The American who’s going back to his roots in London

Going back to his roots

Entrepreneur Ken Graham has developed an artisan root beer with upmarket hamburger restaurant Byron

When he came to London in 2012, American Ken Graham was planning to take a job in banking, but within a few months his career plan had changed completely. Instead of making money in finance he found himself making root beer.

Ken, who grew up in Colorado, had always been a huge fan of the quintessentially American soft drink – to the extent that as a boy he even brewed it with his father in the family garage. However, he was deeply disappointed by the root beers he found in Britain.

“The supermarket shelves in Colorado were stocked with dozens of locally brewed varieties but I just couldn’t find anything like it over here,” he says.

With time on his hands because he was not due to start at the bank for a few months, he started to make his own root beer in the kitchen of his new home using his father’s recipe.

Life-changing decision after pitching his friend’s beer to the buying team at the Byron restaurant chain

Tom Byng, the founder of Byron, saw a natural synergy. “Our focus on individuality – seen most clearly in the fact that all our restaurants are completely individually designed – means that we’re always looking to support craft and creativity wherever we can,” he says. “Ken’s craft sodas are the perfect match for our proper hamburgers. And like our hamburgers, they represent classic American flavours, made with real, simple ingredients, and lots of care and attention to detail.”

Ken and the Bryon team began to work together to create a formulation that complemented the chain’s hamburgers. They tasted different varieties alongside items from the Byron menu.

“Root beer is an ideal pairing with the classic American hamburger but Byron wanted to make it work for a UK audience,” he says. “They didn’t want something too sweet because it wouldn’t be sufficiently refreshing. This meant adjusting the maple syrup. The use of wintergreen was quite challenging because of its very distinctive flavour. We decided that it might be a bit too much for the British who weren’t as familiar with root beer as the Americans and so we toned it down a bit.”

There was such a good personal chemistry between the Byron team and me

“Ken would share samples with our drinks buyer while developing the recipe,” Tom says. “We would taste batches as Ken shipped them to us. Everyone who was around would get involved, from chefs to restaurant managers.” Changes included putting the root beer in cans rather than bottles for environmental and storage reasons.

“There was such a good personal chemistry between the Byron team and me,” Ken says. “We got on very well and they were so encouraging and reassuring.”

Byron and Soda Folk are now collaborating on a new range of products including alcoholic fizzy drinks called “hard sodas”. A spring launch is anticipated. Ken says: “We’re doing tastings and sharing ideas again to get this new product just right. It’s really exciting.”