze, a nonprofit founded to expose and break down racial injustice. With the drink, Dee Dee sought to write a "love letter to Black Culture." She and PH sourced the holy trinity of greens exclusively from Black Futures Farm and juiced them by hand. Mixed with a dash of ginger, the beverage energizes with a gust of horseradish and hot sauce to the nose. Dee Dee says it should taste like home. Now, six-packs of Green G Jun are on sale at greenHAUS.
Insights may lead to the next big beverage in 2023, but for now, most of the drinks are to be enjoyed by the co-creators and their communities. The only way to get your hands on these cans (unless you're near a select few AmazonGo stores in Seattle) is to pay close attention to the drink menus of events around Portland, join PH as a co-creator yourself, or persuade Baez to invite you to his wedding.
The latter wouldn't be an off-base recommendation for PH. To exemplify how PH has fundamentally altered the conversations he has and the concoctions he makes, Bleigh shares one of Olson's frequent sayings: "Let's stop asking people to come to our party. Let's go to their party."