The alcoholic beverage industry has ballooned to such an extent that there is now, more than ever, something for everyone. Those old-school American big brew drinkers, or others who will drink whatever beer is put in front of them, might dismiss the so-called ‘craft beer’ revolution. They and others might say that this “fad” has seen its day. And they’d be wrong.
While the standard beer market is leveling off, the craft beer market is still growing, even while beer consumption has declined. Craft beer has a good 10% of the American beer industry. That is ten percent of a $100 billion dollar industry, folks! Perhaps more. Then, we have original craft cocktails showing up on more and more restaurant/bar menus. Not to mention more whiskeys, vodkas, rums, gins, and alcoholic thingamajigs (cocktails in cans, etc.), offered in more brands and more varieties than the world has ever seen.
The wine coolers of the ’90s have been replaced by flavored malt beverages of all sorts. The nonalcoholic beverage market is a bit of a juggernaut, as well, but that is all fancy bottled waters and sports drinks. Retro and hard to find sodas have their customer base, but it is time that soda pop started getting its craft on because, well, we don’t really need more flavors of Mt. Dew. Multi-flavored crap is still crap. Jones Soda may seem to be moving soda forward, but the crushed melon isn’t made from melons. The cola is still just modern cola (cane sugar, big whoop). And, if you’re going to call a soda ‘vanilla bean’ then it should have been introduced to one at some point. While organic aguave syrup might impress some people, I am still looking for the chipotle in the Stripped Pineapple Chipotle. If having your picture on a label while drinking an artificially flavored beverage is craft soda, then I don’t know much about craft.
So, will it happen? Will we see a craft soda revolution, the likes of which we’ve seen for beer? Well, no, I do not think that we will see craft soda controlling a comparable amount of the soda market as craft beer controls of the beer market. The problem is that the “health” movement, along with a concerted anti-sugar and food-fear movement, will probably limit the growth of any new and inventive soda makers. Sure, many people say beer is unhealthy but, let’s face it, it’s beer! It has something going for it that soda doesn’t. However, there is an emerging craft soda market, and the soda-fountain may be making a comeback.
Across the country, businesses are starting to offer craft soda fountain creations, with all sorts of different business models. Sometimes out of sheer childhood nostalgia, folks are re-opening long abandoned soda shops or beginning to offer soda-fountain like creations at their established eating places. Often, this takes the form of “Italian sodas,” that are just some seltzer with a couple of shots of Torani syrup thrown in, and perhaps some cream. Frankly, anybody can do that. All you need is a soda stream, bottled seltzer, or some other means of carbonating water, some torani syrups, and, you’ve got homemade soda galore. Big deal.
The real movement is in bringing back the old-school soda fountain, which pretty much every city or town used to have, usually as part of the drug store, which is where they began. As well, soda fountains were often a part of what used to be called Luncheonettes. Here, soda jerks, the baristas of the soda fountain, would create all sorts of concoctions that would bend the mind of modern soda drinkers. The aspiring soda fountain owner or soda jerk, might pick up a copy of Darcy O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps and not only learn all about the wonderful history of the soda fountain, but learn over 450 old-time soda fountain recipes that the author has painstakingly brought back from the dusty recipe books that the industry used to use as standard manuals. This is not about purchasing crates of artificially flavored syrups and chucking them in some soda water. It’s about real ingredients, perhaps even local and seasonal, with some exotic twists thrown in. And of course, the egg cream, and perhaps its ancestors will be showing up.
The problem is that some aspiring soda makers are busy trying to push the envelope before the envelope has even been crafted, pardon the pun. Just having a soda made with real fruit, real vanilla, real cinnamon and other spices, real cream, real eggs, is a new experience for most people. Let alone the phosphate, or say, beet flavored soda, which at least one shop I’ve read about is offering. This is why knowing the history of soda may help. The old-time flavors were not created to be “cutting-edge.” They had their roots, as discussed, in the drug store. This is how Coca-Cola got its start, after all. Sodas were made by druggists. Their purpose was to disguise the taste of patent medicines, which druggists, in the early days, used to concoct themselves. If you are going to bring BACK the soda fountain, then first you have to GO BACK.
Allison Aubrey, for NPR, writes about America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C. which has brought back that soda fountain thing and is offering actual, house-made sarsaparilla, where Own Thompson (soda jerk? bartender? mixologist?) actually crushes up eucalyptus, birch bark, spearmint, and sarsaparilla and shakes them together before mixing with soda water. etc. That’s pretty impressive but I’d be even more impressed with a brewed root BEER, the older than old-school way. Still, I read about others who are adding everything but the kitchen sink to an egg-cream including things like star anise, cinnamon, and, of course, chiles. Before you “remix” the egg cream, you might want to consider whether most people have ever had an egg-cream, let alone like it. The craft beer industry is about pushing the envelope, and seeing what you can do with beer, while still calling it beer. But at the heart of the industry is good tasting beer. No matter how exotic a beer a craft beer enthusiast might try, perhaps only once, they all have standards they go back to time and again. And those standards tend to be time-tested classics that taste, of all things, like beer.
Soda is not unlike beer. I am one of those few people who actually likes, for example, Moxie. But that means that from time to time, I’m in the mood for it, and if I’m up in Maine, I’m going to pick up some. But I’m not going to be swigging moxie all day long while I write articles. If I had grown up with Moxie, perhaps I would feel differently. The lesson, then, that soda, and beer too, is about nostalgia, and comfort. You might try something exotic and be excited to drink it once, or twice, but it’s nostalgia and comfort that brings you back to your standby’s. Before you create a one-of-a-kindexperience, you might first want to create experiences that people want to return to again and again! Imagine an orange soda made right on the spot from actual oranges! If the craft soda movement cannot get too precious about itself, soda just might be the next big thing. But, I have my doubts.