Five Stars

Five stars

Capt’n Eli’s: Root Beer [collab with TermiNatetor Kitchen]

History: In the words of company president Ed Crockett, root beer has been “the bedrock” of Capt’n Eli’s since its creation. Hell, if it wasn’t for the Eli Forsley’s thievery of root beer in the 1920’s from his father’s basement, this company might not exist. The butterfly effect, right? P.S. Before we get any further into this review, we’re honored to be doing it in collaboration with Nathan Crawford of TermiNatetor Kitchen, who cooked up a mean pulled pork dish using Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. Nathan’s food recipes will titillate the same taste buds you use for soda. Check out that meat treat here. Back to root beer now. Anyway, we’ll spare you the company’s long backstory (which you can find in our Capt’n Eli’s Orange Pop review), but basically Eli Forsley had a son, Fred, who loved the same root beer recipe his father did. Fred tweaked the formula and began selling it on draft in 1996 at Federal Jack’s in Kennebunk, Maine, which he founded four years earlier. This continued until 2002 when demand became so high that Fred decided to start bottling it. “The local folks raved about it,” Crockett tells us. In fact, here’s where Ed makes his debut. The root beer gained such a following in the northeast that Crockett was brought on by Fred Forsley to help turn Capt’n Eli’s into a full craft soda line. Today Capt’n Eli’s has nine different flavors, none more popular than the root beer. There’s even a comic book designed to help promote the brand: The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli. When you’ve got a publication in the same line of work that created Batman and Superman, that’s when you know you’re baller.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the root beer’s success,” Crockett says gleefully over the phone. He’s eager to speak about what he thinks makes the soda special. “They tried to make it unique and that’s why we go with 100% natural cane sugar, but also brown sugar.” The latter is an ingredient that makes sense when you think about root beers, but it’s surprisingly uncommon for the category. “Everything’s right there on the bottle,” he proudly exclaims before also noting the root beer’s prominent use of vanilla. Crockett also makes mention of the root beer’s accolades, specifically its two-time placement in the top three of the root beer category of the U.S. Open Beer Championships. Its most recent placing was 2013. But for all the hoopla surrounding the product, it’s still just a little company out of Portland, Maine making the stuff. “We still handcraft every product,” Crockett says. And that is what keeps craft soda fans coming back. Capt’n Eli’s knows it, too. “We certainly play off the nostalgia of soda.” And in 2016, it’s still a formula that continues to be the lifeblood of the craft soda movement.

Where to get: Capt’n Eli’s is sold nationally across the U.S., but it’s still most popular in the New England region. You can purchase it online directly from the company, as well as from Amazon. You can even find it for purchase in single bottles online from Straub’s Grocers. For large orders, especially if you’re a retailer hoping to sell soda in your store, contact Homer Soda Company.

Nose: Quite aromatic for a root beer. Big wafts of wintergreen and spices like anise and maybe nutmeg. Lots of vanilla as well. Lovely.

Taste: Wintergreen; cane sugar; creamy; vanilla; anise. There’s a great balance of sweet, savory, and creamy in Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. The carbonation is flush on the tongue from the opening sip, paving the way for waves of wintergreen that provide a bite. Wintergreen and vanilla are the standout flavors. As you taste the mint, that vanilla comes through next in a very creamy fashion. You also get a little bit of spice. Definitely anise and maybe allspice or perhaps mild clove. The latter two have question marks by them, but there’s no doubt about the anise. It imparts a bit of a licorice taste, but not in an overwhelming fashion. This is sweet and creamy and full of vanilla, but with a wintergreen bite that pulls back on the sugar. Balanced. Flavorful. Excellent.

Finish: Creamy mint and vanilla swirl in your mouth and slowly fade in tandem as notes of anise seep through the cracks.

Rating: Capt’n Eli’s has no doubt created one of the best root beers on the open market. It caters to both root beer aficionados and novices. Purists will be thrilled with its old school emphasis on wintergreen and spices while more casual root beer drinkers will embrace its vanilla notes and sweet creaminess. The balance of give and take is near perfect. You get a mouthful of wintergreen that harkens back to vintage root beer recipes. There’s definitely a bite that comes with it. Yet there’s also a robust creaminess anchored by vanilla and cane sugar, a flavor combination more commonly seen in newer root beers. All of this is tied together by a handful of spices, most notably anise. It starts aggressive with mint and ends smoothy with vanilla and mild spices. It’s essentially the blueprint for how I wish all my Tinder dates went. This is highly drinkable, packed with flavor, and most importantly, enjoyable. Capt’n Eli’s has done a splendid job here. I could see how it might be just a pinch sweet for some, but I don’t mind a little sugar in my women or my root beers. Put this one on your short-list to try. It’s a root beer with a flavor stuck somewhere between the 1940’s and 2010’s, and based on our analysis, that might just be the sweet spot.

Five Stars

Advertisements

Joia: Grapefruit, Chamomile & Cardamom

History: Like many fans of craft soda, Bob Safford doesn’t drink. Unlike many fans of craft soda, Bob Safford had the money to turn his ideas into liquid for the masses. The irony is that Safford hammered home his ideas by drinking (just a sip) of an alcoholic beverage at a fancy cocktail bar. “It just kind of hit me, why couldn’t you do this with soda?” he says over the phone. A veteran of the marketing industry, Safford was no soda expert. So he assembled a team ranging from a veteran beverage entrepreneur to a Minneapolis mixologist. In an interview with CircleUp, Safford explains how they immediately got to work. “We studied cocktail menus from around the United States to see what fruit, herbal/floral and spice flavors were appearing in cocktails with the greatest frequency.” If he was going to make soda, he wanted it to be more artisinal and, frankly, more healthy than the majority of options available. To many of you, I know that’s an oxymoron. It’s kind of like saying “I ate five cream-filled donuts today, but they were made with skim milk!” as you squeeze the life force out your body to fit into those yoga pants. But healthier options in soda can be created. Typically, they’re fruit-based, which is where Safford took the direction of his team’s creations. In 2011, the group made it official, founding Joia All-Natural Soda in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The name is pronounced “Joy-a,” as an ode to the passion and joy the company feels for its products. Safford believes Joia sodas can function both on their own as more refreshing alternatives to mass-produced soda, and as mixers with alcohol. The company produces four flavors, all using natural fruit juices, spices, and herbs. We’ve previously reviewed their Pineapple, Coconut, and Nutmeg, but no flavor is more popular than the widely available Grapefruit, Chamomile, and Cardamom. The latter was picked up nationally in August of 2015 by Panera restaurants. So now you can have a Joia soda with your low-fat sour cream and onion bagel and soup. Their grapefruit flavor accounts for about 40% of the company’s soda sales, according to Safford. When it came to the creation of their grapefruit soda, Safford says they wanted it to be fruity with an herbal flavor. Interestingly, they focused on aroma first. “Who thinks of soda as having an aroma?” he asks. They wanted to create something that not only smelled authentic, but tasted fresh. “We wanted something that was grapefruit-y but didn’t have that typical tartness of the grapefruit.” So essentially the company tried to take all of grapefruit’s greatest attributes and combine them with the complimentary smoothness of chamomile and the mild savoriness of cardamom. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off.

Where to get: Joia’s Grapefruit, Chamomile, & Cardamom is sold nationally at Panera restaurants. You can also purchase it from a number of online retailers, including Amazon, Soda Emporium (single bottles), and Jackeez. To find the physical retailer nearest you, use the company’s online product locator.

Nose: Fresh-cut grapefruit with some additional citrus. This smacks you in the face with authentic grapefruit scents. It couldn’t be closer to the real thing – super impressive.

Taste: Grapefruit juice; bitter spice; smooth. The grapefruit flavor is just as lush as the scent leads you to believe. It’s immediate and upfront, and it caries the soda’s flavor profile throughout. So if you don’t like grapefruit, you won’t like this. Unlike some grapefruit sodas, this one doesn’t try to hide the fruit’s bitterness. You taste real, sweet pink grapefruit upfront, but are then quickly greeted with a tart, bitterness. Some of that comes from the grapefruit itself and some comes from the cardamom. Cardamom is an interesting spice when describing its taste. It’s usually just a complimentary flavor, but in this soda, it has more of an impact and amplifies the grapefruit’s acidity and bitter notes. The chamomile comes through mostly in the aftertaste, but its main accomplishment in this beverage is helping smooth out the soda’s bitterness as it tails off. Strong grapefruit flavor that’s sweet upfront, then sour, and quietly trailing off before the next sip.

Finish: Tart pink grapefruit that transforms into more of an aromatic spiced flavor. The cardamom and chamomile work in tandem on the finish; they give the soda a slightly different flavor as the sip fades. More spiced and smooth with less grapefruit flavor. The chamomile does most of the work here, giving the bittersweet soda a soft, floral ending.

Rating: This is probably the best grapefruit soda we’ve tried thus far. Not just for the website, but life in general. It articulates its main flavor of grapefruit perfectly without hiding its true identity. Grapefruit isn’t a completely sweet fruit. If you ever try a grapefruit beverage that tastes like a trip to the candy factory, the company wasn’t being authentic in its interpretation of the flavor. Joia embraces grapefruit’s bittersweet nature and adds two other flavors that both amplify and assist it. Most of the sugar you taste comes from the fruit itself, but there’s definitely enough of it there to make you feel like you’re drinking soda and not juice. From the very first sniff of the bottle, Grapefruit, Chamomile, and Cardamom gives off the impression that it was made with real ingredients. It is. From the opening sip, the grapefruit’s sweetness is lush and flavorful, before the cardamom intensifies its bitter notes. The chamomile works as a softening agent near the finish, making this soda an extremely smooth one with mild floral notes. For a grapefruit soda, that’s damn impressive. That’s like taking a fat dude and somehow fitting him into 30×30 jeans. All praise aside, this is grapefruit through and through so if you don’t like the fruit itself, stay away from this one. For the rest of you wanting to try something excellent regardless of your fruit prejudices, Joia makes arguably the best grapefruit soda on the market. Put it in your mouth.

Five 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

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

Red Hare Brewing: Root Beer

History: You don’t see a ton of craft soda coming out of Georgia, aside from the Red Rock brand, so we dug deeper and discovered Red Hare Brewing. Fun fact: it’s Georgia’s first craft brewery to make its beers available in cans. According to Elyse Moore, Red Hare’s Graphic Designer and Marketing Coordinator, the brewery was the idea of buddies Roger Davis and Bobby Thomas. Every Saturday these two “would home brew in Roger’s basement,” according to Moore. Eventually the two got enough positive feedback from friends and family that they decided to open Red Hare Brewing in Marietta, Georgia in 2011. If you like beer and are in the area, they recommend you stop in for a Gangway IPA or Long-Day Lager. But most of you aren’t reading this review for beer… in the traditional sense. You’re here the crown prince of craft soda, the spiciest of soda ales: root beer. What an opulent introduction. Moore tells us that Red Hare Brewing first introduced its root beer on draft in the brewery in 2013. It wasn’t until two years later that they started canning it. And that’s something that admittedly might turn craft soda purists off; you won’t find Red Hare Root Beer in bottles. Just cans. Evercans, actually. Oh yeah… according to Moore, Red Hare was “the world’s first beer in an Evercan.” An Evercan is a can made of 90% recycled aluminum. It just so happened that Novelis, a rolled aluminum company that sells its products for beverage receptacles and automotive usage, was located nearby in Atlanta. So the two teamed up and created the Evercan for Red Hare’s beer and root beer to be sold in. But you want to know how it tastes. Moore admits “it’s a pretty standard root beer recipe.” I applaud your honesty. Bold move. That’s like telling a potential lover, “yeah, I have a pretty basic situation going on. Still interested?” It’s supposed to taste nostalgic, the root beer… that is. She goes a little more in depth, adding that “a bit spicy and herbal is what they were going for” in terms of a flavor profile. Currently root beer is the only soda Red Hare Brewing produces, but the brewery does have plans to unveil a grapefruit soda that will also be available in cans by this summer.

Where to get: Red Hare Brewing’s Root Beer is available throughout Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and in the panhandle of Florida. The company is currently looking into selling it online. If you’re outside of those states, you’ll have to make a trip to the ol’ brewery and have a glass on draft. Or you could just contact the company directly by going here.

Nose: Big vanilla and sarsaparilla scents. Very reminiscent of the smell of A&W Root Beer, though not as sweet.

Taste: Creamy; birch; sarsaparilla; vanilla; crisp carbonation. Much more of a creamy vanilla-based root beer than one with deep spice notes. It makes Red Hare’s Root Beer very drinkable. There’s also definitely a crispness to the flavor, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying this root beer has a bite. That sharpness comes from the birch and sarsaparilla flavor. So it has a little bit of the modern creamy vanilla thing going on with the classic sarsaparilla and birch oil flavors to supplement. The carbonation is big and really pops in the mouth, enhancing the the more herbal flavors in the soda. It has a very creamy mouth feel. Goes down smooth with big notes of velvety vanilla. Really nice.

Finish: Mild mint and birch with lingering vanilla and crisp carbonation.

Rating: Red Hare Brewing makes a damn good root beer. It’s not too complicated, has enough flavor to be still be nuanced, and drinks incredibly smooth. It has a great balance of creamy and crispness on the palate. Probably safe to say it tastes a little more creamy than crisp because vanilla is the primary flavor in the root beer. Tastes like it’d go great with some french vanilla ice cream in a root beer float. I’d say our standards for root beer at five star are a little higher than other categories because it’s the most pervasive flavor in craft soda, and this is still absolutely tops. This root beer is the cute, hip girl who graduated with a 4.0: down-to-earth and attainable. There’s honestly nothing wrong with this root beer. It’s creamy. It has a good blend of vanilla and traditional root beer flavors. And it drinks light and easy with just the most subtle of bites. The only change I wish the company would make is to bottle this in addition to putting it in cans. There’s no metallic taste from the can; that’s just the craft soda purist in me – I like a cold bottle. If you enjoy particularly spicy or minty root beers, Red Hare’s may not be for you. It’s definitely on the sweeter, more vanilla-forward side. It plays to its niche impeccably well. Just put this in glass and I’d order a case.

Five Stars

Hank’s: Orange Cream

History: Innnnnn West Philadelphia, born and raised, Hank’s Gourmet Soda is callin’ your name. Hank’s is one of those interesting sodas that came well after the old-school vintage stuff, but well before the craft soda renaissance of the mid-2010’s. The company was founded in (do we really have to tell you?) Philadelphia in 1995 by Bill Dunman and his business partners. The group came from a background in beer distribution, handling popular east coast brands like Yuengling and Sam Adams. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing in the beer industry. Dunman calls Pennsylvania’s beer distribution laws as “archaic,” and after years of fighting the system, the friends decided to try their hands at something a little less regulated: soda. “We all kind of knew the potential of brown-bottled root beer,” Dunman says. It was also a little bit about local pride. He notes that “We really felt like we needed a gourmet soda, specifically root beer, for Philadelphia.” As you can imagine, Hank’s started with root beer in ’95 before adding diet root beer, vanilla cream and Wishniak black cherry a year later. And can we just talk about how damn beautiful the bottle is? Look at that thing. It’s more attractive than my sister’s kid. Cheryl, if you’re reading this… he still has time to grow out of it. Dunman says whether it comes to flavors, packaging, or marketing, “we always try to make the highest quality product we can.” Today’s review, orange cream, was released around 1998. Predictably, the company designed it to taste like an old fashioned orange creamsicle. Just a side note: basically every bottler names that as the goal, but not everyone achieves it. The struggle is real in the craft soda game too, dawg. Dunman wouldn’t reveal many secrets about the ingredients, but did say they strive for big vanilla and orange flavors, before adding that Hank’s doesn’t carbonate its soda as much as other bottlers in order to achieve a more “full-bodied flavor.” And when you buy the soda via the Hank’s website, a portion of the proceeds go toward Spark Philadelphia, an organization that lists as part of its mission statement, “Helping underserved youth become motivated learners and connected community members, and by encouraging adults to nurture the next generation through mentoring and volunteerism.” Tip of the cap, Hank’s. Now for a pop of the cap.

Where to get: You can buy Hank’s Orange Cream Soda directly from the company’s website in 12-packs. It’s also available to purchase online in single bottles from Soda Emporium. Amazon has the hook up for 6-packs.

Nose: Vanilla; orange; creamy. Smells exactly how an orange cream soda should.

Taste: Bold orange; mild zest; frothy carbonation; vanilla cream. This is full of flavor. You’re initially hit with a wave of crisp carbonation that abruptly transforms into small, frothy bubbles. The body of Hank’s Orange Cream is an even mixture of slightly zesty orange and creamy candy vanilla. The two go hand-in-hand. It retains strong orange flavor while having enough vanilla cream flavor to make an impression on the taste buds. It’s not overly complicated in terms of a flavor profile – just two main tastes – but the two have great balance to make for an extremely smooth soda with great flavor.

Finish: Swirling orange and vanilla cream flavors. The zesty notes from the orange aren’t as prevalent in the finish, but the vanilla is slightly creamier.

Rating: The most important thing about Hank’s Orange Cream Soda is that it doesn’t make any mistakes when it comes to taste and gets better as you drink it. It’s hard to ask more from a soda. I think the same thing could be said about me, but that doesn’t stop my soon-to-be ex girlfriend from critiquing every single thing I do. You also have to commend this soda for what it’s not. It’s not funky-tasting. It’s not too creamy or heavy. It’s not too orange-y. Hank’s Orange Cream Soda is a perfect example of the Goldilocks Principle: it’s just right. Simply put, if I had to give a recommendation for an orange cream soda, Hank’s would be the one. It has great classic orange soda flavor with added zesty notes that provide some nice acidity in contrast with the creamy vanilla flavors. There’s great balance between the orange and vanilla, perhaps the soda’s greatest quality. This creates an enjoyable mouth feel along with the soda’s frothy carbonation. I wouldn’t mind if the orange was even more zesty to create more contrast, but that’s being pretty nitpicky at this point. The only way I could see someone not liking this is if they just don’t like orange. Here at Five Star Soda, we try so many sodas that we rarely finish the bottle when doing tastings. Hank’s sent us two bottles of this flavor and they were both gone within 20 minutes after taking the photos. If we haven’t convinced you this is in an elite tier yet, then I don’t know if we’re friends anymore.

Five Stars

Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer

History: Bette Jane’s is a little west coast bottler filling a large gap for a great cause. Founder Kirk Pearson is the man behind the bottles and launched the company in July of 2014 after believing his home-brewed ginger beer deserved a larger audience. A portion of proceeds from all company sales go toward finding a cure for breast cancer, the disease Pearson lost his mother to at a young age. Pearson is a veteran of the spirits industry and “saw a need for high-quality mixers with a local twist,” he says. Bette Jane’s is probably most known for their ginger beer, but also makes a tonic water and club soda, in addition to the blood orange ginger beer we’re reviewing today. Pearson considers his biggest competitors to be Fever Tree and Q Tonic (whose kola we’ve reviewed in the past), but the former is from England and the latter from Brooklyn. He decided the best coast needed to up its cocktail mixer game. “We are the only full line of cocktail mixers made on the West Coast and we are all-natural,” he tells us. And with ginger beer being the hottest craft soda on the market right now, bottlers are trying to find ways to put a new spin on the flavor before it loses its steam with the general public. Enter Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer.

Pearson says blood orange was the logical next step, adding “When I first started making ginger beer at home as a hobby, it was the first flavor I started toying with…. It was always going to be our first extension off the ginger beer.” He also believes the fruit itself just has a nice verbal aesthetic. “The consumer can really relate. They love the name ‘blood orange.’” And I’ll admit, I’d want one even if I didn’t know what it was. Blood orange? Sure. Blood strawberry? Give it to me. That’s not a real thing, but it’s amazing what one word does. Blood orange a self-promoting fruit. Pearson concocts all Bette Jane’s drink formulas himself and uses a blood orange concentrate to give the ginger beer its signature flavor. His vision for this particular soda was all about balance. It’s designed to taste like a blood orange soda on the front and a ginger beer on the back end “with longevity of spice,” he says. It was critically important for Bette Jane’s to differentiate its take on blood orange from other sodas that attempt the flavor. Because what’s trendy isn’t always what’s good. Pearson said he believes other blood orange ginger beverages are usually “too chemically or too sweet.” He added that his version “needed to have the punch of blood orange, but not be too sweet.” Again, all about balance. Clearly a lot of thought was put into this flavor. So it’s time for us to drink in the knowledge.

Where to get: Bette Jane’s is distributed throughout all of California and starting in April 2015, it’s heading to Arizona. If you’re outside those areas, April 2015 is still the date you want to watch because that’s when Real Soda will start selling Bette Jane’s Ginger Beers online. Don’t mind the website looking like it’s from the 90’s. We’ve ordered from it before. It’s legit and its owner is one of the most eccentric, knowledgeable people on soda you’ll ever encounter. You can also contact the company directly here.

Nose: Ginger; orange popsicle. Lots of citrus going on.

Taste: Light orange; ginger juice; sugar; heat. Very soft orange up front with mild acidity and tartness. The flavor is kind of like what I imagine an orange popsicle made from real orange would taste like. Soon after the ginger beer namesake flavor wells up from of the bottom of the bottle to join the orange and it creates a heavy citrus flavor. This is the best part of the soda, which is nice because it’s also the most prominent flavor you’ll taste. Finally, after the ginger fully washes away the orange flavor, you’ll taste some fire that hangs out in the throat. It’s got some solid burn to it. I’d say probably a 7.5/10 on the heat scale. If you’re sensitive to spiciness, that number probably balloons up to 8.5. Sweet with soft, juicy blood orange up front and a gingery kick in the pants on the way out.

Finish: Lingering spiciness that slowly fades, leaving notes of ginger juice along the back of the tongue.

Rating: Blood orange is such a great flavor idea for soda. Why people haven’t thought to combine orange and ginger until around 2015 blows my mind, and despite this fact, most of these hybrid ginger beers still suck. Look, I’m just keeping it real. But I guess even two beautiful things don’t always work on the first try. Look at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston. But Bette Jane’s has figured out the recipe for taking two great concept flavors in soda and turning them into something you need to put in your mouth. The orange and ginger together are refreshing, crisp, and full of spicy citrus. The sweetness and mildness of the blood orange combine perfectly with the peppery, spicy nature of the natural ginger used in Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer. What really stands out is that blood orange flavor. It’s so soft and light on the palate, but it has a nostalgic taste to it. Think orange popsicle made with real oranges. It takes me back to childhood. This soda is a perfect blend of flavors from the past and flavors of the present. The sugar levels are just right and don’t render the ginger’s heat barren of flavor or potency. You can’t beat the balance of fruity citrus and spicy ginger here. It’s exquisite. I wouldn’t even mind to crank the heat up one more notch, but I think you might run the risk of thinning out your audience by doing that. There’s no reason you shouldn’t buy at least four of these, enough to pair with an excellent dark rum and get drunk off of share with your friends. And to top it all off, the money goes to a great cause. Even non-ginger beer lovers should find this appealing. Delicious.

Five Stars

Cannonborough BevCo.: Ginger Beer

History: As craft soda continues to evolve and enter a new realm of artisanal quality, freshness is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword. And if there’s a model for fresh soda, look no further than Charleston, South Carolina where the gents at Cannonborough Beverage Company (hereby referred to as CannonBevCo) have been concocting seasonal fresh fruit sodas since 2012. These three dudes grew up together playing soccer and now they’re competing in a different arena that America actually cares about: beverages. CannonBevCo has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table soda movement since the company’s inception. To create their sodas, they get fruits from local farmers and blend a mixture that balances the sugar and acidity of the fruits. “Sometimes you feel a little guilty drinking soda. We wanted to take the vehicle of soda we loved and elevate it a little bit,” says co-founder Mick Matricciano. But it’s their methods that really set them apart. The company uses the same equipment used to brew craft beer. A couple of them actually got their start in the bar scene mixing cocktails, a trick of the trade that’s come in handy when crafting recipes for their soda using fresh fruit and herbs. CannonBevCo is also one of the only soda bottles in the nation that uses force carbonation. Let me explain this to you like you’re an eight year-old. They blast CO2 into their liquid, which bonds with water, and when the CO2 dissolves you get bubbles. I get that a few of you still didn’t get that. It’s fine. One of you is probably an ex-girlfriend of mine. A more recent innovation is finding a way to keep their soda shelf-stable without the use of preservatives by using bottle pasteurization. It’s a method more commonly used with other juice beverages like ciders. Matricciano likens it to canning jams.When they’re not making soda, they’re winning awards for the soda they already made. Recently CannonBevCo was awarded “best beverage in the south” by Garden and Gun, a southern United States travel, food, and culture magazine.

CannonBevCo specializes in sodas using real, local ingredients, meaning most flavors have a limited seasonal run with the exception of Grapefruit Elderfower, Honey Basil, and Ginger Beer. Those are year-round. You’ll notice one of those flavors doesn’t sound like the other. For those of you who need some help: ginger beer is a very common flavor of soda and often utilized in cocktails. That was actually the appeal of making the ginger beer. “It’s a classic style,” says Matricciano, before adding that ginger beer gave the guys the chance to show them “working within the box” as opposed to their more artisanal offerings. This is a ginger beer recipe with ingredients you’re not used to seeing. In addition to real ginger juice, the company uses lime juice instead of lemon juice in addition to vanilla beans, cloves, and habanero peppers. Matricciano explains “We wanted ginger to be the main attraction of the soda, but use the clove and vanilla to soften it.” He adds that the cloves provide a warmth to the flavor, while the vanilla helps prolong the ginger’s flavor. They also chose lime over lemon juice because they felt like ginger’s flavor was already aggressive enough and that adding lemon would overdo it. That idea sounds frighteningly like my love life. CannonBevCo’s ginger beer was designed to be used both as a mixer and a stand-alone soda, something many ginger beer brewers don’t take into consideration. The thought of a ginger beer made with vanilla certainly has us intrigued.

Where to get: CannonBevCo Ginger Beer is available in bars, restaurants, and cafes throughout South Carolina. You can also order their sodas in 750ml bottles for $10 + shipping at their online store.

Nose: Ginger with maybe a little pepper. Smells more sweet than spicy.

Taste: Lime; vanilla; ginger; mild heat. Let’s start with the basics – this tastes good. Surprisingly, you taste lime right off the bat. It’s a softer lime, blended with notes of vanilla. You can taste the real lime juice Cannonborough used and it’s a refreshing flavor. Definitely not too acidic, which is nice because the ginger comes in next and it has a lot of flavor character. The ginger flavor is crisp and has a little heat to it, but the real burn comes from the habanero pepper in this – and that’s what you taste near the end of the sip. I’d give this maybe a 6.5/10 on the heat index. The lime provides a nice citrus contrast to the ginger. There’s equal parts harmony between the ginger, lime, vanilla, and spiciness. Easily one of the most refreshing and flavorful ginger beers we’ve ever tried.

Finish: Lingering pepper-like heat that you feel on the back of your tongue and in the throat. Maybe some herbal notes in there as well, which is most likely the clove used in this recipe. The habanero heat slowly fades and the lime juice and vanilla bean flavors remain. Really nice.

Rating: We used to say that root beers were a dime-a-dozen in craft soda, and they are, but you can make the same argument for ginger beer now. 2015 was the year of ginger in soda. Unfortunately, many companies are now making ginger beer just to say they have the flavor in their line with little regard for making a unique product. It’s refreshing, literally and figuratively, to drink this one in. CannonBevCo perfectly walks the line of “natural” and “classical” sodas when it comes to taste. Their ginger beer is a prime example. It’s made with real ginger juice, lime juice, vanilla beans, and habanero peppers, while simultaneously being sweet enough to taste good. So often “natural sodas” are like when dudes hit on girls out of their league – admirable in their inspiration and unenviable in their execution. It usually comes down to sugar content. Natural sodas are often earthy in flavor and taste more like a flavored carbonated water than anything else. They usually sacrifice taste for lower calories. Cannonborough pulls off a nifty trick with their ginger beer, coming in at 90 calories/12 oz while still being packed with flavor. Oh yeah… we should probably talk about the flavor more. First and foremost, everything tastes real and fresh. The use of lime juice in CannonBevCo’s ginger beer is alarmingly good. It pairs well with the sweetness of the vanilla beans for a soft vanilla-citrus combination, and also provides a nice citrus contrast to the ginger. The heat on this is right where it needs to be. Strong enough to make an impact, yet not so fiery to distract from the ginger, lime, and vanilla flavors. I even think they could turn the heat up one more level and still be fine. But that’s a personal preference thing. I think what really makes CannonBevCo’s ginger beer stand out is the use of vanilla. It’s very uncommon in ginger beer, yet extremely common in most soda. Sometimes the best ideas don’t fall far from the tree. This is undoubtedly one of the best ginger beers available in America – crisp and refreshing, full of citrus with notes of pepper, and anchored by a perfectly executed use of real vanilla. This ginger beer is out of your league. Fortunately, if you throw a few bucks her way, they’ll let you have a go with her.

Five Stars