The success of craft beer hasn't been lost on the soda industry.
Earlier this month, PepsiCo began experimenting with a new offering called Caleb's Kola, which comes in glass bottles, carries the phrase "honor in craft" prominently on the front, and is sweetened with real cane sugar (rather than high fructose corn syrup). The cola is named after Caleb Bradham, Pepsi's founder, who first developed the recipe more than 100 years ago, and is currently being sold at CostCo locations in Maryland, New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C..
In some ways, Caleb's is the soda industry's latest stab at stemming the country's growing disinterest in soda. Americans, after all, have been drinking less and less soda every year for more than a decade. The challenges have become as broad as they are substantial—even diet soda sales are now disappointing. Soda-makers have responded by working to develop a number of targeted brands, which include Pepsi True and Coca-Cola Life.
"Soda companies have been experimenting with changing the formula, whether it's repacking products or bringing entirely new offerings to market," said Chris Gindlesperger, director of public affairs for the American Beverage Association.
But Pepsi's newest brand also marks a shift into an entirely new territory and experiment that the rest of the soda world is going to watch closely. Different from other offerings, which were borne from a demand for both lower calorie and naturally sweetened options, Caleb's is an attempt to answer what could prove an exciting question for the struggling industry:
If Americans fell in love with craft beer, will they also go for craft soda?
The rise of craft beer, after all, has been a bright spot in the otherwise challenged beer industry. And it has, rather counterintuitively, benefited some of the industry's largest players. While light beer sales continue to disappoint—sales are expected to fall to their lowest in a decade next year, according to a report in Shanken News Daily—craft beers have done just the opposite. Craft beer now accounts for more than 14 percent of beer dollar sales in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. Most of the country's fastest growing brands are now craft beers. And many of them—including the single fastest growing craft beer brand, Shock Top—happen to be owned by big beer-makers, like Anheuser Busch-Inbev.
"They [Pepsi] watched what happened in the beer business, and decided it's worth a try," said John Sicher, the publisher of Beverage Digest. "It's going to be important for me and other industry watchers to see how it does."
Industry experts, however, warn that there are many reasons why the appeal of craft beer might not translate to the soda industry.
Beer, to begin with, can have a much more nuanced flavor profile than soda, which could put a cap on craft soda's popularity. "There just isn't as much room for flavor and quality discernment among consumers," said Jonas Feliciano, an industry analyst at market research firm Euromonitor. "With soda, you're basically putting a different type of syrup in with your sugar water." In other words, it might be hard to convince consumers that a craft soda is more premium, because they might not be able to taste a difference in quality.
The soda industry is also unique in that the major brands have both a mass appeal and malleability that allows them to be served in more formal settings, a distinction that doesn't hold as true in the beer space. "If Queen Elizabeth were holding a reception at Buckingham palace, she would probably serve Russian Vodka and French Champagne," said Sicher. "But for soft drinks, she would be perfectly satisfied serving Coke and Pepsi, because, for the vast majority of consumers Coke and Pepsi are as premium as they need."
The suggestion is simple: when people drink soda, they're happy to drink big brands in a broad range of settings. And that could undercut the appeal of a craft soda, which implies a premium quality and concept the market doesn't necessarily need or, even, necessarily want.
"It's hard to say where there might there be room for something like Caleb's," said Sicher.
Still, it's equally hard to blame Pepsi for giving it a go.
Mexican Coke, after all, while it does carry Coca-Cola's brand prominently, offers a similar experience—a glass bottle, real cane sugar, branding reminiscent of soda's earlier days, and limited availability—and it has developed a cult following. By selling Caleb's exclusively at CostCo, where many restaurants and eateries buy alcohol in bulk, Pepsi might be aiming for something similar—a slow, calculated move into becoming a product that is novel. "There could easily be a home for craft soda at restaurants and other establishments that are looking to differentiate themselves," said Feliciano. "If it's going to work anywhere, that's one place it could succeed."
And craft beer's popularity, while unique in several ways, shouldn't be completely discounted, either. "I'm skeptical," said Sicher. "But all the reasons people drink craft beer could be transferable to the soft drink business."