Post Dispatch- That Exotic Flavor Might be from Right Here
If you drink a ginger ale, there is a good chance that the ginger flavor in it was created right here in the St. Louis area. If you eat an energy bar with the flavor of peanut butter, that taste may have come from Maryland Heights. If you like a hint of hazelnut in your coffee, it may have been made by the same local company.
Beck Flavors has been providing food companies with flavorings since 1904. Founded in East St. Louis, it began as a maker of vanilla flavor, which at the time went into milk, soda fountains and, soon, ice cream.
At one time, 99% of all vanilla flavor sold west of the Mississippi River was made by Beck, said company president Matt Carr. The fourth check a new company called Dairy Queen ever cut was made out to Beck. As the decades progressed, the company began expanding its line into other flavorings. Selling exclusively to food producers (Carr won’t say which ones, other than to note that some are in the Fortune 500), Beck now makes a wide variety of flavorings in liquid form.
The largest part of its business comes from the coffee and tea industry, but it also does a significant business in alcohol, such as flavored vodka, beer and a relative newcomer, flavored hard seltzer. Beck also works with companies that make soft drinks and flavored water, and also the makers of what are known as nutraceuticals — meal-replacement shakes, diet shakes and the like.
In addition, it sells to companies that make “anything in a grocery store that you can think of that has flavoring in it, like maple syrup,” Carr said. Now based in Maryland Heights, the company is about to make a major expansion. Probably in March, it will open a second manufacturing plant in Westport, with six times the footprint of its current plant, which will continue to be used as well. The company is in the middle of a growth spurt; in the last 2½ years, it has tripled its employee base from 17 to 51. With the new building, it will be hiring even more, Carr said.
Meanwhile, the market has been changing as well. Health-conscious consumers are becoming “laser-focused,” he said, on what is on the label and are demanding more natural flavorings. But it is not always practical or efficient, or even effective, merely to distill the flavor that is being produced from its natural source. Other natural flavors can be used to enhance the dominant flavor in a food product, the way white grape juice is often used in the production of apple juice. The industry even has an acronym for it: WONF. It stands for “with other natural flavors.”
Many of the Beck employees are chemists or food scientists who understand flavor from a chemical-compound standpoint. With the help of advanced technology, they can identify what makes a cherry taste like a cherry, or makes a Bing cherry taste different from a Ranier. They can then re-create those compounds through science, thus producing a cherry flavor or, more specifically, the flavor of a Bing cherry.
But the human element is just as important as the science. On the staff are two senior flavorists who go through a rigorous seven-year program that trains their palates to an exceptional degree. The rest of the staffers, too, improves their palates through regular sensory trainings.
Last year, the company released its flavors of the year, based on the extensive marketing and trend data that it collects. In the fruit flavor category, the winner was yuzu, an Asian citrus (Carr called it a combination of lemon and lime, with a hint of orange) that is now showing up in a lot of cocktails, sparkling water and energy drinks. The flavor of the year in the innovative flavor category was dill pickle, which Carr said is popular now because of its familiar sour note. It is not just showing up in potato chips, he said, but is also being added to beer. “You wouldn’t think it works, but it works really well,” he said.
In the botanicals category, the flavor of the year is cherry blossom, which is finding its way into teas, flavored waters, high-end sodas and alcoholic beverages (“cherry-blossom vodka is right around the corner,” Carr said). And the people’s choice for flavor of the year is honeycomb toffee, which is being used in coffee, candy, ice cream and more.
“We always get asked the same question: What is the next pumpkin spice? “For us, that becomes really interesting, because pumpkin spice is such a unique flavor profile that’s served now in so many different food categories that I don’t think there ever will be another pumpkin spice,” Carr said.
Written by: Daniel Neman
Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.