American menus are in the midst of a revolution. Flavor innovation is at an all-time high, as operators leverage inspiration from historical menus and far-flung world cuisines. But perhaps the most exciting and innovative part of the menu is the nonalcoholic beverage category.
In the past, patrons may have noticed virtually no difference from one restaurant to another when it came to nonalcoholic beverages. Now, customers have a dizzying array of choices from craft and housemade to international options.
One of the biggest changes to nonalcoholic programs in the United States is the decline of commercial carbonated sodas. Plagued by continued health concerns, traditional carbonated soft drinks are now facing increased competition from a variety of small batch, craft and housemade alternatives. This new generation of carbonated beverages appeals to consumers for a number of reasons. First, many feature sweeteners that are perceived as healthier, such as cane sugar and honey. Second, many leverage seasonal produce, taking cues from culinary flavor innovation. This kind of flavor exploration opens up options, like the Blackberry Tonic Craft Soda at Dusek’s Board & Beer in Chicago, or the Celery Ginger Soda at Qui in Austin. Third, craft sodas convey artisanship—a value today’s diner holds close to their pocketbooks.
If there were ever any question as to how impactful the craft soda movement has become, take Pepsi’s entry into the category with its newest product called Stubborn Soda, a line of carbonated soft drinks available only through a fountain service and featuring such non-traditional flavors as orange-hibiscus and pineapple cream.
In fact, flavors currently growing in the carbonated soft drink category are hardly the flavors an older consumer would expect from soda. Based on Datassential’s MenuTrends database, the fastest growing carbonated soda flavors include: blood orange, lavender, cucumber, berry, yuzu, cranberry, mint, vanilla bean, lychee and tomato.
Beyond changes within the domestic market—whether operator- or manufacturer-driven—restaurants are looking to international markets for new sodas that will appeal to consumers in search of a unique fizzy experience. Some of these offerings hail from Asia, like Japan’s Ramune, a citrus soda also available in flavors such as curry and “Blue Hawaiian,” featured at the Curry House in Garden Grove, Calif. The brand has the added benefit of a special top that “kids love to pop.” There’s also Korea’s Milkis, menued at Crisp in Chicago, available in flavors such as melon, strawberry, orange and banana.
Other international sodas making their mark on American menus hail from Mexico. At Pepito’s Mexican Restaurant in Florida, diners can order the tamarind-flavored Jarritos brand, for instance. One of the fastest growing sodas over the past four years, based on Datassential’s MenuTrends database, is Mexican Coke, which has grown triple digits since 2010. Not to be excluded, Europe is exporting its own sodas to the United States, including Fever Tree’s Bitter Lemon soda menued at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. There’s also the far more common San Pellegrino brand, now more broadly available here in flavors ranging from aranciata (orange) and limonata (lemon) to pompelmo (grapefruit) and melograno e arancia (pomegranate and orange).
Sipping vinegars and shrubs are part of an emerging trend in carbonated beverages, drawing on the increased interest in and acceptance of bitter and sour flavors. Though not as readily available as many of the other carbonated soft drinks, they leverage all the elements making alternative carbonated options popular—seasonal flavors, global inspirations, hand-crafted profiles and unique experiences. Vinegar-based drinks are adult nonalcoholic beverages that, more than any other mentioned here, leverage the culinary expertise of the mixologist. A great example is the “shrub-tail,” like the Asian pear-rosemary shrub previously on the menu at Dino’s Grotto in Washington, D.C. Or the Summer Cup at the ArtBar in Cambridge, Mass., which pairs strawberries and mint with white balsamic vinegar. These carbonated sodas starring shrubs or vinegars as their flavoring agents are also available pre-bottled for operators who don’t have the time, staff or space to create them in-house.
Then there’s the growth of ginger beer as the 2.0 version of ginger ale. Though ginger beer flavors can run the spectrum from intensely spicy to mild with notes of lime, the typical difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is the level of sweetness, with ginger beer on the less-sweet side of the scale.
In some cases, ginger beer is used as the base of a unique soft drink option, such as the Honeysuckle Rose at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, Calif., where ginger beer is mixed with pineapple juice, hibiscus syrup and soda for extra fizz. But operators need not make ginger beer in-house—many brands offer an array of flavor profiles and price points that will work on any menu.
The possibilities for creative, thrilling and memorable sodas today are huge. Taking cues from the innovation on the boozier side of the beverage menu, this is only a taste of the ways in which operators are making the nonalcoholic beverage menu impactful and exciting.