Founder and President Bill Sabo manufactures natural flavorings for a diverse market spanning bakeries, dairies, soda makers, and breweries.
“My [great] uncle taught me to use my nose,” says Sabo.
In other words, how does something smell when it’s heated, when it’s at room temperature, when it’s cold? His beloved uncle — who had once worked in the flavoring industry and who referred to the youthful Sabo as “The Flavor Guy” — encouraged Sabo to write down his observations, to pick out the medley of organic compounds in, say, a lemon.
In creating extracts, concentrates, emulsions, powders, and oils, Sabo says, “You’re not putting any chemicals [in], you’re not synthesizing anything; you’re separating [out] the basic notes of the music of that flavor.”
Starting his original flavor and frangrance business in his garage when he was a mere 17 and marketing in just Orange County, Sabo now has business dealings globally. Sabo, 57, says, “Today we’re an international company with sales throughout Europe and Asia and Southeast Asia, and we have an office in Seoul — in Incheon — Korea.” He sells his vanilla extract to one of the largest food manufacturers in the U.S. His flavorings are added to yogurts, baked goods, sodas, and pet food. And he sells them to breweries, too.
At the 2018 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Nature’s Flavors had a booth side-by-side with Tommyknocker Brewery of Idaho Springs, Colorado. Using their beer, Sabo let fest-goers sample a Berliner Weisse that had a few drops of lemongrass-citron, tangerine (with “a little mandarin” and “Concord grape” notes in the mix), woodruff, or raspberry concentrate added to the beer.
Jim McCann, the head brewer at Tommyknocker Brewery, says that the brewery uses Sabo’s flavorings in the company’s sodas, and its lemongrass concentrate in a wheat beer poured at the brewery. “The quality of product that they’re putting out is by far far superior than a lot of these other flavor companies,” says McCann of Nature’s Flavors. The brewery has had a 20-year-plus relationship with Sabo’s company.
But although Sabo says “close to a hundred” breweries use his products, many aren’t willing to admit it. Sabo says, “There are a lot breweries here who use flavors in their beer, their products, but they’re reluctant to say. Even though there shouldn’t be anything wrong, I think people have a negative feeling about it in the brewing industry. But the fact is, you know, you’re trying to introduce a cherry flavor and you dump a bunch of cherries in there or cherry juice and ferment it, most of the flavor’s been consumed. It gets ruined in the fermentation process. So there’s nothing wrong with getting a natural cherry flavor made from cherries and adding it back after fermentation.”
At his GABF table, Sabo also worked a glass Soxhlet extractor, using alcohol to remove the essential oils from the hop pellets he’d added; upon completion, he let people taste a few drops in their beer, as well. At his lab back in California, Sabo also extracts flavors from plant material using carbon dioxide. He analyzes the results using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to “make sure all the spectra is in line with what the customer expects.”
But it’s not just flavorings that Sabo’s company offers: besides a host of other fragrances, syrups, and beverages, there are natural colorings, too. “We were the first company to introduce natural food colors to consumers,” says Sabo. He’s presently working on a red food coloring made from Cambodian red dragon fruit.
Sabo calls artificial colors — the kind with numbers attached to their names — “very bad for your brain, for your body, for your bladder, your kidneys. A natural food color is really good for your brain and for your body and your bladder and your kidneys: It’s antioxidant. These are phytochemicals, phytonutrients. They’re incredible for your body. You can never get too much of them.”
But, for Sabo, a little bit of a his flavorings go a long way.
“I have a philosophy about flavor,” says Sabo. “The one thing you don’t want to do is overflavor anything. Nothing in nature is overflavored — and why should we do that? And that’s what keeps customers coming back. If you satisfy the customer, you’ve lost the customer. You want to give them enough flavor where they go, ‘Wow, that was really good. A little weak, but I liked it. I’ll come back and buy it again.’ And that’s the trick.”
Challenges: Getting the word out, says Sabo. “We don’t advertise. We don’t have this massive sales force out there. We’re not a billion dollar flavor company like so many are. We fly pretty much under the radar by word of mouth.”
Opportunities: Garnering more business by selling unique, organic products.”It’s an opportunity when you tell someone you make an organic vanilla extract the old fashioned way, before organic existed,” says Sabo. “They’re shocked: ‘How long have you been doing that?’ Well, it’s kind of how we’ve always done it. Then this category came along and we said, ‘Okay, we’ll register it.’ It was a shoo-in for the registry, because we don’t add a bunch of chemicals to it.”
Needs: Sabo says he needs dedicated help. “I want more people that are like me: hardworking, that want to see the company succeed and be innovative,” he says. “The people we’re trying to find, they’re just hard to come by.”