Six years ago, David New lost his job as a field representative for Arizona Iced Tea, just around Christmastime. New didn't get mad.
He got even.
When New stumbled upon a really good keg of root beer at a local festival, he was seized by inspiration. He began toying with the idea of creating his own line of root beer. The notion remained unrealized until one day when New was shingling a roof. Unable to get the old song, "Route 66," out of his head, New had a sudden vision: a root beer called Root 66.
"The name," New said to himself, "has got marketing potential like you can't believe."
Now, five years later, New's Root 66 Root Beer has established a loyal regional following and is preparing to undergo a national expansion. New isn't the only entrepreneur who's taking the humble soda to refined heights. After decades of consolidation in the soft drink business, some consumers are bucking that trend and seeking variety in their sodas--and people like New are rushing to fill the void.
In some places, old-fashioned soda fountains--the kind run by "soda jerks"--are being refurbished and reopened.
Soda pilgrims are flocking to such places as the bottling plant in Dublin, Tex., where Dr Pepper and several nearly extinct soda brands are still being made with treasured cane sugar, rather than the near-universal corn syrup.
Archaic regional brands from around the country--such as Moxie, Cheerwine and Vernor's Ginger Ale--are hot once again. In Dallas, an ex-advertising man has opened a boutique called Ifs, Ands & Butts that sells only fine tobacco and 125 different brands of sodas you've probably never heard of.
And then there's a special breed: the entrepreneurs who created their own gourmet concoctions from scratch. Few states are blessed with a crop of visionary sodaphiles as diverse as those in Virginia.
New runs his Roadside Beverage Co. from his home in Charlottesville. A family-run bottler in the Rappahannock River town of Montross makes Carver's Original Ginger Ale in a ginger-scented 1932 factory. And the Old Dominion Brewing Company produces Dominion Root Beer in an industrial park in Ashburn, a half-hour's drive from downtown D.C.
"I wanted to make something like I remembered A&W tasting like when I was a kid," said Jerry Bailey, the president of Old Dominion Brewing Co. "It was a treat for the family to go for a drive and have a carhop serve frosted mugs of root beer. I remember it being creamy, with a wonderful, aromatic quality. But I didn't remember any root beers in the last decade tasting like that. So I thought I'd make one."
The Routes to Flavor
Each of Virginia's three soda makers came up with his flavor in different ways.
Carver's recipe wasn't new at all. It was created when Arthur E. Carver III, the president of Northern Neck Bottling Co., dug up an old recipe that his grandfather had produced in the 1920s but then abandoned. The recipe was a premium version of the company's Northern Neck ginger ale.
In 1992, Carver began selling it as Carver's Original Ginger Ale in upscale markets. Unlike most mass-market ginger ales, Carver's Original uses real ginger and pure cane sugar. Carver's also has slightly less carbonation, for a smoother feel.
"In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the only ginger ales left were primarily those bought [out] by larger companies like Canada Dry and Schweppes and Seagrams," Carver says.
"People tell me they don't taste like they did when they were a kid. We attract a more traditional crowd. These are people who are looking for real flavor."
As Carver's was finding its niche, New was filing paperwork to protect his brand name and toiling to find the right flavor to match it.
"I spent a year buying flavors and extracts, figuring out how root beer was made," New says. "I'm not chemist, so I got help on that end. But it was a lot of buying and tinkering--sarsaparilla, sweet birch, chicory, fennel, anise, yucca, caramel, cane sugar--and then blending them in different ways."
New found a Virginia plant willing to run a 100-case test batch, and after sampling it, New decided it still needed some more tinkering. "I knew that to have any chance at all, I had to be a notch, or several, better than anything else out there," he says.
By mid-1995, he finally came up with the right mix--a rich brew with hints of angel food cake or cotton candy. Last fall New started selling a Root 66 black cherry soda and has since added key lime and vanilla creme.
In the meantime, Bailey, as the founder of a robust microbrewery operation, had greater resources to work with than New did. But his efforts to find the right root beer flavor were just as circuitous.
"We had a little excess capacity, and I had always been a root beer fan, so I really wanted to see if I could make a good root beer," Bailey says.
He read articles on the subject, and went to the Library of Congress to look up some old recipes. Unfortunately, Bailey says, he had to give up that plan because he couldn't understand some of the the 18th-century terminology.
So he returned to trial and error. After a couple months' worth of tinkering, Bailey found his ingredient: honey.
He tried table honey but found it too sweet. Then he tried dark honey. "It had wonderful aromatics, a decent body--it wasn't watery--and it wasn't cloyingly sweet," Bailey says.
Better yet, it was a local Virginia product.
By now, all three Virginia micro-soda brands appear to be hitting the spot with consumers. Each of the bottlers reports acceptable levels of profits; each, to one degree or another, is seeking to expand his brands beyond its present geographic home base.
Bailey currently supplies Dominion to Washington-area restaurants, upscale grocers and bigger stores such as Total Beverage and Price Club. He also distributes it as a private-label root beer to Hard Times Cafe, the refreshment stand at Mount Vernon and to Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, Bailey's root beer and Carver's ginger ale--both bottled under private labels--are among the top sellers at Williamsburg.
Carver's Original is also distributed to Sutton Place Gourmet and Total Beverage in the Washington area, as well as to scattered markets nationwide, including Philadelphia, Chicago, North Carolina and South Florida.
In the meantime, New has steadily built his Root 66 brand, thanks largely to word of mouth and clever marketing. New hired an artist to adorn his bottles with a hip-looking, cactus-speckled roadscape, and he created lighthearted, offbeat advertising cards to display in stores that sell his product.
New has also worked closely with smaller distributors like Paul Casanave of Williamsburg, who distributes microbrewed sodas almost exclusively.
"I like the smaller companies," Casanave says. "You can speak directly to the owner of the company. They've got a bigger stake in it, and they're a lot more flexible."
Right now, Root 66 is sold mostly in Virginia and North Carolina, but New is about to make a national sales push.
"I have lofty sales targets," New says. "If we put together the right team, we'll go to several hundred thousand cases within the next couple of years."
Still a Struggle
To be sure, the obstacles for New--and for Bailey and Carver--are not insignificant.
The Frederick Brewing Co. of Frederick, Md., for instance, produced Blue Ridge Birch Beer from 1995 to 1997 and it sold well. Then in 1997 the company moved into newer quarters, and they decided that federal regulations would have required too big an expense in equipment, according to Timothy Keck, head brewer. But people still ask for it, and they might revive it at some point.
Micro-sodas must also contend with giants like Coke and Pepsi that hog shelf space at supermarkets and sign exclusive contracts with sellers.
In addition, niche sodas must cope with distributors who see more dollar signs from large shipments of beer than from small batches of gourmet soda. "The biggest problem," Carver says, "is the consolidation of American industry. Unique products and regional brands get squeezed out."
Perhaps hardest to overcome is the fact that micro-sodas are saddled with high prices--higher even than those of medium-sized competitors such as I.B.C. Root Beer. Full glass bottles--the only container acceptable to most soda connoisseurs--are heavy to transport, making small shipments prohibitively expensive.
"We will never be another Hires or A&W," Bailey says. "We're simply too expensive, and the soft drink business is so competitive. The big guys don't even notice us."
Louis Jacobson is staff correspondent at National Journal.
CAPTION: Virginia's micro-sodas include Root 66's several flavors, Old Dominion Root Beer and Carver's Original Ginger Ale and Northern Neck Ginger Ale.