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Thursday, May 15, 2014 12:01 am

Homer Soda Company

Homer Soda Company storefront in downtown Homer.
PHOTO COURTESY HOMER SODA COMPANY

 

Regular readers of this space know that I’ve railed against the American habit of constant soda consumption more than once. But truthfully I like soda. I like it a lot. If it weren’t for the problems – medical and dental – excessive soda consumption causes (including sugar-free soda!), I’d probably be swilling it down all day like so many folks do. For me, soda is a treat, something to enjoy occasionally.

I especially like unusual sodas, not just because they’re unique, but also because they’re exceptionally flavorful; much more interesting than Big Soda sodas.

Kate Boyer, mother of five, agrees with me on both counts. That’s why she started the Homer Soda Company, which carries 250-plus glass-bottled vintage and artisanal sodas.

HSC’s genesis began in an old soda machine in Christine and Ray Cunningham’s antique shop in Homer, Illinois. Located about 10 miles east of Champaign/Urbana, Homer is a quintessential American small town, population 1,000.

When Christine opened the shop, the old soda machine was just one among many antiques. Then Ray, who drives all around the U.S. for his job as Director of Records Services/Information Security for the University of Illinois Foundation, began a quest for vintage sodas to fill the machine, bringing back cases of sodas from Washington State to Maine. Word spread and before long many customers were coming in just for the vintage sodas. And Ray kept bringing home more and more varieties.

When the Cunninghams decided to sell the antique shop, Boyer entered the picture and in 2003, the Homer Soda Company was born. The antiques disappeared – except for that old soda machine and some soda memorabilia – and Boyer created a business to sell the astonishing number of vintage sodas Ray had discovered, as well as her own soda discoveries.

But the storefront is only a small part of HSC story. “The only way to grow (HSC) is through wholesaling,” says Boyer. Even so, she’s committed to selling to mostly small independently owned businesses: coffee shops, diners, specialty food shops, etc., although she does sell a limited range to a few larger operations. The storefront is currently only open on weekends, although plans are in the works to expand hours.

I first encountered HSC in the Urbana Butcher Shop (a story for another day.) As I scanned the case of sides and drinks, I spotted something I’d been searching for ever since discovering it down South: Spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale. There were other glass-bottled sodas, too, none of which I’d ever heard. I’d had Blenheim in a couple Chicago restaurants, but it was only sold by the bottle.

“Gosh!” I exclaimed. “Where did you find these?” I asked owner Josh Boyd. We asked some questions, then my husband and I added our day’s activities to include trekking to HSC’s storefront. We purchased 12 bottles of Spicy Blenheim and another 12 bottles of mixed varieties, including Frosty Rootbeer, Cheerwine, birch beers, and fruit and cream sodas.

HSC’s website, www.homersoda.com, has a page for each of its sodas, including pictures, descriptions and, where appropriate, histories. Blenheim’s Spicy Ginger Ale is just one the 250-plus, but makes a good example.

“Blenheim Ginger Ale Company is the earliest, smallest independent soda bottling company in America. The company retains the same small town, family-style production as when Blenheim Ginger Ale began being bottled in 1903.

The mineral springs in Blenheim, South Carolina that are the genesis of today’s ginger ale were chanced upon in 1781 by James Spears, who reportedly lost his shoe in a water hole. Attempting to find his shoe, Spears sampled the water, discovering its potent mineral contents. News of the natural spring circulated, and folks began coming to try out the cold, invigorating water. Plantation owners constructed summertime houses around Blenheim Springs to take advantage of the refreshing water.

In the late 1800s, Dr. C. R. May counseled patients with stomach troubles to drink Blenheim Springs water. When some complained about its iron-like taste, May added Jamaican ginger to make the flavor more appealing. In 1903, May and a partner opened the Blenheim Bottling Company next to Blenheim Springs. The original plant, constructed in 1920, also contained a Bottler’s Museum. In 1993, the Schafer family bought the company. When fire destroyed the plant in 2008, a new, larger facility was built that incorporated the original’s character.

The Homer Soda Company’s list includes 38 root beers, including two butterscotch varieties; 15 colas, 29 ginger beer/ales, including Spicy, Original Extra-Pale and diet Blenheim, as well as several birch beers from New England; 33 cream sodas, including honey and Jersey types; and 116 fruit sodas, ranging in flavor from prickly pear, huckleberry, and blueberry, and banana to a long list of Jelly Belly flavors. There are also unique sodas, such as MacFuddy’s Pepper Elixir and Avery’s (fruit flavored) Toxic Slime and Zombie Brain Juice! Almost all use cane sugar. A select few diet sodas are available.

Last year, the town of Homer and HSC held the first annual Homer Soda Festival. Boyer, her family and friends worked for months to put the event together, planning for around 500 people. To their surprise and delight, they estimated there were between 3000-5000 attendees. There are several videos of the event on HSC’s website. Everyone was clearly enjoying the festival and the atmosphere – and, not least, sampling shot-glass-size portions of HSC’s 250-plus varieties, all of which are available.

Homer Soda Festival 2014 takes place on May 31 from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. In addition to soda sampling, there will be food options, including a barbecue cook-off for both amateurs and professionals, bluegrass roots bands throughout the day, activities for kids, and an antique car show.

Boyer is committed to keeping HSC a small family business supporting other small businesses. “I have a passion for small business owners and Main Street USA,” she says, “so much so that when HSC began “I just wanted to be able to break even.” But I have a feeling that while it will remain a local family operation, “small” might be another matter. People from all over began coming to Homer for soda when it was just in an old soda machine in an antique shop. A spot on WILL’s Prairie Fire television program entered the blogosphere and many more people journeyed from even further away to experience HSC sodas.

Boyer tells of a truck driver from North Carolina who came looking for NuGrape soda. His mother was dying of cancer, and wanted to enjoy her childhood favorite before she died. Thanks to HSC, she got her wish.

HSC been featured on “ABC Good Morning America” and in Country Living Magazine and the June issue of Food Network Magazine. It even made an appearance at the über-chic Fossil’s Fashion Night Out in Manhattan.

Vintage/artisanal sodas, by themselves or in nonalcoholic cocktails, are a godsend for those avoiding alcohol. And some can make specialty alcohol-containing cocktails really special. But HSC’s delightful sodas are wonderful for any gathering, from barbecues and family gatherings to baby showers and weddings. I discovered that at our daughter’s wedding: we’d bought several cases of St. Louis’s Fitz’s sodas to put in tubs of ice with beers. The sodas ran out long before the beer.

Springfield’s Andiamo offers HSC sodas, varying the selection seasonally. “People love them,” says manager Adrian Rogas. “They’re super-popular and don’t stay on the shelf for long. Some people will buy 10 at a time. I was a little worried that they’d sell at first. But sales have increased more than fivefold, and it’s not uncommon to run out between deliveries.” Some HSC sodas are also available locally at Schnuck’s Montvale and Friar Tuck’s.

HSC will home deliver 24 bottle cases (cost: $34) for a $5-per-delivery fee. Visit its website, www.homersoda.com, for more information about the sodas and where to find and order them, as well as their fundraising program and the 2014 Homer Soda Festival.
 
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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