Month: December 2015

Natrona Bottling Company: Bauser Champayno

History: Sometimes a product comes along in craft soda that’s so novel(ty) and simultaneously cool, you buy it without question. Natrona Bottling Company produces several different flavors likely to catch eyes and furrow brows, from Plantation Style Mint Julep and Pennsylvania Punch to the smaller, more sophisticated Bauser Champayno. But… what is Champayno? On the surface, it appears to be a miniature version of regular soda, perhaps with a mock champagne flavor. I can’t promise you that will be the case and neither can Natrona Bottling’s Owner, the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Soda,” Vito Gerasole. “I don’t know how to describe the flavor,” he confesses. Gerasole is a proud Italian who to this day still works at his family restaurant, Gerasoli, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But in 2010 he was given a chance to take the reigns of the failing Natrona Bottling Company, a soda bottler that had been in business since 1904. The Natrona, Pennsylvania soda company had just $4,000 left in their bank account when an angel investor provided a financial opportunity for Gerasole to fix things. Fortunately, Natrona had very little debt; all they needed was a new marketing push. But for Gerasole, why take the time and effort to breath life back into a white dwarf in the rapidly expanding craft soda galaxy?  “I’m a very nostalgic person,” he tells us. And Natrona is a very nostalgic company. In fact, the bottler’s signature is that it still uses a very old method of production for the bubbles in their soda. How old, you ask? Gerasole boasts, “I believe we are the last soda producer that uses a style of carbonation called ‘pinpoint carbonation’.” Basically what this means is you should taste much smaller bubbles than you’re accustomed to in soda, almost along the lines of champagne. This is achieved by dropping dry ice pellets into pressurized tanks, creating a much smoother, tinier bubble. “Effervescent” is a term Gerasole kept using to describe it. From nearly bankrupt back to bubbling over in business, Gerasole sought to add new flavors to the company. The one he introduced but still doesn’t quite seem to understand is Champayno. It’s a bit of a mystery even to its creators, so much so we have no information with which to detail it. Gerasole best describes it as a 6.3 ounce bottle of dry soda made with pure cane sugar that he one day may transition into a mixer. It was inspired by a similar beverage made by a company called Champay in the 40’s when sugar was being rationed for the war. Admittedly, those sodas were more popular in the 70’s and 80’s. Now that sweeter sodas are back and bigger than ever, Gerasole isn’t sure about the future of Champayno. I’d get your hands on it now while you can because it might just become a collector’s item in the future.

Where to get: You can find Natrona Bottling Company sodas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. But as for Bauser Champayno, because some retailers don’t stock it, you’re most reliable bet is to buy it online directly from Natrona Bottling.

Nose: Kind of like not quite fermented white grapes – like a fizzy white wine. Pretty mild overall.

Taste: Ginger ale; mild white grapes. This definitely tastes like a dry ginger ale with a white grape influence. The carbonation is flush with lots of tiny, little bubbles that feel nice in the mouth. It’s dry. Very, very crisp for a soda, but with enough sugar to make it easy to drink. There’s a pretty distinctive tang to this soda, and I’d say that’s its defining characteristic. Has more of a zip than most ginger ales, just not in a spicy way. Instead of a spicy kick, this has a tangy white grape flavor that accompanies the dry ginger ale flavor. I wouldn’t call this champagne-like, but rather a unique take on a classic ginger ale.

Finish: Similar to the body of the soda, though slightly more acidic and tangy. Not a lot of variance.

Rating: Does Champayno taste like champagne? No. But honestly, does that really sound like a good idea? If we learned anything from those Harry Potter Jelly Beans that came out years ago, it’s that not everything in life – namely dirt and boogers – needs to be imitated in food. We don’t need champagne-flavored soda either. But we might need Champayno. It’s like a ginger ale that got dressed up for a fancy party. For one, look at the bottle. I’m a full-grown man, and even I think this little 6.3 oz. bottle is cute as hell. The flavors are familiar, yet different. It has all the characteristics of a mild ginger ale: flavor, crispness, and dryness. But there’s also a white grape tanginess you taste here that isn’t present in other ginger ales. This and the carbonation are the only traits that make it remotely comparable to champagne. Champayno is definitely a grower, the problem is that at 6.3 oz., it’s gone before you can really process its unique flavors. For that reason, I don’t think I can confidently rate this higher than three stars, though I definitely think if I had more of the liquid, I might rate it higher. I get that the smaller bottle conveys a greater sense of sophistication, but I think you need about 10-12 ounces of Champayno to fully appreciate it and make a judgement on it. I also think the subtle white grape flavors really work well here and I wouldn’t mind if they were strengthened ever so slightly. There’s a lot of good stuff going on here. It’s fun. It tastes nice. And it looks classy. It’s also not the easiest soda to acquire, which for many will increase the appeal even more. If you can get your hands on a tiny bottle of Champayno you just might be the coolest one at the party. Definitely one to put on your list.

Three Stars

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Appalachian Brewing Co.: White Birch Beer

History: 2015 has been the biggest year in the still-emerging gourmet soda market, but it was in the late summer of 2014 when CNBC raised the question of if craft soda was the next big thing in the beverage industry. And if you’re a weirdo and way too into this stuff like we are, you know the article itself set off a chain of others that raised the profile of craft soda. The brand under the brightest spotlight in that article? Appalachian Brewing Co. When I think of Appalachia, I envision brawny-chested, flannel-wearing, goat-faced men lumbering across mountaintops, trekking deep into the forest, and chopping wood for no apparent reason. But Appalachian Brewing Co. isn’t on mountain top or nestled in a forest. The brewery is headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and has brewpubs in smaller surrounding areas. It’s a big business for a craft brewer. And its biggest business now comes from soda, not beer. The microbrewery was founded in 1997 with root beer and ginger beer available in the brewery from day one. The company added birch beer in 2008 and diet root beer in 2009. Despite having 15 beers and only four sodas, the lower cost of producing soda and its growing popularity resulted in the brewery investing heavily in its soft drink line. “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal,” says Artie Tafoya, Appalachian Brewing’s Director of Operations. Tafoya says that soda sales ballooned so much from 2008 onward that the brewery opened a fully operational soda manufacturing plant in 2014. “We try to make it as genuinely as possible,” Tafoya says, adding that all Appalachian Brewing Co. sodas are batch brewed, made with pure cane sugar, and use as many natural ingredients as possible.

Being located in Pennsylvania, it seemed like a logical choice to review the brewery’s birch beer. For those who don’t know, Pennsylvania is without a doubt the most popular state for birch beer because of its “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence. Tayfoya explained to us that Pennsylvania is a state with a large population of German immigrants who brought with them many culinary traditions, one of those being birch beer. There’s also a ton of birch trees in the state, so it’s easier to produce it there. Birch beer is kind of like cream soda in the sense that both are available in a wide variety of colors, but Appalachian Brewing wanted a birch beer as natural as possible in both flavor and hue, which is why theirs is white. There are no artificial ingredients or caffeine in Appalachian Brewing’s birch beer. “We like our flavorings because they’re very crisp and clean…. It almost cleanses the palate,” Tafoya says of the birch beer, adding he believes the company found the right blend of spearmint and peppermint to round out its flavor profile. There’s also a touch of honey in their birch beer, something you don’t often see with this flavor. As we wrapped up our phone call, he told us his motto is to go all-out to achieve great flavor, something we’ll always respect. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” he says. In talking to Tafoya, I’m not surprised the company’s soda has done so well. Commitment often leads to consistency and it’s clear the Appalachian Brewing Co. is dedicated to quality. It sounds good on paper. Let’s put it in practice.

Where to get: Appalachian Brewing Co. craft soda is sold across the midwest and upper northeast, but your best bet is to order online directly through the company via its Ebay store by going here.

Nose: Smells more like a root beer with extra mint than a birch beer. Rich, almost creamy, which likely comes from the honey.

Taste: Wintergreen; sugar; birch oil; light carbonation. Definitely a strong use of wintergreen. That’s undoubtedly the signature flavor of this soda. It has a crisp, minty bite along the tip and sides of the tongue, though I wouldn’t consider this spicy. Just a minty bite. I’m also not tasting the honey in this in a distinctive way. This is a little smoother than most birch beers, something the honey may influence, but the honey notes don’t come through for me. This is very clean and minty on the palate.

Finish: Mild wintergreen that rolls along the back of the tongue. Smooth.

Rating: Birch beer is really a northeast phenomenon in the world of craft soda. Certainly, it’s sold across the world, but you won’t find a more condensed area of birch beer fans than in the northeastern portion of America. Sometimes I feel like others don’t really appreciate birch beer for this reason – they aren’t often exposed to it. Appalachian Brewing’s White Birch Beer is a straightforward take on the category. It’s clean. It’s fairly smooth. And it’s loaded with wintergreen mint flavor. Not particularly spicy. Not particularly sophisticated on the palate, but it’s easy enough to drink if you like minty soda or are a fan of birch beers. I liken birch beer to being the scotch of craft soda because it’s an acquired taste, especially for drinkers new to the category. This won’t be for everyone because of the large reliance on mint flavor. Mint isn’t like vanilla; it doesn’t win everyone over. If you’re a birch beer fan or are looking to try out something new, this should be up your alley. Personally, for a soda made with honey, I’d like to taste its influence and I didn’t feel like I got what was advertised in that respect. It’s like going on a Tinder date and realizing their photo was hiding about thirty extra pounds. That’s my only real complaint. You’ll probably either love this or hate it, as is the case with most birch beers. Will you pop the top and take a chance or play it safe?

Three Stars

Old City Soda: Cinnamon Soda

History: “I don’t mind because one day you’ll respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” are the forewarning words uttered by one of rap’s most respected lyricists, Kendrick Lamar, in reference to Compton, California. But what about a new kid from the old city? Could they command the same respect? Mike Gulley wanted to find out. Gulley is the founder of Old City Soda, a craft soda producer out of Cleveland, Ohio. Fortunately for Gulley, his battlefield is the nerd-heavy craft soda marketplace instead of the gang banging streets of Compton. In 2011, Gulley started experimenting with his own ginger beer at a restaurant called Paragon, a wine bar in Cleveland. People loved it. So he kept going, trying other homemade soda flavors until in 2013 he bit the bullet and went all-in, launching Old City Soda in the fall. It’s a labor of love all the way down to the name. If you look up and down Gulley’s family tree, you’ll repeatedly see the German name “Altstadt,” which stands for “the old city.” To this day, his grandparents maintain a newsletter called “The Old City Beacon.” Gulley comes from the bar scene, so he prides himself on making handcrafted sodas big enough in flavor to be enjoyed both out of the bottle and with alcohol to create better cocktails. He says he “wanted to harken back to way soda used to be made,” but with a twist. Gulley wanted to use the old methods, but produce new flavors. My sister has been using the same philosophy with children and currently has five boys… some people never learn. Luckily for the rest of us and Gulley, we won’t need to wait nine months to hold a new Old City Soda bottle in our hands. Quite the opposite, actually.

The company’s biggest selling point is the freshness of the ingredients in its soda. “The moment from bottling to being available to drink is a matter of days,” Gulley explains. Most sodas come in at under 100 calories per bottle, so you shouldn’t have to transition from yoga pants to sweat pants by the end. They don’t even use preservatives in their sodas, meaning that each bottle tastes fresher than what you’re used, but also needs to be refrigerated and has a much shorter shelf life (typically just weeks). Currently, Old City Soda produces 8 flavors, several of them pretty left field, including lemon soda, hibiscus soda, and perhaps the most unique and intimidating: cinnamon soda. Of course, we had to review the latter. For inspiration, Gulley sought advice from the godfather of soda, John Neese, owner of Galco’s in Los Angeles, California. He wanted to know current trends and what was truly unique in terms of craft soda. For a look at the eclectic Neese, watch this video. I know most of you out there think cinnamon soda probably tastes like hot barf, but keep calm. Gulley’s idea for cinnamon soda is not based off red cinnamon candies, despite our photography. We just did that because it looks dope. No, this is a cinnamon soda for the sophisticated. You need glasses and an ascot to drink this. Old City’s Cinnamon Soda uses a blend of a blend of Vietnamese cinnamon, pure cane sugar, allspice, clove, cayane, and Hungarian spicy paprika. The cinnamon is brewed for two days before being blended with the sugar and purified water to create what you taste in the bottle. Gulley admits it’s a sipping soda and also doubles as a great topping for a float. But let’s be real here – it’s one thing to be told all of this stuff. It’s another thing to taste it. To be honest, we’re still a little intimidated.

Where to get: Old City Soda is sold mostly in the Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio areas. You can find out if it’s available near you by looking here. For the rest of you not near Ohio and still wanting to purchase Old City Soda, the company does fulfill orders – just contact them directly (contact information is at the bottom of their website).

Nose: Full bodied, aromatic cinnamon; a cross between cinnamon sticks and red hots.

Taste: Crisp, candied cinnamon; holiday spices. This tastes decidedly different than it smells. To answer your question, yes, this tastes like cinnamon – but it’s a different cinnamon flavor than you’re used to. It’s not like a red hots cinnamon, but more of a stewed, natural flavor. Old City Soda uses Saigon (Vietnamese) Cinnamon in this craft soda. They actually brew it for two days before it goes into their bottles. And honestly, that’s exactly what it tastes like. It tastes brewed. It’s almost like a cinnamon flavor found in teas and coffees. It’s mild. It’s earthy. It tastes real. This isn’t overwhelming, something I was worried about coming in to the tasting. If you’ve ever had cinnamon-soaked red apple rings, the flavor in this is more akin to that than candy. Cinnamon is typically a very strong flavor, so I’m guessing the brewing process helps cook some of that out. That said, this is still cinnamon soda and cinnamon isn’t something you’re likely to drink in bulk. This is a sipping soda on its own and more likely to be paired with something else, like ice cream or liquor.

Finish: Warm-cooked cinnamon sticks with a light Christmas spiciness in the throat. There’s also some notes of nutmeg and burned sugar.

Rating: This is really interesting and surprisingly good. Cinnamon as a base flavor in a soda seems like a difficult task, but this is the best version I’ve ever tried. It really reminds me of the holidays. It’s a perfect drink for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. This and a little bit of bourbon might actually make spending time with your horrible aunt tolerable. The brewing of the Saigon Cinnamon helps make the soda’s flavor easily approachable. On its own, this is probably going to be a divisive beverage because, let’s face it, not everyone is going to like cinnamon soda. And I’ll be real, it isn’t something you’d probably drink more than one of in a sitting. I’d suggest pairing it with something. Drink half on its own with a nice home-cooked meal, then pair the rest with bourbon and get toasty. Pour it on vanilla ice cream for a cinnamon float. Put half of it in a shot glass with some cheap whiskey and get white-girl-wasted off your own version of Fireball. I’ve already done all of the above, so we need to end this review because the bourbon is hitting me. No matter your niche in the craft soda market, I strongly recommend you branch out and try this. It’s a great example of a bottler taking a risk and the result being worth your dollar.

Four Stars

Waynesville Soda Jerks: Raspberry Cream Soda

History: If the farmer’s market had an all-star team, these two would be its captains. Chris Allen and Megan Brown are the founders and owners of Waynesville Soda Jerks in Waynesville, North Carolina – and they’re about as farm-to-bottle as you can get. The two launched their full eight-flavor line of handcrafted sodas in May of 2015, and they’re so serious about going local with their ingredients that they literally list where they came from on the bottle. These days “handcrafted” is becoming kind of a cliche in craft soda, but for this duo the word seems appropriate. “We really like to highlight the local agriculture around western North Carolina,” says Allen. The two started by picking local wine berries from outside their home and using a Soda Stream to see if they could create something worth drinking. In April of 2013, they launched a Kickstarter, and two-and-a-half years later, they’re one of the fastest-growing small bottlers in the nation. The highlight ingredient in all Waynesville Soda Jerk Sodas is the fruit, which Brown notes “is always local,” with the exception of citrus and vanilla. Allen and Brown had been focusing solely on going the route of fruit or fruit and herb sodas until the requests for traditional flavors finally struck a chord with the two.

“People were always asking for cream soda,” Allen admits. So the jerks went to work and put their own unconventional twist on the flavor: raspberry. As a soda fan, the marriage of these two flavors is exciting. Imagine taking something that people already love and adore and making it even more stunning. On paper, this is like combining all the best parts of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift… in soda form. Who doesn’t want to look at that? Who wouldn’t want to drink that? Who wouldn’t want to just… let’s get back to the point before this gets weirder. The decision on which fruit to choose for their newest flavor was easy. Brown tells us that the two “had an outstanding source for raspberries this season,” in Wright Way Nursery. The duo fresh presses the juice from the raspberries themselves and it goes right into the soda. We weren’t told exact proportions, but when asked about how much real juice went into each bottle of raspberry cream soda, Allen responded in a serious tone with “a significant amount.” Allen and Brown made it very clear there were two distinct tasting elements to this soda: the raspberry flavor and the cream flavor. For the fruit, Allen says they went for a “very clean and pure raspberry flavor.” As for the creaminess, it was really the first “traditional” non-fruit soda flavor the two decided to bottle. So in order to achieve the taste they wanted, the duo used real vanilla beans and caramelized the cane sugar for a creaminess that balanced out the sharpness of the raspberry. They also added a little lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt for what they called “soda seasonings,” adding that they brought acidity and richness to the flavor profile. We aren’t sure exactly how they put it all together, but I’ll take $200, Alex, for funnel this in my mouth. The pair is also working on another new, more traditional flavor – but we’d hate to spoil it for you.

Where to get: You can purchase raspberry cream soda and the rest of the Waynesville Soda Jerk flavors at the company’s new online store or from Summit City Soda. And if you’re from the Waynesville area, check out these spots to pick up a bottle.

Nose: Fresh raspberries just run through the water. On first smell, you’d swear this was raspberry soda. Not much in the way of vanilla or any sort of creaminess.

Taste: Fresh raspberries; soft vanilla; mild tartness; sugar. You’re greeted with a very authentic, but not overwhelming raspberry flavor. Reminds me of eating raspberries with sugar on top, but in liquid form. Very light and refreshing on the palate. Definitely more crisp than creamy. The initial raspberry flavor is joined by noticeable vanilla notes about half way through the sip. There’s also just a little bit of tartness from the lemon in this that adds contrast to the sweetness of the raspberry and sugar; you feel it on the edges of your jaw. A nice jolt of unexpected flavor. Before the drink begins to fade, the raspberry and vanilla meld to really create that raspberry cream flavor. Reminds me of raspberries with creme fraiche.

Finish: Vanilla sugar with subtle raspberry notes that linger, then slowly fade.

Rating: Waynesville Soda Jerks pride themselves on using fresh fruit in every hand-made batch of soda they produce. They even tell you where the fruit comes from on every bottle. You can taste their dedication. The raspberries in their raspberry cream soda taste real, not like candy. It’s like drinking raspberries with sugar on them with a dash of lemon and a dusting of vanilla bean. Typically when you think of cream soda, you think something that feels heavy on the palate, thick and frothy in texture. This is much lighter than you’ll probably be expecting. It’s more crisp than it is creamy. I’d probably call this raspberry-vanilla soda to my friends as opposed to raspberry cream, but it just doesn’t sound the same. Then again, I don’t call my stepmom Michelle to my friends either, but I don’t even think the Internet is ready for the words I do use. Bottomline, the flavors work. The raspberries taste fresh and delicious. The lemon provides an unexpected burst of tartness that contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the raspberries. And the vanilla adds a nice layer of sophistication to the raspberry taste near the end of each sip. It’s easily the unsung hero of the soda. I actually think the vanilla could be emboldened even more in the flavor profile and only good would come from it. This is the most subtle of any fruit cream soda I’ve tried, but also easily the freshest. Waynesville Soda Jerks continue to be one of the best local soda bottlers in the country. You should go out of your way to try their stuff, including the raspberry cream soda.

Four Stars

Cicero Beverage: Salted Caramel Root Beer

History: As children, walking into a candy store was like finally finding the right key to a door that unlocked our wildest imaginations. It was a wave of sensory overload. The vibrant colors, the endless options; it was a fantasy. Desiree Alonzo is drawing inspiration from those dreams. At the Chicago-based craft soda business, Cicero Beverage Co., Alonzo and her team try to create sodas based on the same types of things we found in candy stores as kids and today oogle at on food blogs as adults. Alonzo tells us that Cicero is trying to put dessert in a bottle while keeping it refreshing and flavorful. “I try not to get ideas from beverages because they’re probably already out there,” she explains. Cicero makes a full range of flavors, but they’re known for their nontraditional ones, most notably their salted caramel root beer.

Alonzo started her soda business in 2008, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the salted caramel root beer in late 2013 that it took off. It’s still the company’s most popular flavor today, earning a variety of accolades from competitions and bloggers. In an increasingly competitive craft soda market, Alonzo acknowledges that the company’s flavors “100% needed to make us unique.” And while the salted caramel root beer has seemingly done the job well, she confesses more importantly it gave the company confidence. Alonzo describes her prized specialty root beer as smooth with a unique caramel flavor. The secret ingredient? Salt. And while this won’t surprise most of you based on the name, it is very, very rare for a company to actually add salt to its soda. Sweet and salty still continues to be a hot trend on the gourmet dessert scene. It’s still in its infancy in craft soda. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Where to get: You can find Cicero Beverage’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda at Cost Plus World Market locations around the U.S. If you’re not near a physical retailer, you can also find it online at Summit City Soda or Amazon.

Nose: Vanilla; subtle caramel; sassafras; brown sugar. Smells very creamy, more like a root beer float than root beer itself.

Taste: Vanilla; mild caramel; creaminess; mild maple. You’ll taste the creamy vanilla first and foremost. 7/10 on the creamy scale. The caramel follows next, quickly after the vanilla. The faster you drink this, the more the caramel replaces vanilla as the root beer’s dominant flavor. It also absorbs the vanilla’s creaminess. If you take your time in between sips, you’ll probably notice the vanilla slightly more. Interesting. What you won’t taste are two traditional root beer flavors: birch and wintergreen mint. This does not have a bite and the carbonation is mild. However, it’s also not overly sweet. Vanilla and caramel dominate the body of the soda, while a mild maple flavor permeates in the background.

Finish: Sugar and salt that transitions into bold maple.

Rating: For a sweet root beer, Cicero Beverage Co.’s Salted Caramel Root Beer is a very smooth soda. It pours beautifully with a nice head and has an optimum amount of creaminess. Creamy vanilla and caramel highlight this root beer’s flavor profile. What’s interesting is depending on how long it takes you to drink it, one flavor will stand out more than the other. The longer you wait in between sips, the more you’ll taste creamy vanilla. If you’re excitable and buzz saw through it like my uncle on a pint of Jack Daniels, the more the caramel stands out. It’s subtleties like that a craft soda drinker can appreciate. A couple other flavors also stand out, though much lower in the flavor profile: salt and maple. You taste both on the finish. The salt is barely there. If you really search for it, you can find it. The maple is more noticeable, again, notably on the finish. It’s probably a little too strong in my opinion. It has great flavor, but after a rush of vanilla, sugar, and caramel, another sweet flavor will be pushing it for some drinkers. This is where I think the root beer would really benefit from a flavor that pushes back, like mint or birch or sassafras. Cicero’s Salted Caramel Root Beer will always have its detractors for this reason, a lack of traditional root beer flavors… even though it’s not a traditional root beer. But I gotta hand it to Cicero; despite the trendy flavor choice, this is not a novelty root beer. When looking at the label and thinking, “salted caramel root beer?” many will be hesitant to try this because it is such an odd flavor choice in a root beer. But this is an enjoyable root beer I’d happily drink again and I’d encourage others to twist the cap off one. Cicero takes vanilla and caramel, two flavors more common in cream soda, and successfully incorporates them into root beer in an elegant fashion. This won’t be a root beer you drink every day, but as a drinkable dessert, it does its job well.

Four Stars

Cicero Beverage Co.: Candied Bacon Cream Soda

History: You’ve probably heard of bacon soda by now. Take a look at reviews on YouTube. The results are… unsavory. “Vegetable mixed with gasoline” and “made my eyes water” were some of the comments made in just the first two videos we watched. Simply put, bacon soda is usually a gag gift. It’s a gimmick. Cicero Beverage Co. out of Chicago, Illinois wanted to break the mold. See, this is a company that actually makes real flavors. You’ll find the usual root beer, cream soda, and orange cream flavors scattered amongst the bunch. But we’d be lying if we told you they were known for their “normal” flavors. It was the company’s salted caramel root beer that put it on the map. Cicero Beverage Co. President Desiree Alonzo says after the launch of the salted caramel root beer at the end of 2013, the company “took off as a full time business.” To this day, it’s the company’s most popular flavor. But it’s followed closely by another unique offering. Bacon? Bacon. Yes, Cicero decided to tackle craft soda’s court jester flavor by putting their own spin on it. Instead of doing a strictly bacon-flavored soda, the company introduced a candied bacon cream soda. “It’s not just a novelty…. It’s not bacon forward,” says Alonzo. It is admittedly hard to trust her words because I’ve had my taste buds abused so many times by the bacon sodas of samplings past. There are more and more bacon sodas popping up all over the world now. Each one is like going on a new date with the same broken promise. “No, no. I’m not like her. You can trust me. We’ll have fun ;).” It always ends in a broken heart and a battered stomach. But here’s a bit of information that might ease your fears about this one. Alonzo tells us “I try not to get ideas from beverages because they’re probably already out there.” Phew. Cicero sodas are usually inspired by candies or desserts, rather than soft drinks. Along those lines, she goes on to describe the company’s candied bacon cream soda as “vanilla-forward” with notes of smokey brown sugar bacon and a little bit of maple. “It’s very much a cream soda with a bacon finish,” she explains. Everyone loves a good cream soda. And she does a good job selling it. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I guess I’ll put myself out there one more time.

Where to get: You can find Cicero Beverage’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda at Cost Plus World Market locations around the U.S. If you’re not near a physical retailer, you can also find it online at Summit City Soda or Amazon.

Nose: Caramel; vanilla; sugar; milk chocolate. This smells the same as creamy caramel rich in vanilla and coated in a thin layer of chocolate, like a confectionary treat.

Taste: Vanilla; pork salt; hickory flavor. Definitely a blend of sweet and savory. Sugar and vanilla are immediate on the tongue, quickly followed by a smoked pork flavor. I taste more of a BBQ pork flavor than bacon. The smokiness has notes of hickory chips and salted meat. The sweet and savory elements have a surprisingly good balance due to the fact that this has a very, very, very high sugar content at 58 grams a bottle. The savory flavors are initially strong, but mellow over time after continual sips.

Finish: Smokey bacon with sugar… so candied bacon. The truest part of the soda and the only portion that actually tastes like bacon.

Rating: If there’s one thing the world has an abundance of, it’s bacon-flavored things. A quick Google search gives you some pretty eye-opening results, several of which are NSFW. Cicero Beverage Co.’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda is safe for work, but not everyone will allow it safe passage to their taste buds. This was always going to be a divisive soda simply due to the fact that soda is a prototypical sweet beverage, and Cicero is merging that flavor profile with savory and salty elements. The basic question most will ask is, “does it actually taste like bacon?” Answer: sometimes. The soda definitely has a candied bacon finish with a dash of smokiness. But I think the savory elements taste more of smoked pork and hickory chips than bacon. There’s definitely still a pig influence on this soda. Oink, Oink. Still, this is a cream soda rooted in sugar and vanilla – like most of them, but this one has a smokiness that sets it apart in terms of the overall flavor experience. That smokey flavor can be disjointing on the first couple sips, even when you’re expecting it. The pork flavor is bold, but mellows over time and becomes more of a smoked hickory taste that supplements the sugary vanilla notes. The balance of sweet and savory helps justify why the soda’s sugar content is so high (a third higher than most craft sodas). The vanilla and sugar in this are really nice – they make me want to try just a normal cream soda from Cicero. Despite the taste bud whip flash the soda’s bacon elements might give you in the beginning, the smokey flavor is a fun change of pace. Personally, I’d probably mellow them even more so they had just the slightest influence on the flavor profile. If you’re into cream soda or simply adventurous beverages, Cicero’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda should be on your radar. It probably isn’t something you’ll regularly drink, but it’s a fun one to add to your list.

Three Stars

Yacht Club: Cream Soda

History: Three-hundred years after the pilgrims made their way to New England in the early 17th century, the British made their contribution to modern American craft soda in what would become Yacht Club Bottling Works. Current Yacht Club President John Sgambato tells us over the phone that Yacht Club originated in 1915 and was brought over from England to Providence, Rhode Island by the Sharp family. It was a “roll your sleeves up” and go to work type business. Sgambato says the family found a well to source water for the soda and went from there. To this day, the company still uses its own water supply, which Sgambato says has great characteristics for carbonation. Their website expands on this idea a bit, saying “Its natural temperature is 45 degrees, which allows carbonation without the use of cooling towers that can be bad for the environment.” If I’m being honest, I don’t really know what that means… but it sounds nice. Sgambato’s grandfather, also named John Sgambato, started working for Yacht Club in 1935 and the Sgambato’s have owned the business since 1960. “We were doing it long before people called it craft or artisanal or gourmet,” he says. And he’s not lying. Yacht Club has always used pure cane sugar in its soda, even when others began switching to corn syrup for a period of time when its price became vastly cheaper. Good on them because when it comes to soda, the sweetening agent is one of those things you just can’t skimp on. Drinking corn syrup soda is like sleeping on a lumpy bed: the clients or women you’re trying to impress will never come back. Ahem. The Sgambato family has introduced many flavors to the Yacht Club line since they took over in 1935, but we felt like our first Yacht Club review needed to be one of the originals. Cream soda was one of a handful of flavors the Sharp family brought over. Sgambato notes that old cream sodas used to be made with condensed milk and vanilla. Because of shelf life issues, bottled cream sodas can’t be made that way today, but Yacht Club still tries to replicate that style of flavor. Sgambato tells us, “We wanted something that was more true to form to what it (cream soda) used to taste like.” The company’s not-so-secret ingredient? Pure alcohol extract of vanilla. Sgambato believes this gives the soda a pure, high-quality vanilla flavor. And don’t worry – there’s no alcohol in Yacht Club Cream Soda. When it comes to taste, Yacht club Cream was was designed to be “smooth almost like a vanilla ice cream.” The company also makes all of its syrups in-house, a task many businesses source out to flavor houses. Sgambato closes our conversation, simply saying “There’s not many places in the country that make soda the way we do.”

Where to get: Yacht Club soda is sold mostly in the southern New England region. To our knowledge it is not sold online through any outlets, though the company is considering creating an online store. Yacht Club is currently only willing to ship orders in bulk.

Nose: Mild caramel. Honestly not much of a scent.

Taste: Big carbonation; mild vanilla; caramel; burned sugar. The carbonation in Yacht Club Cream Soda is big and bold, and it’s immediate before any flavor comes in. Once the bubbles pass, you’ll taste mild vanilla and caramel. The caramel is the stronger of the two flavors. The vanilla is subtle, but nice, and it lingers for pretty much the duration of each sip. Interestingly, the body of the soda is dry, but the end of each sip is kind of creamy. It’s an odd mouth feel for a cream soda. The carbonation in this is borderline harsh on some sips and cuts into the flavor profile. When combined with the caramel notes, the two combine to give off a burned sugar taste.

Finish: Slightly creamy vanilla-caramel. By far the best part of the soda.

Rating: Yacht Club Cream Soda is powered by its subtleties of vanilla and caramel, but it’ll probably be remembered for its intense carbonation. Caramel is the soda’s biggest flavor, followed closely by mild vanilla. The two work very well together, particularly in the soda’s finish. At 28 grams, this isn’t an overly sweet cream soda. I’d say the sugar is just right. The problem is the carbonation. It’s a little too overbearing right from the get-go, just like my stepsister. About half way through the bottle it starts to subside a little more, but some drinkers may have abandoned ship at that point. The bubbles mask the really pleasant notes of caramel and vanilla. I think if that carbonation was pulled back some, the flavors in this cream soda would really open up more and take it to another level. Still, if you stick with this, the caramel and vanilla come through more as the soda progresses. The vanilla actually kind of becomes stronger as you drink it and has a vanilla ice cream taste. This is more of a crisp, sweet soda than a creamy one. It would be a really good mixer with an oaky bourbon or maybe even just an orange slice to add a little extra something. Is it worth your time? I think so. It’s a grower. There’s a number of joke opportunities here, but it seems like a safer option to end the review now.

Three Stars

Norka Beverage: Ginger Ale

History: Akron is a city in Ohio of just under 200,000 people, but if you ever ended up there for more than a few days, guessing its population would almost be impossible. The dichotomy of personalities in Akron is perplexingly stark. I know from experience – I have family from around the area. Some days you feel like you’re back in the 40’s when you stop in at the local deli and the butcher knows the names of all the shop’s customers. Other times it feels like some bizarro displaced version of New York City where loud Italians on their porches sit their beers down to yell at you just to see what’s up. “Ay, kid whaddahyou doin – you lost?” No, but you sound like you aren’t far from it. One thing all these people have in common? Pride. Michael Considine, Norka Beverage Founder and President, feels the same. He thinks what originated in Akron should stay in Akron. The city is famous for being the home of LeBron James and the corporate headquarters of Goodyear Tires, but back in the 1920’s, it was also where local soda bottler, Norka Beverage originated. Norka is, of course, “Akron” spelled backwards. Considine had no idea about the soda until he spotted an old bottle in a restaurant while out to lunch with his father. The original Norka closed its doors in 1962, but with the rise in popularity of craft soda, Considine dug deeper into the soda brand’s history, finding the old packaging designs with the original ingredient listings. He decided to take a chance, saying, “I had no idea Akron had its own soft drink…. It was a cool opportunity to bring something back in the beverage industry.”

Considine re-opened the doors to the new Norka Beverage in early 2015 and tells us Norka sodas are made with “100% natural flavors and pure cane sugar,” and are also caffeine and gluten-free. Norka is most famous for its cherry-strawberry soda, but another one of the original flavors from 1924 is the ginger ale. It’s Norka’s third-best seller behind cherry-strawberry and root beer. Considine tells us the ginger ale took the longest to get right of Norka’s four flavors, going through six months of focus group taste testing. With the current popularity of ginger in the world of soda, there are no limit to the flavor variants of ginger ales available on the market. “True ginger ale is crisp, refreshing, and does have the real ginger in it” Considine says. He goes on to add, “A lot of ginger ales will try to be spicier…. Ours on the spectrum probably leans towards a Canada Dry.” Norka Ginger Ale uses natural ginger extract and cane sugar, something Considine believes helps eliminate the syrupy aftertaste of many ginger ales, even the comparable Canada Dry. It is designed to be “very crisp and not overpowering.” We’re told it pairs well with both food and alcohol. Considering I already have sweat pants on, this sounds like it could be the beginning of something special.

Where to get: Norka Beverage sodas are sold mostly throughout Ohio with limited regional reach in surrounding states. You can also find it at massive craft soda superstore Pop’s Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Oklahoma, as well as in parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco. For everyone else, the easiest way to buy Norka sodas is by ordering them online from the company’s store or at Summit City Soda.

Nose: Classic ginger ale; lime. This smells more along the lines of a classic ginger ale in the sense that you don’t get a forceful ginger scent that singes the nostrils.

Taste: Citrus; cane sugar; classic ginger ale. This is a crisp and refreshing take on ginger ale. If I had to compare it to a brand you might be familiar with, Canada Dry comes to mind. The ginger in this is very mild, though if you let it sit on the tongue for a second, you do get just the slightest zippy sensation of heat up the nostrils. So the ginger is definitely there. The carbonation is crisp and interacts with the cane sugar in a way that allows for a sweet bite. The most prominent element in Norka’s version of ginger ale is citrus. It’s a citrus closer to a lemon-lime soda than a ginger beer. Mild, drinkable, and very refreshing.

Finish: Light citrus that bubbles on the tongue and tails of for a very crisp finish.

Rating: Ginger is possibly the hottest flavor on the craft soda market. So often bottlers get caught up in who can add the most ginger to their soda. It gets to the point where the ginger is either too spicy or too masking of the other flavors present. Norka decided not to go this route. Instead, they focused on making a light, refreshing ginger ale that stands on its own and doesn’t need to rely on alcohol in order to pull back the reigns on its potency. I’d call this a relative of Canada Dry ginger ale, only this one does everything just a little bit better. The cane sugar plays the fiddle of flavors in this ginger ale, giving the bottle’s carbonation a sweet, crisp bite, enhancing the lime notes in the citrus flavor profile present, and giving the mild ginger bite a drinkable, refreshing finish. This is one ginger ale to which I wouldn’t even bother adding alcohol. And if my neighbor’s cat hadn’t puked on me earlier, I might actually follow that advice. Rough day. But seriously, this pairs excellently with bourbon. It’s also great with ice. Lovers of strong ginger may be let down. This won’t make your eyes water, but it will beg for you to crack the cap on another bottle. This is simple, yet elegant in its taste. It’s an old-school take on a classic flavor in a world that increasingly craves nostalgic, glass-bottled soda. Its flavor and versatility place it in the elite tier of craft ginger ales on the market. Still, the classics aren’t always a sure thing as bottlers continue combining artisan flavors in search of creating a modern masterpiece. Norka didn’t over think this and the brilliance is in the simplicity. This is a near-perfectly done take on a milder ginger ale.

Five Stars