Byline: by Paul Kelly
FAR AWAY in an old creamery, a man in a white lab coat and hair net is mixing potions as exotic as you'd find in any Harry Potter novel. But rather than working up the dark arts of alchemy to create mischief, this man has the innocent pleasure of creating new fizzy drinks.
At the moment this man, simply known as Chris the Blender, is working on mixing flavours to create a new cola.
'But,' says his determined boss Edward McDaid, 'there's a particular type of cola I want to get my hands on and I'm finding it very difficult. I have been offered all sorts of ready-made colas by the flavour houses and they're not meeting my flavour requirements at all. We're very old-fashioned here and our flavours would be more traditional.' Edward is the second-generation owner of McDaids, perhaps the country's last remaining regional - and independent - fizzy drinks maker.
In a small former creamery on the banks of the River Lennan in Ramelton, Co. Donegal, a team of just seven employees churns out exotic McDaids fizzy drinks for the local area and for ex-pats the world over.
The most famous of these is Football Special, a dark, fruity and very fizzy drink dating back to the late Fifties when it was first created as a non-alcoholic alternative to beer for sporting occasions. Still in production today, Football Special is on the verge of going nationwide and its owners reckon it could be just the thing to sweeten the taste of the recession.
'My grandfather had nine children and two of his sons, Ea-monn and Brendan, were very good soccer players,' says Edward.
'Summer soccer tournaments are big here and those two brothers developed a soft drink that the winners could pour into a football trophy instead of whiskey or beer - but that also had the same look.
'Now we have a niche product that has a unique taste and flavour profile, and we're hoping to take that to a wider market.' Quite how his uncles Brendan - a former Celtic FC triallist - and Eamonn devised Football Special appears to be a happy case of being in the right place at the right time. Their father Jimmy was a farmer who left the land before the Second World War, came to live in Ramelton town and opened up a shop.
He bought a Ford Model T van and began a sales operation, bartering with farmers by exchanging goods for vegetables and eggs that he would sell in the shop.
The family also had a pub in the town and through this the family got to know the licensed trade, eventually getting a contract from Guinness to bottle and condition their stout for the local market.
'They were Grade A bottlers and knew all about how to keep things clean and how to label properly,' says Edward.
'Eventually they bought this old creamery here and its claim to fame was it had its own water supply and a power source in a Lister diesel engine.
'They had a self-sufficient factory and the bottling technology, and by the end of the Second World War they were trying to get sugar to make their own soft drinks.' Crucially, Eamonn had also worked at longestablished Belfast soft drinks maker, McKinney & McGinley where he learned the discipline, craft and science behind the industry - with true Ulster grit and steel.
Edward says: 'My uncle went to work in their syrup room and in there they were very diligent about following recipes.They made a note of everything, in handwriting, as they were adding the ingredients.
'They also noted what time you add the ingredients and in what sequence. That's what we still do here to this day. The sequence (of adding flavours to each other) is important.
If you get the sequence wrong you will affect the blend.' The McDaids' first soft drinks from the old creamery were orange and lemonade before they added cola to their range to capitalise on the post-war craze for the U.S. mineral. Then in the late Fifties, Eamonn and Brendan used their expertise to come up with a drink that they wanted to associate with their big passion, soccer.
So, in the old creamery they created a blend of seven flavours for what they called Football Cup, a drink intended for the winners of Donegal's summer football tournaments to enjoy. Cleverly the brothers also added a foaming agent to give the drink a creamy head, just like beer poured into a football trophy or cup.
Eventually the McDaids changed the name to Football Special after a bright spark pointed out that the joys of the drink should not be confined to just the winning side.
Today just two people - Edward McDaid and Chris the Blender - know the recipe of the family firm's most famous drink. 'And we never travel in the same plane together,' Edward laughs as he recounts an ageold factory joke about the secret recipe.
Enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable, Edward reckons Football Special has a magic taste that can work wonders on the palate.
'What Football Special does to your memory is extraordinary: It's almost like time-travel,' he says. 'People say the taste creates an image of childhood, of summer-time, when all's right in the world.
'Even people who've never had it before say that when they first try it. That's why we insist on keeping everything in the drink the way it is. We realise what we have and we are determined to protect that. That's why we are so secretive.' Today, in the same old creamery, McDaids churn off 2,000 bottles of Football Special every hour, along with their Smooth Banana, Exotic Pineapple and American Ice Cream Soda minerals.
That small old whitewash building - unchanged in decades - is blessed with its own spring providing a constant supply of quality water at low temperature. The coldness of the water is crucial as it means McDaids can saturate it with carbon dioxide to ensure their drinks have more 'fizz, fun and pop' than bland mass-produced minerals today.
Edward is convinced that the growth of Football Special as a nationally available drink is central to the firm's continued success. 'That's really what we want to do,' he says. 'We have a product that can travel outside its traditional areas - that's our experience.
'We've had people who've tried the product and taken cases back to England, Scotland and New York. We've had people who've holidayed in Donegal, or who have family connections here, who go back home and ask for Football Special. They even call in here and buy cases.' Edward's office in the old creamery is just a step away from the firm's magic heart - the syrup room, where all flavours are made from scratch from separate natural concentrated ingredients.
This is where Chris the Blender continues to work his magic to capture a cola that is unlike anything else on the market.
'We prefer the Harry Potter method here,' says Edward with a smile. 'There's always going to be a bit of magic in our syrup room.'
On to a winner: Paul Kelly with McDaids staff