Slo-Jo offers insights into how South Africa’s beverage flavours are developed

The South African beverage industry is a beautiful blend of flavours and trends that are mostly imported from abroad. However, just like everything else about South Africans, we have a very unique taste profile that makes it both a challenge and a joy for the team at Slo-Jo Trading to create intriguing new drinks for their restaurant customers.

Chrissy Beedle, Slo-Jo’s, also known as the ‘Palate Sensation’, emphasizes that although South African flavour trends take their lead from other countries, we are quite specific about what we do and don’t like.

“In Europe, people prefer the more natural taste of lemons. In South Africa, our palates are not the same, so we normally add some sweetness to our lemon flavours to balance the acidity to be more appealing to the local market. South Africans enjoy a richer flavour profile, international brands like Milo and Horlicks are more malted than their counterparts abroad – because that’s what South Africans like,” she says. “South Africans also love hazelnut flavours – but not the same roasted flavours as European hazelnut, which tends to be nuttier than what works here.”

Think of Chrissy as a modern day Willy Wonka. She develops some of South Africa’s most popular beverages and flavour profiles from the Slo-Jo Innovation Hub in Sandton. Opened earlier in 2015, the Slo-Jo Innovation Hub is where the team develops cutting-edge beverage solutions for South Africa. It’s also the home base for the team that observes international drink trends in the global environment, adapting them for the South African market, packaging them according to trends, and positioning them within the correct price points.

During the beverage development phase at the Innovation Hub, Chrissy can go through 200+ revisions on a single flavour. “The process is rather complex, if I develop a milk-based drink, I need to consider the fat ratio of the milk I’m testing the powders on and where in the world they will be used.”

How does Chrissy go about creating new drinks for Slo-Jo’s restaurant clients? “South Africans have a nostalgic palate, which means that for most drinks to be a success, they need to hint at something familiar,” says Beedle. Mugg & Bean develops some of South Africa’s most decadent flavours, and Slo-Jo recently translated the timeless Bakers Lemon Cream biscuit into a milkshake on their menu called Lemon Meringue Swirl. This joins the ranks of other nostalgic drinks like the popular Milk Tart shake that Slo-Jo created for the brand’s national menu.

It’s this nostalgic palate that guides Chrissy in her ongoing experiments to create new drinks that add pull-factor to restaurants’ menus. She notes that while lavender and chilli flavours are trending abroad, the combination is extremely unlikely to work on a menu here – at present. Give it time though, she says, and perhaps introduce bridging flavours to get local palates accustomed to the taste profiles, and this trend may well be seen in South Africa in coming years.

One of her favourite examples of how a trend needs to be adapted for local taste profiles is that of salted caramel, first seen on South African screens on MasterChef Australia at least five years ago.

“Salted Caramel drinks only became popular in South Africa when we introduced notes of fudge into the drinks we created for our customers,” she says. “South Africans love fudge, and the flavour provided that nostalgic bridge that has made Salted Caramel drinks such a success now.”

According to Chrissy, nostalgia is just one of the many factors that keep people coming back for more, and one of the easiest indicators of a well-balanced drink is the consumer’s ability to finish it. “If we create a drink that looks appealing because of its sheer decadence in the menu photo, but don’t balance acidity and sweetness properly, customers won’t finish the drink – and they won’t order it again either.”

Chrissy and her team have already adapted international trends for local palates for this summer’s menus, with a range of trending flavours such as Ice Tea and Coconut Milk. The Summer range can be made into lemon, peach or berry iced tea crushers and even topped with yoghurt or soft serve and fresh fruit.

“South Africans love and know the three ordinary fruity flavours of ice teas – including mix berries, peach and lemon. Slo-Jo has taken innovation a step further by introducing ice tea crushers, perfect on a hot summer’s day,” she says. “While consumers are cooling down with these fun, flavoured drinks, we are already working on taste trends for winter 2016!”