Of Flavor & Fizz

by Jonathan Wright & Samantha Foster

Craft soda offers a return to a bygone era… the kind of drink your grandparents might once have enjoyed.

It’s no Holy Grail, but it may be the world's most famous cup—a gateway to a land of supersized portions. To its manufacturer, it symbolizes “freedom of choice,” and for many, it’s a guilty pleasure, but for some, the 7-Eleven Big Gulp represents all that’s gone wrong in a world of low-cost abundance and consumer excess.

With an obesity epidemic worsening and health concerns on the rise, today's consumers are becoming more aware of what they put into their bodies. They prefer real, unadulterated ingredients to processed, artificial ones. They want to know where the products they consume come from, and they want to support local producers. With that in mind, the increasing popularity of craft soda should come as no surprise.

From its inception, soda was meant to be savored and enjoyed—not guzzled from an oversized plastic cup that holds more fluid than the average adult’s stomach. And as any aficionado will tell you, there’s a striking difference between a watered-down, syrupy fountain drink and a lovingly crafted, naturally sweetened, delightfully fizzy, longneck bottle of “real” soda.

Pocket History of Soft Drinks
The origin of soft drinks can be traced to the development of fruit-flavored drinks, but its defining component—carbonated water—arrived in 1767, the product of experiments by English chemist Joseph Priestley, who is also credited with discovering oxygen and the rubber eraser. Priestley announced the invention of “soda water” in his 1772 publication, Impregnating Water with Fixed Air, and as others improved his designs, they were sold for commercial use in pharmacies. Before too long, spices, juices, herbs, fruit extracts and other substances were being added to improve the flavor of this new, “soft” drink.

Outgrowing its medicinal origins, the beverage was widely consumed in the U.S., with more than 50 soft drink manufacturers by the 1840s. Root beer, made from the bark of the sassafras tree, and ginger ale, flavored with ginger root, exploded in popularity, while new bottling techniques led to new ways of consumption. Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper and Pepsi were created in the 1880s—all three invented by pharmacists from the American South—and by the early 1900s, soft drinks were embedded in American life.

With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, bars and taverns across the country were replaced by soda fountains and soft drink parlors, as beer and hard liquor were swapped (in some quarters) for soft drinks, as well as ice cream. Soda fountains became the centers of community, where “the very fabric of our social and political life is woven,” according to an editorial in the New York Evening Sun.

While law-abiding Americans flocked to soda fountains, soda was also being used as a mixer to mask the taste of bootleg liquor. Canada Dry rode this appeal to tremendous success, and ginger ale became so popular during Prohibition that Al Capone set up bottling plants to monopolize the mixer market in Chicago. Coca-Cola was even more popular; it dominated the industry in the Roaring ’20s while pioneering product standardization, data gathering and new advertising techniques. By the end of the decade, Coke was a national icon, as “American” as apple pie. Though sales of soft drinks crashed with the stock market as the Great Depression took hold, it was a fleeting blow: by the end of the ‘30s, sales had again reached record highs, even with the repeal of Prohibition.

A Craft Soda Revival
While soda dominated the global marketplace of the 20th century, recent years have brought stiff competition—and new challenges—to the industry. With health and wellness taking center stage in the public consciousness, consumer attitudes have shifted dramatically, leading to a significant decline in soda consumption.

2015 was the 11th consecutive year of decline in the sales of carbonated soft drinks. Over the last two decades, U.S. sales of full-calorie sodas have plunged by more than 25 percent, and with concerns over artificial sweeteners like aspartame, even diet sodas have experienced a sharp decline. Meanwhile, according to a leading industry projection, bottled water is expected to overtake soda as the largest beverage category by early 2017.

But there is still a place for soda in the hearts and minds of consumers. And while the likes of Coke and Pepsi remain multi-billion-dollar operations, independent producers are making a dent in the market in the same way craft beer transformed the beer industry.

It’s the triumph of quality over quantity, small producers over large corporations and unique flavors over bland commodities. But craft soda is nothing new; in fact, it’s really a return to a bygone era—the kind of soda your grandparents might once have enjoyed. While companies like Jones Soda and Reed’s have had their craft sodas in major grocery chains since the 1990s, the movement as a whole has really taken off in the last decade.

Here in the Land of Lincoln, a number of breweries are riding this wave. Excel Bottling Company of Breese, Illinois got its start 80 years ago when its founders used the reward money from catching a bank robber to purchase a bottling machine. Today, Excel produces 18 kinds of craft soda, in addition to specialty and seasonal beers. Meanwhile, in a small village outside of Champaign, the Homer Soda Company outgrew its origins as a retail store and now wholesales its unique sodas across the country. In 2013, it helped create the Homer Soda Festival, which brought together small, family-owned bottlers from around the country to enjoy “their family traditions of flavor and fizz.” Inspired by its success, a similar festival got its start in Pekin, Illinois just last year.

The Main Street Experience
This June, the Pekin Insurance Craft Soda Festival Tour (formerly the Soda Pop Tour) returns to the Pekin Riverfront for a second year. “The idea was inspired by the Homer Soda Festival,” explains promoter Jay Goldberg. “Our thought was to take this idea—which reminded me of the popular craft beer tasting events—and expand it into a family-friendly, alcohol-free, soda tasting festival.”

With more than 80 varieties to sample or purchase, the event promises a return to “the days when soda came in a glass bottle and was sweetened with natural cane sugar.” From Goose Island’s hand-crafted root beer, with its “highly refreshing spearmint finish,” to the Candied Bacon Cream Soda, Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and award-winning Salted Caramel Root Beer offered by the Cicero Beverage Company, to Jelly Belly Gourmet Soda—with flavors derived from the popular jelly beans—the selections will be colorful, flavorful and plentiful.

With free admission and family-friendly entertainment, the 2016 Craft Soda Festival is a throwback to another time, reveling in the nostalgia of the American "Main Street" experience. “Pekin is the perfect location, as the festival is all about Americana and community spirit,” adds Goldberg. “It helps that it is the heart of central Illinois… and of course, it is also my hometown!” a&s