Craft sodas are an adult-friendly alternative to traditional sodas

John McEachern, founder of Just Craft Soda, at the Toronto Food & Wine Festival with his cousin (and first employee) Matt Cherkas (photo credit: Shareba Abdul)

Move over cola, bold-flavoured craft sodas are here to quench the thirst of adults across Canada.

For years, Coca Cola and Pepsi have dominated the soda market in Canada. While there’s no denying that some consumers still love the taste of these classic beverages, they are becoming less and less popular.

Sales of traditional sodas like Coca Cola and Pepsi have been declining over the years, and that trend is not likely to improve. IBIS World research predicts that operators in the soda production industry will continue to struggle over the next five years.

John McEachern, founder of the Toronto-based Just Craft Soda brand, believes that this decline comes from changes in consumer needs.

“Consumers are increasingly aware about sugar content, and they’re increasingly aware of some of the chemicals that are in sodas and are becoming a bit concerned about that,” says McEachern. “I think they’re also a little bit bored with the flavors on offer, so as a result consumers are switching to other products to fill that need.”

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Just Craft Soda, which launched earlier this year, is available in five flavors including Pear & Vanilla, and Peach & Habanero. It also has 32 grams of sugar per 12 ounce bottle, which is less than the 41 grams of sugar found in a 12 ounce can of Pepsi.

McEachern says that his sodas have been designed for a millennial consumer “whose taste buds have matured, and is looking for something more complex and slightly less sweet.” Something that he hasn’t seen many soda companies do in the past.

“I feel like [traditional sodas] were designed for a 13-year-old boy,” McEachern says. “And by that I mean incredibly sweet, huge amounts of sugar, and a taste profile that’s incredibly candied. So if you try an orange soda, it’s not gonna to taste like orange juice, it’s gonna taste like a candied version of what orange should taste like.”

The success of craft beers seems to have paved the way for craft soda companies, as consumers have become more familiar with the idea of local, uniquely flavoured products. One Canadian craft beer company in particular saw the potential for expanding their brand to include craft sodas as well.

Matt Phillips, founder of Phillips Soda Works in Victoria, B.C. says that his sodas came out of creating recipes for alcoholic versions of ginger ale and root beer. 

Matt Phillips holds his current line up of craft sodas from Phillips Soda Works
(image courtesy Phillips Soda Works)

“We treat it the same way as beer,” Phillips says. “We do it with real ingredients. Real sugar, real ginger, real cinnamon, real vanilla. All of those ingredients are unprocessed, and for us that’s really what craft soda is. Flavors that come from an authentic origins.”

Phillips Soda Works is so focused on doing craft soda well, they currently only have two flavours in their line up (Root Beer and Ginger Ale), with a third one (Orange Cream) scheduled to launch this month.

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With all of these new soda companies popping up, the big brands have to acclimatize to the new market. PepsiCo, the company behind the Pepsi soft drinks, seems to have noticed the shift in consumer purchasing habits and are trying to adapt. The company recently launched a new line of craft fountain soda beverages called “Stubborn Soda" which is currently only available in select U.S. regions in restaurants.

The Stubborn Soda fountain from PepsiCo (image courtesy PepsiCo)

While PepsiCo has committed to creating these new beverages with all natural flavors, and without high-fructose corn syrup, not everyone is convinced that this new product can be called craft.

“They’ve got high [levels of] sugar, and they use preservatives in them, but they call them craft,” exclaimed Jennifer Martin, founder of SIP soda in Vancouver. “We need regulations around craft. I don’t think something should be called craft if it’s adding chemicals and doing the same things that mass produced sodas do.” 

Jennifer Martin, founder of SIP soda, shows off her craft soda line
(image courtesy SIP soda)

Martin’s line of craft sodas is made with heavily mineralized water, herbs and cane sugar, and come in flavors like Lavender Lemon Peel, and Coriander Orange. Her sodas have less than one gram of sugar per ounce, a metric that she says is the new standard for healthy sugar consumption. She also believes that healthy, preservative-free, low-sugar beverages should be the standard in the craft soda market.

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“Phillips does a lovely job because they use fresh ginger and they brew it much like they brew their beer, but I think where they really missed the mark is they put in sodium benzoate as a preservative, and I don’t know why you would launch any product today with preservatives in it. It’s not what consumers want.”

Phillips says he chose to use a preservative instead of pasteurizing his product in order to maintain the flavors in his product. He says, “it’s just a choice that we made in terms of keeping the ginger flavors as bright as we could.”

Martin also expressed concern over the sugar content in Just Craft Soda’s drinks, saying that she would like to see more companies making soda with low levels of sugar.

“We don’t want craft soda to get the same bad publicity that soft drinks are receiving,” she said.

While McEachern says that his company supports responsible consumption of all food and beverage products, he adds that ultimately it’s up to the consumer to be “personally responsible for achieving balance” in their diets.

 It may take a few years for the craft soda industry to decide what defines a product as “craft” or not, but meanwhile consumers can make their own decisions as they try out these new products.