By Ed Taylor, co-founder of Square Root Soda
It’s impossible to have missed the huge trend of craft products in recent years, with few greater examples than craft drinks. Swathes of consumers revolted against the mainstream, mass-produced drinks brands in favour of small-batch alternatives with more flavour, character, variety and personalisation.
It started as a bit of an experiment for small brewers and distillers who fancied making something that they wanted to drink but which wasn’t easily found on the market.
Customers became hooked and the craft scene exploded. As it turns out, it wasn’t just a small niche of customers who wanted to sample these new tipples, millions of people around the world became enamoured with these new, interesting beverages – and the number keeps growing.
So these craftspeople were faced with a dilemma. How could they cater to this growing thirst by producing craft drinks at scale without compromising on the unique qualities and flavours that excited their customers in the first place?
As the co-founder of craft soft drinks firm, Square Root, this is exactly the challenge that my team and I have faced over the years. We’ve gone from a small kitchen-based ginger beer operation to a full-fledged craft soda brand with our own production facility.
But while many craft alcohol brewers, like Brewdog and Beavertown, paved the way for others to produce craft beer at scale, we didn’t have examples in our own industry to follow (craft soda production is a very different process to beer brewing).
We were determined to find ways to keep making soda that tasted as good as the stuff that we conjured up in our kitchen – that wouldn’t taste any different if we were to produce 300,000 bottles, or just three.
The good news is that we’ve found that it most certainly is possible to do – it just takes a bit of experimentation, a specialist team, and little help from technology. And it’s not only drink brands that can apply this model. In fact, I reckon we’ll see many more craft brands scaling up the production of their products in the years to come.
Anyway, here are a few key things we’ve learned about the process along the way.
It’s possible to use fresh produce
If you’re soda-sampling obsessives like us, you come to realise how much better fresh produce tastes compared to concentrates and artificial flavouring. Lemonade is a key example.
If you’ve ever made lemonade at home, you’ll know that it’s a simple combination of lemon, sugar, and fizzy water. If you’ve got some decent lemons, it tastes awesome. But most lemonade you buy just doesn’t taste as fragrant, zesty and exotic as the real thing… because it’s not.
The standard way to make lemonade at scale involves buying a tanker of pasteurised lemon juice which has already been heat-treated. This keeps it from going off at the expense of flavour. It’s often concentrated too, to reduce the amount of liquid that needs to be transported. Then a bunch of sugar is added and a compound is made, pasteurised and diluted. With each one of these processes, the taste takes a hit.
This is why most brands simply turn to lemon flavouring. It saves a whole lot of time, money and hassle. Of course, the result is lemonade in nothing more than its name. You know what they say: when life gives you lemon flavouring, you make bland lemonade. This flavouring comes from just a few different sources, with little variation, yet is used by a multitude of different brands, leading to a homogenised flavour across all mass-produced lemonade.
At Square Root, we’ve been able to use only fresh produce by building up a reliable network of quality suppliers. Sourcing fruits directly means we can be pretty picky about the ingredients and ensure quality control.
So, sticking with the example of lemonade, we source actual Sicilian lemons rather than a concentrate. We then use a good old fashioned fruit press to squeeze the oil from rinds as we press them – that’s pretty much our secret, at least when it comes to lemonade. It’s surprisingly efficient, although we do often ask: do we need a bigger juicer?
The heat treatment process then happens after bottling in order to capture more of the unique flavour of the fruit. The level of flavour that using fresh fruit brings is remarkable. It’s led to our drinks winning Great Taste and BBC Food & Farming awards, and even being stocked in Michelin star restaurants!
Using a range of other technology, tools and processes, we’re still able to use fresh ingredients in every single one of our drinks, including seasonal sodas like blackcurrant, apple and rhubarb, in line with farming harvests.
So, it really is possible to produce a huge variety of flavours using only fresh ingredients. If you can find the suppliers and source the equipment, you’re sure to make products that are a whole lot tastier as a result.
Technology is worth the investment
Investing in technology has allowed us to not only work with fresh ingredients but to be unique in our branding and production techniques too. For example, we’ve got our hands on machines able to attach labels and ring pull tops to our bottles in precisely the same position, each and every time. This means that when our bottles are on the shelves, they’re always identically neat. It’s a small touch but we think presentation is key!
We even have a removable sticker that goes on the label of our bottlenecks (we like to put secret messages inside), which the machine is also able to print and attach perfectly. This allows us to produce something that’s unique and personalised – it’s craft at scale.
Production lines are certainly within the budgets of startups these days, with all the machines able to ‘talk’ to each other and help the operators to make better decisions. By using patch cables with their own operating systems, all of our machines keep each other posted in an Internet of Things-style feedback loop. And our bottle management uses simple sensors to turn the system off if the line gets blocked, for example.
Such technology was only available to huge companies previously. But due to technological innovation, it’s now available at a smaller scale. You can even include specifications like this for custom-built machines, which allow you to do your own unique style of small batch production at scale.
Pre-Covid-19, we were always going out to tech fairs in search of new machines ideal for small stage companies, and we’ll get back to it when this is all over. So, it’s certainly worth your time to check what’s out there – what you find could be revolutionary for your business!
It pays to build a solid team, and automate the rest
The whole idea of automation is to make our lives easier by taking over tedious tasks that humans would rather avoid. We feel that we’ve been able to do this at Square Root, with all of our roles being higher-skilled, more interesting, and more rewarding.
We have a core team of 13 people who know the production process inside out. Since we don’t outsource anything and are super particular about how our drinks are made and packaged, this suits us down to a tee. We also take on seasonal workers in the summer when there are more thirsty people to cater to and things get a bit hectic.
We feel it’s important as a UK manufacturer to invest in automation. The cost of labour here is higher than in other countries, so there’s always scope for innovation.
Of course, machines aren’t as flexible or dynamic as people (…yet?). We’d like to automate our box packing, using automatic quality control to ensure that everything is perfect. But there’s not yet the technology to suit our size of operation right now, so we do all of this manually.
Very large manufacturers have cameras on the line to do this, but I doubt it’ll be too long before smaller scale automated technology becomes available.
Even though you’re a smaller company, you may well be able to automate more processes than you think and use your profits to scale up and consolidate a skilled team.
Owning the process lets you experiment and move quickly
While other soft drinks manufacturers either completely outsource their production, or make compound ingredients and send them off to a manufacturer, we’ve kept all processes entirely in-house.
We’re control-freaks, admittedly, but we quickly realised that to make small batch soda, we’d need to do it all ourselves – from concept, to manufacturing, to bottling. Whilst challenging at times, this allows us to do things that others can’t. We can, for instance, come up with a new recipe and make a small batch in our factory to try it out – just like Brewdog did with its Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA, for example.
If we didn’t do our own production, we’d have to use an external manufacturer that requires a minimum of 1,000 litres, for example, only to find out that the new recipe isn’t that great. Instead, we’re able to keep experimenting, innovating and delivering to our customers. In fact, we have a new drink launching pretty much every month this year as well as a bunch of collaborative editions.
The same goes for our seasonal sodas, collaborations with other brands, and limited edition small batches for charitable work and other good causes. For example, we’re doing a limited edition Black Heart cola for the much-loved music venue of the same name in Camden, which has struggled financially since the lockdown. Our cola has gone to auction as part of a fundraiser to try and help them stay open.