Colorado native Ken Graham founded the craft soda company this summer, as he couldn’t find a quality root beer in the country.
There are no artificial flavors added to Soda Folk beverages. “When you’re making a really good root beer, there’s no reason to add anything to it other than really good ingredients,” said Graham.
“You pasteurize it and if there are good ingredients, then the flavors hold up and it’ll stay good for a year. There’s really no reason to add preservatives."
In addition, a UK crackdown on products containing excessive additives affected American root beer imports (which largely list benzoic acid). This was a stoke of luck, he said, as it allowed him to sell his soda to companies that usually bought big-brand root beer.
An opening on the market
Initially, Graham had planned to work at a UK bank. But he got detoured on his way to the high-paying bank job when he saw a potential market for this very-American craft soda.
“It has been selling well,” Graham said. “One of the things that gave me the confidence to do this was that there are so many American style hamburger places and barbeque joints, as well as fried chicken places.
"I knew that we could probably get into those places and after tallying up just how much that was going to be, I was able to say: ‘Oh yeah, this is a real business.’”
The sodas are currently sold at Selfridges and Byron restaurants nationwide, as well as Blu Top Ice Cream at Kerb and Druid St markets in London.
A divisive flavor and a classic
McDonald’s tried bringing root beer into the UK about 25 years ago, Graham continued, but it didn’t do very well due to its wintergreen taste - which people sometimes consider “mediciney”.
Soda Folk products
- Root Beer (carbonated water, cane sugar, vanilla extract and maple syrup), retailing at £1.40 ($1.50) per 330ml can.
- Cream Soda (carbonated water, cane sugar, Madagascan vanilla extract), retailing at £1.40 ($1.50) per 330ml can.
Thus far, Graham said Soda Folk is selling to people who already enjoy root beer in the country, something he calls a “passionate subculture”.
“In some ways it’s good,” Graham said. “The people who like it kind of feel protective over it. They get passionate about it and spread the word. I have some allies over here who have been helpful.”
On the other hand, cream soda has been an easy sell to the UK audience. Graham said he started brewing it because it was his father’s favorite; and it is an older crowd that has taken to drinking the vanilla-flavored soda. Soda Folk's Cream Soda has already won a 2015 Great Taste Award.
“There is a tradition of cream soda over here, so a lot of older people — which I didn’t necessarily expect when thinking who my customers would be — grew up drinking it a long time ago.
"If I’m doing a tasting, a lot of them will come over and say: ‘I haven’t had this since I was a kid!’ They get super nostalgic about it, and that helps. It’s a cool audience we didn’t expect to reach.”
There’s also the 'low hanging fruit' audience of American expatriates in the UK, of which Graham estimates there are approximately 200,000.
What does the future hold?
In the coming year, Graham isn’t sure what to expect. The business is hoping to launch a black cherry soda and he has been approached for distribution in countries like Sweden, France and Ireland, but he admitted that he doesn’t “even know what those markets look like”.
“If you ask me for a number of what we’re going to sell in the next 12 months, we’re still figuring it out,” he said. “We’re figuring it out on the fly. For now, I think we’re doing pretty well. It’s nice because we don’t have a lot of overheads and it’s profitable from the start."