Fruit juice companies have been working to find a credible adult soft drink - with interesting results. Ian Boughton reports.
Perceived wisdom says that consumer preference in soft drinks has shown a distinct trend, that is, the move away from carbonated drinks and towards health waters and juices.
In fact, say the latest figures from the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), this is not entirely correct. Fizzies were one of the few sectors to rise last year, largely because consumers turn to what they know in a recession, and at the same time bottled water went down 5.5% to its worst market share in six years.
But juices still hold the public interest and, in the words of Ray Tyrrell from South Wales fruit juice company Frobishers, the overall Holy Grail for juice makers still remains the same - the credible adult soft drink. To this end, manufacturers have been working on a better soft drink with some interesting results.
At Fever-Tree, efforts to create a better lemonade and a better ginger beer have actually won the approval of Ferran Adrià, founder of the legendary El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona, who created a sorbet from the brand's tonic water.
"Taste is where soft drinks differ dramatically," says Fever-Tree's co-founder Tim Warrillow. "Manufacturers have surreptitiously cut costs everywhere and brought in ingredients which are detrimental to true flavour.
"Typically, most people puncture a lemon skin at many points to get as much extract as possible, but this produces wax, which affects the flavour. We gently squeeze the extract out, and in our lemonade the difference is a subtle and delicate citrus flavour.
"The same goes for ginger beer - a long ginger character that should sit at the back of the throat and gently grow - but many brands are far too sweet, and some use chilli and capsicum to try and give the effect of ginger, which they don't. You only get the real ginger taste with real ginger.
"We saw a 300% rise in our catering trade last year and it all comes from people saying 'This is how I remember it this is how the drink should taste.'"
In a traditionally made drink the flavour lingers longer, says Chris Knox, leader of Gran Stead's, whose non-alcoholic ginger wine is a candidate for "the credible soft drink".
"This is rich and comfortingly soothing. It really delivers the taste of ginger but without sparking an inferno in the throat. This means it's gutsy enough for ardent ginger-lovers, but mellow enough to have broad appeal.
"The taste comes from an intense essence extracted from Jamaican ginger. There is a sprinkling of capsicum, which adds definition but doesn't overheat, and caramel contributes to the rich flavour and provides a pleasing hint of sweetness."
The "credible soft drink" ideal was also behind the big hit from Lawrence Mallinson, owner of James White Drinks, who, as one of the founders of the New Covent Garden Soup Company, not surprisingly brought a vegetable influence into drinks.
"Our Big Tom spicy tomato juice was originally developed as the basis for a fantastic Bloody Mary, but we now know that most of what we sell is actually drunk without vodka.
"Most tomato juice drinkers find straight tomato a bit bland, and we realised that those who drink it a lot actually tend to spice it up, so we decided that Big Tom would be no half-hearted affair and we gave it a real kick without making it fearsomely hot."
The eventual recipe included Worcester sauce, tamarind, garlic, coriander, cumin, cayenne, paprika, lemon, mustard and black pepper and inspired the company to develop a series of soft drinks made entirely from vegetables. Organic carrot and apple turned out to outsell the company's fruit juices and led to research into beetroot juice, which turns out to be a "super-veg", and that in turn led to this year's launch of the Beet It juice.
Beetroot, it is believed, acts like a natural aspirin to prevent blood clots and protect the lining of blood vessels, as well as lowering blood pressure. It is a rich colour in the glass, which will attract comment and, adds Mallinson delicately, consumers should be prepared for a similarly colourful effect some hours later.
If beetroot sounds unlikely in the catering situation, there have been no suggestions from Sunraysia as to how its new drink should be marketed by the glass in the hospitality trade. This is "the ultimate cleansing drink" and the company says that consumers will never look at prunes the same way again. Prune juice has three times the antioxidants of your average pomegranate juice drink, and five times more than orange juice.
Pomegranate became the unexpected hero of the superfruit juice market two years ago and the Pomegreat brand says that it has already achieved credibility status as an alternative to "everyday, boring" fruit juices. Premier Inns introduced pomegranate to its healthy breakfast menu a couple of years ago and it became the number-two choice after orange juice.
The juice drink itself is described as more light and refreshing than the heavy sweetness of pure orange and apple juices. It is like a red or rosé wine in appearance and can replace orange in buck's fizz.
A British contender for the newest socially acceptable juice is Simply Hibi, a hibiscus drink based on flowers from Uganda but processed in Cumbria. It has 17 times more antioxidants than other fruit juices, has similar attributes to red wine, and is recommended as a non-alcoholic alternative to accompany red meat dishes.
Cordials may be the unexpected success story of the year. According to the BSDA report, dilutables are seen as value-for-money drinks by both consumers and the trade, and premium blends, organics, traditional British flavours and superfruits led the past year's new product development in this sector.
Typically, Bottlegreen Drinks Company has created its Classic Variety range to highlight British flavours such as pear and elderflower, blackberry and russet apple, and Cox's apple and plum. This is a market trend, says managing director Simon Speers, and the results can be diluted with still or sparkling water and effectively presented at a bar.
Cordials are the untapped, upmarket drink, agrees Belvoir Fruit Farms, arguing that the quality cordial comes as a surprise discovery for the consumer. At a cost of 33p per pint, a product such as the elderflower, gooseberry and Muscat cordial, presented in a jug and glasses to a group table, would return a selling price well worth the effort.
"The secret of a really good elderflower cordial is to use masses of flowers that have been picked in the sunshine when they are warm and heavy with pollen, then get them into the vat within three hours," says the company's director, Peverell Manners. "This freshness gives the cordial its intense bouquet."
Cordials are seen as refreshing - not so the smoothie market, which the BSDA acknowledges has had a rough ride of late. For six years smoothies were the success story of the soft drinks market but dropped 20% in volume last year and now account for only half a percentage point of the entire soft drinks market.
Part of the decline is due to a belief that smoothies do not help hydration, and this was even the subject of a Parliamentary debate over what drinks should be allowed in schools. However, says the BSDA, the concept of five-a-day is now so firmly in British consumers' mindset that smoothies should have a new heyday when things get better.
Belvoir Fruit Farms
Bottlegreen Drinks Company
020 7349 4922
James White Drinks
020 7203 6700