What does it take to build up a successful brand in the Plant Based Beverages (PBB) segment? Dr. Andreas Helm, Managing Director of Black Forest Nature GmbH in Offenburg (Germany) and co-creator of the trendy regional vegan brand Velike!, talks about a development process which took courage, a willingness to experiment, ambitious allies, and scalability to enter new process territory and satisfy the company’s own exacting standards.

The business concept had taken shape by 2017, and a dedicated startup, Black Forest Nature GmbH in Offenburg, was set up in 2019. Velike! oat drink products began to conquer Germany’s shop fridges in spring 2020. Dr. Andreas Helm, Managing Director and founding team member, recalls: “We launched an ambitious vegan project back then because we didn’t just want to respond to trends and changing consumer demands, we wanted to do something sustainable of our own.”

From blanket sheet to trending brand

“We hammered out the requirements: premium quality, from our region, organic, best-in-class, a really niche product," says Dr. Andreas Helm. “When the decision was made to move on with those requirements some questions needed to be answered: What should the basic ingredient be? What does the market think? What is the demand?’. We can’t compete with mass producers because of things like high acquisition costs and our oat farmers, who are high up in the hills and scattered all around. It was more about specializing and translating that to the vegan segment. So when we say: ‘Velike! Organic oat drinks – made with oats grown only in the Black Forest region’, that conveys how fully we are invested in values like joie de vivre, transparency, and authenticity. But part of bringing people our love of life in the form of plant-power was asking the question: What process technology do we need to make the perfect product? The quality has to be constant and we need to be able to scale up when needed.”

Developing Velike! – An “Oat”venture from the Black Forest

Ingredients for business success

First, the raw materials. “Rice and soy were not an option, because we were determined to stay local. But oats grow well here, they can be rotated flexibly with other crops, and they have a positive image as a source of strength. And now oats are on the rise – we backed the right horse.” Another good decision was to collaborate with the mill Rubinmühle, as Andreas Helm explains: “It’s a successful, long-standing business, especially with local oats and flour products, it’s been in the market for over 335 years, and it’s only 15 kilometers away from our production site. Expertise on our doorstep, in other words.” Top-class whole-grain flour was being produced around the clock, and things could really get started. “We didn’t begin with nothing. We knew how to handle process technology, but our expertise was more focused on the milk powder production process. An oat drink like this one was a challenge all of its own.”

Lots of oats, lots of process expertise

“We bought oats, tried different ones out, and noticed that a certain set of enzymes were needed to reduce the viscosity when you heated them up. We truly learned on the job,” recalls the managing director. This meant the partner they chose had to be the right one. “GEA really took us by the hand from the outset. We were able to try out all the aspects of our process at their technology center, and if there was anything we wanted to know more about, we just asked. It was a joint business development. This, along with the scaleup and the outstanding product itself, were the key reasons why we chose GEA as our partner. They had the knowledge we were looking for, and we were glad we found it. We had places we could do testing at Munich Technical University, Wangen Dairy College, a technical research collaboration in Stuttgart, and our bottler – but we had nothing when it came to separation.”

The technology center helped us believe we could achieve it.”– Dr. Andreas Helm, Managing Director, Black Forest Nature GmbH

Scaling up form the black forest to the world of organic products

“It all started on a laboratory scale, in the technology center’s lab kitchen – the moment of truth,” says Andreas Helm as he recalls the development process. “We made hundreds of samples and tasted dozens of rival products.” Over and over we kept looking at results, consulting with each other, coming away with valuable findings and reassuring ourselves that we were on the right oat-strewn track. “Just the fact that someone says to you, ‘Before you switch on your plant and produce 20,000 liters of oat drink for nothing, you can try it out on this small-scale system first, knowing that what you produce will be similar to what comes out of a large plant’ – that’s exactly what you want to hear when you’re investing a six-figure sum,” explains Andreas Helm.

Process Teamwork at Black Forest Nature. Here in Offenburg, GEA decanters deliver the result that makes Velike!’s Black Forest oat products so special.
Process Teamwork at Black Forest Nature. Here in Offenburg, GEA decanters deliver the result that makes Velike!’s Black Forest oat products so special.

Waldemar Wilt, his Velike! companion from the beginning and currently Plant Manager at Black Forest Nature, has his own recollections of the development process with GEA. “We worked really closely and saw eye to eye on everything. They have the same passion and enthusiasm about quality as we do about our technical processes at our Offenburg factory.” And the GEA decanter fitted really well into our planning on account of its size and specifications. ‘You’re brew-tiful’ is the play on words you see on the Velike! posters advertising our vegan organic products and it does actually say something about the processes we use.

We tested things on a small scale so that we could do things bigger at Black Forest Nature.”– Waldemar Wilt, Plant Manager, Black Forest Nature GmbH

Draw a Sample from the Decanter and you learn a lot about the high art of separation
Draw a Sample from the Decanter and you learn a lot about the high art of separation.

Nothing more transparent than glass

Glass is an ideal material for containing dairy and other food products. It has an endless recycling life, extends food product shelf-life and preserves product quality. The impact the product makes on customers could not be more honest or convincing: transparent bottles signify a healthy self-confidence. Andreas Helm recalls: “We asked ourselves, brown or clear glass bottles? It was a straightforward but far-reaching decision, because with a sedimentary, cloudy drink, you do always wonder, will consumers accept it? We now know that they do – in part because it shows the drink’s origins.” Plant Manager Waldemar Wilt adds: “Putting an oat drink into glass bottles was a new territory, but the machine operators said they could do it.”

Upcoming video: from field to cup

Upcoming video: from field to cup

Enthusiasm and oat-expertise were called for again when Andreas Helm and the Velike!  team had their photos taken and a customer video made for GEA. Their positive thinking also kept weather worries in proportion: “Typical microclimate. It rains here and oats grow well here. And that’s good for our Velike! products.” But the sun ended up shining on those days in June, so Andreas Helm and Angel Rubio Domenech, Product Manager Sales at GEA, were able to see through the four stages of the video shoot as planned – from the product’s origins as a panicle on the oat field, to the Rubinmühle, to the production site in Offenburg, all the way to the target group, enjoying an oat macchiato made by a barista in a street café. “Staying local and knowing our oat farmers is very important to us. It was great to be able to visit the oat fields. They’re the real story of where we come from, and that is what finds its way into the final product.”

If you want to learn more and experience this journey with Velike! and GEA, stay tuned. A new video is coming very soon.