Bastien Poulain is the founder and visionary behind Montreal’s first craft soda brand, 1642 Sodas. Growing up in France within a family of entrepreneurs, Bastien always knew he wanted to create THE idea, but it was hard for him to figure out what exact that would be. That is until he visited Montreal one Christmas, fell in love with the city, and decided to move to there a year later.
Once in Canada, he saw the draw to Coca Cola and Pepsi as a market that seemed daunting to enter, yet as consumer demands continued to ask for local, natural products, it suddenly dawned on Bastien that craft soda could be the idea he was waiting for. Two years after launching 1642 Sodas, Bastien and his team now produce original cola, gingerale, and tonic water. To date, 1642 Sodas has sold over 800,000 bottles within Canada, France, Belgium and the UK.
MiLLENNiAL caught up with Bastien at Cafe Falco in the Mile-End neighborhood of Montreal where some of his products where sold to learn a bit more about his journey.
Tell us about 1642 Sodas and where the journey to create your own cola started?
I had the idea in March 2013. I was eating at a restaurant and looking at the menu and thought, how come in Montreal we have Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola but we have no other drinks from here? Is it because we aren’t able to do it?
I looked into it and decided to make my own recipe of sodas. But I was thinking I didn’t want to do Coke or Pepsi, I wanted to do it in my own way. The principle at first was to do everything local and the more natural we could.
We gold sugar in Canada – maple syrup. We also have honey in Quebec. So I decided to mix natural cane sugar and maple syrup in our cola. And for the ginger ale, we decided to put maple syrup and honey. It’s more natural and in our own way. It took almost two years to have our first bottle because it required a lot of experimenting, recipes, finding the good partners and overall learning.
What were you doing before 1642 Sodas?
I’m from Brittany, France originally and moved to Montreal in 2009. I was in the hospitality industry. I started at the beginning. I was a waiter and slowly people welcomed me and offered me good jobs. I discovered a new culture. I was just here to gain international work experience for the hotel industry, and was planning to go back to France.
When you are an employee going to become an entrepreneur, you ask yourself – what am I going to do? The risk is huge because those two brands – Coke and Pepsi – they have 98% of the market. So I knew I was facing a big monster.
We launched in January 2015 our first bottles. When you go all in, you’re just pushing through all those resources that you need. The groceries stores, the independent stores, the bakeries, the cheese boutiques, they all helped me.
What would you consider your “big break”?
I was fortunate enough to be cast for Dragon’s Den, the French-Canadian version of Shark Tank. And I knew I had six weeks to do whatever I could to sell the most bottles because I didn’t want to face the dragons saying “oh ya, my idea is the best but I didn’t sell anything.” So in six weeks I was able to open in 72 stores and sold 9,000 bottles. When you have a limit, you have that get up and go. Seven days a week you do whatever you can. And it worked.
In May of 2015, I was on the show. And that helped us a lot. 1 million people were watching my story and hearing how I was facing these two monsters, Coke and Pepsi. People in Quebec generally really like local stories. And people liked the product. I obtained four Dragons and was really impressed.
Tell us about your different product line and how you plan to expand.
In 2017, people are becoming more aware of what they put in their bodies. The giants are having a harder time of crossing over because they are so big. But we are small. We can move very fast. The soda market in Canada is $4.4 billion and the craft soda market is $80 million. It’s two percent of the market but it’s growing.
One year after the cola we had our own tonic water and one year after that we had our own ginger ale, but it’s more ginger beer. We are doing Moscow Mules and Dark & Stormies. There is a big trend right now with mixology and speakeasy bars. So we try to get partnerships with alcohols in Quebec. There are 10 companies that are doing their own spirits. For us it was a good fit for us to pair local sodas with local alcohols.
In 2017, we have sold over 800,000 bottles. More than 1000 retailers across Canada and Europe. We are in Toronto, Alberta, Quebec, in France, Belgium, and UK. We don’t want to grow too fast. We have to build relations with the retailers. I always say we are authentic and natural. I see my clients more as partners instead of clients. Big companies lost a little bit of that human part.
Where did the name come from?
At the beginning, I had an idea to name the brand Caribou Cola. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a brand in British Columbia that is doing craft beer and its called Caribou Beer. So the government contacted me seven months after I started the brand, designed the logo, created the website, and said you can’t use that name because it’s already taken. It’s a bad thing when you receive the letter, but you brainstorm more and you find a better name.
We said we are Montrealers, we are from Montreal, I don’t want to put Montreal Cola – what can we do with that? Well, 1642 is the founding year of Montreal so we thought that was perfect. We can say it in English or in French and is a clandestine way of nodding to the city’s history. And then we put the founders on the labels. We have Paul de Maisonneuv, Jeanne Mance, and Jacque Cartier.
At first it was funny to see a French guy creating a soda that was based in Montreal. But Montreal is made of immigration and I’m in love with this city.