First there was the craft beer craze and then craft distilling. Now soda pop is the latest beverage to get a craft makeover. The growth of craft soda comes despite corporate pop companies Coca-Cola and PepsiCo seeing U.S. soda consumption hit a 30-year low.
Some Kansas Citians are joining in and bottling their own distinctive carbonated drinks, including Polly’s Pop in Independence, Missouri. The factory is a block from the Square with a bright orange sign. Inside there are displays of soda pop memorabilia like old crates of bottles and framed posters. The main space — that’s visible from the street through a glass wall — is dominated by an old bottling line with its conveyor belts and lumbering cast iron machines.
Michael Hahn runs the bottling operation. He demonstrates a machine called the Syruper Filler Crowner.
Like most of the bottling line, it’s antique and dates to the 1940s. The bottles move on a conveyor belt in single file past three separate stations. One machine squirts in the flavor, the next fills the bottles with carbonated water and the last one puts on a metal screw cap.
“They come through one bottle at a time. So they’ll come down and we’ll drop the syrup and go on around,” says Michael.
With his white beard and cap, Michael looks more like a beer brewer than a soda maker, but he spent years restoring these old machines bought from Fitz’s Bottling Company in St. Louis. Then in August the first 12 ounce bottles of Polly’s Pop soda came off this line — at least, the first of the new sodas did.
“I grew up down the street from the original owner,” says Michael.
Michael is referring to the owner of the original Polly’s Pop that was made in Independence from the 1920s until 1967.
“I have no memories of drinking Polly’s Pop but my mom says we did. So now I’m making it and I think that’s pretty cool,” he says.
Michael’s bosses are Ken and Cindy McClain. They think reviving Polly’s Pop is pretty cool too.
“You know when someone has such a passion for nostalgic memory?” says Cindy. “I mean ever since we’ve moved here he’s talked about Polly’s Pop and so I knew that he was going to bring it back at some point.”
Cindy is talking about her husband Ken. For the last twenty years the couple have probably done more than anyone to revive downtown Independence, redeveloping historic buildings and running small enterprises. They now own 17 businesses around the old square including restaurants, a specialty grocer, an art gallery and a yoga studio. The McClain’s latest venture is Polly’s Pop.
As he chats with a friend on floor of his soda factory, Ken McClain, who is also a local attorney, looks slightly disheveled in a blue suit. He has bundles of energy, like the fizz in the pop. Cindy is like a cap that controls Ken’s fizz. She suggests he stop his conversation so the KCUR interview can start.
“Okay, Mr. McClain. Focus,” she says.
I suggest to Ken that he’s turning Independence into a hub for craft soda. He smiles broadly.
“We are offering it at all our locations and I think we’ve sold something around 25,000 bottles thus far. I don’t know whether it will be a trend but I do think there is a market for it and I think that people will always drink soda pop,” he says.
A few months ago another local soda maker called Atomic Fizz did their first bottling at the Polly’s Pop facility. With American flags on their bottle caps the Independence students behind this pop say their soda is proof that the American Dream isn’t dead. In a different way to Polly’s Pop, Atomic Fizz is using soda pop’s power to conjure a comforting and positive image of the past.
“In my grandparents garage there was always a wooden case of Polly’s Pop with all the various flavors that they offered,” says Ken, reminiscing fondly.
He says in 1960s Independence, Polly’s Pop was an integral part of the town’s personality. In those days Ken’s favorite flavor was grape. Today Polly’s Pop offers grape, strawberry, orange, pineapple, cream, root beer and, soon to come, a diet root beer that Ken tastes and then describes like a wine expert.
“It has a very good start but it doesn’t leave enough taste on your tongue. It needs some vanilla or some type of buttery taste to help with that full bodied flavor that I look for,” he says.
Like any big corporate sodas, Polly’s Pop flavors come from a mixture of natural and artificial ingredients made by food companies. Unlike big-name sodas sold in the U.S. though, Polly’s Pop is sweetened with cane sugar and Ken only sells twelve ounce bottles.
Back on the bottling line Michael is admiring his favorite machine.
“This is really the money piece right here,” he says. The mixer is another antique with five stocky arms that each latch onto a bottle and swing it up and down to blend the syrup and carbonated water together. The motion of this contraption looks like the Disney cartoon, "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," when the mops are frantically carrying buckets of water. Coincidentally, that cartoon also dates to the 1940s.
The bottling line might look like a working museum piece but Michael says it can finish five hundred bottles of soda in twenty minutes. So pretty soon it’s time for a taste test. And in this reporter's opinion, the black cherry flavor was very tasty.
Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.