From herbs to exotic fruits, small-batch craft sodas are putting a new twist on Canada’s soft drink industry. Long the domain of large soft drink companies, the soda (or, more colloquially, pop) market in Canada has seen an influx of new craft and artisanal soda makers starting to create a buzz among non-alcoholic beverage fans.
Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News recently spoke with several craft soda providers about what’s new in the world of these tasty and increasingly popular thirst-quenchers. Read on to hear what they had to say.
Jennifer Martin, Chief Seltzer Officer, SIP Seltzer Company (SIP Soda)
John McEachern, Founder, Peak Drive Beverages (Just Craft Soda)
Paul Meek, Owner, Kichesippi Beer Company (Harvey and Vern’s)
Can you tell us what’s new and trending with craft and artisanal sodas for 2016?
Jennifer Martin: Small is the new big. Craft and artisan beverages are in high demand because consumers want to know more about how beverages are produced, what’s in them and who is behind the company. They appreciate the quality and innovation that craft beverage companies provide and appreciate the ability to have an interactive relationship with the brand or brand owner through social media and local events. Strong media attention on the negative health impacts of consuming sugar-laden drinks is causing significant declines in traditional soda sales so this is opening up opportunities for healthier products and more authentic brands.
John McEachern: Trend No. 1 is new flavour profiles. While the food and beverage industry has been undergoing an innovation renaissance, the soft drink category has been devoid of genuinely new products. Taking a page out of the craft beer manual, craft and artisanal soda producers are using unexpected and non-traditional flavours in their products to entice a discerning, experience-seeking consumer. For example, Just Craft Soda comes in five delicious flavours that pair a fruit with a complimentary herb or spice to create an elevated, balanced taste profile that appeals to foodies. Trend No. 2 is better quality ingredients. For the past decade Canadian consumers have been drinking fewer servings of soft drinks year-on-year. This is largely due to concerns about health and wellness. But consumers still love soda – they’re just looking for better sodas — drinks they can enjoy knowing they’re made from whole, natural ingredients.
Paul Meek: The most exciting thing happening with soda is that customers are requesting more Canadian products. The artisanal soda market has long been dominated by American sodas and it is great to see more local products available to restaurants and pubs. The other exciting development is that we are seeing more of a focus on natural and authentic ingredients. The customer is finally able to distinguish between small batch soda and an all-natural craft soda.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges for bartenders, chefs and restaurant operators in adapting to these trends?
JM: The benefit to a foodservice operator is they can offer something local and different that is not marketed everywhere so it offers their customer a more memorable dining experience. Higher cost, inventory space (bottles vs. gun dispenser) and lower brand awareness can be issues for some operators.
JMc: The biggest challenge to the growth of the craft soda category is economics. Better products always cost more to produce, which ultimately means higher prices to guests. But the benefits of craft or artisanal sodas are numerous including:
Consistency of Offering: If your establishment serves exceptional food shouldn’t it also serve similarly high quality beverages, including sodas?
Surprise and Delight: Because craft soda brands and flavours are often a “new find” for consumers it means you can easily offer a serendipitous taste experience.
Create a Point of Difference: Use a compelling craft soda offering to create a point of difference from your close competition.
PM: One of the biggest challenges right now is that operators are used to “the gun” for their soft drink options and now they are getting used to single serve bottles. This of course takes up valuable space in their fridges and, depending on the size of the pour, they may only use half of the bottle at a time. One of the ways that we are working with restaurants on this is to provide our products in kegs as well as bottles. Our customers are enjoying having a draught option for our craft soda as well as a bottle option. One of the biggest benefits we are hearing from our operators is a simple matter of choice. The soft drink category is obviously dominated by two massive international companies, and now they are starting to learn about suppliers such as ourselves that are focused on natural ingredients, menu and cocktail development and supporting a family owned business.
What are some creative ways operators can use craft sodas on their beverage menu?
JM: Foodservice operators use SIP to appeal to non-drinkers who are health conscious and concerned about high sugar. Our sophisticated taste profile is barely sweet and more like sparkling wine or beer and the unique flavors attract trial with the same curiosity that craft beers do. Also SIP drinks mix well with fine spirits, particularly gin, because of their mineral water content and low sugar. Craft drinks appeal to the customer who usually orders just water so with the higher retail price it contributes to increased sales.
JMc: Be famous for your craft soda assortment. Aim to curate brands and flavors of craft soda like a beer and wine list. Stock a rotating flavour assortment that changes with each season. Use craft soda as an added value ingredient in drinks as varied as: beer shandy, wine sangria, ice cream float.
PM: When operators treat craft soda as part of their beverage menu, it can definitely enhance the customer experience, such as when the craft soda is treated more like beer and wine. Food pairings are a great example of this. The big move we are seeing is in the development of cocktails and mocktails. Cocktails are generally rising in popularity and having a craft soda involved only enhances the uniqueness of the cocktail list.
What unique or novel ingredients are you seeing more of in today’s soft drink products? Why are these ingredients popular with consumers?
JM: Botanicals, locally foraged plants, hemp, maple and exotic super fruits are becoming popular. Millennials are more open to unique flavours and with the strong focus on health, local and ethnic ingredients are helping to drive demand for more innovative flavors and products.
JMc: The most motivating ingredients or claims for consumers today are cane sugar, Stevia (low sugar/no sugar), all-natural/no artificial ingredients and organic. These ingredients and claims have become increasingly desirable as consumers’ understanding of health and wellness grows.
PM: We are starting to see some unique things in regards to sweeteners. Some are staying traditional with organic cane sugar while others are experimenting with Stevia and agave. Unique and novel ingredients seem to be going in two polar opposite directions. We are seeing natural and sometimes exotic flavours on one end, while other producers are going the other way with trendy flavours such as sriracha.