Propylene glycol, glycerine and various flavour essences offer a myriad of combinations and possibilities. In Light Your Fire's juice lab, they've gone the long way and found, among other things, that pear is needed to make an interesting tobacco flavour.
The early summer sun is blazing over Uddevalla on this Friday afternoon. But despite its central location two corners away from the town's main street, it's not so noticeable inside Light Your Fire's shop and laboratory. They are mixing juices as usual - e-liquids that will eventually fill both their own shelves and customers' mailboxes.
Glowing cigarette in your pocket?
A lot has happened since Christian and Pamela Brandt started their business about 13 years ago.
- "The idea of making e-cigarettes came from a smoking box at the Borealis factory down in Stenungsund almost 13 years ago," says Christian Brandt in singing Värmland.
He was there at his former job as an insulation plasterer and noticed a person with slightly more unusual smoking habits.
- A gentleman stood in the doorway and pulled something out of his pocket. He took a puff and it glowed just like a cigarette. Then he put it back in his pocket again. "I thought that wasn't very smart," Christian continues, smiling slightly at the memory.
The incident was his first encounter with road construction. Together with his wife Pamela, it was also the first step on the road to a very big change. Initially, the e-cig made the then heavy smokers give up cigarettes. In the next step, they began to recognise opportunities for a rather unexplored, but definitely possible, business.
Spent the savings on e-cigs
With a well-balanced mix of pioneering spirit, entrepreneurialism and classic curiosity, they set off at full speed in one of the wardrobes at home. Processes, distributors, suppliers, flavours and everything else imaginable were eagerly Googled.
- There wasn't much information available at the time, but we read everything we could find. The first capital we invested was around SEK 35,000 that we had saved up. It was a bit nervous to press the button and order then, I can say.
To make a long story short, they soon outgrew both the closet and the garage. Pamela focused on the website and administrative tasks while Christian immersed himself in the laboratory process. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine with various flavours turned out to have a whole world of combinations and possibilities.
The scent was the key - not the tar
In the early days of vaping, the focus was on similarity to cigarettes. The e-cigs available were designed to look like their predecessors, the cigarettes, and the vapour should ideally taste 'like smoke'.
- There was the occasional strawberry and some tutti-frutti, but the focus was on tobacco. You were a smoker yourself and wanted it to taste as much like a cigarette as possible," says Christian.
He checked with various suppliers and learned that it is more difficult than you might think to make a mixture that tastes like tar, arsenic and burnt leaves. Perhaps not entirely desirable either. But the smell of tobacco was easier to recognise," explains Christian.
- When you open a packet of tobacco, you get a certain odour, and that was close enough. That became the starting point for what it could taste like," he says.
Nine tobacco essences in one flavour
But then, in 2011, they couldn't find a suitable e-juice on the market. Instead, Christian continued mixing and experimenting with flavours, from pH values to nuances, on his own in the lab. The first result was the "9 Leaves" e-juice. It is still available in the Light Your Fire range. The name came from the nine different tobacco essences that formed the basis of the new flavour.
Tobacco flavour = pear and cinnamon
Here the discussion approaches a certain problem area in the political debate on vaping. Some opponents want the juices to taste only of "tobacco". The argument is that vaping should not attract young people. But a tobacco flavour is in fact very difficult to achieve, says Christian Brandt. It is a flavour that contains many nuances and notes that are rarely obvious. And just as a wine taster can find everything from "earthy cellar" to "blackcurrant gum" in a glass of red wine - the flavour "tobacco" can hold similar surprises.
- I learned pretty quickly that if you have two flavours that are close in pH, they can also cancel each other out. Then it doesn't matter how much essence you add, because if there is too much of the same thing, it ends up tasting like dishwashing liquid. To get a pH value to "split" a little, you may need to add a completely different flavour, such as a dash of pear or cinnamon, to get a tobacco flavour," says Christian.
"Politicians think it's easy"
And to tone down the pear, you might need some cocoa, or perhaps something nutty. It's a complicated process.
- But if you were to ban all flavours and essences or limit what can be in an e-juice - how the hell can you make a tobacco flavour? The politicians sit in their sandbox and want to decide and believe that "tobacco is just tobacco, it can't be that special". It's actually a bit surprising.
Testing everything - again and again
Christian Brandt often produces four or five variants of a new juice flavour he wants to create. The staff then test as many as possible. The one with the best flavour "moves on", and possibly the same procedure is repeated again. And again. His wife Pamela, who is not actually taking part in this interview, adds that Christian spent almost eight months working on the 'cream custard' flavour before they were satisfied.
Walls covered in flavours
Nils Tisell also works in the laboratory, which is located in the basement of the shop in Uddevalla. White coats and carefully sanitised hands are the order of the day. Hygiene is of the utmost importance, as in all laboratories.
- Nowadays I've probably lost my edge a bit. Now it's Nils that I'm chasing in the lab instead of new flavours," says Christian jokingly.
The shelves along the walls are covered with different bottles, filled with 100s of flavour essences. Here and there is an appliance that you need to be familiar with the process to understand what it does - and on the computer in the corner, various recipes are picked out to be made. When they are not experimenting with something new.
Want to stay small
Unlike many other "juice factories", Light Your Fire only produces its own e-juices. It is otherwise common for labs to work with multiple brands and make e-liquids under licence from both large and small players.
- It never really occurred to us to do that. We have always stood on our own two feet, and want to continue to do so. We do bring in many other flavours and brands into the store. But, not to brag or anything, we find that many of our customers like the e-juice that we make ourselves," says Christian Brandt.