Adam describes the process of making e-liquids as ‘almost like making wine’. “It is an art and a science,” says Adam, the co-founder of Vaporian Rules, a Kuala Lumpur based brewer of e-liquids. “A lot of people just think, ‘If I add A, B and C ingredients and mix them, it will make juice,’” Adam said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”
Beginning in 2013, Adam & his partner Hazman experimented making e-liquids in small handcrafted batches. Like many beginner brewers, they began their journey into e-liquid manufacturing by buying ingredients and supplies locally; then formulating, steeping, bottling and labelling their products by hand and selling their products at a select few vape shops owned by friends and acquaintances to serve the relatively infant Malaysian vaping community. By delving head-first into the world of brewing, Adam learnt to appreciate the flavor ingredients and subtle nuances in sweetness, duration, intensity, body and acidity from different manufacturers both in Malaysia as well as Europe and USA. It was the core learning experience that was a revelation to him which he is still sharpening and mastering today. The process is never-ending as there are thousands of flavors for them to select and sift through and it depends on what flavor profile and ultimately taste, that they’re looking to achieve.
“Taste is a subjective matter. More often than not, when I choose one flavor over another, it’s not because that manufacturer’s flavor is not good, but rather, it’s because that flavor profile does not match what we are looking for.”
Adam says that his inspiration comes from all manner of food and drinks - from cakes & desserts, beverages and cocktails. Thinking like a brewer requires attention to detail and a nose and tongue for taste. For example, a banana cake which he recently had - he thought about the vanilla icing and nutty crunch it had, the intensity of banana flavor within the cake and the fragrance emanating from the cake. For him, the key to understanding flavor is to to understand the ‘breakdown’ of the individual components that make up the whole. It’s a long process and a single formulation can take months of tweaking and testing before it ever reaches the market for further testing. In some instances, the idea of turning a particular food or drink into an e-liquid may sound attractive at first; but after prolonged testing, they find that the final e-liquid may sometimes be underwhelming. Conversely, the result can also be above and beyond expectations. Equally important is the process of comparing the ‘prototype’ e-liquid versus the actual inspiration product along the steps of formulation.
“The aim is to get it as close as possible. To be exactly 100% is tough - it depends on whether we know the exact ingredients used in the food product. “
Fruity versus creamy e-liquid creations
In Adam’s opinion, Malaysian manufacturers make the best fruit flavored raw ingredients. He compares the flavors made locally like the sensation of drinking fruit juices.
“You get the real succulent taste of the fruit that is more intense and direct.”
In comparison to the flavors he has imported from overseas, he opines that those fruit flavors, while still good, don’t have the same bold and rounded fullness that Malaysian flavor manufacturers produce that is closer to the sensation of indulging in the real fruit. Again, he emphasizes that it still boils down to the question of the brewer’s taste, preference and what exactly they’re looking for in their e-liquid creations. For Vaporian Rules, their freebase fruity e-liquid products include Double 88 (Green Apple & Koolada), Ocean 11 (Melon & Koolada), Route 66 (Pineapple, Strawberry, Orange & Koolada), Premio 64 (Blood Orange, Pineapple & Koolada) and Charlie Freeze (Apricot, Mango & Koolada).
Aside from fruity e-liquids, Vaporian Rules also produces creamy flavors. One new product launched in January 2019 receiving plenty of attention in Malaysia is a creamy Nicotine Salt - called Stella that is a banana & vanilla custard flavor. Brewing this flavor took Adam around 6 months of trials.
“In my personal opinion, i see many vapers switching to nicotine salts and I think this trend is here to stay. Not only is it attracting more ex-smokers to get into vaping, but i also see it as a choice for many current vapers that enjoy the ease of use and convenience of pod style devices. Personally, I use both interchangeably.”
Brewing nicotine salts is totally different from brewing freebase nicotine and the behaviour and interaction of the raw ingredients are completely different. Balancing the concentration of flavor against the raw nicotine salt is an artform in itself and very distinctive. A brewer at heart, Adam categorises brewing nicotine salts as a new form of brewing that is not only challenging but also personally satisfying for him. For the creation of Stella, he chose to import certain flavor ingredients that had a creamier texture and mouthfeel that was more suited to the flavor he was out to execute.
The obvious driver of creating a nicotine salt product is obvious - the popularity of pod devices have become a boon and revitalised the vaping market not only in Malaysia, but globally too.
Adventures in Europe: Selling e-liquids overseas
As time went by and the partners aspirations grew, their level of brewing sophistication improved and the duo now uses sophisticated machinery for steeping, labelling and bottling for bulk production in addition to employing a team of 11 staff that manages marketing and production. Their investments in manufacturing have enabled better quality control, faster steeping, more precision and easier modifications to their products when necessary. Their big break happened in 2015 when the group found a distribution partner in France to aggressively distribute their products across France, Belgium, Germany and other countries.
“Working with a distributor has its benefits - they focus on distribution and marketing over there while we focus on production at home. It’s all about finding the right partner for the long-term that believes in our manufacturing ability and its vital that we share the same values. Integrity and honesty is paramount to us. It took a long time to find that right partner but looking back, it was definitely worth it. ”
In any relationship, all bonds are built on trust. While distribution agreements between two parties can initially proceed smoothly, the relationship does have its pitfalls. The group experienced this first-hand when one of their distributors never paid them for a large order delivered.“We had a number of sizable orders from them where payment was settled promptly, but this one time, we had delivered but the payment never came. ”The group accepts that this is just part of the inherent risk in doing business. Recovering a debt owed overseas is a very difficult and tedious process. Needless to say, they have implemented internal policies to minimise this risk and have since moved on. The group now averages 50-70k units a month to Europe for their variety of freebase products.
Another challenge was modifying their products to better suit the tastes of vapers there. In Europe, a majority of vapers prefer lower sweetness and lower menthol content due to the cold weather that is largely present throughout the year.“Each market has their unique tastes and we work closely with our distributors to nail down the flavor profile.”The duo have also travelled to Europe numerous times at several vape expos to survey customers for themselves and to get a closer feel for the type of flavors customers there enjoy. Immersing themselves in the culture, food, drink and weather also helps them better understand the environment and vaping habits of a typical vapor living there.
Optimism for the future
For 2019, Vaporian Rules expects to focus on their nicotine salt products for the Malaysian market while still manufacturing their freebase products for the European market. They hope to acquire new fans of their nicotine salt products at home in Malaysia while the trend is on the rise. Their 2 new products are Stella (banana & vanilla custard) and Eve (fuji apples & strawberries). Big results require big ambitions and Vaporian Rules are aggressively growing their brand presence via digital marketing activities and working with multiple distributors to push their creations out into the Malaysian market.
While the experience of serving the European market in the last 5 years has taught them immensely and grown their capability and expertise in manufacturing, branding is a different game altogether.
And in that context, they are brewing from the ground-up once again.