The start-up Air up wants to enhance the taste of tap water with natural fragrances. It recently raised 40 million euros from investors such as Pepsi. Startbase has tested Air up's tasting package.
People are known to like to cheat themselves. They continue to make meat-free products look like bockwurst, eat yoghurt that can only be attributed to the raspberry variety due to added colourings and flavourings, and now also hold scented pads that smell like lime under their noses to make water taste like it.
Air up takes advantage of just that. Customers can stick a scent pad of their choice on the mouthpiece of a curved plastic bottle to make the water in the bottle itself taste less boring. With this simple formula, the start-up has quickly become one of the most successful in Germany.
Fabian Schlang, Tim Jäger, Lena Jüngst, Simon Nüesch and Jannis Koppitz only founded their start-up in 2018. Since 2019, the aroma bottles have been available both online and in retail stores such as Aldi, Müller or Rossmann. The company now has more than 170 employees.
The idea of flavoring water with fragrances alone seems to appeal to many investors. After a financing round in January with a volume of 18 million euros, major investors such as Pepsi and Oyster Bay promised the Munich-based company a further 40 million euros in September. Customers are also apparently pleased to have a new way to cheat themselves. According to its own information, the start-up already supplies one million people in Europe and expects a turnover of 100 million euros for the next twelve months.
Why does the idea work so well in this country in particular?
Germans love tap water. That's according to a 2019 study by the Techniker Krankenkasse health insurance company. After coffee and mineral water, it's the most popular drink in the country. Almost 63 percent of Germans drink it every day, according to the study. Younger people even more often.
But: people are also reaching for sugary drinks or sweet sodas on the grocery shelf more and more often. The result: diabetes and obesity. And this is where Air up sees a gap in the market. "Healthy hydration as a delicious taste experience," the company advertises. But how well does the idea work in everyday life?
The drinking bottle from Air up in the test
Packaging: The delivery is unproblematic after a few days in a cardboard box on the doorstep. The box has a chic, simple design with bright orange and purple tones. Unlike Amazon packages, it appears at first glance to contain comparatively little junk.
The core product is a water bottle wrapped in paper. An attachment filled with smelling aromas is placed on its mouthpiece. The tasting set contains one lime and one orange-passion fruit flavor. Here, however, could still be worked on the waste production. They are each sealed in a plastic bag and once again packaged in a plastic jar.
Assembly: The bottle is easier to assemble than an IKEA shelf. A sheet of paper has simple sign language painted on it showing how the bottle works, and a small booklet gives instructions on the products and cleaning in several languages. The drinking straw and mouthpiece are separable, but already put together - so all you have to do is press the silicone of the mouthpiece into the opening, put the lid on, and you're done.
Cleaning: A bit musty smells the Chinese-made bottle when it arrives in the package. However, it should not be put in the dishwasher: The company warns in the instruction leaflet that this could shorten the product life. So it's better to clean it for a few minutes with hot water and a little mild detergent, then rinse it out clearly with cold water and fill it with fresh tap water. This is relatively easy. Without the attached mouthpiece, the 650-ml bottle has a large opening and fits perfectly under any faucet due to this and the bulge under the neck.
However, the straw is not so easy to clean. After a few days, rinsing with hot water is no longer sufficient. The plastic tube is not easy to clean by hand or with a sponge. Air up knows this, too: three days after the order arrives, an advertising mail arrives - a cleaning brush can be purchased in the online shop for around six euros. An expensive extra.
Price: In general, the trial package including bottle and two fragrance pods may not be affordable for everyone. Online it costs around 35 euros.
One pod is supposed to be enough for five liters of water. That's 1.5 to 2.5 days, if a person drinks an average of two to three liters a day. Those who reorder pods pay between five and nine euros per pack of three. For that, you could buy an average of six one-liter bottles of Coke. Or 16 limes, which you could simply squirt into your own water - and which probably wouldn't even take any longer than putting the pod on the bottle.
Taste: If you don't think you can taste through your nose, you might remember a day at the coffee shop. Anyone sitting next to a smoker will enjoy their coffee with a slightly smoky note. Or even those who sit at the dinner table with a snotty nose find it hard to enjoy their food.
This led Air up to his idea. The scent on the attached cushion suggests to the brain that you are drinking lime-flavoured water, although it is actually just tap water. After all, smelling and tasting are closely linked in the brain: 80 percent of the taste we perceive comes from smells. This is called retronasal smelling. The two founders, Lena Jüngst and Tim Jäger, wrote their bachelor's thesis on the subject at the Schwäbisch Gmünd University of Applied Sciences a few years ago. Together with their three friends, they created the company Air up based on their research.
What Air up's product lacks in comparison to tap water with real lime or orange is the fresh taste. If you tear open the plastic bags in which the scented pods are packaged, you're met with an extremely artificial smell. And the water tastes just as artificial. And that's not helped by the innovative on-off function that the company offers. This is supposed to allow users to actually decide for themselves when they want to use the flavor function and when they don't, by alternately pressing down and pulling up on the pod.
But even when the pod is pressed down and deactivated, the water still tastes like artificial lime - and so does everything else you ingest immediately after. The flavors linger on your tongue even longer, like a fluff you can't wash off.
Ingredients: The company doesn't give much information about the ingredients on the packaging. There are supposed to be natural flavors hidden in the fragrance ring. When asked, this refers to liquid natural flavors that are absorbed into the pod through a carrier, much like a sponge. These natural flavors are said to be derived from real fruits, plants and spices. "Our flavors are specific to our needs, but could just as easily flavor other drinks or teas. Just not as effective and healthy as ours," they confidently state.
It is not supposed to be unhealthy. You can imagine it like walking past a bakery and breathing in the smell, says the start-up. There are no side effects. The offer is purely scent-based, which makes it harmless.
Lifetime: After about five liters, the aroma intensity in the sponge decreases. Air up therefore recommends changing the pod after about five litres to ensure the best possible taste experience. However, it is not dangerous to continue using the aroma ring beyond five litres. In some cases, customers use the pod for longer to avoid wastage. But even they will eventually run out. "Since our aromas come from fruits, plants and spices, it is in the nature of things that the aromas unfortunately do not give off fragrance indefinitely," the company says.
All pods therefore also come with a best before date. The plastic-wrapped pod is said to have a shelf life of about ten months.
Recycling: All materials used in the pod are said to be recyclable. However, the whole thing is still in the testing phase, he said. "Apparently there are many different systems and we obviously want to try to understand all of them so we can make the best possible product not only for our customers but also for our planet," Air up says.
The bottle itself is made from Tritan, a tough and durable material. "We chose this high-quality, BPA-free material because this plastic is reusable, resulting in far less plastic waste," it tells Startbase. In addition, due to the lower transport weight and volume compared to glass, more carbon efficient logistics could be used, resulting in significantly lower CO2 emissions than traditional soft drinks. "This is the main reason why we chose Tritan for our refillable Air up drink bottle," says the startup.
Closure and everyday usability: the closure holds bombproof, even when the bus driver does another full stop or the bottle rocks back and forth in the backpack while cycling; better than many a thermal cup or bottle screw cap that has cost the lives of a few laptops.
But despite the good taste, it feels awkward to unpack the bottle next to your colleagues and suck on the straw with relish. Elementary school feeling comes up when you weren't that good with screw caps and half missed. In the working day a normal drinking bottle has a little more aesthetics.
This is the Startbase conclusion about the drinking bottles with flavour from Air up
The bottle has a nice design. Especially good is the closure, it holds bombproof. However, for the proud price of 35 euros, the product is overpriced. The fragrance pods are not convincing - they smell unnatural. Lime less than Organe passion fruit - this may literally be a matter of taste. But it still doesn't come close to tap water spiked with sliced fruit. And if you drink it for five days, you won't be able to see it either.
And so, after the test, the bottle ends up directly in the cupboard next to a bottle decorated with flowers from the Waterdrop brand. The Austrian start-up offers drops that dissolve in water, giving it real taste. In the process, certain vitamins and nutrients are supposed to be added. Another player that wants to make tap water tastier for customers. But is that really necessary?
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