Açai: The Super Bowl of Fruit

January 14, 2012, Judd

On any given day, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, several thousand berry harvesters shimmy up palm trees, plucking purple berries, plopping them into baskets, which will be loaded onto boats headed for processing plants.

The berry skins are scraped off, mixed with water, pasteurized and then flash frozen. The chocolaty, red-wine flavored berry eventually ends up several thousand miles away in the digestive tracts of hungry surfers, skaters, triathletes and desk jockeys all across the U.S., where this berry has created a multi-million dollar health craze.

Açaí (ah-sigh-ee), the purple berry in question, is the latest health food loaded with antioxidants to generate massive media buzz.

Surfers are modern-day Magellans and Christopher Columbuses, often the first western tourists to expose paradises like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s not surprising that surfers were the first to introduce Açaí to the public.

Cardiff super-soul surfer Rob Machado was first introduced to Açaí while on surf trips in Brazil, where on the steaming beaches the natives cool themselves off, drinking frozen Açaí in Styrofoam cups.

But it was a gringo surfer from Newport Beach—Ryan Black—who turned Açaí into a marketing powerhouse in the States.

Black went down to Brazil on a surf trip in 1999 and was quickly turned onto Açaí. The following year, with his Portuguese-speaking girlfriend acting as interpreter, Black, blessed with economic foresight and gumption, connected with Brazilian fruit processors, discussing the possibility of exporting frozen Açaí to the U.S.

Black and his brother, Jeremy, and friend Ed Nichols, formed the company, Sambazon (Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon) and started selling the fruit in southern California in 2001.

This year, Sambazon is expected to do $25 million in sales. Its Açaí products—juices; smoothies; energy drinks; frozen smoothie packs; sorbets; supplement powder and pills—were launched into retail stores about four years ago and are now sold in over 8,000 grocery and natural food stores nationwide.

Success of this magnitude never comes without aggressive marketing and it was Encinitas that was one of the first testing grounds for Sambazon’s mainland U.S. market. In April 2001, Sambazon had 10 accounts from L.A. to San Diego and four of those were in Encinitas.

“It makes sense that Açaí caught on in Encinitas because there are so many active people there,” says Sambazon marketing VP and co-founder Jeremy Black, from the company’s headquarters in San Clemente.

“Swami’s Café was the first place that Açaí really took off,” says Black, who mentions Hawai’i as the only place where Açaí is more readily available.

The brothers Black turned Açaí into a major success story by first driving to every juice bar and café in southern California, maxing their credit cards to export Açaí and offering free samples of the purple sludge to skeptical consumers and store owners who already were bombarded with antioxidant powerhouses like blueberry and pomegranate juices.

“Our plan of doing lots of sampling events took incredibly more work than we ever imagined,” admits Black. “We just kept checking in on a regular basis with the juice bar and café owners and kept replacing the frozen containers of Açaí and listening to the feedback they were getting from their customers.”

It was seven years ago that Swami’s Café first started selling Açaí smoothies. It’s still a daily occurrence to overhear a customer ask one of the servers, “What is that purple stuff?”

Black credits 10-year Swami’s Café employee John Nolan with turning Açaí into a local favorite concoction. Not only did Nolan persuade the café owner to sell Açaí, he also ignored the owner’s insistence to remove it from the Specials of the Day menu.

Today, Açaí is Swami’s top seller. Nolan created his own variation of the Rio-style bowl, a blended mix of two frozen packs of Açaí, sliced banana, honey, apple juice and granola. Nolan added local organic bee pollen harvested in Rancho Santa Fe as well as coconut.

The Açaí bowl, Swami’s Style was born. “I knew Açaí would take off,” claims Nolan, taking a break from his café duties, wearing his trademark black baseball hat and thick-hooded sweatshirt.

“I had heard about it without knowing it by name from surfers who had traveled to Brazil and one day about a year after I first had heard about it, a guy with thongs, surf trunks and a T-shirt stopped into the café and asked if I’d be interested in trying a new product called Açaí from the Brazilian rainforest. That’s when it clicked—that’s what those surfers must have been talking about.”

For a few months, Açaí smoothies were moving slowly. The catalyst for Açaí’s success, says Nolan was the aesthetically-enticing bowls.

“I placed the Swami’s Style Bowl on the menu and presented it as a premium product,” says Nolan. “I added some berries to it, specifically blueberries and strawberries and blackberries and arranged them like a bouquet of flowers.”

Nolan says that some of the café cooks mocked his concoction.

“The cooks here are so used to preparing eggs, potatoes and bacon. Açaí is such a foreign concept to them.”

Nolan believed in both Açaí’s health properties and the feedback of other surfers, like Machado, who while on vacation in Bali, offered his insight for Encinitas Magazine on his love affair with Açaí.

“Açaí helps you focus and it fills me up and provides me the extra energy I need, especially on days that I compete. The highlights of my trips to Brazil are eating Açaí and I am totally stoked that Açaí is here,” says Machado via email.

In addition to Açaí’s antioxidant properties and zero-effect on blood sugar levels, the major factor for Açaí’s support by people like Machado and Nolan is the positive impact that Sambazon has on the environment. Diabetics and couch potatoes beware: Açaí smoothies like Mango Uprising and Açaí Original have over 30 grams of sugar in one bottle; opt instead for the packages of frozen Pure Açaí.

Thousands of poor farmers, who in the past had to resort to slashing down vast swaths of the Amazon’s precious rainforest (often referred to as the “Lungs of the Earth”) and earned a meager living by selling wood and exploiting other natural resources, now no longer have to burn down their back yard to subsist.

Certified organic and fair trade, Sambazon’s Açaí acts as a supply chain and sustainable commodity for approximately 30,000 inhabitants of the Amazon River basin. Sambazon pays more than the average market price for Açaí and as a result Amazonians earn more money by harvesting Açaí than by clear-cutting the rainforest.

The environmental organization, Greenpeace, has claimed that Açaí is “The most important non-wood forest product in terms of money from the river delta of the Amazon.”

In 2005, Sambazon built a plant in the Amazon region.

“This was the only way to control our destiny, by building our own state-of-the-art processing facility,” says Sambazon’s Black. “It was very difficult for us and took a few years of hard work to build our supply chain in Brazil. We spent a lot of time in the Amazon to ensure we were getting quality Açaí.”

Açaí pulp and juice is the most important source of calories for over two million people who live near the Amazon estuaries.

Back in Encinitas, the purple berry has become an important source of fuel for the San Dieguito Academy Surf Team.

Bob Teisher, who has been coaching both the boys and girls squads since 1996, was introduced to it by a Sambazon employee. Teisher admits it was an acquired taste.

“Now I’m kind of addicted to it,” he says. “Sambazon is one of our sponsors and I love the fact that kids are drinking less soda.”

Other local cafés and eateries, such as Mozy Café, St. Germain’s and E Street Café are offering their own take on the Açaí bowl. The variety of ways to serve the berry has created a bit of rivalry among the local spots that carry the popular new item.

But let the buyer beware: With Açaí’s thrust into the mainstream comes many companies clamoring for a piece of the Açaí pie.

Sambazon’s Black says that currently, there are no USDA guidelines for Açaí juice. Any company can stir in some purple Kool-Aid and claim to include Açaí in their products.

“There’s more Açaí in one of our small smoothie bottles than in one of those big wine-bottle sized mixes from companies that advertise their blends as health products,” claims Black.

Sambazon was involved in a lawsuit against an Açaí purveyor that was using Sambazon marketing slogans. Sambazon, which now has 150 employees settled out of court, costing them $25,000 in legal fees.

With Açaí flooding the market—even Proctor & Gamble’s Herbal Essences Color Me Happy Shampoo has added Açaí—Sambazon is at risk of being squashed by major competitors.

The Coca Cola Company, which owns Odwalla, the popular bottled smoothie brand, recently added Açaí to some of its beverages.

Many Açaí lovers hope that Sambazon doesn’t get sold out and taken over.

For now, Encinitas juice bar and café patrons will continue to enjoy Açaí and benefit from its anthocyanin content, containing 30 times more free radical killers than the tannins in red wine. And knowing that every bowl and smoothie is helping save the Amazon rainforest is quite a tasty perk.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.