“Being too early on a trend isn’t good,” says Koel Thomae, a professional yogurt trend scouter.

By Gowri Chandra
Updated September 05, 2017
Credit: Getty Images

From yogurts with notes of rosewater and hibiscus to savory cardamom-spiced pots, the yogurt landscape is way sexier outside the U.S., so trend scout Koel Thomae is always on the move. After co-founding and later selling her own yogurt brand, noosa, she stayed on with the company doing innovation research. The business of scouting yogurt flavors has taken her across the globe to find inspiration, especially in “high dairy consumption locales” like Denmark and France, where people eat way more yogurt per capita. “In France, people might have it for lunch, as a snack, or as a sweet treat,” Thomae says. “In the United States, yogurt is mostly a breakfast item, although that’s slowly changing.”

One of her all-time favorite finds was at Copenhagen’s Amass Restaurant, where she tasted a super sweet, new potato ice cream studded with fermented blueberries. “It was a modern take on Nordic culture of pickling,” she says. “There was a salt-and-vinegar crisp on top, which we were told to crush and mix in with the ice cream. I was dubious, but it was a taste explosion in the best possible way.”

Obviously, re-creating this experience exactly might not make sense for packaged yogurt. But what stuck with Thomae was that tart and salty contrast to an otherwise singularly sweet experience, a pitfall of many commercial yogurts. The challenge is translating these avant-garde flavor experiments into something accessible to the average consumer. “Sometimes you look at more experimental flavors and you think, ‘These might work in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles because those three markets are global melting pots, but we’re in grocery stores across the country,’” Thomae says. Shelf space is extremely competitive, so she must prioritize appealing to a broad audience. “Being too early on a trend isn’t good,” she says.

A more experimental line that Thomae helped develop was noosa’s “sweet heat” collection, featuring a blackberry serrano yogurt with a startling level of spice. The tart yogurt packs surprising heat, with a blackberry purée on the bottom, allowing for a cooling sweetness. She drew inspiration for the flavor from the food halls in London with North African and Middle Eastern influences: take ayran, a cold, salty yogurt drink found in Turkey and Lebanon that’s sometimes served with black pepper. Upon tasting, she asked herself, “How can I extend this idea of savory?” Thomae thought about the associations we have with the idea of savoriness (like warmer spices) and how she could incorporate these in dimensional ways, like you might see in a peach jalapeño salsa or ripe mango with chili and lemon.

Even if a flavor profile manages to be both accessible and on-trend, sourcing can be a roadblock. Some time ago, she was playing around with citrus flavors and felt that a standard lemon yogurt tasted a bit flat. “We needed something a little brighter, more interesting,” she says. “I’d been seeing yuzu on different trips, on cocktail menus and in desserts and all over Instagram. It’s a Japanese lemon with tangerine-like notes, and it felt like a great fit. But we literally could not source enough to produce it on the scale that we wanted.” Thomae had the same problem with a pluot that she fell in love with at a farmer’s market in Santa Cruz; it was called Dapple Dandy, and “it was one of the best things I ate all year,” she says. But again, quantity was the bottleneck.

When all goes according to plan, Thomae can roll out flavors in as little as three months. It’s not as long as you might think, partly because noosa doesn’t do focus-group testing. “We just do our R&D, and if we like what we taste, we roll it out in test markets,” she says. It seems to be working so far.