What is Grape Soda?

What is Grape Soda?

Grape soda is a drink of deception whose origins are lost to history. I kid you not. Consider some basic questions with seemingly obvious answers:

Grape Soda FAQ

How is grape soda made? Contrary to what you'd expect, grape soda frequently contains no grapes. Many grape sodas are flavored with a chemical called methyl anthranilate. Methyl anthranilate is found in real grapes, but the artificial flavoring is typically derived from petroleum. Yuck!

Sprecher Grape Soda is one of the rare grape sodas made with real grape juice. If that sounds good to you, click here to purchase a 12 pack

What was the first grape soda? If you ask Google, you will likely get a wrong answer: Grapette soda, developed in Camden, Arkansas in 1939. Grapette was real, but it was not the first grape soda.

grapette delivery truck toy

Vintage Grapette delivery truck toy via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest brand-name grape soda I found solid evidence for was Grapico. Grapico was first sold in Louisiana in 1914. However, it's possible that there were earlier name brands, and there is evidence that people were making homemade grape soda as well. More on that later. 

Does grape soda have a Wikipedia entry? Not really. When you look up grape soda on Wikipedia, you get redirected to the disappointingly short-winded "Grape drink" entry. Four measly paragraphs, backed up by five sources.

Basically, if you want to know what grape soda is, Google and Wikipedia are not your friends--unless they brought you here!

The Grape Soda Files: The Truth is Out There

The world deserves to know what grape soda is and where it came from. As Sprecher Brewery's self-appointed craft soda historian, I have taken it upon myself to put together the first history of grape soda (or, at least, the first to make its way on to the internet).

The cast of characters involved in this history is a wild one--a goldsmithing grape farmer turned congressman, a renowned French scientist, a teetotaling dentist, a published female cook turned Harvard lecturer (a rare type of person in the 1800s), and two sleazy Southern businessmen who made the monumental decision to take the grapes out of grape soda.

Not to mention Randy Sprecher--the beer-swilling Vietnam veteran turned Milwaukee microbrewer who put the grapes back into grape soda.

Join me on history's grape-est journey and uncover the arcane chain of events that lead to the invention, re-invention, and three-invention of grape soda.

Who Invented Grape Juice?

To make grape soda, you first need to make grape juice. Shockingly, grape juice as we know it is a recent invention. Grapes were first cultivated around 6500 BC, but unfermented grape juice was invented in 1869--three years after the first gas-powered car.

ancient Egyptians picking grapes

Ancient Egyptians harvesting grapes via Wikimedia Commons

What were people doing with grapes for 8,368 years?

Making wine, of course!

Wine is made by combining grape juice with a strain of alcohol-producing yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae. Grape skins are covered in s. cerevisiae. Next time you look at a grape, you may notice that it is covered in a whitish residue. That residue is naturally-occurring yeast.

For most of human history, people didn't know that about grapes. They just knew that if you made grape juice, that juice would start to bubble. Let it bubble long enough, and you would get a mind-altering drink that was safer--or at least more fun--than water.

Only in the 1800s did scientists begin to understand that microorganisms like yeasts could cause food to ferment or spoil. In 1864, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered that unwanted fermentation and spoilage could be prevented by killing microorganisms with heat. This process--pasteurization--was famously used to change milk from a writhing, wormy nightmare into a health drink.

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur via Wikimedia Commons

Less famously, a booze-hating New Jersey Dentist named Thomas Welch used pasteurization to halt the fermentation of grape juice in 1869. Welch juiced 40lbs of Concord grapes, boiled the juice, and bottled it. This simple act of boiling made it possible to store grape juice for the first time. 

If the name Welch rings a bell, it's because Thomas Welch went on to found Welch's. Yes, that Welch's. 

Who Invented the Concord Grape?

Welch did not make his grape juice with just any grape--he used the Concord grape. This is significant because to this day, most of the major grape juice manufacturers in the USA still use concord grapes.

The intensely sweet, lightly tart flavor profile of the Concord grape is what Americans expect grape flavored drinks to taste like. For the same reason, Americans expect grape beverages to be deep purple in color.

Concord Grapes

Concord Grapes via Wikimedia Commons

Like grape juice itself, the Concord grape is a relatively recent invention. The Concord grape was first grown by Ephraim Bull in 1849, a mere twenty years prior to the invention of unfermented grape juice. 

Ephraim Bull was a multi-talented Massachusetts native who worked in the gold-beating trade. Gold-beating was the tedious and tiring work of pounding gold into gold leaf, and while it paid the bills, it did not excite Bull very much.

Bull's true passion was horticulture, and he devoted most of his spare time and income to gardening. As he rose through the ranks in his trade, he made enough money to buy a farm in Concord, MA, where he rubbed shoulders with famous Americans of the time--including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

He also obsessively cross-bred grapes in the hopes of developing a fast-ripening variety that could be harvested before frosts set in. In 1849, he developed a grape that fit the bill perfectly, and named it after the town where it grew--Concord.

Ephraim Bull with his grapes

Ephraim Bull with his grapes via Wikimedia Commons

Bull knew he had struck gold, and he used his connections to get the word out. The Concord grape spread far and wide and brought Bull fame and recognition (but unfortunately, not much money). 

Although Bull made little money off of the Concord grape, he did manage to get elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which wasn't too shabby considering he started life as a minor tradesman. 

Grape Juice becomes Grapeade

Concord grape juice was, by all accounts, a high-tech invention in its time. Grape juice would not have been possible without the innovative work of Louis Pasteur, Thomas Welch, and Ephraim Bull--three men who were richly rewarded with scientific honors, a successful fruit juice company, and high political office, respectively.

Grape juice is not grape soda, however. Grape juice has no sparkle, no pizzazz, it just doesn't do the trick. What does do the trick is Grapeade--a combination of grape juice and sparkling water. This, I would argue, is the purest form of grape soda. Why? Grapeade is literally just grapes and soda water. 

Despite the seeming obviousness of this fact, it took some serious brains to write down the recipe for Grapeade. Those brains were in the head of none other than Fannie Farmer, a famed cookbook author and Harvard lecturer.

Fannie Farmer

Fannie Farmer  via Wikimedia Commons

Farmer was a remarkable woman. She dropped out of high school after suffering a paralytic stroke, but recovered much of her health and started working as a servant. While working she developed an affinity for cooking. She then went to Boston Cooking School, where she later worked as an assistant director and eventually headmaster. 

Farmer's meteoric rise didn't end there. She opened up her own cooking school, worked as a Harvard lecturer, and in 1896 she published a cookbook so comprehensive that it is still used to this day.

That cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, contains a recipe for a drink that would come to be called Grapeade. It's a simple recipe in which Farmer suggests combining Londonderry sparkling water with "grape juice or other temperance drinks." Sounds pretty good, and it is the earliest written recipe I could find for a grape soda-like drink. 

Wikipedia claims that in the late 19th century Grapeade was sold in soda fountains under the brand names Lash's and Miner's, but I could find no evidence of that either way. The evidence for the Farmer recipe, on the other hand, is rock solid.

The simplicity of this recipe suggests that Grapeade was a fairly accessible drink. Anyone who could get some grapes and some sparkling water could make Grapeade at home, and a soda fountain owner could easily add it to the drink menu too.

Grapico: The Grapeless Grape Soda

Grapeade is delicious and easy to make, but it probably wasn't a drink for the masses. It's hard to get around the basic fact that grapes were and are expensive.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, your average person probably didn't have the money and time to make grapeade or buy it from a soda fountain on a regular basis.

In 1914 two New Orleans businessmen saw this problem, and came up with the perfect solution--make a grape soda without the grapes

Grape soda with no juice

A can of grape soda with a label that states "Contains No Juice" via Wikimedia Commons

J. Grossman's two sons, while working for the company J. Grossman's Sons (creative!), put together an unholy concoction of artificially flavored syrup and soda water that tasted kind of like grapes. They named the drink Grapico. 

Thus, the first mass-market, name-brand grape soda was born. 

Some sources say that Grapico contained very small amounts of grape, but not enough to be significant.

Undaunted, J. Grossman's Sons took Grapico to market and sold it by heavily implying that it contained grape juice. This worked, and by the time people found out it wasn't true, it didn't matter. They were already hooked.

Grape soda took the South by storm, and brands like NuGrape (founded in Atlanta, GA) and Grapette (founded in Camden, AR) rose up to compete with Grapico.

Eventually, grape soda reached a national audience in the form of Grape Fanta and Grape Crush. However, grape soda remains very much a southern thing. 

Putting the Grapes Back In: Grape Soda and its Discontents

For over a century, most grape soda has been guilty of Grapico's original sin. To put it plainly, most grape soda does not have grape juice listed as an ingredient. Don't believe me? Read labels and see for yourself.

Many cheap mass-market grape sodas are flavored with methyl anthranilate. Methyl anthranilate is a flavor compound found naturally in grapes, but more cheaply made from petroleum. Yikes.

Some tasty methyl anthranilate via Wikimedia Commons

Some people are okay with that, but Randy Sprecher sure wasn't.

Randy fought the big breweries to open up Sprecher Brewery in 1985, making Sprecher the first craft brewery in Milwaukee since Prohibition. Randy began fire-brewing craft beers and sodas using high-quality ingredients, and the incredible taste of his drinks turned the brewery into a midwestern icon.

When Randy decided to make grape soda, it was a no-brainer to use actual grape juice in the recipe. That hasn't changed. Sprecher Grape Soda is still made with actual grape juice. Why mess with a good thing?

Sprecher Grape Soda

The proof is in the historical pudding. Grapeade was based on the work of a trailblazing female entrepreneur/master cook/Harvard lecturer, a famous grape farmer/state house rep, Louis freakin' Pasteur, and the founder of Welch's.

Randy Sprecher just took that work of genius and spruced it up into a full-blown craft soda.

Juiceless grape soda, on the other hand, was the creation of two slimy businessmen looking to make a quick buck in the big easy.

Now that the history of grape soda is out in the open, which grape soda do you trust? For me, it is Sprecher Grape Soda every time. Click here to buy a 12 pack of grape soda made with grape juice. 

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Sources (in order of appearance) 

Adam Lindsley, "Grape Soda | Taste Test", Serious Eats

Zi Wei Luo, Jae Sung Cho and Sang Yup Lee; "Microbial production of methyl anthranilate, a grape flavor compound"; PNAS

Stacey Leasca, "What is Grapico – and Why Southerners Love it So Much", Southern Living

"Grape drink", Wikipedia

David Trinklein, "Grapes: A Brief History", Missouri Environment and Garden

"Who invented the automobile?", Library of Congress

"Ridding Grapes of Residue", Cook's Illustrated

"Pasteurization", Virginia Department of Health

"The History", Concord Grape Association

"Our Story", Welch's

Edmund A. Schofield, ""He Sowed; Others Reaped": Ephraim Wales Bull
and the Origins of the ‘Concord’ Grape", Arnoldia 

"Fannie Farmer", Britannica

Fannie Farmer, The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Boston cooking-school cook book, Project Gutenberg

"NuGrape", Wikipedia

David Rice, "Grapette International, Inc.", Encyclopedia of Arkansas

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