Bottling nostalgia: The rise and fall of Australia’s old-fashioned soft drink

Before multinational soda giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi dominated the market, Australia had its own thriving soft drink industry.

In the mid-1950s, nearly 600 soft drink companies were in operation.

“Small towns like Dalby had two, Toowoomba had three or four, every little town had one,” said Murray Rosenberg, co-owner of Crows Nest Soft Drinks in Queensland.

Figures are hard to confirm, but Mr Rosenberg believes as few as seven small Australian independent businesses remain.

“A lot of the popular brands got bought out by the majors,” he said.

“They were offered large amounts of cash to surrender their brand; the majors bought the market share.”

A collection of brightly coloured soft drink bottles.
Vintage soft drinks bring back plenty of memories for many Australians.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

Six years ago, the future for Crows Nest Soft Drinks in the small town of Crows Nest, 150 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, was bleak.

After bottling for 117 years, it was weeks away from closing when Mr Rosenberg, who was working in the mining industry, bought it with Alex Davidson, a retired baker.

They acquired worn-out equipment and an old recipe book with the secret formulas for nearly 30 different syrup flavours.

“I could follow recipes, being a baker, and Murray’s a very clever engineer, so the combination’s worked,” Mr Davidson said.

A black sign on a shop front reading 'Crows Nest Soft Drinks, a taste of the past since 1903'.
The soft drink company is continuing its century-old legacy.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

The pair said moving the factory to Crow’s Nest’s main street and opening a shop-front full of product and memorabilia turned the business around.

“We’re now selling more than 200,000 bottles of soft drink a year,” Mr Davidson said.

“One of the things we never saw in the numbers was the smiles on people’s faces when they’d come in from all over Australia, and it started to twig the brand was something special,” Mr Rosenberg said.

He calls that joyful nostalgia “the magic”.

A number of colourful soft drink labels stuck to a white wall.
Seventy years ago, Australia’s soft drink industry was thriving.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

A return to old-fashioned flavours

A hundred kilometres away in Pittsworth, Cooks Soft Drinks was saved by a local electrician.

It had been bottling since 1900 when Brendan Cavanagh bought it in 2015.

“I heard the doors were going to shut and thought, ‘Something this good can’t be lost,’ because once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Mr Cavanagh said.

A man holds two 'handbooks', one red, one brown, full of recipes for soft drinks.
Mr Cavanagh still has old instruction books for making soft drinks and cordials.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

“The flavours appealed to us, just the richness and the uniqueness of them.

With a smile, he admitted his wife called his purchase his “mid-life crisis”.

Mr Cavanagh moved the factory to Pittsworth’s main street and opened a shop.

A man in a blue uniform stands in front of rows of soft drink, smiling and holding a bottle.
Mr Cavanagh saved the old-fashioned soft drink company.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

The business is now profitable and growing.

A new bottling line was bought so he could do more contract bottling for local farmers.

Three producers have sent cordial made from waste produce, which he carbonates, bottles and labels.

“The first person we did this for told us he’d been trying to get it done but the larger companies had minimum orders of 10 pallets — I told him I’d do him 20 cartons,” Mr Cavanagh said.

“Those contracts have grown and the popularity has taken off.”

Coloured class bottles with green and yellow labels in a row.
Pittsworth soft drink company Cooks partners with local farmers.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

‘Invented as a treat’

Old-fashioned sugary drinks are experiencing a revival, despite health advice to eat less sugar.

Nostalgia is a big driver for sales, as the old flavours trigger childhood memories.

Mr Davidson of Crows Nest Soft Drinks said customers wanted to support local business and enjoyed trying fizzy drink and syrup flavours like musk, lychee, grape, butterscotch and custard.

At the shop, customers are advised to treat soft drink like their grandparents did.

A number of brightly-coloured soft drink bottle caps stuck to a wooden surface.
Many customers can recall the soft drinks and cordials of yesteryear.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

“The carbonated drink was invented as a treat; it was never intended to be consumed as a hydration aid,” Mr Rosenberg said.

“If you’re thirsty, drink water.”

Mr Davidson is adamant he will not change the old recipes.

“They’ve been around since 1903, but with the controversy over sugar, we’re finding people are buying the syrups because you can make it any way you like it,” he said.

“Me, I just put a few drops in the bottom of a glass and soda water.”

The fizzy polariser

There’s a similarity between the soft drink businesses that may explain…

Read More: Bottling nostalgia: The rise and fall of Australia’s old-fashioned soft drink

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