Think about your favorite childhood beverages—odds are that a certain powdered fruit drink was one of them. That’s right, we’re talking about Kool-Aid.

The perfect summertime beverage, Kool-Aid was the drink that made us all feel like beverage scientists in our own right. More fun to make than simply pouring liquid into a glass, we could revel in the power of being able to blend the classic red mix ourselves.

Combining the powdered fruit drink with water, ice, and eyebrow-raising amounts of sugar, our tiny, sweet-addicted bodies would happily gulp it down by the pitcher, paying no mind that it left our teeth and tongues red and our little heart palpitating.

If Kool-Aid seems like one of those things that’s been around forever, well that’s because it has. Explore the origins of Kool-Aid, how it became the most recognized children’s drink brand, and how powdered fruit drinks continue to change what the world is drinking.

Before There Was Kool-Aid, There Was FruitSmack

We can’t tell the story of Kool-Aid without first introducing its inventor, Edwin Perkins. In the 1920s, he launched Perkins Products in Hastings, Nebraska, where he made his start by selling smoking cessation products and other inventions door-to-door. Over the course of the next few years, he would rapidly expand his business into a thriving mail-order enterprise with over a hundred household goods—one of which was FruitSmack.

The tasty soft drink concentrate came in six flavors which we recognize now as the first version of our modern-day Kool-Aid. An instant success, the 4-oz syrup allowed families to make pitchers of the fruit-flavored beverage for a fraction of the cost of a single Coca-Cola. There was just one problem: getting the drink safely to customers.

The liquid concentrate was packaged in heavy glass bottles that broke easily and leaked during shipping. Determined to find a solution, Perkins began to experiment with a reformulation of his signature product.

Of all places, he drew inspiration from Jell-O.

 

From Liquid To Powder—And Back Again!

As a boy, Perkins had grown up working at his family’s general store in Hendley, Nebraska. He was fascinated with the business and especially prepackaged products that utilized kitchen chemistry. It was like magic.

During high school, Perkins met classmate Kitty Shoemaker, the girl who would eventually become his wife. She introduced him to an innovative, new dessert made with a flavored powder—yep, you guessed it: Jell-O. He was so impressed with the product, that he eventually convinced his father to add it to the store’s catalog.

Fast forward to the late 1920s and Jell-O stood out to Perkins as much more than a fondly remembered date-night treat—it provided an answer. His mission was clear: he needed to find a way to dehydrate his fruit concentrate—so he did. By adjusting the original recipe’s levels of dextrose, citric and tartaric acids, flavoring, and food coloring, Perkins was successful.

Now in powdered form, the drink (yes, in all six of its original flavors) could be packaged in light, brightly colored envelopes and shipped anywhere in the US. But before unveiling his latest invention to the world, Perkins paid homage to his source of inspiration. He rebranded the drink as “Kool-Ade” in 1927 and business exploded.

 

An “Affordable Luxury” Becomes A Household Name

In 1929, Kool-Ade had started to make its way into stores nationwide—and then The Great Depression hit.

Despite the financial woe of the time, families continued to buy the drink over other brands, thanks to the “affordable luxury” of being able to make more of the beverage for less. The secret?

Dramatic price cuts.

Seeing an opportunity, Perkins made the risky decision to slash the cost of the 10-cent packages by half. This made it even easier for consumers to live with the frivolous expense of adding a powdered fruit drink to their already tight grocery budgets—and for Perkins, it paid off.

By 1931, Kool-Ade had discontinued the mail-order line. Instead, they focused wholly on retail distribution from their new Chicago-based operation. Distribution was finally expanded overseas in 1934. “Kool-Ade” became “Kool-Aid,” forever cementing it as a household name.

 

How Kool-Aid Continues To Change What The World Is Drinking

In 1953, Perkins retired and sold the company to General Foods, which later merged with Kraft Foods. It’s only fitting that the same manufacturer that continues to churn out Perkins’ favorite treat (Jell-O) is now also responsible for the care of his coveted beverage invention.

Under this new management, Kool-Aid has continued to innovate in the form of pre-sweetened formulations and new flavors, and paved the way for the emergence of other powdered drink brands like Tang, Country Time, and more.

Today, Kool-Aid comes in 20+ flavors that hit the spot all these years later—though the most popular flavor will likely always be “red.” As beverage trends continue to support innovative twists on nostalgic flavors, there is an opportunity for powdered beverages to experience continued revival, especially in the functional space.

It just goes to show how a great idea, a little innovation, and a dream can change what the world is drinking.

When you’re ready talk about your idea for a powdered drink, give us a call at (502) 273-5214 or get started with this web form.

 

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Written on August 25, 2021.