The soda scene has undergone a major facelift in recent years. Where soft drink aficionados were once limited to the unsophisticated (but delicious) realm of Cokes and DEWs, a gaggle of trendy newcomers have fully fancified the beverage aisle. One brand sells a $35 12-pack of assorted flavors in cans reminiscent of circa-2008 American Apparel ads. Another advertises a retro, ’70s-inspired canned apéritif, which features “a biting combination of botanical extracts” and “potent extracts of natural nervines.” Meanwhile, novelty sites like Soda Pop Stop deal in nostalgic cream sodas and Soviet-style soft drinks. But what’s behind the rise of craft soda?
With soda, nostalgia is king
Throughout the pandemic, consumers have clamored for nostalgic favorites as a source of much-needed comfort. We saw this last year with the Dr. Pepper & Cream Soda, a stupendous product with the power to make your commute feel like a trip through Mayberry. This year, mixologists are leaning into nostalgic picks like the reliably chaotic Dirty Shirley. Hell, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” just landed on the Billboard Top 10 thanks to the influence of Stranger Things. As we plunge into an uncertain future, everything old is new again.
I experienced this firsthand last month, when I visited Lawrence, Kansas, for my kid brother’s college graduation. Before the ceremony, I popped into Mass Street Soda, a no-frills pop emporium that boasts “1,300 varieties of premium craft soda.” I was immediately drawn to the root beer selection, characterized by Western-inspired product labels and old-timey slogans. My interest was due in part to my pathological obsession with the Wild West—but I suspect it also had something to do with my brother’s foray into adulthood, a bittersweet occasion that left me weepy and nostalgic. So, yeah. I get it.
Craft soda embraces the power of FOMO
Last fall, we reported that boutique beverage companies were embracing “shock” flavors—and for good reason. (I’m talking Flamin’ Hot MTN DEW and Jones Turkey & Gravy Soda.) Per a GlobalData report sent to The Takeout, “traditionally popular flavors of cola” saw a combined 4.3% volume decrease in 2020, leading drink brands to “experiment with unique, limited-time-only flavors that entice a young generation that is fueled by a fear of missing out (FOMO).”
In other words, while some of us lean into nostalgia, Gen Z consumers are chugging turkey-flavored soda in an attempt to go viral on TikTok.
“Capturing the attention of online influencers is key as they could share the ‘crazy concoctions’ to their social feeds,” George Shaw, Beverages Analyst at GlobalData, commented at the time. “Further, curiosity is a powerful drive. According to GlobalData’s Q2 2021 consumer survey, around a third of U.S. consumers purchase new varieties of soft drinks out of curiosity.”
Consumers want an alternative to booze
Speaking of curiosity: As the “sober curious” movement grows, more consumers are seeking non-alcoholic options with oomph. With that, beverage brands are rolling out carbonated products that offer all of the edge and none of the booze.
“Most of us grew up with the idea that a cold can is equal to something ‘bad,’ like an energy drink or a beer,” says Mike Cessario, co-founder and CEO of Liquid Death, a canned water company that invites consumers to, ahem, “murder” their thirst. “We tap into that psychology—when you drink water in a tallboy, your brain associates it with all the times you had fun while drinking something unhealthy in a can.”
“Someone might not want to look like they’re opting out of the fun [of drinking],” Cessario adds. “Liquid Death is changing how people enjoy water socially, especially at bars.”
Market research confirms that Cessario is on the right track. Data firm Grandview Research reports that the global carbonated soft drink market size is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.7% from 2021 to 2028. “Modern-day consumers can be seen focusing on convenience, and thus a large part of everyday purchase includes single grab-and-go products rather than the conventional bulk buying products,” the report reads. “This has led to shelf-stable innovations and eco-friendly packaging, made with clean, renewable materials, and fewer preservatives and chemicals.”
Ashley Alden, the vice president of merchandising at luxury grocer Foxtrot Market, agrees. “There is also so much innovation happening in the space right now, from ingredients to packaging to flavors,” she says. “We’ve gone beyond traditional kombucha, and now there are endless more drinkable, and approachable options for consumers to choose from.”
Foxtrot carries a number of boutique soda brands—including Recess, the very trendy sparkling water that brands itself as “an antidote to modern times.” The “calming” beverage is infused with hemp and adaptogens and comes in highly Instagrammable cans with flavors like Blood Orange and Peach Ginger. (We’re big fans.)
“We’ve definitely noticed this increased desire for not just non-alcoholic options, but non-alcoholic beverages with added benefits,” says Ben Witte, founder and CEO of Recess. “Within the past couple of years, sober curiosity and sobriety in general have led to more and more consumers reaching for alternatives to alcohol. Consumer feedback has shown us that people are reaching for Recess instead of a cocktail for its satisfying taste and blend of functional ingredients.”
Whether you’re into the fancy soda scene or not, one thing is certain: Consumers are positively spoiled for choice.