Craft drinks are coming into their own. Gone are the days when choice was limited to the main orange juice, lemonade, tomato juice and cola brands – or a squirt in the eye from a soda syphon.
Trends among discerning Millennials has meant that consumers can choose from a cornucopia of creative concoctions, from the likes of Sandows’ Cold Brew Soda, Belvoir Fruit Farms’ Rhubarb & Apple Presse to Luscombe Sparkling Sour Cherry Water and Firefly Pomegranate & Elderflower.
Chris Banks, chairman of Cracker Drinks Co, creator of the Crafted brand, says: “Independent research we had specially commissioned has shown us that more people in the UK are interested in craft juice and juice drinks than any other drinks category, including beer, wine or spirits.”
Open to interpretation
What constitutes ‘craft’ is open to interpretation. Sara Walker, marketing director of Craft Drink Festival, says: “Generally, consumers would expect craft soft drinks to be creatively produced using quality, organic, locally- sourced ingredients. They would also expect interesting flavours and innovative recipes, offering them the chance to try something new.”
But she does not think ‘craft’ is necessarily all about unusual flavours. “Craft soft drink producers are still making the classics, like cola and lemon & lime, but they’re avoiding additives, using fresh, organic ingredients and, crucially, less sugar than the big brands,” she says.
Andrew Jackson, marketing director at Fentimans, whose drinks include Rose Lemonade, and Mandarin & Seville Orange Jigger, and Sparkling Raspberry, says craft soft drinks, commonly known as artisanal, offer a premium alternative to “normal” soft drinks and contain “genuine authenticity, natural credentials and creative, unorthodox flavours”.
Sabrina Brooks, co-founder of Peel & Spice, which is launching Ginger & Cinnamon, and Lemongrass & Black Pepper drinks this summer, says craft soft drinks’ manufacture involves “high levels of human input” and they are not owned by large companies.
Brooks argues that craft soft drinks are not necessarily premium in terms of appearance and price. “A lot is to do with the way they source ingredients, how they process them, at what scale and the value they place on sustainable, ethical methods.”
She warns, however, that overuse of the word ‘craft’ across the beverage industry could see its impact diluted in similar ways as ‘premium’ – hence producers seem to be turning to other descriptors such as ‘homemade’ or ‘artisan’.
Consumers are spoilt for choice. Franklin & Sons, for example, makes Brewed Ginger Beer with Malted Barley & a Squeeze of Lemon, which it says pairs well with spring rolls or a Thai green curry or a dark chocolate tart.
Rhubarb, cucumber and Seville mandarin are among options from Square Root Soda. Previous seasonal offerings from the enterprise have included Bergamot, and Pear & Aronia.
Chia and charcoal have made guest appearances in the sector, observes Ellie Rose, marketing manager of Coldpress, whose own fruit & nut milks are an example of unexpected ingredient bedfellows working harmoniously together, she says.
Market intelligence consultancy CGA says craft soft drinks and pop-ups fit well with the non-mass market image of independence, a niche position, home-grown in some instances and in terms of quality and flavour.
Pev Manners, managing director of Belvoir Fruit Farms, agrees that the products pop-ups stock reflect this ethos and so need to be a little unexpected – so standard colas or carbonates do not work. “Craft soft drinks
that are there to be discovered and offer something different, do,” he says.
Talula White, co-founder of Sekforde Drinks, says pop-ups provide the option to explore new and unfamiliar cuisines, engage with those who are passionate about them and share the experience with friends. “People can try something new and share their thoughts and expose others to something new that they feel like they have discovered.”
Sekforde has been working with Urban Food Fest, where White says the brand has gone down “brilliantly”.
She says: “It fits with the desire to explore, and the bar team love that it lets them create a sophisticated tasting drink in seconds without complicated equipment”.
Jen Draper, head of marketing at Franklin & Sons, says drinks that include secondary and tertiary flavours have become “the go-to” for pop-ups as they adhere to the discerning tastes of consumers, but offer “easy-to-build, elevated flavours”.
These ingredients have the ability to bring out certain flavours within a dish to make them “a deliciously different but perfect match for street food or flavour pairings on the go. This provides operators with plenty of opportunity to upsell through their pop-up outlets”, says Draper.
Sekforde Drinks says that more recently there has been a boom in new brands creating unusual recipes, such as kombucha.
“The key surge in interest seems to be linked to the explosion of gin’s popularity and Fever-Tree’s success. People are more interested in, and [are] paying more attention to, the drinks they are selecting and want more variety and quality,” says White.
“Down the line, we could expect that competition between the numerous brands born out of this period of creativity will eventually lead to the best quality and most established remaining, while others dwindle. But if the craft beer and gin industries are anything to base predictions on, that point is rather far down the timeline.”
The niche nature of such drinks feeds into the social-media craze, although traditional advertising is also used. Fentimans, for example, has more than 250,000 followers across all platforms and uses this to communicate with its consumers in a direct way “with engaging content” about who Fentimans is, how it operates and providing consumers with a more personal connection to the brand, explains Jackson.
“Combining this with carefully placed traditional advertising in consumer and trade channels and other types of marketing, such as PR and events, form the basis of our successful marketing mix.”
It is important pop-up bars or kitchens review the performance of their craft soft drinks range regularly and ensure they suit their offering.
Franklin & Sons’ Draper says staying ahead of trends and innovation is key to ensuring they remain relevant and are seen as leaders in the sector.
It is likewise vital they continually review their offerings to make sure they are investing in soft drinks their consumers are actually drinking and that pair well with their food offering. “We know non-alcohol drinkers do not want to be treated like second-class citizens. And the best way to ensure they feel valued is to provide them with the same amount of care, attention and drink theatre as their cocktail drinking counterparts,” adds Draper CGA emphasises the need for “serves that do justice to the product quality – anything that can add a bit of theatre or drama”.
Franklin & Sons has created the Franklin & Sons soft-drink perfect serve guide to act as a point of reference for bar tenders. The guide includes generic serving suggestions, as well as recommended garnishes – and ensures the soft drinks are indistinguishable from alcoholic cocktails.
Is interest in craft soft drinks here to stay? Walker reckons that with Millennials drinking increasingly less alcohol, it does not look like interest in craft soft drinks will wane any time soon – if anything, it should increase.
“However, as more and more breweries start meeting the demand for low- and no-alcohol beer, producers of craft soft drinks may find themselves competing with the UK’s top craft breweries,” she says CGA describes the craft soft-drinks sector in the UK as “more emerging than vibrant”. It cautions that, as small brands gain traction and grow into the mainstream, they will lose their ‘craft’ perception.
Fentimans’ Jackson is rather more enthused and says the subsector is continuing to see huge growth and he thinks it will follow that of craft beer. “Consumers are changing, they are more informed with what is going inside their drink and they now want more options for their soft drinks as well. As more and more operators begin to adopt these types of soft drinks over traditional choices, consumer demand will continue to increase.”
What can we look forward to in future? The sugar levy is having a huge impact. Sekforde Drinks’ White says people are genuinely much more aware of what they consume and are looking for more interesting choices.
They now know they do not have to compromise on health and taste and that these things can co-exist.
Palates seem to be getting more adventurous, looking away from the usual, heavily sugared and traditionally flavoured softs, towards products such as kombucha and even “shrub serves that use vinegary flavours to provide deeper dimensions to the experience”.
Robyn Simms, co-founder of Square Root London, says it’s “a great time” to be in the craft soft-drinks sector.
“There are loads of new people entering the market and loads of innovation in terms of new flavours and new approaches to making soft drinks.”