Sodas mixed by hand are creating excitement in soft drinks, a class of beverages that has been slumping for years as sugary refreshers fall out of fashion and consumers embrace lighter options such as water, sports drinks and juices.
Mixed either with branded syrups or from scratch, housemade sodas typically feature on-trend flavors and natural sweeteners and ingredients, making them appealing to those who look askance at the high-fructose corn syrup of commercial soft drinks as well as alcohol avoiders. Some operators also leverage their sodas as unique cocktail mixers for their patrons who do drink. Thus handcrafted sodas can be an important element of a forward-looking beverage program.
In 2013, per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks in the United States declined to about 675 eight-ounce servings per person, the lowest level since about 1986, according to Beverage Digest, a trade journal.
Nevertheless, soft drinks still represent a huge market; Beverage Digest pegs it at about 8.9 billion 192-ounce cases.
At DMK Burger Bar in Chicago, housemade vanilla-ginger, blood orange and pineapple-basil sodas share the spotlight with an array of craft beers and specialty cocktails. The sodas, each priced at $5, are popular among patrons having business lunches and also are enjoyed by kids.
“A soda like vanilla-ginger has been on the menu for a couple of years now because people really like the unique flavor,” says Sarah Heintz, DMK executive chef.
The sodas are based on syrups made in the DMK kitchen with fresh ingredients and high-quality flavor extracts. Mixing a soda to order is as simple as filling a glass with ice, adding a measured amount of syrup and spritzing it with carbonated water from a tap at the bar.
“We want to make sure that the soda is delicious and also quite easy to execute with minimal labor for our bartenders,” Heintz notes.
At Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo., housemade bottled mango-basil soda, ginger beer and root beer are customer favorites, each priced at $5. “People love them,” says owner/beverage guy Bryan Dayton. “We actually sell more of our housemade sodas than the regular brands we offer.”
However, it took some time to perfect Oak’s bottling system, which was assembled with equipment from a brewery store.
“Honestly, the whole process has been about figuring out carbonation,” Dayton says. “Different drinks carbonate at different pressure levels. The amount of particles in a liquid also affects it. It took us a long time to figure out how to get root beer consistently carbonated.”
Another challenge in making soda from scratch is the variability of raw ingredients. For example, the ginger beer is tasted regularly and adjusted from time to time because fresh ginger root differs in flavor intensity.
Patrons of Gather in Berkeley, Calif., enjoy shrub sodas mixed to order with carbonated water from a siphon at the bar. Shrubs are concoctions of fruit, vinegar and sugar with a sweet-tart flavor profile that were in vogue for drinks in the 18th century and are enjoying a revival in craft cocktail bars today. For its sodas, Gather purchases prepared shrubs from a local company in flavors such as ginger, peach, blood orange, grapefruit, honey and apple.
Gather bar manager Charlie Crebs reports “wild success” selling shrub sodas, which are each priced at $4. “Last month I think we sold close to 1,000 of them,” he says. “People are enjoying them with our food.”
As useful as handcrafted sodas are as alcohol alternatives, they also make attractive cocktail mixers, as some operators prove.
At the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, a one-of-a-kind cola is part of the property’s ongoing effort to distinguish itself in the marketplace.
“Everyone is trying to come out with the next new thing,” says Jenny Thoms, Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta mixologist. “That is what drives us to do something different than the hotel next door.”
The cola, made with a syrup cooked at the hotel with brown sugar, molasses, cardamom, star anise, citrus zest and lavender, is fizzed with a CO2 carbonator in one-liter batches. It goes into the signature Richland Rum and Cola along with a shot of Georgia-made, artisanal rum. The house cola has more of a vanilla impression than Atlanta’s world-famous branded cola, Thoms says, and makes a pleasant complement for the spirit.
At Gather, the ginger shrub is a key element of the Bee Royalty, a gin, honey, citrus and white wine cocktail. The blood orange shrub flavors the Bitter Sweet Rose along with tequila, Italian vermouth, rosé wine and bitters. Each drink is priced at $12.
Crebs says the consistency of the prepared shrubs and the labor they save give them a decided advantage over making syrups or shrubs from scratch. “We would love to be able to do that on our own,” Crebs says. “But with the amount of volume we do here, it would just be so time consuming to do even one flavor.”