We had the pleasure to catch up with Cannonborough Beverage Co. this past week to try and get the inside scoop on what goes on behind the scenes and before those b-e-a-uful bottles are capped! From what the day to day life as soda brewers, to learning where they get their inspiration on their drinks, as well as learning about their mantra of “growing up with soda.”
What is the average day like in the soda brewery?
Since there’s only three of us right now, we have to be really smart about how we divide our time. We like to start early, kegging yesterday’s soda, and building the days batch in the morning so it has time during the day to reach the perfect level of carbonation. Once the soda is in the tank, we move into the office and start working on the business side of our company. Over the last six months, we’ve been building a bottling operation from the ground up, so it involves lots of research, sourcing of parts and equipment and packaging, developing systems, and building a strategy. Our sodas are unique in that every batch is made literally by our hands, every time. Because of this, we operate a lot more like a craft beer brewery than we do a traditional soda bottler. There were a lot of interesting challenges to overcome, but we’re in the home stretch now. We wrap up our office time returning emails, planning our production schedule, and finalizing plans for any events we have that week. From there, we get to the fun stuff. The last part of our day is spent in “the lab”, where we experiment with new ingredients and flavor combinations. It helps to do this at the end of the day, or we’d never get any real work done! A great example is a recent soda we did for a local beer festival. Being the only non-alcoholic option at the festival, we wanted to do something that beer lovers could appreciate, as well as non-drinkers, so we decided on doing a fresh hop soda. We got our hands on some fresh falconer’s flight hops, and after researching how beers are “dry hopped”, we spent several hours testing different concentrations and extraction times of the hops. We were amazed at the variety of aromatics and bitterness levels you could achieve from what seemed like fairly small variable changes. In the end, we were able to make a soda packed with fresh hop aromatics, but with just the right amount of bitterness. After we’ve exhausted our “research”, we clean, mop up, and head home to repeat the process the next day. Oh, and at some point in that process, we make time for our mandatory skateboard breaks.
– Do you draw inspiration for drinks from something, and if so, what is it from?
We draw inspiration from a variety of places, both expected and unorthodox, but ultimately we get ideas from the community in Charleston, SC. We like to talk to others within the Food and Beverage community, be it bartenders, brewers, farmers or chefs, and I think the style of soda we produce is a direct reflection on where we come from. We focus on sodas that are based around three principals,: Simplicity of flavors, quality of ingredients, and adherence to seasonality. This is a common theme in the cuisine of Charleston, and I think we picked these ideals up from the restaurants we’ve worked and dined in. For example, the grapefruit elderflower is based on a cocktail from one of our favorite bars, and the strawberry jalapeño is based on a jam a chef friend of ours makes every summer. We also like to ask the farmers themselves what they like to do with the fruits they grow, and the blueberry vanilla soda is a liquid version of a pie our blueberry farmer was nice enough to share with us.
– What are some flavors that you really like, and what are some flavors you tend to avoid?
Flavors are our playground, and while we have a lot of fun with different techniques, combining flavors in unique ways has always been the soul of our process. I don’t think there’s anything we avoid, and the more challenging the flavor is to work with, the more excited we are to try to crack it. While we do lean heavily on citrus as a base for our sodas, we try to let the ingredients we combine really do the talking. One of my favorite examples is our Lemon Laurel soda. It’s, in my opinion, one of the most refreshing, (and one of the hardest flavors to put your finger on) but so much of the complexity comes from the laurel, better known as bay leaf. It’s an ingredient everyone has in their cupboard somewhere, but is rarely ever thought of, much less the star of the show. It’s got such a distinct savory quality, without being too woody, with some very subtle hints of citrus, and a touch a vanilla and clove. By sourcing local bay leaf that grows so readily in Charleston, we get even more of those fresh, volatile aromatics that, when combined with the other elements of the soda, make for something really special. Being from the south, sorghum is something we’re excited about exploring next. The weirder the flavor, the better!
– Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
One of our goals over the next few years is to help establish and define what exactly “craft soda” is. Currently, being such a new category, the term is used VERY loosely. Traditionally, artisans and craftsmen were people who, over time, developed skills that set them apart from everyone else in their field. In the three years that we’ve been making soda, we’ve seen soda companies that have been doing really interesting and unique things, as well as companies that have caught on to the trend of craft soda and have slapped the label on bottles of concentrated juices and artificial flavorings. Much like the craft beer movement, I think it’s going to take a mix of consumer education, and collaboration between like-minded soda makers to legitimize the category, and to ensure craft soda becomes more than just a marketing gimmick.
– What have been some major struggles along the way?
The first thing that comes to mind is properly scaling our operation. It’s definitely something that has held us back, but something we wanted to take as much time as needed to perfect. When we started, we were making 5 gallon batches of soda at a time. We had, what we felt like, was a great product, but the struggle has been how to you scale that up to a 100 gallon batch and beyond without sacrificing quality. There are so many shortcuts you can take as a beverage producer to make scaling easier, (using juices from concentrate, using flavorings or extracts, or offloading production entirely to a co-packer) but we wanted to have complete control over the product to ensure that every batch is up to the quality our customers expect. By spending time and getting to know our local craft brewers, we’ve learned a ton over the last three years about how to scale without sacrificing quality.
– What has been the most exciting part of this process?
The most exciting part of the process for us has been growing our unique style of craft soda. There are a lot of ways to do craft soda, and when we first started out, we tried everything to get a feel for the types of sodas we enjoyed making most. While it was a lot of fun trying our hand a colas and various bark flavored brews, we had the most fun combining flavors that we had never seen in a soda before. Things like bay leaf, sorrel, jalapeño, and elderflower. Utilizing ingredients that are local to Charleston, SC that we had never experienced before gave us a way to include our friends in the community, and starting at the farmers market was a way to get feedback directly from the people drinking our sodas. It allowed us to tweak, and change, and develop the product into something that we think represents the flavor and spirit of Charleston. It’s also been a blast to for us, as childhood friends, to work and grow a business together. We’ve learned more than we ever imagined, and all bring different pieces of the puzzle that makes everything work. It also helps that we’re comfortable enough with each other to say, hey, lets take a break and climb a tree. We’re really proud of the progress, and think it’s unlike any craft soda out there right now.
– What flavor do you want to achieve in making next?
We’re always on the hunt for our next flavor. We spend a lot of time experimenting, trying to find the best way to extract flavors from a given ingredient. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve been introduced to a lot of great producers who have some very special ingredients they are growing. Over the summer, we’ll be showcasing a lot more of those special fruits, and by bottling it, much more people will be able to enjoy the soda outside of our local area. Also, a little bit further in the future, we’d like to create a line of sodas that are a bit more complex and nuanced than the soda we’re currently producing. We design each flavor by picking one fruit element and pairing it with an aromatic ingredient to give it complexity. We like this approach, because it gives us some constraints and allows each component to shine, without having to compete with too many other flavors. With all of our experimentation, we’ve learned how to balance more than just two flavors, and if we were to tackle something new, we’d really like to work on a line of sodas that incorporate more than two flavors. Imagine a springtime soda with cucumber, mint, basil, vanilla, citrus and something you can’t quite put your finger on. Or in winter, a soda made from bark and sap and pine needles and warming spices. It should be an obvious extension of what we’re already doing, but really see how far we can take the flavor pairings.
– I’ve seen that you have said that the idea behind your flavors is almost like the soda “growing up with you.” Where did that idea stem from?
One of the reasons we decided to start making soda in the first place was because we felt that, at the time, there wasn’t an really anything interesting for adults to drink. Sure tons of people enjoy the big name sodas we’re all familiar with, but wanted to make a soda that you didn’t feel like you should probably give up every January. The idea of a soda “growing up with you” isn’t really an age thing, as much as it’s about peoples growing tastes. People who enjoy sharing the experience of eating and drinking know the experience of tasting a drink or bite of food, and immediately insisting everyone share that delicious sip or bite with them (at least down south we do!). We wanted to make a non-alcoholic drink that would give you that same feeling of stopping in your tracks and saying “you have to try this”. Another type of growth that came to us unexpectedly was the soda growing with families. We’ve had couples over the years that enjoyed our soda at the farmers market, and asked for our soda at their weddings. We’ve received emails from expectant mothers who enjoy our soda as something exciting to drink when they don’t have many options, and even parents who are surprised a young child would appreciate such mature flavors, but happy to have a caffeine free, all natural option for them to explore. Seeing that first hand has been one of the most rewarding parts of starting this company so far.
– Continuing from the last question, do you tend to see “grown-ups” as your primary demographic, or do you tend to see a variety of people (children included) in your demographic? How do they respond to flavors such as jalapeño and elderflower?
I think when we began, we expected adults, or at least those with “adult tastes” to enjoy our sodas the most, but we’ve found that to be not entirely true. We want to make sodas with serious flavors, but we’ve also spent a lot of time making those flavors accessible to anyone who’s interested in giving them a chance. We focus on strange flavors because we want people to see our sodas and say “wow, I have no idea what that would taste like” and be curious enough to try them. We’ve found that people of all ages have that curiosity, and whether it’s what they expected or not, we enjoy seeing peoples reactions to the soda. One of the most interesting reactions we get from time to time is young children remarking that a soda is too “spicy”, even if there isn’t a spicy element in the soda itself. After some research, we discovered that while we think of the tongue as the primary detector of carbonation, there are receptors in our nasal cavity that translate carbonation as pain in a way similar to horseradish or wasabi. Children who haven’t developed a lot of experience with these sensations find sodas with higher levels of carbonation as spicy. With this knowledge, and some tricks we’ve learned from craft brewers, we’ve been able to dial in the carbonation levels of some of our sodas to make them more kid friendly. On the other hand, some of our sodas actually benefit from higher levels of carbonation. As we’ve seen our demographic grow, it’s nice to have the ability to tailor each flavor using various techniques only possible by making handmade soda.
– Where do you draw inspiration from for flavors?
We draw inspiration from a lot of places for our soda, but ultimately we treat the soda as a vehicle for the flavors, and try to find two ingredients that work better together than they would on their own. It kind of forces us to be creative with each approach, because if we’ve decided that, for example, blackberry and mint is the best combination for those two ingredients, we can’t rely on mint to support another flavor, even though it goes so well with so many things. Likewise, how can we add a berry element to another soda when we’ve already committed each berry fruit to an existing flavor? (hint: there’s a really cool flower called jicama that, while totally unrelated to berries, has a distinctly berry aroma and flavor) It always keeps us on our toes, and constantly seeking out new and interesting ingredients. It also forces us to really understand the ingredients we’re using, what similarities they share, the relationship between complimentary flavors, and what elements of an ingredient will harmonize with others. We’ve developed a lot of tools to help us with this, but the best way to learn is to go out and ask questions, taste, smell, experiment, and not be afraid to make some pretty hilarious mistakes.
– Lastly, what is the next big step for you?
The next big step for us is definitely getting into bottles and getting it out to the people who are excited and curious enough to try it. We’ve been very methodical about our growth, and until recently, the only way to try our products was to visit Charleston, and happen across us at the farmers market, or find us on tap at a restaurant. We want anyone interested in our sodas to be able to try them, and it’s a really tough thing to explain to people that we just aren’t big enough to offer our sodas outside of our local market. As I mentioned, we’ve spent a lot of time developing a plan to get bottles out there, and open an online store to provide our sodas to the rest of the world, and we’re nearing completion on that project. We’re excited to finally launch bottles this Summer available at www.cannonbevco.com and select retailers.
If there is one place you want to mark down on your bucket list of places you want to see, then Charleston, SC is definitely a place you should go! Swing on by Cannonborough Beverage Co. and pick up a growler. Tell them the boys at Dizzy Frinks sent ya!