Month: May 2016

Green Bee: Blueberry Dream

History: Bees are gonna be a real important part of this review. But those ‘lil dudes are crucial to our lives in general, whether we know it or not. And the bee population in the U.S. is declining, so much so that the United States Department of Agriculture is putting up $3 million to keep bees feed in portions of the midwest. But they’re also inspiring, and one man they inspired is Chris Kinkade, who took up beekeeping after hearing about their declining numbers. After being similarly concerned about the high-sugar content of drinks his three kids were consuming, Kinkade and his wife Lori took their bee-spiration and founded Green Bee Craft Beverages out of Brunswick, Maine. He distinctly remembers looking at a jar of honey and thinking, “I could make something out of this.” Guess what ingredient is in every flavor of Green Bee Soda? Yeeaaah. The company vows they “We always use whole ingredients and sweeten our beverages exclusively with honey.” They also “never use concentrates, extracts, preservatives, or artificial colors.” As you might guess, this is going to be a more natural-tasting soda. We call these “farmer’s market sodas” due to their heavy reliance on natural ingredients and lower sugar content. Green Bee produces four different flavors of their soda from Lemon Sting to Blueberry Dream. Speaking of blueberries, it only seems fitting for the company to make a blueberry soda because it is a fruit bees help pollinate. Lori Kinkade tells us “For our Blueberry Dream we use Maine Wild Blueberries and press the juice in an Italian wine press.” Blueberry Dream clocks in at a lower-than-average 110 calories and contains only a handful of ingredients: carbonated water, wild blueberry juice, wildflower honey, ginger, and citric acid. Sounds like a bubbly bottle full of nature.

Where to get: Green Bee sodas can be purchased online through Jackeez, the official online retailer of the company. Green Bee sells its soda mainly in the New England region. To see a list of where you can find it in the northeast, click here.

Nose: Honey. Unmistakably honey with a little bit of a berry smell.

Taste: Honey; blueberry juice; water. You’ll taste those three ingredients. This is straightforward. The honey taste is up front – it’s a little watery. It has a a tang to it – takes some time to get used to that. The blueberry juice takes a couple seconds to come through, but it tastes very authentic and provides some needed sweetness. One ingredient on the list I don’t taste inside this bottle is ginger. This is very much a soda you’d find in a health food store and has a flavor you would expect to accompany a drink like that. Good blueberry flavor, but the tangy honey taste up front is going to perplex some drinkers.

Finish: Mildly sweet blueberries with just a hint of tartness.

Rating: There’s two lines of thought here. If you’re big into “natural” sodas, ones that use lots of juice and taste earthier than your average glass-bottled liquid, then this might be for you. If you prefer sweeter, more traditional soda, this might shock your taste buds. Green Bee Blueberry Dream tastes much more like a soda that you’d find in a farmer’s market than one you’d see in a grocery or vintage candy store. Honey and blueberry juice are the marquee ingredients here, but the two stand out separately for different reasons. The honey flavor is upfront. It’s abrupt and is accompanied by an unforgiving tang that’s hard to get past. On the other hand, the blueberry flavors come in near the back half of each sip, and they’re very pleasant. You’ll taste a slight tartness and a natural sweetness that you’re used to when eating blueberries. But even the good blueberry flavor can’t save that odd initial taste that accompanies the honey. Whatever it is; it needs to go. That said, I’m more of a traditional soda guy – so take that for what it’s worth. If you frequent health food stores, have participated in a rally, or wear yoga pants more than 4 days a week – you’re gonna need a Blueberry Dream to put in your recycled denim tote bag. In all seriousness though, I’d recommend this to natural foods connoisseurs or fans of farm-to-table cuisine. I’m guessing fans of sweeter sodas will be confused by this offering from Green Bee. It’ll be a crowd divider, but it’s nice to see bottlers starting to use wholesome ingredients to bring something new to the table for craft soda drinkers.

Three Stars

Bundaberg: Pink Grapefruit

History: Perched along the northeastern coast of Queensland, Australia sits the city of Bundaberg. The name itself is hard not to say in an Aussie accent. It’s ok, we’ll pause so you can do it. You good now? Right, then. But you might know the name from arguably its greatest export, Bunderberg Brewed Drinks. The company, founded in 1960 and named after the city, is most famous for its ginger beer. Today, the company brews around 12 different flavors at a time with new ideas for sodas always being kicked around. Bundaberg ships its sodas across 46 different counties. Most of their flavors can be found around the world, though Australia and New Zealand are probably the only places you can be guaranteed to find the entire collection. For example, you won’t find Creaming Soda or Pineapple and Coconut in America. And let me tell you, we were given some of the latter just to sample and not review… and it is delightful. I may not have a girlfriend, but I do get sent rare sodas from time to time. I digress. I also mentioned that Bundaberg “brews” its sodas. This word is very important because it really is the best way to describe how their beverages are produced. Ashleigh Gray, Bundaberg’s Brand Manager, says “We pour our heart and soul into every brewed drink.” And I know that warms your heart, but the most important ingredients are actually yeast and fruit. Using yeast to ferment the fruit allows Bundaberg “to extract real flavor,” giving the sodas their signature, authentic fruity taste. According to Gray, the process can take “up to seven days.” Trust me, for a soda, that is intense. The company branched out from ginger beer in 2010, introducing its sparkling line that included pink grapefruit, guava, and blood orange. Even though it can be a divisive fruit, we’ve always felt like grapefruit could really translate to soda if the bottler could actually pull out the real essence of the fruit. Bundaberg’s Peach Soda does exactly that, so it was time to see how they tackled something a little more challenging to a wider audience’s palate. When we asked how the company designed the soda’s flavor profile, we were given an encouraging answer. Gray told us that “the grapefruit juice and the locally sourced sugarcane used in our beverages means that we don’t need to design the taste of our beverages, the taste comes through the use of real, quality ingredients.” We’re more than convinced our audience deserves to know more about Bundaberg’s Pink Grapefruit soda. Yet, as with any grapefruit soda or new relationship, we’re guarded.

Where to get: Bundaberg is the largest nonalcoholic craft beverage distributor in Australia and their sodas can be found all over the world. To find your nearest retailer, enter your info in their online product locator. You can also buy it online from Soda Emporium in single bottles or on Amazon in 12-packs.

Nose: Smells exactly like a fresh-sliced pink grapefruit. You can’t get a more authentic grapefruit scent.

Taste: Grapefruit; mild sweetness; mild acidity. For as lush as this smells, the grapefruit taste is more pulled back than I’d expect. Pink grapefruit is definitely the dominating flavor here; it’s just not as bold as your nose leads you to believes. It’s a mild, but authentic grapefruit taste with reasonable sweetness and a slight, slight tartness. Solid grapefruit flavor, but doesn’t have the same punch or acidity that a real grapefruit slice contains. Refreshing and easy to drink. A summer soda, no doubt.

Finish: Medium tartness that flows outward on the tongue with the same grapefruit flavor from the body of the soda. The only difference on the finish is that the acidity is a little more noticeable.

Rating: Bundaberg is one of the best mass-produced craft soda brands at taking a fruit and transforming it into a sugary carbonated beverage while maintaining its authentic flavor. Their take on pink grapefruit is no different. It actually does taste like real grapefruit, just more mild in every way. Bundaberg Pink Grapefruit Soda takes everything about the fruit – namely the flavor and the acidity – and dials it back. Even the sugar levels aren’t as high as in other craft sodas. All of this, I assume, is intentional since grapefruit’s flavor is pretty divisive to the general population. Unlike drinking fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, this is much more approachable. This is a grapefruit soda that’s light and refreshing while still tasting like the real thing. It’s like the opposite of when my sister makes meatloaf – I’m not really sure what’s in there, and God knows it’s better if I don’t ask. Bundaberg seems to have made a grapefruit soda for both fans and non-fans of grapefruit. Even if the fruit itself makes you a little hesitant, I’d still suggest trying the soda. My only qualm is the fact that it’s so approachable. For me, I’d enjoy a little more punch from the flavor. Bolder grapefruit and more of a bite. Admittedly, I’m probably in the minority, but I just need a little more oomph. I think Bundaberg’s Pink Grapefruit Soda would be best enjoyed on a hot day, perhaps by the pool or on a boat, maybe with some rum or vodka. Just make sure you’re not the driver. Grapefruit sodas are quietly becoming more popular in craft soda and many of today’s bottlers could learn a lesson from Bundaberg’s take on the category.

Four Stars

Excel Bottling Company: Lucky Cherry Cola

History: Cherry colas are criminally underproduced in the craft soda industry, so it’s nice to see one of the old-timers churning out their take on the category. Excel Bottling Company out of Breese, Illinois has been around since 1936. These guys have been making craft soda since before it was called “craft soda.” Excel Bottling Sales and Communications Manager Colton Huelskamp tells us about the company’s origin, retelling the story of how “Edward ‘Lefty’ Meier caught a bank robber a town over and used the reward money to purchase a used bottle washer and filler” to serve the local community soda. What a swell guy. Catch the bad guys. Serve the good ones. Excel Bottling also makes beer, but they’re known mostly for their soda. The company bottles over 18 different flavors, from their signature Lucky Club Cola to the wacky Gooey Butter Cake Soda. Lucky Club Cherry, as you might guess, is a spinoff of their original cola. Made with pure cane sugar and no preservatives, Huelskamp says “Lucky Cherry stands out due to its ingredients. The cherry flavoring is actually from a cherry concentrate, so it uses real juices and no artificial ones.” My only immediate critique about this soda is that it comes in a 20 oz. plastic bottle instead of glass. The craft soda purist in me is sad about this. But as Huelskamp explains the soda’s flavor design to us more, I become more optimistic. He continues he previous thoughts, saying “We wanted it to have a very sweet cola taste that isn’t too acidic, while letting a lot of the real cherry flavor come through.” No preservatives √ Pure cane sugar √ Real cherry √. I’m ready; let’s do this.

Where to get: Excel Bottling Sodas are usually found around the St. Louis region, but you can always contact the company for your own order and they’ll hook you up. To get in touch with Excel Bottling, go here.

Nose: Classic cherry cola smell with an added grenadine scent. Smells sweeter than the cherry cola you’re probably used to drinking. Like a cherry cola you’d have made behind the bar.

Taste: Grenadine; cola; maraschino cherry; vanilla; mild creaminess; soft carbonation. There are several elements of Lucky Club Cherry Cola that define its flavor profile and gustation experience. First, there’s a classic cola flavor as the base – it’s slightly sweeter than most craft colas. This base flavor gets taken to a different level with the soda’s elongated notes of grenadine syrup and maraschino cherry, along with slightly creamy vanilla. The grenadine flavor really gives this cherry cola a more sophisticated taste. The vanilla and maraschino cherries combine with the soft carbonation to give this a creamy vanilla-cherry cola taste. The carbonation is a major star in Lucky Club Cherry’s drinking experience. It floats along the tongue like morning ocean foam on the beach. This is a cherry cola that has classic flavors, but blends them with maraschino cherry and vanilla in a way that makes Lucky Club feel and taste like it’s on a higher plane.

Finish: Slightly bitter cola bite that quickly transitions into maraschino cherries and sugar. Notes of vanilla linger in the background and remain until the next sip.

Rating: Simply put, Lucky Club Cherry Cola is outstanding. It’s the craft cherry cola you should be drinking. It blends the flavors of grenadine, maraschino cherries, and vanilla in a way that makes the soda taste sophisticated, yet still easy to drink. Another enjoyable element of Lucky Club Cherry is the texture. It feels light and soft in the mouth. The bubbles are foamy and glide along the tongue. And the creamy vanilla flavor brings it all home and ties a bow on it. I’d go as far to label this as more of a cherry-vanilla cola than strictly cherry. Almost like a cherry cream cola. The use of vanilla here is some of the best I’ve tasted in any soda. On ice the vanilla notes open up even more, so if you want a creamier flavor, add ice. I can’t say enough good things about this – it’s dreamy. It makes me forget I’m in debt. Good thing I write about soda on the Internet… that’ll pay the bills. I really have no suggestions to improve Lucky Club Cherry Cola. Some people might prefer a little more bittersweetness in the main cola flavor, but cherry colas are almost always sweeter than their regular counterparts. This is so flavorful, so drinkable, and flat out enjoyable that I plan on putting it in my regular rotation. I hope you’ll at least give it a shot to crack yours.

Five Stars

Chazzano: Brooklyn Born Coffee Soda

History: “If you put cream or sugar in my coffee, God cries and an angel loses its wings,” Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo says in a corkscrewed, high-pitched New York accent over the phone. Lanzkron-Tamarazo is a sweet, funny man with a last name almost as long as the conversation we had together. Our time on the phone totaled 54 minutes. Normally our interviews for these reviews clock in at under 15. But Lanzkron-Tamarazo has much to say about his roots, his career, and most importantly, everything coffee. Lanzkron-Tamarazo is a master roaster and founder of Chazzano Coffee in Ferndale, Michigan. But it’s something else that ties all those things in a bow: his religion. He references God often in our conversation, usually in his jokes, though never in a decrying matter. Lanzkron-Tamarazo grew up in New York City with a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father before taking his talents to Michigan for a job in a synagogue there. It didn’t work out. But in the meantime, something else was brewing. Sixteen years earlier, his mother-in-law asked Lanzkron-Tamarazo what he wanted for his birthday. The small coffee roaster she gifted him quickly turned into something more. Roasting beans became his nighttime hobby and quickly turned into his full-time obsession. The roasters went from desktop-sized to industrial. The 1o-pound bags turned into 1000-pound bags. “I couldn’t find anyone else’s coffee that was better than mine,” he admits. And don’t get him started on “bad coffee.” He says “it’s against God to do that,” only this time he doesn’t sound like he’s joking. After the synagogue gig didn’t work out, Lanzkron-Tamarazo decided in 2009, “It’s time to do something that will really bring joy to my life.” He now spends more time at his cafe than the synagogue, but in a way, you could say Lanzkron-Tamarazo is at church in some form or another every day because coffee is a religious experience for him. It even influenced the name of the store. Quick story: Lanzkron-Tamarazo is a Cantor, which is the main Torah reader and singer in Jewish synagogues. In Hebrew it’s called a “Chazzan.” So he took the Hebrew spelling, added an “O,” because what Italian word doesn’t end in “O,” and created Chazzano Coffee. This dude gets so worked up talking about the stuff that I’m almost convinced to make the 10-hour drive to try all his varieties.

Being an obsessive, Lanzkron-Tamarazo couldn’t just stop at normal coffee. He needed coffee soda. He grew up around the stuff. His grandmother was a huge fan of Manhattan Special Espresso Soda and it was little Frank’s job to bring it to her. But Lanzkron-Tamarazo wanted his own version. In October of 2015, he introduced his own Brooklyn Born Coffee Soda at Chazzano Coffee. Lanzkron-Tamarazo describes its flavor as tinged with chocolate, nuttiness, and maltiness. When asked specifically which coffees are used in the soda, Lanzkron-Tamarazo is tight-lipped. Brooklyn Born Coffee Soda might be full of flavor, but it’s also notable for what’s not in the recipe. Lanzkron-Tamarazo expands on this, saying it’s a “completely different product than anything on the market because it has no sugar.” That’s right. This is a soda void of one of the genre’s trademark ingredients. And he admits, it won’t be for everyone. “It is a niche beverage. The problem is that there’s no competition for it yet.” The soda also contains no preservatives. As for caffeine content, Chazzano’s Coffee Soda contains about a fourth of the amount of a normal cup of coffee, according to an estimate by Lanzkron-Tamarazo. Carbonated water + coffee = …I don’t know, but it sounds intense.

Where to get: Brooklyn Born Coffee Soda can be purchased directly from Chazzano’s Cafe in Ferndale, Michigan. The company does not sell their soda online, but does take orders for it via email. Find the company’s contact information here.

Nose: Strong roasted coffee smell. Almost like someone brewed a fresh pot and then chilled it.

Taste: Coffee; acidic; dark roast; very mild chocolate; foamy. This’ll put hair on your peaches. Man, the coffee flavor is robust. This is a strong coffee soda. There’s one main flavor and one main flavor only here: powerful roasted coffee beans. Almost a little bit of a nutty flavor with the beans. You won’t taste sugar. You won’t taste many other subtleties like vanilla or creaminess. Coffee. All coffee. And as with most coffee beverages, this is fairly acidic. You can taste the freshness of the beans. Definitely tastes like a dark roast, almost bordering on espresso. If you search hard enough for it, there’s a little bit of a chocolate underbody to the soda. My guess is most won’t taste it. Lots of foam on this soda too. Low on sugar, big on coffee flavor.

Finish: Strong coffee beans with a little bit of earthiness that slowly fades into the background.

Rating: Chazzano coffee soda is definitely a beverage for javahead purists. If you’re a coffee lover or enjoy dry sodas with lots of flavor, definitely bust the cap off one of these. If you enjoy sweeter sodas in the more traditional sense, this will be a hard sell for you because I taste absolutely zero sugar here (because there is none). It’s definitely a niche soda for the reason that it tastes devoid of sugar and b u r s t i n g with intense roasted coffee bean taste. No sugar. No carbs. No calories. This is literally just carbonated water and coffee. I think no matter what, this soda is a sipper. Put on your fedora, open up your laptop, and watch the beautiful head on this form as your pour one out into your glass. Sip slowly at your favorite hipster cafe as you wax melodramatic about your first world problems. Bottom line is this: this is strong. Strong coffee. Coffee strong. Get it? If you’re into that, go far it. If not, pass. Simple as that. Personally, I think the roasted coffee flavor is great, but I also think it needs some supporting flavor. Maybe a sweeter nuttiness, maybe vanilla. But more than anything, it needs a little sugar. I think even with 20 grams of sugar, this could appeal to a wider audience. I get that this soda is a love letter to coffee enthusiasts. I just think maybe they should offer one that’s a little sweeter. Still, it earns major points for its flavor. Chazzano Coffee Soda is definitely one that will make you say “wow!” but the reasoning behind the exclamation is sure to be divided.

Three Stars

Fentimans: Curiosity Cola

History: Ask anybody plugged into the craft soda world and they’ll tell you Fentimans has a sterling reputation as a beverage-maker. And none of the UK-based company’s sodas earn higher marks than Curiosity Cola. Galco’s Soda Pop Shop owner, John Nese, who we affectionately call the “Godfather of soda” says the New York Times labeled Curiosity Cola as the best in its category… in the world. You’ll hear that rumor a lot online. We’ve extensively looked for the evidence and cannot back up his claims, but the point is that this is a cola with some serious fanfare. Fentimans was founded in 1905 in Cleckheaton, England when an iron puddler named Thomas Fentiman “was approached by a fellow tradesman for a loan. A deal was struck and a recipe for botanically brewed ginger beer was provided as security. The loan was never repaid so Thomas became the owner of the unique recipe.” Fentimans’ claim to fame is that they infuse their sodas with botanicals. Think herbs, spices, oils, etc. Ginger is a staple ingredient in Fentimans’ sodas, including Curiosity Cola. The company actually brews their sodas like a beer using fermented ginger root extract. According to Fentimans North America Sales and Marketing Coordinator Karyssa Veltri, “The multi-stage process involves mashing and infusion of the ginger root, fermentation, chilling and centrifugation.” In total, she says it takes “seven full days” to brew one of their sodas. Allegedly, it took God six to create the universe. Does that make this soda… heavenly? I’ll see myself out.

Fentimans North America sells eight different flavors of soda, none with more name recognition than Curiosity Cola. In addition to fermented ginger root extract, Veltri tells us the recipe also contains brewer’s yeast, pure cane sugar, and spring water. The rest of the soda’s herbs and spices were not disclosed. Veltri adds that as with all Fenitmans soda, the goal for Curiosity Cola is to have a “distinctive depth of flavour, complex mouthfeel and full body.” She goes further, adding that Curiosity cola is designed to have a “pleasing background of citrus notes and an authentic spiciness, and a warmth to the finish.” As you can see, this isn’t some cola you just pull off the shelf and guzzle. It’s intended to be more sophisticated. And as such, you’ll pay a more sophisticated price. A recent trip to the supermarket netted me nearly $10 for a four-pack. Oh, and the name. You wanna know about the name, right? Veltri tells us Curiosity Cola is named after an 1840’s English novel called The Old Curiosity Shop. Spoilers: a lot of people die and it does not have a happy ending. Do I still want to drink this now?? Yes. Yes, I do. From the name to the flavor profile to the cute little 9.3 oz. bottle, everything about Curiosity Cola passes the eye test. Now for the oral exam. That sounds gross. Sorry.

Where to get: Fentimans is most popular in the United Kingdom, but is quickly gaining popularity in North America. In the UK, check out the company online locator to find your nearest stockist. For you North Americans, find your closest local retailer here. You can also purchase Fentimans online at the company’s personal recommendation from MyBrands. It’s also available from Soda Emporium online in single bottles and four-packs.

Nose: General cola; cloves; vanilla; Christmas spice; cinnamon. This smells like a spiced cola. Reminds me of walking into the kitchen on Christmas afternoon. Rustic. Herbal. Yet familiar.

Taste: Cloves; cinnamon; cola; cane sugar; vanilla; ginger; birch. This is quite a flavorful experience for you mouth. There’s so many different herbs and spices in here, there’s no way we’ll be able to identify them all. And yet, despite all the ingredients, everything flows seamlessly in Fentimans Curiosity Cola. There’s a good, old school, slightly bittersweet cola flavor as a base, but it’s supplemented by so many other tasting notes. Cloves and cinnamon seem to stand out most for us. They add some savoriness to the body of the drink and give it a legitimate spiced cola flavor. You also prominently taste ginger. But instead of being spicy like in so many other sodas, here the ginger gives the cola more of a tanginess. Vanilla also floats about in the background, giving the cola a mildly soft, sweet character. We also taste maybe a little birch or mint in here. Whatever it is, it’s very mild, but it gives the cola almost a little bit of a root beer flavor on certain sips. Curiosity Cola is complicated when analyzing the flavor, but the good news is that when the liquid hits your lips, it’s so good you won’t want to do any thinking.

Finish: I think this is where that fermented ginger comes in the most. It gives the drink a little zip in addition to the tanginess in the body. This fades in place of soft vanilla and mellow spices.

Rating: Fentimans Curiosity Cola may very well be the best cola in the world. Coca-Cola may be the most popular mass-produced soft drink, but when it comes to craft soda, colas are often pushed into the background behind root beer and cream soda. If there was ever an inspiration for bottlers to make a cola so great that it commands center stage, Curiosity Cola is the one. It has undeniably spectacular, sophisticated, and most importantly, balanced flavor. This soda is a pantheon of herbs, spices, and flavors that should seemingly overwhelm the palate; yet they provide a level of pleasure rarely achieved in non-alcoholic beverages. From the sweet savoriness of the cinnamon and cloves, and the tanginess of the ginger, all the way to the signature bittersweet vintage cola body – Fentimans Curiosity Cola earns itself a place on craft soda’s Mount Rushmore. Everything in this bottle works. Each tasting note flows seamlessly into the next. From the initial sip to the lingering finish, it’s exquisite. It’s full-bodied, but not overpowering. Sweet and also savory. And it pairs alarmingly well with bourbon. One of our writers learned this lesson the hard way and was too hungover to attend one of our photo sessions the next morning. Embarrassing, yet inspiring. Worth it. And that is the point I leave you with. Everything about Curiosity Cola is worth it. I won’t talk to you for weeks if you don’t buy this as soon as you possibly can. This is a feat in craft cola. Enjoy it.

Five Stars