It used to be that practically every town had its own homegrown brands of sodas. When Prohibition laid waste to the brewing industry, many of those same operations refocused their efforts to making "soft drinks," igniting a national trend that outlasted the ban on booze. But then folks got greedy.
"About 20 years ago, all the major soda companies started consolidating and buying up all the independent bottlers," explains Mike Gulley. "That essentially killed off the niche markets and we lost a lot of our independent regional sodas."
What's more, adds Gulley, the big guys have made it all but impossible to try to compete, even on the microscopic level. Bottling lines are prohibitively expensive, requiring a huge upfront investment that few small startups can ever manage. So the only other option is outsourcing.
"The nearest bottling facility to us is in Twinsburg, and that is still owned by Coca-Cola," he says.
That hasn't stopped Gulley from trying. Currently a bartender at Market Avenue Wine Bar, Gulley has been making his own cocktail-friendly sodas since his days at the Fairmount, where he mastered the recipe for ginger beer. He has since added lemon soda, cucumber soda, orange blossom soda, and toddy soda (cold-brewed espresso) to his repertoire.
Using equipment and techniques similar to beer brewing, Gulley whips up large batches of carbonated sodas at a time. Bottles are filled and capped by hand and sold to a few appreciative customers. He gets help in the kitchen from his twin brother and obliging girlfriend.
While the sodas can be enjoyed on their own over ice, Gulley formulated them specifically for use in cocktails. Along with the rise of craft cocktails comes the demand for better mixers, and bartenders have only so much time to devote to that end of the profession.
"Working 40 to 50 hours a week bartending and then having to put in another 10 hours to making ginger beer — that's a pain in the butt," he says. "That's why you don't really find people doing it very much."
Paul Norris, a bartender at Crop Bistro in Ohio City, is one of those lucky people on the receiving end of Gulley's labors. Like his peers, Norris is always on the lookout for the best quality mixers he can find.
"I'm always on the hunt for new ginger beer, and Mike's is the best I've ever tasted," Norris says. "Some of the ginger beers out there have some heat to it. Mike's is mild but it has a really fresh ginger taste, and it balances really well with spirits." Norris uses the ginger beer in Dark and Stormies and Moscow Mules, naturally, but also bourbon and gingers, gin ginger gimlets, and virgin cocktails. "I'll make virgin Moscow Mules for pregnant ladies."
Not only is the craft cocktail trend good news for small soda and mixer companies like Gulley's, but the movement toward more healthy soft drinks also bodes well for a resurgence of niche startups.
"A lot of people want more natural products, especially sodas made without corn syrup and artificial flavors," Gulley points out. "It's a better alternative even for children to drink."
Gulley's "dry sodas" weigh in at less than seven percent sugar per volume compared to 70 percent for a typical big brand cola. He has also managed to price his sodas at the same point as well regarded boutique brands like Fever Tree and Goslings—roughly 21 cents per ounce. But price aside, Gulley's sodas just taste better than the competition.
"Using all-natural ingredients gets the product away from this forced, faked ginger flavor and reliance on sweeteners that you find in most store bought ginger beers," says Matt Stipe, bartender at El Carnicero in Lakewood. "Mike's spicy all-natural ginger beer is the perfect complement to any great classic cocktail, but perfect with the increasingly popular Moscow Mule. Mike nails it completely."
Under the product line 216 Soda, Gulley sells his sodas at pop-ups like the Cleveland Flea, to a select few establishments, and at Market Avenue Wine Bar in Ohio City. Admittedly, his production is limited. But that is changing quickly thanks to increased demand.
"I've recently gotten the equipment I need to double my production," he says. And before too long, he hopes to hang out a shingle and open a storefront retail shop.
Asked what people say when they taste his products for the first time, Gulley says without missing a beat, "The most common response is, 'Where can I buy it?'"