The soda aisle in most grocery stores in South Florida looks different than a lot of other places in the United States. Bottles of Jupiña and Postobon along with cans of Materva and Ironbeer pop out from the shelves in bright colors. For many people in South Florida, these are flavors of hold, companions to meals served hundreds of miles away from South Florida.
As the Cuban soda Ironbeer passes an important milestone, the company that makes it is trying to figure out what the future could hold for a soda steeped in history.
“You ask any Cuban about Ironbeer and they're like, 'Oh, that has to be in our refrigerator. We drink it with leche condensada.' We are born and raised in Ironbeer, which is one of our slogans,” said Diandra Blanco, the third generation Blanco to work at Ironbeer.
Today, she works at Sunshine Bottling Co., which makes Ironbeer, alongside her dad, brother and cousin. The company also produces a line of malta and the Sedano’s grocery store label fruit juices.
Ironbeer is sweet like a root beer but without the sassafras bite, and is a frequent companion to Cuban sandwiches, croquetas and ropa vieja.
On the soda’s iconic red can, in yellow, is the profile of a shirtless muscular man flexing his arm. Below him, the words: “Since 1917” and “more than 80 years.”
Simple math shows that it has now been many more than 80 years.
In fact, Ironbeer just passed the 100-year mark.
“If you look at pictures of when they would distribute it, it was in the old little carts that the salesmen--actually my grandfather started off as a salesman-- would go around Cuba, from restaurant to restaurant, selling three or four or five cases, and that's how it was,” said Diandra.
First it was sold off the back of horse-drawn carts, then little delivery trucks. Then the Cuban revolution came and Ironbeer moved to Miami and disappeared from the island.
“[It disappeared] for a long time, forever,” recalled Eduardo Hoyos, who was born in Cuba before the revolution.
He came to the Miami in the early 1990s and soon after settling in, he was hanging out at his cousins' house. One Hoyos’ family members told him to, “’close your eyes and drink this soda,’” he recalled.
“I identified Ironbeer immediately,” said Hoyos.
As soon as he tasted that Ironbeer flavor, memories of his childhood flooded back, memories of a place he hasn’t been in nearly 30 years.
“You remember your age, your youth, you remember your life,” said Hoyos.
For Christopher Scull, who was born and raised in Miami to Cuban parents, drinking the soda was about trying to connect with a place he’s only heard stories about.
“Whenever I drink an Ironbeer I feel like this is the closest to the Cuba I'm ever going to get, ” said Scull.
And for the past 100 years, that’s sort of been the selling pitch for Ironbeer--that it’s more than a soda.
“In reality, our biggest market are the elderly Cuban families that came in that time in between the 1950s and the 1990s,” said Diandra Blanco.
But as the marketing manager for the soda, what Diandra Blanco really wants is to keep Ironbeer going for her own generation -- she is in her early 20s.
She wanIt's to get more Christopher Sculls drinking the soda.
And now may be an good time for that, with the soda market going the way of beer – seeing a rise in craft and regional sodas.
Jake Beniflah, founder of the Journal of Cultural Marketing Strategy, says that this shift towards regional drinks means the market is ripe for specifically Latin American sodas, with the sense of nostalgia they come with.
“Those are the things that brands leverage to not only increase brand equity but also increase sales and loyalty,” said Beniflah.
He says right now big beverage companies are either changing how they market their brands to reflect the growing Latino population in the U.S. or they are also buying up brands from Latin America. Coca-Cola, for instance, bought beloved Mexican sparkling water Topo Chico last year for $220 million.
He sees that happening with smaller brands too.
“What some of the larger companies with big distribution systems can do is take those brands, plug them into a national system, and they know they're going to have a set of consumers who are really interested in them, will buy them and most importantly, are willing to pay a premium price for them,” said Duane Stanford, executive editor of Beverage Digest.
And that starts to help the bottom line of companies like Pepsi and Coke, where sales of their flagship sodas are on the decline, hitting 30-year lows in 2016.
Diandra Blanco says Ironbeer isn’t actively seeking to sell, but there are hopes it can break out of the Florida market some day.
Before the owners try that, though, Christopher Scull has some advice for Ironbeer: They need to change the can.
“They've got the same can for 20 years man, like this is the same can I’ve been looking at since I was a kid,” he said, laughing.
And Ironbeer is already on it. They are hoping to roll out an updated can sometime this year.
It’ll now say “more than 100 years.”