What is your background and how did this venture come about?
Megan Brown: We always knew we wanted to start a business. There was a Farmer’s Market down the street from us in Waynesville and we felt like there was a missing gap in the beverage scene at the market. People were thirsty, the weather was hot, and we felt like we could sell drinks there. We started making sodas at home for friends and family and we always received compliments at dinner parties.
Our first couple of sodas were made from berries that were growing in our backyard. We made syrups and experimented with flavors. People seemed to think it was a good idea so we started selling hand-made sodas at the market.
Chris Allen: Everything started with the syrups. We hand-mixed, like an old fashioned Italian soda, like you would have visited a soda bar in the past – as if we were going back to our roots.
So at that time, it was a mixture of carbonated water and syrup?
CA: Yes, both items would be separate and then we would hand-mix. We were certified through the Department of Agriculture and we were initially set up with a home processor, similar to how bakers or jam and jelly makers might get started. We were certified to do the syrups as an on-demand kind of service.
You mentioned wild-berries. Can you describe the taste of the first few flavors and perhaps the look of the bottle or jar in the beginning?
CA: Bottling didn’t come into the equation until much later. We actually had the business in operation for nearly two years before we started bottling. People were requested bottles right off the bat, but that wasn’t something that we had planned for in the beginning. We brewed quickly, but organically.
The original berries that we foraged were a combination of wild black raspberries and wild blackberries. We started making syrups there, and then by the first day at the market, we had around ten different syrup flavors.
MB: Strawberry Balsamic. Watermelon Mint.
CA: Strawberry rhubarb was one of our first syrup flavors. We also made a citrus soda, but each one was an individual flavor. So we would have blueberry syrup and basil syrup, but we didn’t actually mix the two until a customer requested the combination of the two, which is now one of our more popular flavors.
How long have you guys been in business?
CA: We just started our fourth season at the Farmer’s Market. So everything was hand-mixed the first two seasons, then by the third season, we started doing sodas on draft, which was more of a pre-mix, with the soda ready to drink. Around May of last year, we got clearance from the state to sell bottles.
What are your personal favorites right now?
CA: I do like that you said, “right now,” because people always ask us our favorites and I feel like we give a different answer each time, based on the season.
MB: My favorite is the Raspberry Cream. We launched that in the fall of last year. It’s a fresh local raspberry, mixed with vanilla. Our most seasonal flavor right now would be the Strawberry Rhubarb. We just re-launched that two weeks ago. Local strawberries, local rhubarb—it’s really tart and refreshing, like a play on the Southern Strawberry Rhubarb Pie.
CA: That’s what I tend to go for right now. I stick with the freshest mix, depending on what the season will bring. I’m really digging the Strawberry Rhubarb right now.
Can you walk us through the process? Are you muddling strawberries or how does all of this work?
CA: In the beginning, as a home processor, we did everything incredibly small batch. We still bottle everything five gallons at a time, so we remain a small batch company. But, essentially, we get the raw fruit from local farmers and we’ve worked hard to build a presence in the local agricultural community, because that’s the foundation or core of our business. We source our ingredients locally. We process that farm ingredients here in house and we juice the fruit to turn it into a syrup. At that point, we introduce secondary ingredients, such as herbs, lemon jest, cinnamon, vanilla, or cane sugar, to create the syrup.
Once we have that concentrate, we go into a soda recipe that we’ll cut with water or perhaps citric acid, depending on the flavor. That recipe will then get carbonated, through a forced carbonation, so there’s no fermentation or anything like that. That process takes a couple of days. At that point, we’re ready to bottle and everything is still bottled by hand, harvested by hand, processed, labeled, batched, and shipped out by hand—one at a time.
Where does the name Soda Jerks come from?
MB: It’s actually a traditional term from the 50s, when people would visit a pharmacy with an old-fashioned soda counter. These workers, who would pour sodas or milkshakes, would use taps very similar to modern beer taps. They would jerk the handles and that’s actually where the name came from, “Soda Jerks.” We wanted to have a nostalgic play on that, but it’s also a play on words since a lot of younger people are unaware of the phrase, so they just think it’s funny that we call ourselves “Jerks.”
CA: We get a nice mix of people who think it’s original, but it’s actually just a generic term from the 40s and 50s. You can talk to people’s grandparents and you’ll hear stories such as, “I was a soda jerk at so-and-so when I was fifteen,” and then young people do not have a clue where the phrase comes from so they just think that we’re being funny. It’s actually a very traditional term for a common job.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the company?
CA: Our core values continue to revolve around staying local. There is a reason that the towns are listed on the bottle because those are where we source certain flavors or a particular herb. We truly are a local and regionally focused business. Our tag line is “Southern Appalachia in a Bottle” and that’s truly what we aim to be like. We want for the entire process and product to be focused on what Southern Appalachia is, continues to be mixed agriculture. That’s just what we want to highlight.
We want to be a truly local company, even down to the mountains on the logo. We hired a local graphic designer and gave him some classic, local keywords and we came up with something clean and identifiable. The mountains on our bottles are actually the Blue Ridge Mountains, from a viewpoint in this area, rather than a generic drawing. It’s an authentic representation.