By Lucas Witman
Few adults are without fond childhood memories of summertime soda pops and icy cold root beer floats. Even all grown up, it is difficult to imagine enjoying a plate of barbecue without a frosty soft drink on the side. And when hosting a group of adults, it is likely that soda is finding its way into some of your favorite summertime cocktails. Yet, despite the ubiquity of bubbly beverages, soft drinks are undoubtedly a guilty pleasure—something to be splurged on and perhaps regretted later. Craft soda companies are attempting to change this, however, introducing gourmet sparkling beverages to U.S. consumers that offer tastier, more wholesome alternatives to the grocery store 12-pack staples.
When it comes to today’s soda marketplace, more and more companies are reaching out to adult consumers with products and flavors specifically designed to appeal to their unique grown-up palates. “I think palates are changing, and people want better solutions,” said Carleton Johnson, founder of Joia All Natural Soda. “I think all of us have been trained now by Starbucks and these premium coffee houses to expect something better with more taste and more complexity.”
“We’re not diet. We’re not positioned as ‘zero’ in any way,” said Steve Hersh, President of GuS Grown-Up Soda. “We’re really more about taste. The less sweet taste is designed to appeal to a grown-up who’s outgrown Nehi or Hawaiian Punch.”
There are a number of ways that companies like Joia and GuS are designing sodas that appeal especially to adults. Perhaps the most significant change that gourmet soda companies are introducing to their products to make them more attractive to this demographic is making them slightly less sweet. GuS’ recipes involve 40 percent less sugar and calories than what goes into a traditional soda, and Joia sodas contain as little as 15 grams of sugar per serving, compared to 40 or more in mainstream sodas.
In addition to creating slightly drier beverages, gourmet soda companies are also endeavoring to make their products with more natural ingredients. “High-fructose corn syrup, high sugar and full-calorie beverages and even diet sodas are on the downslide, but people still like bubbles, especially during dining occasions,” said Hersh. “I don’t think people are saying that carbonation is bad. It’s just the ingredients in mainstream sodas that are the no-no.” For this reason, GuS chooses to eschew artificial ingredients in its products, flavoring its sodas with real juice, natural extracts and pure cane sugar.
One craft soda company that has broken new ground in producing a beverage made entirely from the natural ingredients so popular among 21st century American consumers is Spindrift. All Spindrift sodas and seltzers are made with fresh, raw, unpasteurized juice combined with sparkling water and cane sugar. “There’s a lot of natural sodas out there, but what we learned is that nobody has done anything with fresh juice,” said Shelly Haygood, Vice President of Sales and Business Development for Spindrift. “By using a fresh juice, the taste is just so much brighter, and just the idea of fresh comes through. Really, everyone who tries it is excited, because it’s something different.”
By focusing on making a product with juice, squeezed from freshly harvested, regionally grown produce, Spindrift is able to capitalize on another consumer trend, popular among modern consumers: the push for seasonality. Perhaps a first in the industry, Spindrift recently debuted a seasonal pomegranate flavor, produced from fruit harvested on a small California farm. The soda was available on the West Coast only for a short time while the pomegranates were in season.
Joia All Natural Soda has found its own unique way to appeal to modern bubbly beverage enthusiasts, creating a product line that creatively combines fruit, herb and spice flavors in ways not erstwhile seen in the soda aisle. “Our point of difference is we are a fruit, herb, spice company, so it’s grapefruit-chamomile-cardamom, blackberry-pomegranate-ginger, lime-hibiscus-clove,” said Johnson. “Because of the fruit and herb/spice combinations, they’re less sweet. It’s all natural, so they’ve just got a nice, much fresher, cleaner taste. They’re a little more complex. We talk about layers of fresh flavor.”
GuS Grown-Up Soda has taken a different approach in crafting its products, opting to appeal to adults’ nostalgic affection for classic American flavors like cola, root beer and ginger ale. “It’s enough of a broad range that we’re not trying to create really esoteric flavors that are maybe not as approachable and that you’d need to educate someone about,” said Hersh. “One doesn’t need to be educated about cola, root beer, ginger ale or lemon soda. For the most part, ours is an adult-oriented, natural twist on everyday soda flavors.”
One thing that unites Joia, GuS and Spindrift is the companies’ collective appreciation for cocktails. Each company offers a number of suggestions for how best to use its products in mixing up the perfect drink. GuS, for example, recommends combining its Meyer lemon soda with rum and mint to prepare its spin on the classic mojito: the GuS-ito. One can also mix GuS ginger ale with sake and lime to make a NaGuSake. Spindrift advocates mixing its low-calorie seltzers with vodka to create the perfect skinny cocktail. And Joia offers a diverse array of products that mix perfectly with everything from vodka to gin to rum to tequila.
With craft sodas growing increasingly popular among today’s consumers, more and more restaurants are now offering their clientele the option of these lower calorie, all-natural artisan sparkling drinks. According to Hersh, his company’s products are particularly good for pairing with food, as they are not particularly heavy on sugar and thus do not overwhelm the palate. Today, GuS sodas are available in restaurants around the country, including a number of famed American eateries such as The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon Bakery.
Haygood similarly argues that her company’s products are a perfect addition to any restaurant menu. For her, the care that goes into crafting Spindrift products more accurately reflects the care that restaurants put into their menus. “Where we’re doing really well, and where our focus has been, is fast casual restaurants or where people eat lunch,” she said. “We go in and we see that there is incredible care taken with ingredients for salads, sandwiches, beautiful breads. And then at the end there’s a beverage that doesn’t really match. I go in and I say we make our beverages like you make your food, and there’s this instant connection.”
For gourmet soda companies, making specialty sparkling beverages is truly a craft in the most essential definition of the word. Just as innovative food companies have transformed the landscapes of beer, ice cream and chocolate, taking the products to a truly gourmet level, craft soda companies are doing the same with soda. “With craft beers and other craft types of things, people are looking for more complex flavors,” said Johnson. “You see herbs and spices going on in ice creams and crackers and all sorts of stuff. I think people’s palates are just becoming more and more complex.”