Local craft soda gives Chicago a blast from the past
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A clunky line of 1920s machinery churns out bottles of Chicago Draft Style soda at an old brick building on the near South Side.
One person feeds bottles into a machine that cleans, fills, caps, shakes and labels them within minutes. Two people at the end of the line place them in cases.
Bill Daker, the brand’s owner, snatches a root beer off the conveyor belt. Its taste, he says, is wintergreen with a creamy finish.
“It taps into your memory of what it used to be like,” Daker said. “Life right now seems to get more complex every day, and drinking a soda reminds you of a simple time.”
Chicago Draft Style, a line of craft sodas developed by Daker’s company, Des Plaines-based Cool Mountain Beverages, comes in five flavors: root beer, ginger beer, black cherry, cream soda and ginger ale.
The beverages are mixed and bottled by Filbert’s Old Time Root Beer, one of two independent bottlers left in Chicago. The family-owned McKinley Park firm sells its own sodas and bottles other companies’ beverages, including Chicago Draft Style.
Chicago Draft Style, launched in April, is available around the city including at Potash, Copperfield’s Market and The Godfrey Hotel, which stocks its minibars with the soda, Daker said.
The Drake Hotel includes Chicago Draft Style in Chicago-themed gift baskets for special clients or customers, said Lynda Simonetti, the hotel’s director of publicity.
And 7-Eleven recently gave Cool Mountain approval to pitch its products to 340 franchise locations, according to Daker.
Chicago Draft Style wasn’t originally available in its eye-catching bottles that display the Willis Tower between two beams of light.
Starting in 2006, Daker sold Chicago Draft Style in kegs to college students. Customers began asking for individual bottles of root beer; eventually, Daker delivered.
After that venture proved successful, he expanded the line and offered several flavors in bottles.
The expansion has its perks. In March, bottles of Chicago Draft Style appeared as a party prop in an episode of “Chicago Fire.”
But that cameo doesn’t reflect a craft soda craze, according to Elizabeth Sisel, a beverage analyst for market research company Mintel Group. Craft soda is a small segment of the carbonated beverage industry, she said, and it’s not catching on quickly.
In 2016, Mintel found that 37 percent of consumers drank craft soda, up only 3 percent from 2015.
Craft soda makers face two major hurdles: getting people to drink it more often and justifying its higher price, Sisel said.
One way to do that is creating new reasons to indulge, she said. Pairing soda with meals, for example, can encourage people to drink it more.
That idea evidently crossed Daker’s mind; he said spicy Chicago Draft Style ginger beer goes well with Indian and Asian foods and makes great Moscow Mules.
Although the brand focuses on traditional flavors, Daker said there’s a Chicago Draft Style blueberry root beer in the works.
Future growth aside, just supplying the product was tough.
Daker pitched Chicago Draft Style to the city’s big beer distributors, but they told him they didn’t “get it.” So he began self-distributing in April.
“We hired a couple of salespeople, got a driver, got a truck and we started going out,” Daker said. It was an expensive, difficult approach that focused on sampling, word-of-mouth and taking the product to “hip and cool” areas such as Wicker Park.
“It’s brutal. Absolutely brutal. That’s why you try and get a distributor first,” he said. “Nothing of reward is without a challenge. So we accepted the challenge. We want to put it out there because we think we got a good product.”
Craft sodas are an alternative to mainstream carbonated soft drinks, but they cost more for the premium ingredients, Mintel’s Sisel said.
A 24-pack of 12-ounce bottles of Chicago Draft Style root beer costs $28; the same amount of Pepsi is $4.99 at 7-Eleven. Chicago Draft Style flavors also come in half- and quarter-barrels.
“It’s made in Chicago, which not many brands are anymore,” Daker said. “It has a Chicago name on it, which hopefully helps us become that iconic brand we want to be.”