The "Vincy" way. Revelers drinking Uncle Waithley ginger beer. Photo credit: Uncle Waithley Beverage Company

Good vibes, great drinks. From old school recipes to new takes on vintage flavors, five Black and brown-owned beverage companies

11 mins read

What’s the common thread for hibiscus, chicory, pomegranate, and ginger? They are ingredients to beverage companies to add to your rotation of drinks. You will love the taste and stories behind them.

When you talk about money, you’ve got to talk about businesses. My prediction is that in these times where big business is failing, those small companies that can last will rise.

For me, it will be the ventures that are needed, or are modest luxury items and treats that are affordable. Of course this isn’t a new idea. But, there is something different between then and now. Today, people are into healthy good products, and you’ve got to give what the people want.

Restaurateur and Caribbean-American mixologist, Karl Franz Williams gives more insight in a press statement to Ark Republic about his company, Uncle Waithley’s. “Consumers are looking for authentic products and the pandemic has increased the interest in healthier food and beverage products that are still tasty and fun.”

Rolling into the warmer months, here are five beverage companies with a global appeal and healthy offerings that you can add to your cookouts, family dinners and social hours. All of them are non-alcoholic, and are black and brown entrepreneurs with rich histories and tasty drinks.

Hue Non Brew est. 2018 – The serial entrepreneur

From the 90s to the mid-2000’s I was one of thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs who’d resettled in Atlanta, the new Black Mecca Living in Atlanta for many years, my growth as a stylist was exponential. People were invested in looking good, and were willing to spend money. So I made ATL my home, far away from the grimey New Jersey shops. 

From hair shows to barber chairs, you were familiar with the natural hair care industry that boomed in the city, along with its products. In the West end, when you drove down Abernathy just a stone’s throw from the mall, you’d see Taliah Waajid’s salon and products.

Little did I know that her now former daughter-in-law, Lajoyce Waajid was styling there, and would find her love into a simple sip of java. Like many stylists, you are on your feet all day and you work long hours. Because Atlanta is a social town, and back in the day, the clubs were open all night, it was normal for any barber or coiffeuse to be working on a Friday night, until midnight.

I suspect that is where Waajid gradually began to drink coffee. In a 2019 interview, Waajid told Ark Republic that she had become “addicted” to coffee. Though she was a vegan who had strict dietary laws for herself and children, she also became hooked on Dunkin Donuts coffee and Starbucks. But with the coffee highs came the crashes.

“I would have headaches and mood swings,” Waajid told us. Along with other growing health knicks, she traced it back to her love of the mud and the intense levels of caffeine. To make a change, she started to do research for alternatives. What she found was in a Louisiana culinary favored herb: chicory root. 

In Louisiana, they would mix coffee with chicory. So, Waajid removed the bean and kept the root. She also left the hair industry to be a full-time entrepreneur for Hue Non Brew. Now, she sells her fresh mixtures of vegan, non-caffeine beverages at farmers markets and certain outdoor locations in Atlanta.

Non Hue Brew carries eight flavors that are distinct and delicious: banana almond joy, Eden’s delight, tasty tu’, pecan posh, lavish, sweet potato faux, peanut butter delight and salted cashew. The beverages are soy free, caffeine free, dairy free and gluten free.

Frescos Naturales est. 2020 Rich Central American history with notes of Africa

Fresh from the 2022 Natural Expo in Philadelphia, my wife brought me a soda in a colorful can in late October. Frescos Naturales had “Rosa de Jamaica” in bold reds and oranges. We drank it and talked about how it was refreshing, but not too sweet and was light on the palette.

As she told me that the owner, Juan Ignacio Stewart, introduced the drink to a small community of food entrepreneurs of color at the expo, I was checking out the can. I thought, “A b-boy or graffiti artist must’ve designed this.” What I discovered was that the history, though connected to hip hop, was rooted in South and Central American, and African culture.

A couple of months later, we were scrolling through Hulu and came across Shark Tank. “Hey that’s the guy,” she said. “Who?” I asked. “The fresco guy with the hip hop cans.” 

Stewart pitched Fresco Naturales, a beverage company inspired by the fresco drinks he gulped as a Peruvian kid living in Guatemala. The water-based drinks are called agua frescos, which is Stewart’s brainchild to his beverage brand. 

The beverages used the Central American culinary tradition of taking local fruits and herbs to make drinks. One of the favorites in the region was the hibiscus flower called rosa de jamaica. A plant transported by Africans during ancient old international trading, and then the subsequent slave trades, the hibiscus was the drink we devoured months ago.

In the pitch, Stewart proposed with a solid fact. While Latino food is embedded “in the fabric” of the country’s culinary landscape, “in the beverage space, there are very few healthy Latin American drink alternatives to high fructose or artificially flavored sodas.” 

As we watched Stewart propose 8 percent of his business for $130,000, my wife explained that Stewart said the designs were based on the local art and cursive writing that dots the Guatemala landscape–which you also can see in the tagging on U.S. walls.

At the end of the Shark Tank pitch, he acquired a partner to move the business forward. One of the marketing moves that I see they are making is selling the frescoes as fruit-infused sparkling water. Smart. Global market research indicates that sparkling water, a soda alternative, is expected to grow by 12.6 percent from 2021 to 2028. That said, it will remove the traditional drink, known to dominate out of Italy, to other places.

But another part of the story interesting to me was his experience in the Latin diaspora. Often that goes missing. In particular, the Peruvian diaspora. When I was traveling the world for self-discovery, it was in Peru that solidified that the journey was within. While living there for some months in a rural village that sat along the dank, brown waters of the Amazon, I learned the local herbs. One of them that has received popularity was the ayahuasca plant, which has become a new trend of the elite to find themselves.

Though ayahuasca is far from Stewart’s beverage packages, it seems that both Central and South America are positioning themselves in the global foods and mystical industries.

Frescos Naturales have six flavors: Rosa de Jamaica, Tamarindo, Maracuya, Piña, Guayaba, and Mango. They are made with three simple ingredients: water, fruit and cane sugar.

Uncle Waithley’s Beverage Company est. 2021 The “Vincy” experience

When we think of a good ginger beer, our mental mapping automatically transports us to Jamaica. Now we have a contender providing an old family recipe from St. Vincents & Grenadine as a fiery and delicious alternative, called Uncle Waithley’s.

The earlier quoted Williams wanted to introduce a product that spoke of his flavor-filled lineage and interests. A native of Indiana who has made Harlem his home, he borrowed from the paternal side of his family who hails from St. Vincents & Grenadine. 

“After years of looking for the right ginger beer for my bars: one that tasted fresh and natural but with a nuance that I had only tasted in the Caribbean, I decided to make my own,” said Karl Franz Williams.

Islanders in St. Vincent & Grenadine call anything from there, Vincy. So,  William’s Vincy grandfather, known as Uncle Waithley, was a ginger farmer who brewed a ginger beer Uncle Waithley, lived to be 100 years old. Known on the island as someone who was passionate about health, he also invested in the health and betterment of the community he lived.

In his own way, Williams is a continuum. “Ginger has long been prized for its benefits in treating digestive health, nausea relief, diabetes, and many other ailments. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties and antimicrobial potential, which can help in treating infectious diseases,” he explained. 

Williams’ recipe uses his grandfather’s special small-batch, multi-day fermentation process, and the local island ingredient, scotch bonnet pepper for its kick. Other fixings in the drink are lime, ginger and turmeric root. The taste brings the Vincy history with each sip.

Only a couple of years in the beverage industry, Uncle Waithley’s has a healthy distribution in NYC. While looking for investors and other distribution opportunities, Williams still runs 67 Orange Street, a cocktail destination ensconced in Harlem.

Pride Road

It was unusually cold for an October day in Atlanta, but me and my wife waited outside of Georgia State University to meet up with Najeeb Muhaimin, and his father, Mr. YaSin Muhaimin known as “Big Yah,” of Pride Road. It was the only time we could link up between their busy schedules as farmers who go between the markets and their fields. While in “the A” we had a tight schedule as participants at the Black Urban Growers conference.

So the best time was on a corner right as the sunlight dropped. The Mahaimin men greeted us with the warmth of Georgia brick clay. Firm hand shakes and respectful small talk. Come to find out, they were from New Orleans. Hit by the 2005 storm, Hurricane Katrina, they found refuge in Big Yah’s hometown of Zachary on Port Hudson Pride Road, just outside of Crescent City, before moving to Atlanta in 2015. In their relocation, they moved their Yard Bird Farm, a poultry operation, and their hibiscus crop.

Red. A color that melanated people around the world have adorned themselves in clothing, body paste, and even in the ritualized eating of foods and the drinking of red-colored beverages. Since the Egyptians documented using hibiscus in the Ebers papyrus around 1550 BC, the species called hibiscus sabdariffa has been used from Sudan and Ethiopia to Jamaica as an elixir for its health benefits since recorded history.

Before it could be documented by the West, the Himba women of present-day Namibia have been ritualistically rubbing their bodies with red ochre clay body mixture called Ojitze. Known as the “Red People of Africa,” the women’s iconic beauty enhanced by the body paste is a signature tradition marking status—from womanhood to motherhood.

In West Africa and the Yoruba diaspora, the color red is connected with the warrior-god, Sango. In Korea, the color of red symbolizes birth and wisdom, while in China, red means luck and prosperity. So much so, for the Lunar New Year, children are given red envelopes with money in it. Moving to South Asia, red is the traditional color of a Bridal dress amongst Hindus, who revere the goddess Lakshmi who is associated with the scarlet-hues for wealth and beauty.

As traditional cultures wear red, red beverages are embedded in ancient culinary foodways. Like in South Africa, the indigenous Khoisan have been brewing rooibos, a red colored tea for over 300 years.  While welcome ceremonies throughout West Africa often included the red-hued kolo nut that also was made into a tea. Plus, in China, hong cha or red tea, was the original name for black tea because the leaves were of a darkish, reddish nature. Another refreshing drink is Senegal’s national libation, bissap, which is made with the hibiscus flower and rose petals.

Traveling to the Americas, in Jamaica hibiscus takes on the name of sorrel, a island-wide and even Caribbean brew that was known to be sipped by the sovereign villages living outside of the British colonial slave system, the maroons. Evident in their very name, which implies a red connotation, the maroons who were of both Native and African heritage, were fiercely independent and waged war against the British until slavery ended.

But, before the enslavement of Africans and those in the Americas, a missing historical link to red is the Moorish civilization. A highly developed nation who employed high sciences in government and in maritime travel, they are the first fully documented people who were involved in global trade from present-day Africa, the Middle-East, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. All all before the enslavement of Africans to the Americas. The Moorish flag is red with a green star. Moreover, it is said to drink cherry infused elixirs.

Out of all of the red fruits, kola nuts, and teas, hibiscus seems to be a drink that stood throughout the ages. Representing the regenerative properties of nature and people, the red drink descended upon me on a cold day in Atlanta through the mixologist skills of a Black farming family growing in Shady Dale, Georgia near Lithonia.

 

Shabazz Fruit Cola est. 1970 – The pioneer

It is very rare that a Black company remains family owned for over 50 years. That is the case of Shabazz Fruit Cola.

To give you an idea of the soul and spirit of the Shabazz Fruit Cola. Imma start with a personal story. When I had a barbershop in Newark, New Jersey, my wife and I started a grooming initiative to supply local boys and teens green grooming kits in 2013.

To raise money, we put on a wine and beer tasting at my man’s Savion Glover’s dance academy. The academy is closed now, but he offered a space for the youth to dance, and people from all over the world would come to train and practice. In planning for the wine and beer festival, we knew that Newark has a significant Muslim population. Plus, there are those who we knew wanted to participate, but did not drink alcohol.

Our focus was to use Black-owned companies, and specifically, those owned by Black men. Upon research, we heard about Shabazz Fruit Cola, a soft drink that was right in Brick City. I vaguely remembered it from when I was a kid, and wasn’t sure if it was still open.

We contacted the company who was definitely in business. They donated several cases without question. That is the spirit of the family-owned business started by Mr. Frank Shabazz, longtime resident who fueled Newark with love when many people left the city for the economic wolves.

In an interview between Mr. Shabazz’s grandson, Kash Shabazz, and his son,. We learned more about the Shabazz Fruit Cola Story. Son Shabazz said he shadowed his father before he even had his own company, and eventually took over the business.

| Read. Liquid Spirits: 20 Black-owned women wineries and companies

Mr. Shabazz, was the sixth Newarker to join the Nation of Islam in the city. In the religious organization’s philosophy, its leader, Elijah Muhamamad preached that Blacks should “do for self.” The soda company was Mr. Shabazz’s manifestation. But how it came to be is an ill-story that must be known.

At the time, Mr. Shabazz had a soda route or Vigor Beverages then started to distribute, A & J Jamaican Ginger Beer Company. As a migrant from Houston, he knew the fundamentals of hard work and providing for his family, but with the route, he also was tapped into the Newark community. “My father was one of the first people [in Newark] to show that you can be cool and not break any laws.”  

For decades, Mr. Shabazz distributed big brand-names and smaller beverage companies, but wanted to start a Black-owned soda company. Alfred James, a Jamaican immigrant who owned A & J Jamaican ginger beer, encouraged Mr. Shabazz to tap into his dream. Also, he became his mentor in how to manufacture a beverage.

Son Shabazz said that Mr. James told his father, “You know you could start your own company.”

Sitting on the idea of the type of drink to make, Mr. Shabazz had stored sodas at his home. His rule was to his children that they could drink one soda a day. When he caught his sons sneaking more, they began to throw apple juice into the drink. “I wasn’t drinking the soda, I had put some fruit in the soda … so it’s not cola anymore.” That moment spawned the idea of a fruit cola,

Mr. Shabazz would go on to quench the thirst of many people, while becoming a staple in both the Newark and American Muslim community. “A lot of businesses you see today, Muslim businesses, and non-Muslim Black businesses, were inspired by [my dad].”

Like my barbershop, the Shabazz family showed love when they didn’t have to, and didn’t know us, but they did, for the community.

Fifty-three years later, the question they are answering is how to keep the beverage legacy going. “I have a vision for Shabazz Fruit Cola, but where it actually goes is going to depend not upon what I do, but what [my descendants] do … and what we need to figure out is what’s best to do going forward.”

Duane Reed researches currency and market investments; and dibble dabbles in culture, grooming, news and travel.

In 2018, they company released an energy drink then followed up with a pomegranate cola.

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