The popularity of craft beverages has extended beyond
beer and cocktails to include small-batch sodas.
by Jodi Helmer
After a big bite of the Hotter Than Hell burger, Dan Velcich, co-owner of Burger Antics in Brookfield, Illinois, suggests washing down the smoked Gouda, grilled jalapeños and avocado with a swig of Green River lemon lime soda. And the fruit notes in
Boylan Bottling’s blackberry soda complement the salty-sweet flavors of the peanut butter/bacon/jelly burger.
“Consumer palates are expanding. People want stronger, bolder flavors in the food, stronger, bolder flavors in their beer and
stronger, bolder flavors in their sodas,” says Velcich. “People get excited about craft soda because of the unique flavor profiles.”
Burger Antics opened in 2013 with five craft sodas on the menu. Since then, the selection has expanded to 20 different flavors
ranging from root beer and birch beer to sarsaparilla and cream soda. To keep up with demand for craft sodas in the 60-seat gastro
pub—on a par with orders for traditional brands such as Coke and Pepsi—Velcich works with several distributors and stocks multiple
brands, including Sioux City, Fentimans and WBC Craft Sodas.
At a time when carbonated beverage sales are declining, demand for craft soda is on the rise. Beverage Marketing Corporation,
New York, reports that wholesale craft soda sales topped $540 million in 2016, up from $427 million in 2011.
The thirst for craft soda led to an explosion of new companies producing small-batch sodas, often limiting distribution to their
local markets. Unlike craft beer, which the Brewers Association, Boulder, Colorado, defines as beer made by independent brewers
making fewer than 6 million barrels per year, there is no formal definition of craft soda. As a result, several big brands entered the
space. Pepsi launched its version of a craft soda, Caleb’s Kola, made with fair trade cane sugar, in 2014, and Coca-Cola acquired two
small brands—Blue Sky Soda and Hansen’s—in 2016 to add craft brands to its portfolio.
The glut of new brands doesn’t surprise Gary Hemphill, managing director/COO, research, Beverage Marketing Corporation,
who says, “In virtually any consumer products category, there is a premium segment driven by consumers who want uniqueness and
variety and are willing to pay for it.”
The other craft brew
Like their beer-making brethren, craft soda manufacturers produce products in small batches, bottle in glass, eschew artificial
ingredients in favor of pure cane sugar and often experiment with seasonal flavors.
In Milwaukee, Sprecher Brewing Company releases strawberry soda in summer and red apple soda in the fall. New York-based
Boylan Bottling has introduced sparkling cider and orange cream flavors to coincide with the changing seasons. And Squamscot Old
Fashioned Beverages, Newfields, New Hampshire, produces maple soda to honor its roots.
Although Squamscot Old Fashioned Beverages has been making soda since 1863, operations manager Dan Conner noticed a
significant uptick in sales over the last decade, making it almost impossible to keep 27 flavors, including cola, ginger ale, orange
soda, root beer and lemon lime, in stock. “People are a lot more interested in where their food comes from and supporting local
businesses, so our sales are on the upswing,” he says. “We can’t make enough soda to keep up with the demand.”
Surging demand led some restaurants to brew their own craft sodas. In Portland, Oregon, HOTLIPS Pizza relies on the farmers who
grow fresh ingredients for its pizza toppings to provide fruit for a line of housemade HOTLIPS Sodas. The fruit sodas, which include
marionberry, lemon, pear and red raspberry flavors, are served at all six pizzeria locations, as well as at retail locations in eight states.
Other restaurants making their own craft sodas include Kindred in Davidson, North Carolina, Radar in Portland, Oregon, and
We, The Pizza in Washington, D.C., where housemade sodas have quirky names such as I’ve Gotta Orange Crush on You and Don’t
Forget Your Ginger Roots Soda.