Amityville, N.Y.-based Iconic Brands was founded as a lifestyle branding company with expertise in developing—from inception to completion—alcoholic beverages, with a focus on celebrity branding. TopPop Packaging, purchased by Iconic in July 2020, is a contract manufacturing and packaging company that specializes in malt-, spirits-, and wine-based products in single-serve flexible packaging. Together, the two companies, soon to be renamed TopPop Innovative Brands, Inc., are delivering on some of today’s top trends in the alcoholic beverages market. Among them are ready-to-drink (RTD) and ready-to-freeze (RTF) cocktails in pouches and sachets and better-for-you, better-for-the planet adult beverages that are sustainable, ethical, and authentic.
According to Grand View Research, the global RTD cocktail market, which includes RTF drinks in flexible sachets or squeeze pouches, was valued at USD $782.8 million in 2021 and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 13.4% from 2022 to 2030. A number of factors are driving this expansion, including the growth of the at-home cocktail market resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns, greater health consciousness among consumers, with RTD beverages typically containing less alcohol by volume (ABV), a desire, especially among Gen Z consumers, for new flavors and tastes, and the convenience of premixed, portable adult beverage options.
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In 2021, a survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) found that premixed cocktails were the fastest growing spirits category in both revenue and volume. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said they considered themselves to be a regular or occasional consumer of RTD beverages.
Another area where consumers are turning to better-for-you and better-for-the-planet alcohol options is in the wine industry, which is experiencing tremendous growth in vegan organic products. These wines are made without the use of animal products or byproducts, from farming to vinification. In mid-2022, one online retailer of wine products reported that sales of its vegan options had grown 51% since 2019—a trend that is expected to continue.
Iconic Brands’ flagship product is Bellissima Prosecco and Sparkling Wines by Christie Brinkley, a vegan product made with organic grapes that also includes a new zero-sugar, still wine variety. “We bring to life brands that are honest, earth-friendly, and of premium quality,” says Iconic. “Our brands lead change in their category while committing to make a difference for a sustainable future.”
Following Iconic’s acquisition in 2021 of TopPop and its 30,000-sq-ft Marlton, N.J., manufacturing facility, the company quickly expanded, adding a second production facility in Pennsauken, N.J. The new facility, which covers 65,000 sq ft, reached full-scale production in March 2022. Says Tom Martin, co-founder and former president and chief operating officer of TopPop and now interim chief executive officer of TopPop Innovative Brands, the move to rename the company marks a milestone in its evolution from a focus on adult beverage/celebrity brand building to a focus on innovation, development, and delivery of alcohol and non-alcohol beverages, foods, and frozen treats.
Full turnkey services for adult beverage options
TopPop Beverages was founded in 2019 to capitalize on the growing trend of adult ice pops for retail in ambient shelf-stable form in a RTF flexible-film format, with the product made with either spirits, wine, or malt. In 2020, its Marlton facility produced 40 million ice pops, packaged in long-form form/fill/seal pouches (sachets with four-sided seals) and stand-up pouches for both multimillion-dollar Fortune 500 companies and medium-sized businesses.
Said TopPop co-founder and CMO Laurance Rassin when the formation of the company was announced, “With lower shipping costs per unit and a lower environmental footprint compared to cans and bottles, our pouch packaging solutions are the most economical and sustainable way to reach the ready-to-drink market and more specifically, the ready-to-freeze market.”
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According to TopPop, it offers a “360° tailored approach to manufacturing and packaging”—in other words, full turnkey solutions, from formulation to fulfillment. In the initial stages of a project, the company can help customers with their product formulation, creating recipes that meet their needs and the current demands of market, followed by sourcing of all the ingredients and product blending. TopPop’s brand design services can assist clients in designing custom packaging, which it can also procure. With its vast manufacturing capabilities, the company can also handle a range of run sizes and an array of pouch shapes and volumes for multiple SKUs. And, once the product is packaged, TopPop can ship it to distributors, logistics companies, or directly to retail. If the customer does not require turnkey services, TopPop can use customer-supplied packaging, formulations, ingredients, and supplied liquids.
With the addition of the Pennsauken facility, TopPop’s capacity has grown to 150 million units per year, including 150,000 flexible SUPs a day. The plant not only runs alcohol-based products, including adult ice pops and 10-oz cocktails in a pouch, but it also produces 6-oz fortified flavored water in a pouch, non-alcohol fruit-based smoothy pops, ice pops for dogs, and 6-oz juice pouches for various retailers. Martin estimates that pops make up 80% of the company’s business and pouches 20%; that number is expected to change to 60% pops and 40% pouches next year as TopPop’s pouch production ramps up. The company can also produce Jell-O shots and flavored shot cups.
“The Marlton facility is 100% alcohol production, and the Pennsauken facility is 80% alcohol,” Martin explains. “We expect Pennsauken to be 60 to 70 percent alcohol next year.
“The blend of Iconic’s wine and spirits and TopPop’s RTD, RTF, water, and juice products gives us the ability to offer a wide range of branded alcohol and non-alcohol products and production expertise that is not available in the market today,” he adds.
Well-equipped packaging operations
The increase in TopPop’s capacity from 40 million units to 150 million units in just three years has naturally entailed a large investment in equipment. TopPop began its packaging operations with two custom-built, eight-lane vertical f/f/s machines for its 2-oz adult ice pops and then added three more eight-lane vertical f/f/s machines that could be easily changed over to run different sizes from 2 oz to 3.4 oz. It then added four four-lane machines that Martin says run faster, are easily changed over to run different sizes, and are more suited for smaller or larger runs, when combined side by side.
Most recently, it added three Sanko FR3 eight-lane continuous-motion liquid stick-pack machines, sold by T.H.E.M., that together can run approximately 5 million ice pops per week. “The high-speed Sanko machines took us to another level of speed and uptime, but they are not easily changed over to different sizes. They are more suited for larger runs,” says Martin. “We expect to add the Sanko machines as we grow.”
With the new facility, TopPop has also installed four new premade-pouch machines, with two more on the way. The equipment includes two rotary pouch machines from Viking Masek, two custom-built, single-head rotary machines, and two dual-head rotaries from an offshore supplier. All of the rotary systems are outfitted with Sneed Coding Solutions inkjet printing systems as well as secondary coding equipment.
For cartoning, TopPop recently enlisted EDM Machine & Tool to build four custom carousel-style carton filling systems that present the cartons for filling, folding, gluing, and coding. “This has lowered our labor and increased our pack-out speed and uptime,” says Martin. “We have also added an overwrapping system to eliminate the shippers for our juice pouch products.”
Pack-out options include cartons, SUPs, PET-labeled tubs, pop-up boxes, and larger-format display cartons. Case-packing is done semi-automatically, due to the range of products produced by TopPop. Smaller-volume jobs are case-packed manually.
According to Martin, the company plans to add a plastic bottling line, expected to be operational by summer 2023.
Sustainable packaging adds value
In addition to being on-trend with consumers’ growing taste for innovative cocktail options that are lower in calories and alcohol content, Iconic and TopPop also have the advantage of offering a packaging format that falls in line with the shift toward more sustainable packaging formats.
“The sustainable flexible packaging business continues to grow rapidly, as brands and retailers are increasingly looking for U.S. packaging solutions that enhance their products and brand portfolios while also lowering packaging costs and reducing waste,” says Martin. “Our capabilities enable our customers to provide a healthier and more environmentally friendly end product to consumers.”
TopPop packages its ice pops and pouched beverages in PET and PET/aluminum formats. According to Martin, it’s also testing paper and polyethylene formats.
On the company’s website, it details the advantages of flexible packaging versus glass and aluminum. One is that flexible packaging requires significantly less water and energy per unit to produce. It’s also considerably lighter in weight and can be stored with much greater space efficiency. “That means more units loaded onto each truck, which lowers not just the total cost of logistics, but also reduces the total carbon footprint of your product,” TopPop explains.
Another advantage it cites is product-to-packaging ratio. “A major component of sustainability is reducing the amount of source material required per unit of product,” says the company. “With significantly less material required compared to rigid packaging, flexible packaging reduces the total waste throughout the entire product lifecycle.”
It also notes that flexible packaging often includes added barriers to protect against product spoilage, extending the product’s shelf life and reducing the total food waste generated by traditional packaging. “The durability of flexible materials also reduces the risk of punctures or damage to the package seal,” TopPop adds.
When asked if the company ever receives criticism due to the fact that its packaging is not recyclable, Martin says, “We do get some pushback, but the recycling avenues are growing, and the carbon footprint is four-times more favorable than plastic bottles.”
In addition to its healthier beverage options and more sustainable packaging, as part of its better-for-the-planet positioning, both of TopPop’s manufacturing facilities are 100% solar powered, ensuring the energy used to create its customers’ products are from renewable sources. In addition, Iconic has a history of supporting social and environmental causes, including Bellissima’s partnership in 2021 with NGO One Tree Planted, which resulted in the planting of 10,000 trees in California; its support of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for brain health in 2021; and its donation of 30% of all Bellissima Prosecco’s DTC sales in April and May of 2021 to Direct Relief for the purchase of masks for doctors and nurses during COVID-19.
Plenty of room to grow
With its extensive lineup of packaging equipment and capabilities, soon-to-be TopPop Innovative Brands is well positioned to continue to take advantage of the RTF and RTD drinks market, as well as other pouched and bottled beverage opportunities.
Predicts Martin, “The alcohol pops market came into play around four years ago, but in a smaller way. It really grew in 2020 and has increased ever since. We expect it to continue to grow for the next three years.”
Of the pouched cocktail market, he says TopPop believes this will be a tremendous growth area over the next two years. “Cocktail pouches will be a staple for the on-the-go restaurant takeout business as well as in retail formats,” he notes.
As for the future of the company, Martin says its goal is to continue to grow at a rapid pace through brand development and acquisitions and through customer additions, new capabilities, and brand owner awareness. He concludes, “The merge of Iconic and TopPop gives us a direct and concise path of synergies and an eye on changing the market.”