Fermented soft drinks include some very established brands among their ranks, produced to age-old family recipes. But, writes Philip Tappenden, these drinks also offer some of the natural and functional characteristics increasingly sought by consumers, which has prompted innovation in the category, led chiefly by the German Bionade brand.

Fermented soft drinks have been produced around the world for generations, but in recent times these predominantly traditional beverages have been regarded chiefly as premium specialty products. However, as consumers seek out all-natural products, fermented soft drinks have found new popularity.

Proud of their roots and brewing techniques, longstanding producers have generally positioned their brands as 'traditional', broadening their offerings with new flavour variations. In contrast, other producers employing innovative technologies have seen the opportunity to target their brands at a more dynamic market.

For more than 90 years, Fentiman's has been producing traditionally brewed soft drinks in the UK, using what is claimed to be a unique and rather original recipe for success, botanical brewing.

Botanical brewing is a simple process involving herbs and plant roots. The original recipe required the milling of ginger roots, before tumbling them into copper steam-jacketed pans and leaving to bubble and simmer, releasing all their flavour. Adding herbs, natural flavouring, sugar, brewer's yeast and spring water the liquid was transferred to wooden vats and left to ferment before being bottled. Today, the process has been updated through the addition of mild carbonation to replace the carbon dioxide lost in pasteurisation, which gives the product a longer life and keeps the level of alcohol to no more than 0.5%.

In Australia, Bundaberg Brewed Drinks have been delivering premium, handcrafted beverages from its family-owned brewery for over 40 years. The beverages are brewed to age-old recipes and use natural ingredients. Bundaberg ginger beer is the market leader in both Australia and New Zealand, while the product range now includes lemon and lime bitters, sarsparilla, apple ale and lemon ale.

However, the fermented category is by no means all about traditional drinks made to age-old recipes. Bionade Corporation is a young, privately-owned German company producing and distributing organically manufactured non-alcoholic refreshment drinks under the Bionade trademark.

Based in Ostheim, the company was founded in 1995 following the invention of Bionade by the master brewer Dieter Leipold. Borrowing from established brewing techniques, Bionade is produced through a completely organic fermentation process.

How is it different to other soft drinks? According to official classification, a soft drink is a so-called mixed drink. Bionade, by contrast is a fermented drink, which through fermentation is organically produced from scratch.

Under purely natural conditions, alcohol is usually generated during the process of fermentation when sugar is present. But after a long period of research and development, Leipold was successful in converting sugar into gluconic acid during fermentation.

At the core of the process is the fermentation of water and malt, a biological conversion and ripening process (fermentation). In the case of Bionade, instead of alcohol being generated, nutritionally and physiologically valuable gluconic acid is produced. Gluconic acid reacts with minerals in the water. In this way, mineral gluconates, such as calcium and magnesium gluconate are produced.

After fermentation, the drink is stored, filtered, and carbonated. Fruit and herbal essences give Bionade its characteristic tart and fruity accent. Each drink is named according to added flavours, such as lychee, herbs and orange. Ginger extracts and elderberry juice from certified organic farms are also used.

Bionade is rich in calcium, low in sodium, phosphorus-free and non-alcoholic. A litre of Bionade Forte contains 400 mg of calcium and 200 mg of magnesium and a significantly lower sugar content than conventional soft drinks.

According to Wolfgang Blum, associate partner and chief marketing officer at Bionade, the brand's rapid success can be attributed to a number of factors. Bionade is an original, and like originals such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull, it is always much more charismatic and attractive than copies, Blum says. There is a completely new production method behind the product, namely organic fermentation, which gives it a unique selling point, he adds. It hardly need be added that the product taps into the current growth trend in organic products too.

The use of viral marketing and communication strategies around sponsored events, media publicity and mouth to mouth advertising has helped make Bionade a cult drink. And further development of the home market has made Bionade the third largest soft drink brand in Germany. Further expansion within Europe, together with launches in the US and Japan, along with line extensions, will help move Bionade towards its long-term vision of being a global soft drink brand, aimed at consumers seeking a healthy lifestyle.

For more information, go to www.softdrinksinternational.com