The business of fizziness
Do you remember the first time you tried soda? Richard does, and he goes out to find out more...
Monday 30 December 2019
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When I was about six, my mum let me go into the grocers’ just around the corner from our house and buy myself a treat. Instead of my usual Cadbury’s Fudge bar, I went for a small bottle of luridly coloured Panda Pop. What happened next is slightly hazy, but my mum tells me I basically began speaking in tongues and the next thing I remember clearly is crying into a bowl of fluorescent vomit. While I quickly got over my first foray into the world of sodas, I was left with the lingering sense that there was something fundamentally unwholesome about sweet, fizzy water. The idea of ‘craft’ soda has therefore sat somewhat uneasily with me.
Nonetheless, these stubby bottles and cans with their folksy, bucolic artwork have become increasingly difficult to ignore, their numbers growing alongside those of low and no-alcohol beers among a more health-conscious public. A recent poll by Dalston’s, one of the UK’s larger craft soda producers, confirmed that around 80% of respondents wanted better non-alcoholic drink options (which feels like the result of a leading question, but hey). The same poll suggests that, alongside more interesting flavours, the appeal of such sodas is very much values-based, with respondents citing authenticity, localism and environmental impact playing a part in their buying choices.
Liam from Steep Soda in Manchester agrees that the rise of craft soda is closely tied to several wider trends in food and drink.
“The UK craft soda industry is expanding all the time,” he says. “When we set up, we were one of a handful of producers in the whole country. Today there’s is a lot more focus on ‘low and no alcohol’ alternatives which, twinned with the shift in focus to understand the provenance of our food and drink, has allowed businesses like our to exist.”
Like craft beer then, the definition of craft soda has proven tricky to pin down, and is at least partly about meeting demand for a product that feels authentic. Craft sodas definitely tend to use real ingredients for flavour, rather than synthetic approximations, and many of the flavour combinations are genuinely interesting; the sort of things that could easily have ‘IPA’ after them and clean up at IndyMan.
There are plenty of more ‘straight-up’ sodas in the craft space too, including lemonades, ginger beers and colas. One of the best-established craft brands in Europe is Germany’s Fritz-Kola, which can now be found pretty easily across the UK. While it’s diversified into other sodas, Fritz’s core Cola has far greater depth of flavour than Coke, for example, and is less cloyingly sweet. It’s a straight-up swap for anyone who wants a bit of extra quality and authenticity from a soft drink they already know.
While many craft sodas do contain as much sugar as their ‘big soda’ peers, the category also encompasses a good number of health-focused drinks – even more if you take it to include kombucha (see page 30). Indeed, it can sometimes feel like a Venn diagram for other hot health trends, with ingredients like ginseng popping up, claims of high antioxidants and even CBD-infused sodas now hitting the shelves.
Tom Carroll of Green Monkey CBD soda says: “We’ve seen the growth in craft sodas and mixers; the choice out there is far greater and far more interesting than it ever was. We’re now even breaking into the on-trade market in greater depth. People are always after the next trend and the newest flavours, and the growth and awareness surrounding CBD has meant more people asking for CBD in their drinks. We are constantly developing new flavours and ideas to keep up with customer demand.”
The more we’ve looked into this area, the more it’s felt like the early days of craft beer in the UK. Samples started arriving in the post, wrapped in newspaper and featuring slightly janky, inkjet-printed labels. These producers are genuinely trying to find something new; some attempts we didn’t enjoy so much, while others – like Roots Soda’s excellent white grapefruit, hop and clove soda – really surprised our jaded palates.
And that’s exciting; to be one of these young companies experimenting with their style, collaborating freely and not terrified of getting scourged on Twitter for any tiny misstep.
“We think there is still a long way to go to improve quality and process, but we are looking forward to being at the very front of something that is much more beneficial to our customers than the standard soft drinks,” concludes Steep’s Liam. “Plus the scope for collaboration is endless across food and drink. It just feels like a really fun place to be – there’s no end to the potential.”
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