Crafting a Better Soda

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by Justin Glanville
photo by Laura Watilo Blake

When Mike Gulley has a spare moment—which isn’t often, given his 70-hour workweeks—he likes to kick back with a bottle of his own craft-brewed grapefruit soda.

Oh, and a little tequila.

“It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, those flavors take me right back to July,” he says with a laugh. “Which is important in Cleveland’s colder months.”

Gulley, 29, is the founder of Old City Soda, a craft soda company based on Cleveland’s Near East Side. He got the idea for the business about five years ago, while working full-time as a bartender at the Fairmount Martini and Wine Bar in Cleveland Heights and later XYZ Tavern in Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood.

Gulley noticed his customers were tiring of “90s-style” martinis and developing a taste for traditional cocktails instead. The problem was finding well-made, flavorful mixers. To fill the gap, he started mixing up 5-gallon tanks of his own fresh ginger juice and ginger beer, and selling out every night.

“It was something people had never tasted before,” he says of those early batches. “The flavor was so different and true—icier, earthier.”

To get the business up and running, he had to spend a couple years navigating state regulations about manufacturing and distributing beverages that included fresh juices. Then there was picking a company identity. “Old City” is the English translation of his mom’s maiden name, Altstadt. The bear on the label comes from the family crest.

Local bars and restaurants were his first clients; he sells to a couple dozen. For the past year or so, he’s also been selling direct to customers at farmers markets and the Cleveland Flea.

In addtion to grapefruit and ginger, the mainstay varieties are lemon and tonic. He also rotates in seasonal flavors, such as strawberry ginger, pumpkin spice, and hibiscus berry. All are made from fresh juice rather than natural or artificial flavors.

He moved into his current space, a red brick manufacturing stall in the Tyler Village complex in AsiaTown, in July. New bottling equipment and a labeling machine are allowing him to ramp up production. He’s even considering hiring an employee.

“Right now I’m selling as much as I can make, about 1,000 bottles a week,” he estimates.

Future plans include producing smaller-sized cans, opening a storefront at Tyler Village, and expanding into surrounding markets, such as Columbus and Pittsburgh.

In the meantime, he’s discovered a contingent of fans who are a far cry from the sophisticated adult cocktail drinkers he originally targeted.

“Little kids!” he says. “I was really surprised how much they like it. Parents will come up and buy a 4-pack for themselves, and they’ll throw in a couple for the kids.”

The youngsters’ favorite flavors? Strawberry ginger, lemon, and tonic.

Which leaves plenty of grapefruit for the adults.

To find out more about Old City Soda and where you can get a taste, find them on Facebook.