Sprecher Eyes National Growth With Purchase of Craft Soda Brands

It’ll now produce Green River, WBC and Black Bear sodas in addition to its own flagship soft drinks.

Sprecher Brewing Co. is boosting its position in the craft soda business with a key acquisition that is expected to fuel major nationwide expansion plans.

Glendale-based Sprecher has acquired several beverage brands from WIT Beverage Co., including the historic Green River brand and the WBC craft soda brands, which are rooted in Chicago. The deal will accelerate growth in the segment for Sprecher, which already is a leader in the Midwest craft soda market.

“We are very excited to add such well-established historic and classic brands that complement Sprecher craft soda products so well,” said Bill Deakin, senior vice president of growth and e-commerce at Sprecher. “The new portfolio gives retailers a one-stop solution for their craft soda stocking.”

Sprecher’s craft sodas are the top brand in the Milwaukee market, and with the acquisition of the brands from WIT Beverage Co., the combined portfolio will become No. 2 in the Chicago market while poised for national expansion and growth, the company said.

“Soda has become our mainstay and a bigger part of our business. We want to be a national craft beverage icon and we want to be in all 50 states, as well as international,” Sprecher President and Chief Executive Officer Sharad Chadha said in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine.

 

 

The deal is crucial to Sprecher’s plans to expand the reach of its craft soda products, Chadha said.

“When we have spoken to our customers, our retail partners and our distributors, they said if you’ve just got one kind of soda at one price point it becomes harder to be a category captain,” he said. “And we want to be the craft category captain in the retail space. If you want to own that space, you’ve got to have a good, better and best (product), and you need to have different variety for the consumers with different taste profiles. Now we will have a larger shelf space. Craft soda consumers are everywhere, but they are very discerning with their tastes.”

WIT Beverage Co. brands being acquired by Sprecher are Green River, WBC Craft Sodas, Caruso’s Italian Style Craft Sodas, and Oak Creek Barrel Aged Root Beer. These, along with several other Wisconsin-based brands, will join Sprecher’s craft soda family of products. The brand portfolio will now include:

  • Sprecher craft sodas, including Root Beer, Orange Dream, Cream Soda, Cherry Cola, Grape, and more.
  • Green River, a lime soda brand with a unique green color. Created in a confectionary shop in Davenport, Iowa, in 1919, the brand was later acquired by Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Co. and produced in Chicago during the Prohibition Era. Green River Soda was a staple at soda fountains and drive-in movies in the 1960s and even inspired the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Green River” and album of the same name.
  • WBC Chicago-style craft sodas, created at Goose Island’s brewpub in Chicago in 1988, including Root Beer, Spicy Ginger, Vanilla Cream and other classic flavors.
  • Black Bear soda, featuring classic flavors such as Black Cherry and Blue Raspberry, launched in 1920 in St. Francis. Black Bear closed its Oak Creek bottling plant in 2017, but the brands lived on.
  • Oak Creek barrel-aged root beers, including a Blonde Barrel-aged Root Beer made with brown sugar.
  • Caruso’s Italian-style craft sodas made with Italian-style family recipes since 1961.
  • Claire Baie specialty beverages that include sparkling water, lemonade and tea.

“We are on a journey to become a national craft beverage company, and this will accelerate our growth,” Chadha said. “Sprecher was already one of the fastest-growing craft soda brands in the U.S., and the addition of these brands will further fuel that growth.”

The move fits with the strategy of placing an emphasis on craft soda production, a shift that began several years ago, he said.

“When Randy Sprecher started the business, it was the first craft brewery in Wisconsin since Prohibition,” Chadha said. “Now there are hundreds and then there are thousands nationally. The competition is fierce, and everybody’s got an idea and wants to make beer. It’s become very intense competition with relatively lower margins. With craft soda, on the other hand, there are hundreds of competitors, but not thousands.”

Chadha described craft soda as an “affordable indulgence” that anyone can enjoy at any time. “It’s a much bigger market,” he said. “The growth opportunity is more. The competition is not as crazy.”

Nonetheless, Sprecher will continue to brew beer and develop new brews despite a greater concentration on craft sodas, Chadha said.

“Beer is our heritage,” he said. “We’ve got a big fan following and we want to keep that going, for sure.”

To that end, Sprecher has two new brews set to be released on Black Friday, including a bourbon barrel variant of its Black Bavarian schwarzbier and Black Forest Milkshake IPA featuring cherries and vanilla.

The sale of the craft soda brands by WIT Beverage Co. won’t mean an exit from the beverage category for the business. WIT Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jim Akers said the deal will allow the larger company affiliate, WIT Group, to focus on its primary business, which is customizing, developing and producing “owned brand” beverages for leading retailers across the United States.

“We believe the brands being sold will thrive as part of the Sprecher portfolio of craft soda brands,” Akers said.

Sprecher will integrate the newly acquired brands into its craft soda portfolio and will continue to run the business from its Milwaukee area headquarters. Established in 1985, Sprecher already produced 14 gourmet sodas prior to the WIT deal and more than 20 beers. Sprecher products are distributed to retailers in more than 25 states. In February 2020, a small team of Milwaukee investors, led by Chadha, purchased Sprecher from its founder.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.