Month: December 2016

AJ Stephans: Raspberry Lime Rickey

History: Sometimes when researching a soda or a company behind the soda, there’s just not a lot of information to be found. We may have a reviews what we call “in the can,” for months, meaning the tasting and photos are done, but there’s something missing. The reason we don’t publish these reviews is because we’re at a loss on information due to phone calls or emails not being returned and online biographies not being beefy enough for our standards. I’ll tell you what though, there’s really nothing out there on AJ Stephans sodas. What we do know is this: it’s headquartered Fall River, Massachusetts, it’s bottled by the same dude who makes Empire Soda, there’s nine different flavors, and the company was named when the late founder Jeff Rose combined the names of his two daughters. Rose was big on the idea of nostalgia. He said of his sodas, “My product is like going back in time.” Perhaps none of his flavors aside from root beer make that philosophy come to life more than raspberry lime rickey. A lime rickey is the nonalcoholic version of a cocktail called the “Rickey” that dates all the way back to 1903 and is very popular on the east coast. Adding raspberry to it seems like a smart decision to us. It’s like someone said, “Hey Margot Robbie, you look really pretty, but we also want you to wear this push-up bra for your photo shoot.” It’s making a good idea a great one. And I’m all about drinking in good ideas (also very much about Margot Robbie if she’s reading this).

Buy: Specialty Sodas  •  Beverages Direct

Nose: Raspberry jam and raspberry-flavored Tootsie Pops. Mmm.

Taste: Candy raspberry; mild lime; syrupy; melted snow cone; sweet. This is hard to pinpoint on flavor. It definitely has an artificial/candy taste to it. Very sweet. There’s kind of a melted down raspberry snow cone flavor with some faint lime notes. They’re subtle, if not a little dull. The raspberry and lime flavors are about 50% each in the soda, so the balance is there. But in this case, I’m not sure it works. It tastes like the raspberry is really about to sink in to your tastes bud, and then all of sudden the lime completely erases it.

Finish: Sweet raspberry encased in a cocoon of lime. Has a really nice lingering effect that is better than the body of the soda.

Rating: AJ Stephans Raspberry Lime Rickey is one of those flavors that sounds good on paper but fizzles in taste. Its taste is defined by sweet, artificial raspberry, reminiscent of a raspberry snow cone. Only, unlike Jackson Hole’s High Mountain Huckleberry (which has a similar melted snow cone flavor), this soda doesn’t have good supporting flavors. The raspberry flavor is too artificial. Still, despite that, it never even gets a chance to unleash its full potential in the mouth [insert porn joke here]. The lime flavor decapitates the raspberry before it gets a chance to showcase its potential. The lime itself is pretty dull. Also artificial. Almost chemical. This soda tastes like wasted potential. I mean, it has redeeming qualities. Decent initial flavor. Solid finish. But somewhere in that crucial middle part, things get hazy. I wanted to like this because raspberry is one of my favorite flavors in the world, but I just can’t. Too syrupy. Too fake. Too little. If you want a soda that takes you down a similar initial path, with much more rewarding results, try the aforementioned High Mountain Huckleberry.Two Stars

Appalachian Brewing Co.: Root Beer

History: You know you’re doing something right when everyone knows you as a beer place, but you secretly make more money off of your craft soda sales. That’s what happened with Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Brewmaster Artie Tafoya says “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal.” On paper that’s a pretty impressive feat considering the brewery produces around 15 beers at a time depending on the season and just four bottled craft sodas. Like most in the craft soda business, their signature soda is their homemade root beer, something Tafoya experimented with initially as a family-friendly alternative to the hard stuff. When asked what sets Appalachian Brewing’s root beer apart from a plethora of others, Tafoya said he believes several ingredients stick out including: pure Appalachian spring water, cane sugar, mexican vanilla bean extract, and clover honey. The clover honey is a signature ingredient in several of the company’s craft sodas. It’s a recipe designed to taste like “old fashioned root beer,” Tafoya says. The brewery has been around nearly two decades and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017. And while it’s not much of a secret anymore that Appalachian Brewing Company is as much of a player in craft soda as it is in beer, the company’s dedication is what will keep it at the forefront of both industries in the years to come. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” Tafoya says of his products. That’s a formula for good liquid.

Buy: Due to freezing temperatures in the northeast over the winter, your best bet for placing an order is by contacting the company directly.

Nose: Classic root beer with a vanilla-forward scent and a touch of spearmint. When you’ve tried as many sodas as we have, you can tell that this also smells like it’s going to taste creamy.

Taste: Mint; birch bark; sarsaparilla root; vanilla; mild creaminess. When you think of old time root beers that relied heavily on botanical flavors and mint vs. modern root beers that are all vanilla and very creamy, this definitely leans towards those of yesteryear. Right away you taste a big minty influence, more wintergreen than spearmint. Not spicy, but really permeates the nose. Next there’s a 1-2 combo of sarsaparilla root and birch bark that give the root beer a signature throwback flavor, the kind you used to taste at medieval fairs as a kid. What? You didn’t go to any medieval fairs as a kid? That was just me? Man, you missed out. But there’s also a subtle creaminess to this. It’s not as hard-hitting on the vanilla as most modern root beer recipes, but there’s enough of it for you to taste. As far as the honey, that really comes in on the finish. This is a nuanced, full-bodied root beer with a nice old school flavor.

Finish: Tangy sarsaparilla and mild vanilla flavors that fade into noticeable honey. The more you drink this, the more pronounced the honey becomes.

Rating: It’s refreshing to see a modern company creating a root beer that tastes like it was imported from the past. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Root Beer is bold and layered with big notes of wintergreen mint, sarsaparilla root, and birch. It feels like something you should should drink out of a silver chalice in the woods while wearing flannel and blue jeans. Maybe something to quench your thirst with after chopping down a tree. I also appreciate the mild use of vanilla and honey that make this root beer a lot more approachable for soda hounds who aren’t fans of the more earthy flavors. This drinks easily and is very crisp on the tongue, giving it a pleasant mouth feel. I personally like a little bit more vanilla in my root beers, but I think Appalachian Brewing is really catering to a part of the root beer crowd that feels like their favorite recipes have fallen by the wayside. This is a callback to simpler times and bolder soda. I wouldn’t hesitate to try this if you get the chance.

Four Stars

Buckeye State Soda: Scarlet Soda

History: Ready for the most pro-Ohio soda you’ve ever come across? Scarlet Soda by Buckeye State Soda glorifies the state. We’re not kidding. They take it very seriously, saying “It celebrates the great state of Ohio which has given so much to the world and changed the course of history.” I haven’t had that much pride in something since I built my dog an igloo out of Legos when I was eight. He ate a lot of them. It was an expensive vet bill and that was the last time I played with Legos. Scarlet Soda is truly a bottle of red mystery. There’s no flavor listed. So we reached out to the company to try to figure out what we were getting ourselves into. Buckeye State Soda CEO David Wolfenberger tells us “Everyone has a different idea of what it tastes like. We think it ‘Tastes Like Victory’.” So… we didn’t find out anything about how it tastes. He did divulge to us that “it is not a red cream soda,” so there’s that. Basically, this is a “decide-what-you-think-it-is” soda. In somewhat concrete terms, Wolfenberger calls it “an old style red fruit soda flavor.”

Scarlet Soda was created in the fall of 2015, but the history behind the company dates back a lot farther. The real name of the business behind Scarlet Soda is Root Naturals located in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company produces root beer, cream soda, and black cherry under that name using “all natural botanical extracts,” according to Wolfenberger. They operate under the name Buckeye State Soda only when selling one product: Scarlet Soda. Confused yet? Back to the history lesson. It was 1937 when Deno Spaccarelli opened his first apothecary in Cincinnati. For those that don’t know, an apothecary was basically an old time medicine shop. They also often sold fountain sodas as a way to mask the awful flavor of the medicine. So while Scarlet Soda is still relatively new, the inspiration behind Root Naturals as a company dates back much further than 2015. Be prepared for an experience. Wolfenberger sums up Scarlet Soda saying, “People either love it and evangelize it or they they think WTF.”

Buy: • Summit City Soda  • Homer Soda Company (for larger orders)  • Other retailers

Nose: This is strawberry. No doubt. It’s like an artificial candy strawberry scent, reminiscent of strawberry Sour Punch Straws without the sour.

Taste: Sweet; artificial strawberry; mild watermelon. Whoa, this is sugary. It leans heavily on the artificial strawberry flavor side, but there’s also a faint watermelon taste that sneaks its way in and confuses you. This is like melted down strawberry hard candies that have been carbonated and bottled. You know those strawberry candies your grandma has in her jar that no one ever eats? Well, if you actually eat them, they’re full of fake strawberry flavor. That’s kind of how Scarlet Soda tastes.

Finish: Tangy fake strawberry flavor that fades quickly and leaves a bit of a film in your mouth.

Rating: We’ve solved the mystery of Scarlet Soda. Maybe. Probably. I think? This soda is chocked full of artificial strawberry flavor. Oh, and sugar. Lots of sugar. Drink a whole bottle of this and you might be able to lift a car. Kids, do not try this. But if you do and succeed, please post a video and give us credit for the idea. Ok, here’s the thing: I know reading that a soda tastes fake and full of sugar sounds bad, but Scarlet Soda is solid. You just have to be in the mood for it. Scarlet Soda has that old fashioned candy strawberry taste one might find at a state fair. This is a soda tailor-made for children. It likely drinks best on a hot day outside. No, I don’t think a ton of adults are going to be into this and I think its audience is limited. Yes, it’s really sugary, probably too much so. Still, there are going to be people who appreciate this. It’s worth a shot. Try one while you’re barbecuing or use it as a mixer with vodka and maybe some bitters. Because the more I try this, the more I enjoy it even the though soda snob in me is telling me no. Seems like an appropriate response for a soda designed to make the drinker think.

Three Stars

P.S. We only had one bottle of this, so we had to take photos before tasting. We guessed on the cherries… we were wrong. At least they look nice though!

Fitz’s: Black Cherry

History: Fitz’s is an institution in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s as Midwest as gooey butter cake and deep dish pizza. Luckily, Fitz’s soda won’t make you feel like dying after ingesting it, like those other stomach busters. Like many craft soda brands, Fitz’s started with root beer. Today it’s still the most popular flavor. According to the company, the root beer first popped up at “Fitz,” a local St. Louis “drive-in restaurant back in 1947.” After years of success, Fitz’s business slowly began to fade as the art of drive-in everything lost its appeal. People lost patience with waiting for food and a result, St. Louis lost one of its original glass-bottled root beer brands. Fitz’s Root Beer didn’t see the light of day again until 1993 when the restaurant re-opened under new ownership in the “Delmar Loop area of University City, a suburb of St. Louis.” It’s no longer a drive-in, but the restaurant offers a full menu with craft sodas and craft beers both on tap (so instead of paying two bucks per bottle like the rest of us schmucks, you can get endless refills of craft soda there… just a tip if you’re in the area). Fitz’s also serves up a variety of other craft soda flavors from key lime to Cardinal (red) Cream. But we settled on black cherry because if you can make black cherry soda well, it’s a good barometer for the rest of your stuff. It’s kind of like when you go over to a girl’s house for the first time before a date and you have to wait. If she takes an hour, your antennas should go up. If it’s 15 minutes or less, it’s looking good. That’s how black cherry is in a line of craft soda. Just trust us on this, we’re experts. We’ve also gone on a lot of bad dates

Where to get: You can purchase Fitz’s sodas online directly from the company or from our friends at Summit City Soda (we don’t get paid to shill for them; they usually just have good prices and we know shipping soda is expensive.). If you’re a little less adventurous, Soda Emporium has you covered with four-packs.

Nose: Smells medicinal, like cherry cough syrup. Kind of like watered down Robitussin. Not exactly the warmest of welcomes.

Taste: Bold and intense cherry; more red than black; artificial; heavy; tangy. There’s a bold cherry flavor that hits you. It’s somewhere in the middle between and black and red cherry flavor, but it’s not the classic black cherry taste you’re used to drinking. It’s solid. What separates it is the hint of red cherry and a definitive tanginess. But there’s also an accompanying aritifical, syrupy flavor that sits heavy in the mouth. Certain sips feel more processed than others. The cherry flavor is powerful throughout the soda, sometimes tasting very palatable and other sips mimicking fruity cough syrup.

Finish: Smooth and balanced with a tangy and tart red cherry flavor and just a hint of black cherry at the end. Very nice and easily the best part of the soda.

Rating: Fitz’s Black Cherry is a soda I’d recommend if you want black cherry, but are looking for very specific characteristics in your soda. It’s not what I’d consider “classic black cherry,” though occasionally you’ll taste that flavor. It’s kind of like its craft soda relatives, but slightly different. So if that’s what you want, Fitz’s may be the brand you should seek out. Where this soda shines is its tangy hybrid red and black cherry flavor. It’s bold. It’s tasty. And it’s different. The tanginess gives it a unique trait other black cherry sodas often don’t have. On the flip side, this soda can taste fake on certain sips. The artificial cherry flavor overwhelms you at certain points of the drink, which is enough to downgrade this to what I’d consider to be an average soda. It’s almost really good. Almost. I wouldn’t turn it down, but I probably wouldn’t seek it out.

Three Stars