Mike Gulley, the founder of Old City Soda, has been toiling since last summer in a dark, dingy but huge former warehouse at East 34th and St. Clair.
“This is Old City Crossfit,” he jokes. “We’re here lifting tanks around and lifting CO2 tanks all day.”
Gulley got plenty of exercise moving in equipment last summer, but a lot of the 5,400 square foot space is still empty.
Old City Soda received its license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture in September and since October Gulley’s been bottling 60 cases a week.
Competes with brewers for equipment
Old City’s bottling machine has seen better days.
“This is a 1998 model that was refurbished in 2012. As you can see duct tape here holding the track together. We’re also refurbishing it ourselves.”
One of his obstacles is the explosive growth of the craft beer industry. Gulley competes with brewers for carbonation equipment.
“We were on a two-month wait just for that small tank. So when we found this bottler we had to act quickly because there was already two bids on it in five hours.”
Gulley thinks he might have things figured out, but it hasn’t been easy.
“There was no textbook on how to open up a beverage company like we’re doing.”
From title insurance to bartending
Mike Gulley grew up in West Park and studied engineering for a while before getting into the title insurance business.
“And title insurance led me into my early 20s, which led me into drinking, which led me into bartending, and I really enjoyed it.”
He tried tending bar for a while in New York City but "didn’t really like the big city, came back to Cleveland, and it was kind of like when this whole renaissance of food was launching. The West Side Market hit its centennial, and it was just food, food, food, and drink, and I was reaping the benefits of it."
Started with ginger beer
Three years ago, Gulley was making a name for himself tending bar at the Fairmount in Cleveland Heights.
“I wanted to make as many ingredients from scratch, and one of them is ginger beer. It’s found in a lot of classic cocktails.”
He was known at the Fairmount for his Moscow Mule, a famous Hollywood cocktail of the ‘50s. It’s made with lime juice, vodka and ginger beer.
“I always made ginger beer for the staff, and one Friday I took a 5-gallon batch in and we sold through it pretty darn quickly. So I decided from there I should try to open up a ginger-beer company.”
Research indicated he’d have a market.
“Craft soda’s really taking off right now. It’s in markets like San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Boston. It’s a perfect time to start a soda company in Cleveland, Ohio. The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Atlantic, everyone’s kind of giving Cleveland this top Ten U.S. City for food and drink. If we’re part of that I think we have perfect room for soda.”
Ohio fruits in season
Gulley now makes nine flavors.
“Some seasonal, some small production. Our flagship ones are ginger beer, grapefruit soda, lemon soda and our authentic tonic.”
Most of his fruit’s shipped in, lightly pasteurized and flash frozen via 24-hour freight from Florida, but Gulley uses Ohio fruits in season.
“Berries, blueberries, when we get into the summertime, we actually use strawberries from Ohio. That’s why we only do our seasonal strawberry ginger beer. We don’t put that out year-round. We like to use Ohio strawberries. And we’re going to try, we don’t know how it’s going to work, paw-paw is a fruit that we want to work with. As well as heading into the fall months, apples, and doing a cider soda.”
Attributes success to Clevelanders’ good taste
Feeding bottle caps into his bottling line by hand, working 12-hour days, Mike Gulley feels he can compete as an independent bottler.
Sales of carbonated soft drinks slid for the tenth straight year in 2014. But he thinks hand-crafted artisan soda can put some fizz in an industry in danger of going flat.
A 12-ounce bottle of Old City Soda retails for about a dollar more than big brand beverages, but Gulley says sales have been brisk. He attributes that in part to Cleveland’s embrace of the artisan and local foods culture.
“A product that doesn’t have preservatives and additives, at a little bit higher of a premium, is starting to take off -- which I think 10 years ago in Cleveland may not have happened.”