Liquid Courage

Y ou may not be able to belly up to a bar anytime soon, but your own kitchen will work just fine as far as RIPE Liquid Produce is concerned. The New Haven manufacturer sells seven varieties of bar juices—mixers for margaritas, mojitos, bloody Marys and more—as well as dozens of fruit and vegetable juices both straight-up and blended. Most of their market consists of bars, restaurants, hotels and resorts locally and nationwide, but you can buy RIPE Bar Juice in New Haven-area liquor stores and online as well. That small direct-to-consumer segment of business is helping take the edge off pandemic losses, says JD Altobello, co-founder and vice president of business development.

RIPE’s beverage plant, Freshbev Craft Juicery, sits on a once-busy side street in the Annex, near the spot where an on-ramp used to lead to the old Q Bridge. Today, the street is much quieter, but inside Freshbev’s building—a former sausage factory—there’s plenty of action.

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On a recent Thursday afternoon, production had just ended for the day, and workers were scrubbing down the equipment and floors while Altobello showed me around and walked me through the juicing process. Fresh fruit and vegetables were waiting in one refrigerated room: tall crates full of Massachusetts cranberries, smaller crates bursting with kale from New Jersey, pallets stacked with cardboard boxes of Mexican limes.

In the production area, where the temperature holds at a slightly warmer 40 degrees, the produce is first dumped into a bin and carried by conveyor belt through what Altobello describes as an “upside down car wash: brushes on the bottom, water comes in on the top.” Citrus is then sent to an extractor that cuts the fruit in half, then sends it through pairs of “ball and cup” gears that press the fruit and collect most of the juice—all but the bitterest three to five percent closest to the peel. “We’d rather let that go into the compost pile as opposed to have to add additional sweetener and somehow try to correct for that somewhat abrasive taste,” Altobello says.

“Pure juice. No junk,” the website boasts. Indeed, the ingredient lists are short and nutritious. The Agave Mojito mix, for example, contains “filtered water, lime juice, organic agave nectar, natural mint oil.”

In order to avoid heating the juice and breaking down some of its color, flavor and nutritional value, the entire cold-press production process relies on pressure—not friction, which produces heat. Machine parts move slowly. So, for example, non-citrus fruits and vegetables are chopped into a slurry and pressed using “a series of drums and belts that slowly but under a tremendous amount of pressure extracts all the juice from the pulp,” Altobello explains.

What makes the juice safe without the heat of pasteurization is a strange contraption Altobello shows me in the next production room. After juices are blended in mixing tanks and bottled in their final packaging, they’re loaded into big, bullet-shaped baskets and sent into the high-pressure processing machine. It looks like a silver subway car, but no one would survive the ride. The inner chamber is pressurized to 87,000 psi using cold water. “It’s essentially the equivalent of 32 miles below the surface of the sea,” Altobello says. “Nothing that needs to be eliminated”—bacteria, yeast, mold—“can survive that pressure.”

Because a chemical process hasn’t occurred as it does with pasteurization, the juice retains its original sensory qualities like color and taste, Altobello says. “There’s companies that cold press and then pasteurize,” he says. “To my way of thinking, you’ve sort of broken the chain at that point… Our belief is, if you’re going to do cold press, carry it throughout.” The resulting product has a shelf life of up to 120 days, or up to two weeks once it’s opened. Because the juice is fresh, it has to be refrigerated, so you’ll find it in a cooler at the liquor store, not on the shelf.

Altobello didn’t exactly grow up dreaming of being a juice maker, but he did find his entrepreneurial spirit at the ripe age of 11 with a snow removal service he marketed using the tag line, “When your driveway turns white, we’re on the site.” By the time he graduated from high school, he had three trucks and 42 accounts. He sold the business before moving to Boston for college, where he started another.

The juice came later, after he and two friends had spent hours trying out different cocktail recipes and wishing there were good, fresh mixers to save them time. “It was a scratching-your-own-itch scenario,” he says. The trio found a commercial kitchen in Wallingford and started out producing mixes for margaritas, lemon sours and—most challenging of all—bloody Marys, which went through about 100 different recipes before they agreed on the one they’d sell. Founded in 2009, the company began “producing in earnest” in 2010 and moved to New Haven in 2013, upgrading from 1,100 square feet to 24,000 overnight.

Today Freshbev has a big contract with Whole Foods and sells much of the rest of its juice under its own RIPE label. Locally, you can find their green blend and orange juice on tap at Olmo, some cocktails on tap at Mikro and Texico in Hamden and bottled mixers at local liquor stores including Coastal Wine & Spirits in Branford. Ordering online, you’ll pay a sale price of $59.95 for a six-pack of 750ml bottles.

Back at home, I tried the Agave Mojito mix two ways—in a traditional mojito (the recipe is on the label) and with gin as a Southside. Both hit the spot, tasting of fresh lime with just a touch of sweetness and a subtle hint of mint, leaving room for a few fresh leaves without overpowering the flavor. Not everything is waiting for a splash of alcohol. The Deep Green juice tasted as healthy as you’d think and was surprisingly complex—a mix of kale, spinach and cucumber with flavorful ginger, celery and lemons to give it a kick.

Altobello is happy to be part of what he calls “a little bit of a manufacturing corridor” near Onofrio’s, Chabaso and several other food operations. He remembers the days in that tiny Wallingford factory with no full-size delivery bays and a single-filler bottling machine with a hand capper. (“I’ve still got the callouses to prove it,” he says, rubbing his hand.) Today’s mid-pandemic operation has a skeleton staff of 11, but Altobello is looking forward to the day when business rebounds and the rest of the crew can return. He’s hopeful, and he offers some fresh optimism along with the fresh-squeezed juice: Relatively new, homegrown companies like RIPE Liquid Produce “still exist” in New Haven, “which I hope people take some encouragement from.”

RIPE Liquid Produce
26 Kendall St, New Haven (map)
(475) 227-3446
Website | Contact Form

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Product images provided courtesy of RIPE. Images 2-4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 features JD Altobello.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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