For consumers looking for a nonalcoholic seltzer alternative, Mitra 9 believes its kava and kratom-based drinks can fill that void.
Dallas Vasquez, the brand’s co-founder, said he became interested in the space after visiting a kava bar in Florida which was serving bitter and earthy-tasting beverages.
“There were a number of people that would come in and not enjoy the tastes,” Vasquez recalled. “I thought that we could come up with a beverage in canned format that is more in line with premium beverages sold at grocery stores.”
Kava is an herb that has been used in the Pacific Islands for hundreds of years. Some studies suggest it may help with relaxation and anxiety. Kratom is an opiate stimulant that has been used to treat pain for centuries in Southeast Asia and, according to studies, can create both stimulant and sedative effects.
Vasquez and his business partners created a line of kava-based beverages in four flavors — Lemonade, Orange Dreamsicle and Strawberry Watermelon — and a line of kratom-based seltzers in seven flavors, including Raspberry Lime and Watermelon. The team aimed to create a clean-label alternative beverage option that allows consumers to feel good after drinking.
After an eight-month R&D period where the product was tested at a local bar in Fort Meyers, Florida, Mitra 9 launched in 2021.
In October, Mitra9 announced it was expanding nationally after raising $2 million from investors. It currently produces its beverages in Florida, Illinois and California. It also sells powder containing kava and kratom that can be mixed with water.
Vasquez said he envisions Mitra 9 as the Budweiser of the kava and kratom beverages space, with its popularity increasing as consumers familiarize themselves with the ingredients. While many consumers drink coffee in the morning and alcohol at night, Mitra 9 is targeting the afternoon, when consumers are less likely to want to imbibe.
According to Vasquez, Mitra 9 is a functional alternative to alcohol that can benefit consumers who want drinks that contain better-for-you properties. He pointed to the plateauing of the hard seltzer space after its initial boom, while carbonated water sales are increasing, which he sees as a sign consumers are increasingly seeking nonalcoholic beverages.
Expanding with new ingredients
Vasquez said the brand targeted stores selling alcohol during its national expansion. Its products are currently available in 32 states, and it has a distribution agreement with Total Wine & More to sell its products next year.
One factor slowing Mitra 9’s ability to become more widely available is the legal issues it faces.
Kava is legal to sell in the U.S., and is not regulated by the FDA, and Vasquez said there is no issue scaling it nationally. Kratom, however, is more complicated.
The FDA classifies kratom is “an unsafe food additive" and cannot be added to conventional foods. The ingredient is only permitted as a medicinal product in some regions. Vasquez said many states, such as Florida, are making kratom legal only for consumers over 21. This allows Mitra 9 to partner with alcohol giants such as Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors on distribution deals.
There are some criticisms of kava and kratom as ingredients from health professionals. In a 2002 advisory, the FDA warned kava can cause liver toxicity, and it can be dangerous to combine the ingredient with other anxiety drugs. Kratom is addictive in some people who consume it, and the lack of available guidelines for how to produce and package it concerns some in the medical community, according to a Harvard Medical School blog.
In a statement, the American Kratom Association said the FDA should help consumers understand kratom’s effects and remove bad actors from the space.
“What is happening in the kratom marketplace is, in the absence of any responsible regulation by the FDA to protect kratom consumers, unscrupulous vendors are deliberately misleading consumers with illegal therapeutic claims, and more recently, with super-concentrated kratom products that pose real safety risks to the public,” said Mac Haddow, the senior fellow on public policy for the American Kratom Association.
Vasquez said Mitra 9 consults with regulatory professionals and prioritizes transparency with product warning labels. He said more regulation for the kratom space would make it easier to reach its ultimate goal, becoming a global business.
Mitra 9 classifies itself as a premium offering, with a four-pack of its 12-ounce canned beverages selling for $30, above the price of most hard seltzer brands.
Vasquez said Mitra 9 sees potential for its products to expand into other areas beyond beverages, including food products.
“The powder sticks are going to be important, gummies are going to be important. They’re different offerings at different price points that allow consumers to make a choice,” he said.