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Boozy Sodas: Soft Drink or Beer?

Call it the mystery of the missing ginger ale. In 2014, Unknown Brewing owner Brad Shell was bar hopping after a Port Townsend, Washington, beer festival, and grabbed a whiskey ginger, a go-to drink. “The flavor was so awesome compared to run-of-the-mill ginger ales,” says Shell, whose brewery and distillery was based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bar crawls are rarely life-altering, any epiphanies lost after last call. But that next morning, Shell recalled that zippy ginger ale—and thirsted for more. He canvassed local bars, coming up empty. “I had this taste in my head that didn’t exist,” says Shell.

For a half decade, he fruitlessly hunted for that bracing ginger zing, but brewers can create what they crave. After accidentally ordering too much ginger for a wheat beer, Shell made ginger ale, put it on tap, and toted growlers home to mix with whiskey. “I had no intent to sell it,” he says, but Unknown’s bartenders began serving his ginger ale after it was accidentally left on tap. “I was mad,” Shell says. 

Photo by Jonathan Cooper

With a cooler outlook, Shell realized that ginger ale made an excellent alcohol-free option for everyone. He brewed more soda using hand-peeled ginger root, cane sugar, and fresh lime juice, and Unknown canned the ginger ale. By spring 2020, it became the company’s bestseller, outpacing the flagship IPA. “We didn’t put any sales or marketing behind it, we just made it and it kept growing,” Shell says. However, running a viable brewery, distillery, taproom, food truck, and soda company during the pandemic proved daunting. In June 2021, he sold his production facility and taproom to HopFly, a North Carolina brewery, to focus on Unknown Craft Ginger Ale. “I had to pick a lane, and ginger ale was the lane that seemed to have the clearest path to success,” Shell says.

These are fiscally difficult days in brewing. Shelf space at shops and taps at bars and restaurants are scarce. With inflation escalating costs for raw materials and labor, plus competition from wine, spirits, and hard seltzers and kombucha, in addition to overall market maturity, “breweries are looking for growth opportunities,” says Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association

Instead of bemoaning flat sales, breweries are expressing fizzy optimism about soda. They’re using brewing equipment to make full-flavored sodas sold to anyone, regardless of age. Breweries are appealing to local customers by channeling the flavor profile of regional sodas such as Texas favorite Big Red, a cream soda, and North Carolina’s cherry-like Cheerwine. And national soda brands such as Mountain Dew and Stewart’s are being remixed with alcohol for the over-21 crowd. Pass the Baja Blast HARD MTN DEW, please.

Sprecher Brewing CEO and President Sharad Chadha. | Photo by Rebecca Kames

For breweries, soda is a long-standing economic lifesaver. Prohibition forced breweries to make soft drinks to survive that dry stretch, including Verifine Lemon Soda from Miller, and F.X. Matt’s Utica Club line of sodas, later rebooted as a lager. Oregon’s Weinhard Brewing renamed itself the Henry Weinhard Plant and sold Puritan Brand Sodas. “They had the equipment and knew how to put carbonated liquids into bottles and cans,” Watson says. 

In 1985, Randy Sprecher opened his eponymous brewery in Milwaukee. It focused on European beers such as the Black Bavarian schwarzbier. He brewed root beer for kids tagging along on brewery tours. The soda proved so popular that Sprecher began distribution. The soda line expanded in time, today encompassing several dozen brands and more than 90 percent of the company’s sales. “Craft soda is where craft beer was 15 to 20 years ago,” says Sharad Chadha, the CEO and president of Sprecher Brewing, now based in Glendale, Wisconsin. 

When Chadha led an investment group that bought Sprecher in 2020, doubters abounded. “People were like, ‘Hey, there’s a war on sugar,’ ” Chadha says. Sprecher produces grape, cream, orange dream, and other sodas primarily with raw Wisconsin honey. The fire-heated brewing kettles caramelize the sugar for flavorful depth. “We brew our soda in the same kettles as our beers,” Chadha says. In addition to their year-round core line, Sprecher’s sodas also follow a beer-like seasonal release model, including a summery strawberry and a red apple fit for fall. The biggest difference is production time: Sprecher lagers can take eight weeks, while sodas are produced and packaged in 24 to 48 hours, making for an efficient use of equipment. 

With the nationwide competition, breweries can find it tough to expand beyond their local and regional footprint. Sprecher sells sodas in more than 35 states. It expanded its lineup last fall by buying a portfolio of venerable Midwestern sodas. They include Green River, founded in Iowa in 1916; the Caruso’s line of Italian-style sodas; and WBC Craft Sodas first created by Goose Island—yes, the brewery. “We want to be a national craft beverage company,” Chadha says, eying national and international growth.

Warped Wing sodas. | Photo by Tara Spoores

Sodas are strong additions to taprooms. Warped Wing Brewing opened in Dayton, Ohio, in 2014. Shortly after it included root beer on tap and later added sodas such as cherry vanilla and banana cream, ensuring there’s always a nonalcoholic option available. Warped Wing’s soda strategy expanded during the pandemic, says Nick Bowman, a founder and head of sales and marketing. Like many families, Bowman was spending more time home with his family, and they started exploring craft sodas together. “We had our beers on the weekends and started buying soda for our kids as a treat,” Bowman says. 

Last June, the brewery debuted the Warped Wing Soda Co., using a Pennsylvania co-packer to produce root beer sold in six-packs of glass bottles. “Bottles have a higher-end image to soda consumers and conjure up a feeling of nostalgia,” Bowman says. It’s the first packaged Warped Wing product suited for everyone. “Families are looking for things to do and connect with each other,” says Bowman, who adds that the brewery ordered packaging equipment along with a new soda-exclusive tank to bring production in-house this summer.

Focusing on soda improved work-life balance for Unknown’s Shell. As a brewery owner, he was always on call. “One Friday night, I remember arguing with the food inspector about pepperoni at 11 p.m.,” he says. Now Shell and his six-year-old son, Stryker, try ginger varieties together. “He relishes the fact that he’s the head tasting officer,” Shell says. On the business side, Shell finds selling ginger ale to be a blast too. Brewery sales reps deluge bars and restaurants, and “you’d be the eighth rep in line to talk to a manager whose eyes were glazed over,” Shell says. Offering a fresh ginger ale makes jaded eyes open wide. “They’re like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’”

Offering a fresh ginger ale makes jaded eyes open wide. “They’re like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’”—Brad Shell

Hard soda started spilling across America in 2013 thanks to Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Imitators fast followed its sugary footsteps. Anheuser-Busch InBev created the Best Damn line of boozy sodas. And Coney Island Brewing sold hard sodas in flavors such as orange cream ale. Not long after, hard seltzers like Truly and White Claw became 100-calorie juggernauts, souring the sweet boom. “The health-and-wellness trend stunted growth,” says Emily Hoyle, senior marketing director at Pabst Brewing, which produces and distributes Not Your Father’s Root Beer. It’s no longer a buzz brand, but it remains a steady seller. “Not Your Father’s was ahead of the curve,” Hoyle says, sparking what alcohol could be beyond beer. “And that was flavors we know and love.”

The last couple of years were trying, and in stressful times we turn to serotonin-spiking food and drink. “When you try our stuff you just go, ‘Wow, that was my childhood,’ ” says Tim Kovac, who took 78 attempts over two years to create Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Several years ago, Kovac sold the Small Town and Not Your Father’s brands to Pabst, which produces the 5.9 percent root beer. In late 2019, Kovac and Jay Chevli opened the Spirit Water brewery and distillery in Cary, Illinois. He continues to experiment with soda-inspired beers, called Iconic, including vanilla cream ale, lemon-lime, and barrel-aged root beer that’s nearly 25 percent ABV. “People sit down and try our beers and spirits with a smile,” Kovac says. “It’s priceless to hear them say, ‘I found my beer.’”

Or maybe it’s a different kind of mixed drink. Emerging from the pandemic and looking to long-term growth, beverage companies have started partnering with breweries to create boozy versions of beloved sodas. In 2020, Coca-Cola partnered with Molson Coors to manufacture, market, and distribute Topo Chico Hard Seltzer, released last year, and this summer the companies will team up for Simply Spiked Lemonade. It features juice-aisle flavors such as strawberry lemonade and blueberry lemonade, no explanation needed. “Simply is a huge brand,” says Jamie Wideman, the vice president of innovation at Molson Coors. “It’s in one of every two households.”

One of America’s most recognizable sodas is Mountain Dew, allegedly created in the 1940s as a lemony companion to moonshine, often nicknamed Mountain Dew. Now the soda is returning to its boozy roots with HARD MTN DEW, a partnership between PepsiCo and Boston Beer Company, the makers of Truly, Twisted Tea, and Samuel Adams beers. PepsiCo supplies the brand with Mountain Dew concentrate, including original and Baja Blast flavors, which is blended with a malt alcohol base more akin to “making a cocktail versus a beer,” says product developer Kate Lofft, who used “alternative sweeteners” to hit the 100-calorie, zero-sugar stats. 

HARD MTN DEW debuted in February in Florida, Iowa, and its Tennessee birthplace, and the brand ran a contest asking fans how far they would go to try a HARD MTN DEW. “Drinkers went wild,” says head of marketing Kelli McCusker. In two weeks, the brand received more than 10,000 submissions, from wrestling grizzly bears to quitting jobs, and HARD MTN DEW should roll out nationwide next year.

Hard sodas and seltzers don’t always need to follow a diet route. Stewart’s Enterprise is taking a dual-pronged approach with its line of root beer and nonalcoholic sodas, which dates to 1924 and remains a supermarket staple. (Keurig Dr Pepper manufactures Stewart’s nonalcoholic sodas.) Last year, Stewart’s Enterprise launched 100-calorie Spiked Seltzers in root beer, orange cream, raspberry lime, and black cherry. This spring, the company debuted the Spiked Soda line of similar flavors that weigh in at 340 calories and up, delivering richer taste and removing the veneer of permissible indulgence. “Sometimes for flavor, you don’t care about calories,” say Tony Gaines, the CEO of Stewart’s Enterprise. 

There are only so many mass-appeal sodas on store shelves. Breweries are increasingly channeling local and regional brands for a business pop. In early 2020, COOP Ale Works of Oklahoma City released its Will & Wiley seltzer line, finding one flavor resonated with locals: cherry lime, a tribute to the cherry limeade soda flavor at SONIC Drive-In, founded in Oklahoma and headquartered close by COOP. “If you lined up five restaurants and asked someone which one is the cherry limeade restaurant, 99 percent of the time they’ll point to SONIC,” says COOP president Sean Mossman.

Seeing the success of cherry lime and similar soda-brewery collaborations, COOP and the restaurant company partnered to create SONIC Hard Seltzer in the company’s signature flavors, including Ocean Water, tinted blue and evocative of coconut. “We work very closely with the same team that makes the beverages that are on the menu at SONIC locations,” Mossman says of the seltzers, released last year and now rolling out in 31 states.

Thompson Island Brewing’s Tropical Punch Sour Ale.

Staying true to flavor is key for soda collaborations. Cheerwine soda is based in Salisbury, North Carolina, and for the soda’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the company launched the annual Cheerwine Festival, featuring Cheerwine-infused beers from local brewery New Sarum. The first year, New Sarum released a rye ale infused with Cheerwine syrup aged in a bourbon barrel. “It was too beer nerdy,” says brewmaster and co-owner Andy Maben. The next year, he created a crowd-pleasing domestic lager laced with Cheerwine syrup that “showcases Cheerwine in its glory but still tastes like beer,” he says.

Cheerwine lager cans typically sell out on release day at New Sarum’s taproom, and kegs run dry during the festival. (New Sarum also makes a Cheerwine-infused hazy IPA, sour ale, and stout.) When the beer is gone, it’s gone, no more until the following festival. That’s a conscious decision by Cheerwine; selling soda-inspired beer year-round contradicts hard-fought messaging. “They’ve spent more than 100 years telling people there’s no wine in Cheerwine,” Maben says.

Instead of partnering with soda companies, other breweries are creating beverage-inspired beers that tiptoe around copyright infringement. In San Antonio, Islla Street Brewing makes Rojo, a sour ale infused with iconic Texas cream soda Big Red. Evil Twin Brewing NYC made a sour ale flavored with Mountain Dew syrup that was called Midtown Dew. And Tripping Animals Brewing in Doral, Florida, brews the Fresco series of soda-style beers and the fruity High-Sea Punch, its illustrated label featuring a Hi-C–inspired juice box. “People can easily recognize what the taste is going to be,” says Ignacio Montenegro, a founder and the executive creative director. 

Playful wording helps, too. Thompson Island Brewing makes the Ta Da! series of vibrantly hued sour ales “brewed with your favorite juice drink.” Oh, yeah? Yeah, it’s cool. “It’s obvious what we’re using but without saying Kool-Aid,” says brewmaster Jimmy Valm. It’s tapping the past for the present, made extra delicious with a spoonful of sentimentality. Adults who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, maybe mixing vodka with Kool-Aid, would approve. “We’ve been playing off nostalgia for generations ahead of us, but now it’s our generation,” Valm says.

People outgrow beverages as years accrue, sucking up Capri Sun pouches before embracing Campari and soda. Taste buds evolve, but our earliest flavor experiences are imprinted as happy moments in our gray matter, no matter if your favorite soda or juice was red, purple, orange, or green. Making sodas and giving soft drinks a harder edge might seem like sacrilege to purists, but they’re symptomatic of the brewing industry’s constant evolution. “Very few companies are making the same products they did 50 or 100 years ago,” Watson says. “Being adaptable is how you stick around.”

Expect the mash-ups to accelerate. Earlier this year, Monster Beverage bought the CANarchy brewery collective that includes Cigar City and Oskar Blues, and Coca-Cola partnered with Constellation Brands to launch FRESCA Mixed canned cocktails. Beverages will escape their supermarket aisles, and breweries and drinks companies will offer drinks for every stage of life. Says Sprecher’s Chadha, “We want to brew good things all the way from childhood to adulthood.

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