Some say you can’t bottle happiness, but try telling that to Michael Hahn.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Hahn cranked up the antique machinery housed in a former Western Auto building at 308 W. Maple Avenue on the historic Independence Square. It was time to pump Polly’s Pop orange-flavored syrup and carbonated water into the procession of clear glass bottles clinking and clanking down the line.
“It’s the funnest job I’ve ever had,” says 62-year-old Hahn, a former plumber who serves as production manager and Mr. Fix-It when those machines get a wee bit cranky.
The oldest piece of machinery is a 1940s mixer and the newest is a 1970s-era labeler. Every now and then Hahn and R.J. Clark, director of sales and marketing, pull one of the bottles off the line and subject the bubbly contents to a good, old-fashioned taste test.
“Quality control,” Hahn says with a laugh.
Move over Coke and Pepsi. The little guys are back in town. Bevnet.com reports the small-batch craft soda industry is rising to new heights as big-brand soda consumption hits all-time lows.
Few places illustrate the growth of the craft soda better than Mass Street Soda in Lawrence, which showcases 1,000 craft sodas, including Polly’s Pop. The pop shop concept has expanded its reach with two KC Soda Co. locations; one in the Legends Outlets, and another in the City Market.
But it’s fair to say nostalgia is giving the Polly’s Pop brand a second wind as much as its charming fizz. “We’re a craft soda made before craft soda was invented,” Hahn says.
Louis “Polly” and Dorothea Compton owned the Independence Bottling Co. and created the beloved brand in 1923. The soda was originally sold in 7.5-ounce bottles for a nickel.
Compton was friends with Harry S. Truman, who famously worked as a soda jerk at the historic Clinton’s Soda Fountain in Independence. Although no one has yet unearthed a photo of Truman swigging Polly’s Pop, the president was a close, card-playing friend with Compton. The original bottling plant (today’s Polly’s Pop Park) was located near the intersection of Truman Road and River Boulevard, not far from the Truman home.
“He was neighbors with Polly and was, in fact, a fan of Polly’s Pop,” says the brand’s newest owner, Ken McClain.
Truman’s favorite flavor, though, is the subject of conjecture and speculation: McClain says after talking to Truman’s grandson Clifton Daniel Truman, “I would think they’d drink all the flavors.” But after chatting with scores of longtime residents, Hahn is reasonably sure orange was the former president’s favorite.
Polly’s Pop flavors changed over the years, the bottle size increased to 12 ounces and the price rose above a nickel. With the onslaught of international brands like Coke and Pepsi, operations fizzled out in 1967, and the brand remained a pleasant memory with a robust collectibles market until McClain, an Independence trial attorney, decided to revive it in 2016.
McClain and his wife, Cindy, are responsible for developing many of the destination dining stops on the city’s historic square. Their efforts include locations where Polly’s Pop is sold — Clinton’s Soda Fountain, The Court House Exchange, Main Street Coffee House, Square Pizza, Diamond Bowl and Gilbert, Whitney & Co.
As a child, McClain visited his grandparents who lived in Independence. But during a recent Chow Town Facebook Live he said he didn’t have a strong taste memory of the flavors. The “full-bodied” orange is his favorite, with root beer a close second.
Re-creating the modern recipes was similar to a wine tasting, requiring judicious sipping and spitting to avoid a “sugar coma,” as well as nibbling on bread between flavors to avoid palate fatigue and confusion.
“If it tastes good to the general public — that’s what we wanted,” McClain said. “We wanted it to be a true, classic soda pop, and tried not to make them too trendy.”
The current lineup includes nine flavors: orange, pineapple, strawberry, black cherry, grape, cream, regular and diet root beer. The company also produces a limited-edition ginger beer for use as a mixer in cocktails and announced plans are in the works to begin bottling the flavor.
Polly’s Pop bottles 3,000 to 4,000 bottles of soda a week. The modern recipes use cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, although tests using stevia as a sweetener are underway. The syrups are batched in a commercial kitchen and delivered to the bottling plant in 35-gallon drums.
With the press of a button, Hahn begins feeding the bottles by hand into one end of a conveyor belt. The bottles travel through a rinse cycle then round the bend to a “syruper-filler-crowner” with hoses that resemble a mechanical octopus. The soda ingredients stay separated — which Hahn says “looks like a lava lamp” — until they are mixed together by another machine resembling a tilt-and-whirl-style carnival ride.
The dizzy bottles move on to receive a vintage label featuring a drawing of the original parrot mascot and finally scoot to the end of the conveyor where they are wiped with a towel by hand and packed into cardboard boxes for storage and distribution. Each batch of soda is tested for proper amounts of carbon dioxide. A refractometer measures sugar levels. A sell-by date ensures freshness. Four-packs are $6.99 and a case of 24 is $41.99.
Already the year-old rebrand is branching out beyond its birthplace. It’s featured at Boulevard Brewery’s Tours & Recreation Center and the black cherry and strawberry are available at Q39South because they go well with barbecue.
Clark is currently working on the company’s first collaboration, glazed doughnut flavor, with Donutology in Westport. “I’m pretty stoked about that,” the next-generation soda drinker says.
But it’s the constant stream of passersby who “knock on the window and want to tell their stories, and want to tell us how happy they are to have it back” that makes Hahn the happiest of all.