By Laura Barlament
"Evidently I must have a good palate,” says Cliff Oster ’69. That’s his modest explanation of how he became intimately involved in formulating the debut flavors of Vitaminwater — a drink that became a sensational success and changed the beverage industry.
Pressed for an example of his flavor sensitivity, he tells this story: He was at an internationally renowned flavor company, tasting one of the beverage products he was helping to develop.
He took a sip and declared, “The taste isn’t clean enough. Just add one drop of lemon juice concentrate.” The flavor experts scoffed. One drop added to a batch? “No one can tell if that one drop is in there or not,” they replied.
“I said, ‘That’s a home run; no, that’s a grand slam,’” Oster recalls. “Everyone knows you should take vitamins and you should drink water.”
“Yes, I can,” he said, and accepted a challenge to test his taste buds. The staff brought him four samples of the drink, one of which had a single drop of lemon juice concentrate added to the batch.
Oster picked it out of the lineup.
Still not convinced, they gave him another test. They made four batches of another drink with a completely different flavor, one of which contained a single drop of lemon juice concentrate.
Oster tasted all four, and picked the one with the added lemon. The flavor experts scoffed no longer.
“I believe in intuition,” says Oster. And it’s no wonder he does — his career has taken some extraordinary twists and turns. The Wagner history major grew up in a blue-collar family in Farmingdale, Long Island. An aspiring attorney, he became a top debater for the College team. But instead of going to law school after college, he worked as a buyer for a department store, and then as a teacher, earning his master’s in history at night.
Along the way, he got into stained glass making, and invented one of the world’s foremost silver stains, used by prominent stained glass artists around the world to create rich, vibrant gold colors. He procured materials for a manufacturer of aluminum ladders, and natural ingredients for a pioneering natural-juices company, After The Fall. He ended up becoming famed entrepreneur Darius Bikoff’s right-hand man as he created the international phenomenon Vitaminwater.
But this man who helped make some of the hippest beverages on the market really values old-timiness: He collects painted glass lamps from the early 20th century, restores rare vintage cars, writes about the homespun wisdom of his elders, and makes music on wooden flutes. And, he believes in liberal arts education.
Cliff Oster lives with his wife, Marcia, in a lovely, light-filled house on a hilltop in rural New Hampshire — her family’s ancestral farm — where a visitor can marvel at the pristine view of green fields, forests, and mountains.
Wearing a Panama hat and a white linen shirt, Oster serves his visitor neither juice nor nutrient-enhanced water. Instead, he offers a rich and fragrant cup of coffee, with beans he roasts himself in small batches and grinds to perfection. He brews the drink in a 1940s Chemex coffeemaker, immersing the beans in water for 90 seconds before letting it drip. “The beans get wet and release a lot of flavor,” he explains.
“We are not limited. You can do things people don’t expect you to do.”
During a consulting trip to coffee plantations in Guatemala, he found out that Chemex is the preferred coffeemaker of the most astute coffee buyers. Because of his reputation in the beverage industry, he often receives requests for help from entrepreneurs seeking to make the next hit beverage — especially health-related ones. On this trip, Oster was looking into the idea of creating a beverage out of the luscious, highly perishable fruit of the coffee tree. (Coffee beans are actually the seeds of this fruit.) He didn’t have enough time to spend on the experimentation that would be required for such an endeavor, he says, “but I learned about coffee!”
Oster’s ability to tackle a task with minimal previous knowledge and make himself into a noted expert in the field is legendary. Mark Panely, the founder of After The Fall Beverages, still wonders at his former employee’s achievements.
“Cliff is one of the best, if not the best beverage purchaser I’ve ever encountered in 37 years in the business,” says Panely. “He was brilliant at it. But, when he applied for the job, his resume showed me nothing to believe that he was qualified for the job.”
At that point, in 1991, Oster was in charge of purchasing for White Metal Rolling and Stamping in Walpole, New Hampshire. Its main business was producing aluminum ladders for Sears.
Through a combination of charm and persistence, Oster persuaded Panely to hire him as the purchasing director of the beverage company, located in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont. And Panely never regretted it.
“I feel like Christopher Columbus discovering a diamond in the rough,” says Panely, enthusiastically mixing his metaphors. “I believe he’s a genius in some form, by virtue of his extraordinary intuition and knowledge of people.”
Through his skills in relationship-building and his attention to the details of every deal, says Panely, Oster helped After The Fall get better prices on the highest-quality ingredients, packaging materials, and manufacturing contracts. While traveling extensively to do research on the company’s purchases and manufacturing processes, Oster also started developing his palate.
“Beverages are created not just on taste,” says Panely, who is a trained chemist. “There is a science behind it. Clifford just jumped on the science. And, I wanted to teach him more to make him a better purchaser.” One of the fundamental aspects of beverage formulation is the balance of sweetness and tartness, known as the brix/acid ratio. “He got very good at it and took it and made it his own,” Panely says.
Oster was an integral part of the team during the company’s best years, says Panely. This success led to Oster’s being out of a job: a bigger competitor, Smucker, acquired the small, entrepreneurial company in 1994. Most of the staff of After The Fall, including Oster, were laid off.
Oster and some of his After The Fall colleagues started their own company. “It didn’t do well,” Oster says. “We had great products, but we didn’t know our way around the sales world.” Oster also worked for Panely’s second company, Journey Foods. But then, he got a call from another of his old colleagues.
Frank Bombaci, the former head of sales for After The Fall, had been hired by Darius Bikoff, founder of an innovative beverage company known as Glaceau and Energy Brands. It was the late 1990s, and Bikoff was just starting a new venture called Vitaminwater. It was an idea whose time had come, as consumers were becoming more and more conscious of the nutritional content of their food and drinks. The FDA’s nutrition facts label had been implemented in 1992. Now, drinks formerly considered healthful, such as the natural juice products of companies like After The Fall, were seen in a more negative light because they were high in calories and sugar.
Bikoff hired Oster as his director of operations and explained his new concept to him: To add vitamins to water in a drink that would be low-calorie and flavorful. “I said, ‘That’s a home run; no, that’s a grand slam,’” Oster recalls. “Everyone knows you should take vitamins and you should drink water.”
It became Oster’s mission to realize Bikoff’s vision. “From the very beginning,” says Bombaci, “Cliff worked very closely with Darius Bikoff, the founder, to develop the idea of creating a great water-based beverage that had nutrients and great taste and a low sugar profile.” Oster did everything from overseeing the flavor formulation in the lab and making sure a high-quality product was manufactured to doing quality control on the positioning of the labels.
Oster says he doesn’t remember the exact discussions about how they chose the flavors; but “everybody knew that we were all about being natural, not too sweet. And we insisted on good flavor,” he says, with emphasis. “We were making something that was healthy and had benefits, but it had to taste good. So many beverages now are not refreshing and flavorful in a real way.”
According to Mark Panely, it was Oster’s genius to experiment with the expected sweetness content of a beverage — the brix/acid ratio — and to drastically reduce it while maintaining an acceptable taste for American consumers. “That was a radical and brilliant move on his part,” says Panely. “He should be in the beverage hall of fame.”
Bikoff’s company began to grow exponentially with the introduction of Vitaminwater. Before then, it had been doing less than $1 million in sales annually; sales tripled annually during each of the following three years. In 2007, six years after Vitaminwater’s introduction, it was sold to Coca-Cola.
Oster retired just before the Coca-Cola purchase. Since then, the company and its signature beverage have come under quite a bit of public criticism, including two major lawsuits accusing the company of deceptive marketing practices. It’s now common to find critiques of Vitaminwater’s sugar content and marketing claims in the media.
What does Oster have to say about these complaints? “I don’t know. I’m not a critic,” he says. “But what we claimed was in the bottle was in the bottle. If we said there was 100 percent vitamin C in the bottle, we put more in. Because vitamins degrade over time, and we wanted to make sure that consumers got what they paid for. It was an ethical company right from the beginning. Our goal was not to make money and hoodwink people, but to make a healthy beverage.”
Oster points out that Vitaminwater was first sold in health food stores. “People who go to those stores will read and question labels, and we met their expectations big time.”
Oster’s colleagues in the beverage industry admire him not only because he was effective at his job, but also because he is just a mensch, a good guy with a great attitude and sense of fun. “He always treated other people with kindness and always handled tense situations in a reasonable way,” says Bombaci.
Bombaci also says that to understand Cliff Oster, you have to know about his work in a very different part of the human endeavor: the world of stained glass art. “I’m jealous of him creating those stains,” says Bombaci. “Those are something really special.”
The world’s foremost stained glass artists agree.
John Kebrle, for example, has created stained glass windows for 43 Hard Rock Cafes around the globe, and each one of them features the golden glow of Oster’s Ancient Walpole stains. “The reason for this is that Clifford’s stains are simply the best available anywhere and have always been so,” says Kebrle. “The others were just not up to snuff.”
“He used the stain, and everyone went nuts.”
Another fan is John Reyntiens, one of whose recent works was Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee window. This gift made by the Houses of Parliament in 2012 is the first new piece of permanent art to be installed in Westminster Hall, the oldest building of the English Parliamentary Estate, since the Renaissance. It uses about 1,500 pieces of glass to depict the Queen’s coat of arms, and 60 percent of the window features the Ancient Walpole stain.
“I’ve always used Clifford’s stain,” says Reyntiens. “It’s the best I’ve used. You get a really good consistency of shade. There are cheaper alternatives, but I prefer not to use them.”
Silver stain is distinct from other types of color used in stained glass art. Whereas most colors are paints that adhere to the glass’s surface once fired, obscuring the passage of light through glass, silver stain actually “stains” the glass. (Hence the name, “stained glass.”) Based on silver nitrate, silver stain chemically bonds with glass when fired and alters its molecular make-up, creating a transparent color that varies from yellow to gold to orange. “Stain gives you another dimension of color,” explains stained glass artist Paul Coulaz of the famed Durhan Studios.
Oster learned the craft of stained glass in the 1970s at Durhan Studios, then located in Manhattan and owned by Coulaz and the late Albinas Elskus. Oster created his silver stain in 1983, a few years after he had moved to New Hampshire and established his own stained glass studio. One day his teacher and friend, Albinas Elskus, came for a visit and showed him how to make silver stain and fire it into glass, using an old kiln Oster had refurbished.
“The first results … were mediocre,” Oster wrote about the experience. “I knew that I could do better. After reviewing our initial firings, I instinctively knew what changes had to be made.”
Oster kept working on the formula, aiming for maximum vibrancy. “I somehow knew what to mix in, and in what proportions,” he says. “And on the very first experiment, I got it right. The stain was named Ancient Walpole: ‘Walpole’ for the town of its creation, and ‘Ancient’ because the depth of color resembled stains from previous centuries.” Elskus liked it so much that he used it in his next commission, a series of windows honoring Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American Catholic saint, for her namesake church in Shrub Oak, New York. “He used the stain, and everyone went nuts,” says Oster.
Word spread quickly. Over time, in response to artists’ requests, he developed two additional shades of silver stain, Ancient Winchester and Ancient Lemon. They were all featured in a 2010 book by J. Kenneth Leap, Silver Stain: An Artist’s Guide, which compared Oster’s stains with others made in the U.S., Germany, and France. Oster makes the stains at his home in individually prepared batches.
“We are not limited,” Oster insists. “You can do things people don’t expect you to do. Mark [Panely] called me ‘Lazarus Man’ because I’ve been up and down, and I just get up and keep going. That’s a good quality people need to have. Always move forward. End of sermon for today.” And he laughs, with two high-pitched wheezing breaths.
Lately Oster has been working on another new venture: writing a book. “It’s about how to achieve a good life based on things many of us learned as kids,” he explains. “Like how my father would say, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’ Or my aunt, ‘A promise is a promise.’”
Those words of homespun wisdom, plus an absolute belief in intuition and hard work, have guided Oster far in life. But there’s also one other factor.
“I attribute it to my liberal arts education. At one time I doubted it, but it’s prepared me to do a lot of different things. My Wagner liberal arts education gave me the confidence to talk to anyone about almost anything. It also introduced me to the art of listening.
“I want people to value a liberal arts education,” he continues. “It’s almost like a religious feeling I have about it now.”
And he jumps into his 1937 Starlight Blue Pontiac sedan convertible, which he has been painstakingly rebuilding over the past two years, to guide his guest to the highway.