Kevin Wong and Sean Ro have been friends for over a decade. After graduating from the University of Virginia, the two moved to NYC where Wong started a career in finance before moving into tech startups, and Ro worked as a UX designer. The roommates eventually started homebrewing in their shared studio apartment. By 2019, they also shared Lunar, the hard seltzer brand Ro and Wong co-founded after realizing the American beverage industry lacked a product that captured their upbringing as Asian Americans.
Both co-founders grew up in Maryland as children of Asian immigrants from Korea (Ro) and Taiwan (Wong). In a trade that carelessly spouts “Asian-inspired” products, Wong and Ro believe they are doing something different — delivering products that genuinely reflect their childhoods through ingredients sourced directly from Asia, including yuzu from Japan, maesil-chong (plum syrup) from South Korea, and lychee nectar from Thailand — and capturing it in a can.
“The U.S. is only 6 percent Asian American and when you think about larger companies out there, [they often] overlook that minority population, especially in the brewing industry,” Wong says. He notes that the brewing industry is predominantly white and that “a lot of products are made by and for the same group of people. What we’re doing is not only inspiring people, but also showing that in this overlooked America, there’s a lot of people who aren’t seen or heard.”
With Lunar, Wong and Ro aim to highlight the shared and rarely showcased experience of Asian Americans across the United States. Wong says, “for some people, this is going to be very familiar, nostalgic, and authentic. And for others who aren’t as familiar, this is going to be really new, fresh, and exciting — yet approachable, as the hard seltzer format is a very approachable one.”
Below, Wong and Ro explain why creating an alcohol product using authentic Asian flavors is so important to their brand, and why they continue to donate a portion of monthly proceeds to important nonprofit organizations benefiting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
1. What has it been like to be a true Asian-American brand in an industry that has released Asian-inspired brands and flavors? What do these terms mean to you and what are you doing differently?
Sean Ro: It’s almost like a microcosm of the Asian American experience, and there’s really no precedent to look to because there hasn’t been anyone with an Asian founder or Asian heritage putting together a product with real Asian fruits — or that tastes like the actual fruit. There’s no one else in the industry that understands these flavors, so it’s almost a microcosm of this forgotten American, and we’re having to figure it all out on our own.
Kevin Wong: Who else is going to have the experience of: It’s August, you’re in Taiwan. It’s 99 degrees outside, you’re buying lychees with Grandma from the local street vendors, and having that first bite of lychee in that sweltering tropical heat — that is an experience, that is a moment, and that is an experience that a lot of other Asian Americans, or Taiwanese Americans like myself, have had, and that we tried to capture.
2. You root part of your inspiration for the brand in your childhood memories and the flavors of your parents’ cooking. Can you talk about translating those memories into hard seltzer specifically?
KW: We personally developed over 400 recipes, but it’s really important that we do justice and properly celebrate each flavor. We hear from fans who say, “Oh my God, this is literally like my childhood,” and they’ll share the memory that was triggered by trying Lunar, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. And it’s for those reactions that we do all this.
In the “Lunar Lab” (which was our apartment in New York) we had a very methodical ranking system and tried to be as objective as possible. But sometimes there are flavors I’m less familiar with, for example a Korean plum flavor, which Sean knows and I’m counting on him to create that to the best of his ability. And that’s our partnership in a nutshell.
SR: Korean plum was a flavor that I grew up with and was very commonplace in Korean culture — but Kevin hadn’t, right? — this is a great example of the fact that Asia alone has literally hundreds of different cultures and heritages within it, and you can’t mistake us for a monolith, because we have differences, but we still have a lot of common ground.
3. What was it like to test those first recipes? And why is it important to your brand that you source all of your ingredients from Asia?
KW: We started in 2019 and after learning how to brew, realized beer wasn’t the right medium to authentically create the flavors we wanted to share; so we pivoted and reverse engineered the hard seltzer recipe.
We don’t use any “natural flavors” or artificial chemicals, we only use “100 percent mom-approved ingredients” and real fruit juice from ingredients we source from Asia because we wanted to be really deliberate about the suppliers we work with, for example, our yuzu comes from Japan’s Shimane prefecture.
SR: I’ll also add that sourcing has become more of a scavenger hunt, and even when we find potential candidates or a product that might be promising, it’s not a given [that we’ll source it] given the importing process. But we do it because it’s important to us to use the real fruit to tell the story of the flavors we grew up with.
4. Your team donates a percentage of monthly proceeds to different nonprofit organizations. Who are some of the groups you’ve worked with?
SR: In May, we partnered with Apex for Youth, a local nonprofit in New York City that provides resources to underserved children. We also worked with them on a benefit concert, where Asian American artists donated their time, services, and music to put together a fundraiser for AAPI Heritage Month.
KW: Before Lunar, I volunteered at numerous nonprofits, and now with Lunar we’re championing and inspiring Asian Americans. We partnered with Apex for Youth, and Send Chinatown Love and [recently] co-developed a small business accelerator. We’ll be consulting for various restaurants in Chinatown that suffered during the pandemic to help them improve their operations, whether it’s their beverage program or their menu, basically we’ll help them turn their business right side up. Some of these establishments have been around for 50-plus years and are interwoven into the fabric of that community.
5. You’re leading with a tremendous example, but how do you hope to see the trade change?
KW: I hope that there is more and more diversity in this industry, and I hope the industry is more welcoming to new businesses, because there are a lot of barriers to entry for innovation.
SR: I’m a big believer that a lot of change comes from competition and dialogue. I hope that there are more conversations where people can say, “that’s actually not okay,” and feel comfortable speaking up. And [I hope] that the industry at some point does crest a bit, that it doesn’t stagnate; that the people are also growing, not just the businesses. And I hope that people find a desired curiosity and interest in other beverages as well, because there are so many other types of alcohol, not just in Asia, but throughout the world that aren’t really accessible [in the U.S.].
6. Finally, can you talk about your concept of “Asian Americana?” How do you define it and how is it shown in your work?
SR: It takes different forms, but it really boils down to the fact that we are just as American as a “James Smith” — but also just as Korean as a “David Kim.” We just happen to come from a place, or our parents come from a place, where that’s different. At the end of the day we are still American but we want to celebrate what makes us special, unique, and different.
KW: Earlier we talked about “Asian-Inspired” and I really don’t like that term. I’m not Asian, I’m Asian American. And being Asian American, and more broadly being in a culture of immigrants, it’s a very unique experience that applies to everyone. And ideas like: Where is home? What is my immediate language? — are really puzzling concepts for third-culture citizens. And that’s what we try to encapsulate in our term “Asian Americana” — to represent all of that — our shared stories, customs, culture — and help spark those conversations.