Five Stars

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

Fiz: Classic Cream Soda

History: After introducing myself and informing him of my intentions, Lou Petix greets me on the other end of the line with a guttural New Yorker’s, “Hey, how you doin’?” His disposition is friendly and talkative, yet his accent is deep and gritty, making him sound two stories tall. He and his brother Joe are third generation owners of College Club Beverages in Rochester, New York. “We started as kids here at 8 years-old…. It was just a natural progression” he explains. His grandpa, Luigi Petix, was an Italian immigrant who came over and started Family Bottling Works in 1922 before the business was renamed College Club Beverages after World War II. The company became famous for their refillable bottles and to this day still employs that method for their 18 flavors of College Club sodas. They’re old school. They don’t even have an official working website. Just a Facebook page. They still buy the raw materials and make their soda syrups in house, something that’s becoming more and more rare these days with the advent of flavor houses and culinary chemists. Now here’s the slightly confusing part, so follow closely. College Club has multiple brands under its company umbrella. You can only buy actual College Club soda in Rochester. The sodas you’ll see on the shelves around the greater New York area and available online are labeled “Fiz” and “Primo.” Fiz covers the 13 flavors of craft soda the company sells, while Primo is a line of two Italian sodas. You’re probably thinking… why? Why not just consolidate all of them? The answer is because while there is some overlap in flavors between College Club and Fiz (both brands have classics like cream soda and root beer, etc.), the recipes aren’t exactly the same. This is because up until the 1950’s Fiz was a totally different soda company that ran on its own. After calling it quits, the Petix brother liked their flavors, labels, and bottles so much, that they bought out the entirety of the company’s resources. Today, they use Fiz as their craft soda line. That’s the story. We promise there’s no more twists. This isn’t a review directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

When trying to decide which flavor of Fiz to review, we consulted Lou. He suggested the root beer or ginger beer (Fiz’s most popular flavor) before mentioning in passing an interesting tidbit about the cream soda. There’s a secret ingredient in it atypical to cream soda. “There’s a little trick to it that my father taught me,” he teased, noting it’s mild, but there. My reaction anytime someone tells me there’s a secret ingredient is to immediately crack the case. What could it be? Something New York-y? Petix did say “we try to access our raw materials as locally as possible,” while also adding they prefer natural flavors. Intrigued, I prodded him further about the cream soda. “This is what we call our classic cream soda,” saying it was very heavy on vanilla flavor. So in the end, he didn’t budge. But that makes it more fun for us, and for you.

Where to get: These aren’t the easiest sodas to get a hold of if you’re outside of the New York area. You can, however, order Fiz soda online from New York Style Deli. I know the website looks a little amateur, but we called and checked it out; it’s legit. Your best option might just be to call the company at (585) 328-6665. They take orders over the phone and will ship anywhere in the continental U.S.

Nose: Almond; cherry; pound cake. There’s a faint cream soda smell here, but it’s infused with chocolate, cherry and almond scents. Interesting and intriguing.

Taste: Fizzy; chocolate-covered cherry; vanilla; mild nuttiness; sugar. There’s elements of traditional cream soda here, and then there’s the part that gives the soda its flavor identity. You notice an initial burst of carbonation immediately, more so than an average soda, and then the unique flavors come out that separate Fiz Cream Soda from the crowd. You get all of the soda’s flavors up front spun together in a cocoon of sugary uncertainty. There’s definitely a fruity element to this that tastes like it’s paired with chocolate. After repeated tasting, I’m thinking it’s cherry. Almost like a Cherry Mash candy flavor. This is paired with vanilla and a corresponding mild almond nuttiness, but not like biting into the nut itself; more like how almond syrup tastes in pound cake. This isn’t a creamy soda, but that almond flavor gives the soda’s body a richness, something that’s pretty unusual for cream sodas that don’t have a particularly creamy mouth feel, and/or aren’t made with honey. I’m also getting some undertones of brown sugar and maybe a little bit of caramel. But the soda comes down to three flavors: vanilla, cherry-chocolate, and almond.

Finish: Vanilla sugar with notes of creamy cherry that linger for a few seconds and slowly fade. Excellent.

Rating: Fiz Classic Cream Soda by College Club Beverages ascends beyond the category’s normal realm into a distant plane of flavor even we can’t fully comprehend. But it’s good. It’s damn good. No… no, this is great. I am fanboy-ing out over how exquisite this is and I don’t even care. And it’s all about the taste. There’s a mystery flavor to this cream soda – sure you taste the vanilla and maybe a little caramel, but WHAT IS IT? It’s like a combination of chocolate and cherries with mild almond extract and maybe a little creamy brown sugar. Whatever it is exactly, it makes the soda. You won’t taste another cream soda like this one. Guessing the secret ingredient in Fiz Cream Soda is like being an 18 year-old boy and trying to hit on a 27 year-old woman: it’s fun to try, but you’ll never figure it out. Our best guess at the signature flavor is similar to what a Cherry Mash candy tastes like – a creamy cherry-chocolate flavor with notes of vanilla and nuttiness. To be clear, this is definitely more vanilla than cherry, chocolate, or almond – but the accompanying tasting notes are so unprecedented in cream soda that they stand out with noticeable contrast. We always try to find a few points to critique in sodas, but I’ve gotta admit I would change nothing about this. It’s so unique, flavorful, and delicious that it rises to the top of the cream soda category. It’s a little on the sweeter side at 46 grams of sugar per bottle, but those aforementioned flavors will keep your mind preoccupied until the last sip. Try the first half chilled straight out of the bottle for a crisper cream soda and the other half on ice for a creamier transformation. You’ll want more of this. I know we do. Fiz Cream Soda’s greatest trait isn’t even how good the soda tastes; it’s that it keeps you guessing long after you’ve finished it. There’s something special about this one. Go out of your way to taste the mystery.

Five 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

Karma Cola: Karma Cola

History: Karma Cola is quite literally putting the craft in craft soda. It is perhaps the most thought-out cola in the entire world. The beverage originated in 2012 out of Auckland, New Zealand, and is crafted with ingredients from all over the globe. There’s a wonderful story too that we’ll explain, but let’s start here. Real kola nut from the Boma village in Sierra Leone. Vanilla bean from the Forest Garden Growers Association in Sri Lanka. Organic cane sugar from Maharashtra, India. Premium ingredients are almost always the biggest selling point to potential craft soda customers, and that list probably already has half of you searching for where to buy this soda. It’s as enticing as a college cheerleader carwash to a group of lonely middle-aged men. Trust me, my uncle gets his car washed a lot. Karma cola isn’t shy about telling the public what’s in its soda. In fact, they listed out every single ingredient in their cola in an email to us. Some of the additional ingredient highlights include organic lemon juice, organic malt extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, orange oil, and lime oil. Every ingredient in Karma Cola is organic and fairly traded, and no preservatives are used. Karma Cola Sales Manager of Sydney, Mitch Donaldson, says the company tried at least thirty different versions before they got the flavor right. He says the soda was designed to taste clean and not syrupy. One of the cola’s most important ingredients is one you might not recognize: malt. Donaldson explains, “The roasted spring barley malt extract we use for both colour and flavour gives Karma Cola a completely different spectrum of taste,” adding that it provides a depth you won’t taste in other colas. Another interesting note: all of the soda’s acidity comes from the fruit juices and oils inside it as opposed to something like phosphoric acid. Simply put, this is designed to taste sophisticated, to taste better. In addition to the malt and all the spices in Karma Cola, even the organic cane sugar leaves a little something extra for your tongue. Donaldson explains to us that after the sugar’s refining process is finished, it is still left with mild tasting notes “of caramel and chocolatey flavours.” And all of this is great – we realize it’s the part you care about most, so we started with it. But what’s truly remarkable about this soda is what goes on beyond the bottle.

“We always knew we wanted to create a great tasting drink, but what makes us unique is not just our flavour or artistic bottles, it’s what we give back to cola farmers in Sierra Leone,” says Donaldson. For every bottle of Karma Cola that’s sold, a portion of the proceeds go to the kola nut farmers in the Boma village of Sierra Leone. That money helped build the Makenneh Bridge that joined the old and new portions of the village to ensure safer transport of people and goods. According to Donaldson, the village was able to “rehabilitate 12 forest farms,” send “50 young girls to school annually,” “support an educational HIV/AIDS theatre group,” and “build a rice huller” to help create additional revenue. Good stuff. Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2014 Karma Cola was named “World’s Fairest Trader” by the Fairtrade International. You might also notice the tribal art on their bottle. It stands out. Their website notes “The blue and red iconic design represents the African water spirit, Mami Wata, who embodies both good and evil.” This is a soda that has all the makings of something special, even the backstory. Hopefully we drink the good and not the evil.

Where to get: Karma Cola is sold is nine countries: New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom, Norway, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Future expansion areas include more of Europe, Australasia, and the United States. For all you Aussies, you can find the nearest physical retailer of Karma Cola here. For the rest of you, including all Americans wanting to get their hands on this, email the company at info@allgoodorganics.co.nz or hello@karmacola.com.au.

Nose: Spices; cinnamon; traditional cola, soft vanilla.

Taste: Spices; kola nut; sugar; cinnamon; nutmeg; mild bitterness; sugar. Spices flood the mouth and rush up into the nose on each sip. It’s the first thing you’ll taste and the biggest take away when drinking Karma Cola. It’s unlike any cola you’ve ever had in that regard. The spices are bold and varied; you’ll taste a different one at the forefront on each sip. We probably can’t identify them all by taste, but cinnamon and nutmeg are vivid. The kola nut flavor has a nice earthiness to it, but is attached at the hip to the soda’s cane sugar. So you’ll get that musky bitter taste, but it’s brief before the sugar rush hits. Definitely a sweeter cola, but not the sweetest of the bunch. Karma Cola uses malt extract for color and flavor. You’ll definitely taste this because when combined with the spices, it imparts a bit of a savory taste to the cola. The savoriness of the malt combined with the bitterness of the kola nut, the sweetness and drinkability of the cane sugar and the boldness of the spices, all converge on each other to form a cola with a most sophisticated flavor.

Finish: Bittersweet kola nut. Earthier than the body of the soda.

Rating: This is one of the best-tasting colas I’ve ever had in my life. What separates Karma Cola from your run-of-the-mill cola is its lush bounty of spices that fill the mouth upon every sip and define the soda. It’s like a symphony of flavor unleashed on your taste buds in every sip. Each drink brings a new taste. There’s lots of layers to this cola and they all meld simultaneously to form a cola that easy-drinking, yet bold in flavor. This is the hot new Russian girl with the sultry accent and porn star body you took on a date and miraculously made your girlfriend before other dudes could discover her. While Karma Cola may not be a household name in America, it has a familiar cola taste with a plethora of foreign flavors that make your mouth tingle in delight. The spices are divine. The cola taste is traditional and comfortable. The sugar is sweet and provides a nice contrast to the kola nut’s bitterness. This is drinkable, yet rich in flavor – a rare combination. I know there’s vanilla in this and I wouldn’t mind seeing it play a larger role to impart more of a creaminess. But that’s like asking Batman to take out your annoying neighbor. It’d be nice, but I’m busy doing other things. Karma Cola is an achievement in cola. In addition to its traditional cola flavors, it strays from the beaten path by adding a handful of various spices, malt extract, vanilla from Sri Lanka, and kola nut from Sierra Leone. It’s safe, yet challenging and should please both the casual soda drinker and culinary enthusiast. Karma Cola is a shooting star of a cola in galaxy full of red giants that need new discoveries like this one. And if you don’t get planet lingo, just know this is absolutely (inter)stellar and worth every penny.

Five Stars

Natrona Bottling Company: Red Ribbon Cherry

History: Vito Gerasole’s accent is thick, unmistakable. He’s an Italian with a love for the family business, big opinions, and lots to say. He’s the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Soda.” But in talking to him on the phone, you realize he’s not just another loud Italian dude. There’s a thoughtfulness there, a sincere caring for his craft. Perhaps then it’s no surprise when he mentions, “I’m a very nostalgic person.” In 2010 when an angel investor offered Gerasole a chance to breath life into a dying soda company, it was his love of nostalgia that made the opportunity too much to pass up. The business in question was Natrona Bottling Company, a small hand-made soda bottler in Natrona, Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. The company began back in 1904, but the fizz had almost left the bottle, so to speak, for Natrona. Gerasole recalls the company having just $4,000 in its bank account at the time of his arrival. He remembers a customer telling him, “I heard about you guys, but you never have anything.” Despite not having much money, the company luckily had little outside debt. Natrona just needed a new game plan and Gerasole was their ace in the hole.

After a successful marketing push, Natrona Bottling was back on its feet and able to get back to making soda the way it had been made there for over 100 years. Gerasole also added several new flavors to the company’s portfolio: vanilla cream, almond cream, birch beer, and minted ginger ale. But the company’s flagship product, the one it was founded on, is its Red Ribbon Cherry. When asked about its flavor, Gerasole peps up, “It smells like cherries. It tastes like maraschino cherries!” Like many mom and pop craft soda companies, Natrona uses only pure cane sugar in their sodas and bottles each one of them by hand. They also use vintage machinery. But what sets Natrona Bottling Company apart from other soda bottlers is its method of carbonation.”I believe we are the last soda producer that uses a style of carbonation called ‘pinpoint carbonation.’” To achieve this particular fizz, dry ice pellets are dropped into pressurized tanks that create, smaller and smoother bubbles. Gerasole says the pinpoint carbonation gives Natrona sodas an “effervescence.” In the coming years, he hopes to introduce another original idea: chocolate soda made with milk. We’ll let him figure out the science behind getting that one right. Just give us the cherry soda.

Where to get: Natrona Bottling Company soda is sold in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. You can also purchase Natrona soda online from several different outlets, including the Natrona Bottling store, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., and Galco’s Soda Pop Stop.

Nose: Strong candy cherry that evokes memories of childhood. So much nostalgia. Anyone who’s over 18 undoubtedly knows that cherry smell. Another good comparison would be a bowl full of Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops, which also had a bold candy cherry scent.

Taste: Maraschino cherry; cherry popsicle; Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops; soft carbonation. A couple things jump out from the beginning. First, there’s big cherry flavor in Red Ribbon Cherry. A candied maraschino cherry/cherry popsicle juice hybrid with just the slightest, slightest touch of acidity for variation. Second, the carbonation. You can taste that it’s different than other sodas. Very soft in the mouth, almost fluffy. The bubbles feel small. They provide a unique texture that carbonation in sodas do not. Back to the cherry taste. It’s strong and sweet but not overpowering or sugary. Very much a candy cherry taste rather than black or Bing cherries. Initially, it’s like drinking carbonated cherry popsicle juice. It quickly morphs into a slightly tart candy cherry flavor, much like having a mouthful of Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops (which are delicious). Notes of maraschino cherry linger around the end of each sip.

Finish: Maraschino cherry juice that fades back into mild cherry popsicle with lighter carbonation than in the soda’s body.

Rating: Natrona Bottling’s Red Ribbon Cherry has all the components of a home-run soda. Great flavor. Perfect mouth feel. And not overly complicated. This is a soda that gets even better as you drink it. The carbonation-flavor combo is exquisite. I may not understand the science behind the pinpoint carbonation method that Natrona Bottling uses, but I’ll be damned if you can’t taste it. The bubbles are light and frothy. One of the best uses of carbonation I’ve ever tasted in any beverage. The candy cherry taste is flawlessly executed. There’s layers to the flavor, each one just slightly different than the other. You taste cherry popsicle off the bat, a great childhood memory. Before it gets too sweet, the cherry becomes slightly more sour and acidic. It finishes off sweet again, but slightly less so than the initial taste. What I like most about this soda is that I don’t have to over think when tasting it. I just like drinking it. It’s enjoyable, and you can’t ask for more than that in a soda no matter what arbitrary ranking it receives on the Internet. This is one I’d probably put in your regular rotation. At times it’s a little sweet, perhaps a touch rich for some people’s taste. But I think that’s just Red Ribbon Cherry showing its gourmet side. It’s like when the hot girl in school dresses up for classes. The other girls might hate it and think it’s overkill, but sometimes even the finer things in life enjoy showing off their finer things. And if you ladies are reading this, I would settle for any of you texting me back. After tasting it, there’s clearly a reason Red Ribbon Cherry is Natrona Bottling Company’s flagship product. The taste, the carbonation, the subtleties; it all works. This isn’t one you should try just to check it off a list. This is a beverage that should stay stocked in your craft soda arsenal.

Five Stars

Ozark Mountain Bottleworks: Smuggler’s Run

History: Ahoy, mateys – batten down the hatches because shiver me timbers, it’s our 100th review! There, got all the pirate references out first sentence. Walk the plank with us as we tell the story of Branson, Missouri’s hidden treasure: Ozark Mountain Bottleworks. I’ll stop. Eventually. Maybe. Doubt it. “Craft soda kind of chose us,” says OZMB co-founder, Tina King. She humorously notes she prefers the term “bottle washer” as her title, noting “someone has to do it.” Ironically, the company’s inception isn’t linked to soda at all, but lemonade. King recalls the summer of 2009 in St. Louis when she started making homemade lemonade as a wine spritzer. “My kids wanted that drink,” she added. So King removed the alcohol to create a carbonated lemonade that eventually morphed into Ozark Mountain Lemonade, a pink lemonade-esque soda with a hint of lemon-lime. From that point, King says she and her husband just fell into the craft soda industry based on the success of the lemonade. “It never crossed my mind to go into beverage,” she says. When the couple started introducing other flavors, the first thing on their minds was color. They added a red cream, purple grape and orange cream soda in addition to the pink lemonade. I get the sense they were still strongly influenced by children’s interests at that point. From there, King and her husband decided to delve into root beet. They delved deep. She says it took two-and-a-half years before they found the right recipe for their signature OZMB Root Beer. I too have been searching years for my signature flavor… in my love life. I’m still single. To this day, root beer is still their best seller. Since its first five sodas, OZMB has branched out into seasonal flavors. One caught our attention and caused us to compile a list of pirate lingo: Smuggler’s Run. “It’s our summer brew,” King tells us before adding it was so popular this summer that it was ordered for an extended run. Its mellow blue color is eye-catching and the label’s font conjures up images of 20th century bootleggers and swindlers. The soda’s name is a nod to the Branson High School Pirates.

Smuggler’s Run is a seasonal tropical soda. “We love to vacation in the keys,” King tells us, something that inspired both the taste and color of the soda. It was a pet project of King’s, intended to mimic a non-alcoholic version of a rum runner. Certainly an intriguing idea and one that further displays the link between craft soda and craft cocktails. Smuggler’s Run contains a bounty of fruit flavors with King noting that coconut is intended to be highest in the flavor profile. In addition to coconut, notes of pineapple, banana, mango, cherry, and orange were also designed to be tasted. King tells us what she believes sets OZMB soda apart is the “amazing richness… There’s nothing like it,” she says cheerfully. All OZMB sodas are made with pure cane sugar and materials that are as eco-friendly as possible, including Missouri-made bottles. The company works closely with recycling efforts in Branson. We here at Five Star are all about charity too: case in point, I’m about to recycle this into my mouth.

Where to get: Ozark Mountain Bottleworks soda is sold nationwide. Traditionally, OZMB Smuggler’s Run ends in late summer, though King notes it will have a slightly extended run in 2015 due to its increased popularity. You may have to do a little work to find this one as it is not sold online due to its seasonal nature. You can find Smuggler’s Run in Rocketfizz retailers. Use the company’s online locator to find the store nearest you. Or you can contact OZMB directly. Once Smuggler’s Run ends, OZMB’s next seasonal flavor is Butter Beer. As of this review in mid-September 2015, Butter Beer is already being sold.

Nose: Very, very tropical. Reminds me of being back on the beach in the Bahamas sipping on rum punch, only without alcohol. Kool-Aid Bursts Tropical Punch wouldn’t be an unfair comparison, but this really smells like a fruity cocktail minus the booze.

Taste: Slightly creamy coconut; mango; pineapple; cherry; orange. You’ll taste coconut first. It’s probably the boldest of the bunch, but only slightly. The flavors in this are lush and varied. The taste is undoubtedly tropical fruit punch with several fruits the tongue recognizes. First, the coconut comes in all by itself. It’s slightly creamy, but mostly tropical, like in an island cocktail. It’s not quiiiiiite pina colada. The coconut flavor is more fruity than creamy and is quickly met on the palate by a combination of pineapple, orange and most notably, mango. The three flavors in tandem with the coconut interact to give the soda its signature flavor in each sip. The citrus taste is, again, fruity. You can really taste the flesh of the citrus fruit in your mouth, which was a flavorful surprise. It’s crisp and provides just the slightest amount of bitterness. There might even be a tinge of lime in here. Vivid tastes. Smuggler’s Run also has a little bit of a maraschino cherry flavor that floats about in the background, sometimes coming to the forefront depending on the sip. The same could be said with very mild banana, but you really have to search for it. A lot of flavors going on. Rich, sweet tropical citrus finds a great companion flavor in coconut with the rest being more subtle.

Finish: Pineapple-orange with faint creamy coconut lingering in the background.

Rating: Smuggler’s Run is fun, fruity and full of flavor. The fruit flavors taste ripe. They taste sweet, but they taste real. Yet it goes deeper. This is a soda about feeling. It places you on the beach, the waves crashing in at sunset. You sit there in your sun chair, hat tipped over your head, a cold tropical drink in hand. It really does dig up memories and blast you with nostalgia. Some might taste the fruity cocktail sans alcohol we’ve been preaching about. Others might be reminded of fruit punch from their childhood. This is a glass-bottled soda that hits home. It also doesn’t hurt that the flavors are bountiful, yet don’t overpower each other. They intermingle so well that it’s really hard to isolate them in detail, but I’d describe the taste as tropical citrus punch spun in a cocoon of coconut, and infused with droplets of cherry syrup; maybe a couple banana slices in the glass too. The coconut flavor probably plays the leading role with excellent support from the notes of mango, orange, and pineapple. If you’ve ever had mango, you’ll recognize this flavor immediately since it’s such a rare find in soda. The meandering cherry syrup taste is, no pun intended, the cherry on top. Smuggler’s Run is a whale of a fruit soda. Paired with rum, it’s a tropical cocktail in itself. This is a soda that maximizes its potential and delights the taste buds. Drink it chilled without ice from the bottle. We wouldn’t change a thing. The only drawback we can find is that it’s limited edition. Get it before the season ends, throw on a pineapple shirt, and start jammin ‘mon.

Five Stars

 

Sprecher: Cream Soda

History: Sprecher sodas are known for their bold, deep flavors. Turns out you can thank Germany for this. I’ll explain in a minute. In talking to Randy Sprecher on the phone, I get the sense he’s a gentle, intelligent soul with an almost intimidating knowledge on the intricacies of beer and soda-making. Originally from California, he reminisces how he spent 18 months in Augsburg, Germany in the late 60’s. Deustchland is arguably the beer capital of the world, so naturally, Sprecher says he lost his taste for American beer there. This became a problem when he moved back to California because he couldn’t afford to import his favorite beers. Solution? He started making his own in 1971. Despite having a degree in oceanography, Sprecher wanted to pursue beer, and so he packed up his van and drove up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he began working for Pabst. He made about $40,000 before he said the company started deteriorating. Wanting to start his own business for the modest amount he made at Pabst, Sprecher began buying various pieces of brewery equipment via auction. Through his craftiness, he successfully started up Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wisconsin and began selling beer in 1985. Really puts bargain shopping into perspective. Hope my girlfriend is reading this. He’d also researched soda recipes to a great degree on the side, and thought, “What does it take to make a soda that is of much higher quality?” Three years later, he figured it out, creating and selling his own root beer and cream soda.

To a craft soda connoisseur, Sprecher soda might raise an eyebrow or two. What you’ll likely notice is that the brewery uses high fructose corn syrup in its soda as opposed to pure cane sugar. To many, cane sugar is to craft soda what great actors are to movies; you can make it without them, but it’s not the same. Sprecher believes his recipes shouldn’t cause drinkers any hesitation. Let me at least try to explain to you why. Be forewarned, Randy Sprecher is a scientist and I am not. Sprecher Brewery brews their sodas in gas-fired kettles. Everyone knows that water boils at 212 degrees. Well, Sprecher tells us that the skin of the kettles the brewery uses reach up to 1,100 degrees. This causes a chemical reaction in the high fructose corn syrup (which is also bonded to glucose) by splitting the sucrose and forming inverted sugar. As Sprecher explained this process to me, jumping from chemical reaction anecdotes to overviews of molecules, all I could think in my head was, “I know some of these words!” He adds, “Whether you’re talking about cane sugar or fructose, you’re talking about the exact same molecule,” and “I can show you letters from Harvard Medical School” that don’t support the idea that cane sugar is better than corn syrup. I understand this won’t satisfy some people, but just know that Sprecher sodas are also brewed in small batches using Wisconsin-sourced ingredients, including the crown jewel of the cream soda – clover honey from Indian Summer Honey Farms. “We use more honey than they can produce,” says Sprecher. He’s not joking. Indian Summer Honey’s beekeeper literally has to pack up his bees from Wisconsin in the winter and take them down to Florida just to fulfill the massive orders Sprecher Brewery places. When it comes to the cream soda, Sprecher adds that vanilla plays a critical role in addition to the honey, and that he believes the flavor is akin to a toasted marshmallow. “We just strive for big, pure flavor so it really comes at you,” he says. Then come at me, Sprecher. Come at me.

Where to get: Sprecher soda is distributed nation-wide, though it may be sporadic in some areas. If you live in Midwest America, you should be golden… just check one of your local grocery stores. You can also use the company’s online locator (ignore the fact it only lists 10 states. Just enter your zip code) to find the retailer nearest you. For the rest of us, there’s always the Internet. You can buy anywhere from a single bottle up to 36 of them directly from Sprecher’s online store. Amazon can also hook you up.

Nose: Rich, dark vanilla; honey; mild french vanilla ice cream.

Taste: Vanilla cream, brown sugar; semisweet honey; creaminess. This is such a deeply rich, vanilla cream soda. The vanilla comes through more than any flavor and it’s bold, yet not overly sweet like some vanilla cream sodas. The sugar keeps the flavor nice and crisp. Undertones of honey carry the soda throughout each sip and contrast nicely with the vanilla, keeping the sugar levels in check and providing a slightly bittersweet bite on some sips. This is very, very creamy with big honey-vanilla flavor. There are even some brown sugar and caramel notes that float about throughout each sip. On some sips, there’s even a sweet earthiness to it, kind of like a toasted marshmallow. Very satisfying on the palate. When paired with ice, the cream soda becomes even creamier.

Finish: Creamy vanilla caramel with a semisweet bite at the tail end of each sip. Fantastic.

Rating: Sprecher’s Cream Soda is a standard-bearer in its category. It’s incredibly flavorful without being overly complex. Creamy vanilla and bittersweet honey highlight this delectable liquid treat from Wisconsin. Notes of brown sugar and burned caramel dance about in the background of each sip. The vanilla is velvety in the mouth and is sweet with a subtle tartness. It definitely communicates the essence of real vanilla. If I had to use one word to describe this cream soda it would be this: scrumptious. If I had another, it would be rich. When you’re tasting the flavors in this bottle, you know you’re drinking a craft soda. Even the look is mesmerizing. Sprecher’s Cream Soda mirrors a cream ale sitting in a glass with its thick, foamy head that takes considerable time to subside. It’s a nice visual touch. The last time I had something that tasted this good and looked this sexy, I was in Mexico on my post-divorce celebration. The details are kind of hazy. You’ll feel hazy in all the right ways after this cream soda too. It’s heavenly. You’d never taste the corn syrup in it. We can’t even tell and we taste hundreds of sodas a year. I wouldn’t change anything about this. Cream soda is a flavor that evokes stars in the eyes of soda connoisseurs, yet often leaves them in tears because of diabetes-inducing sugar overload. There’s nothing to cry about here. Celebrate the magnificence of this creamy, rich mouth magic and order a four-pack. This is one that just needs to be experienced.

Five Stars

Dublin Bottling Works: Cherry Limeade

History: Dublin Bottling Works has been producing quality soda for over 120 years, a company with a rich history and a connection to one particular soda that everyone knows. It was that same soda that almost killed it. Dublin Bottling Works was founded in 1891 by Sam Houston Prim in, of course, Dublin, Texas. It was that same year the company began bottling a brand new soda with a unique taste: Dr. Pepper. This is where the term “Dublin Dr. Pepper” comes from, Dr. Pepper with pure cane sugar instead of corn syrup. It may have been Prim who founded the bottling plant, but it was 62-year employee Bill Kloster who really defined the company as its general manager. Dublin Head Soda Jerk, Kenny Horton, recalls when the price of granulated pure cane sugar skyrocketed in the 1970’s, it was Kloster who refused to let his company switch to high fructose corn syrup, despite the potential for much higher profits. Things were going well for Dublin Bottling Works. Their success carried them into the early 2010’s. They were the Little Red Riding Hood of Dublin, Texas. But the Big Bad Wolf came calling, and in this story, the wolf got what it wanted. Dr. Pepper/Snapple is the nation’s third-largest soda creator. They tried their hand at a cane sugar version of their soda called “Heritage Dr. Pepper.” It didn’t resonate with people like Dublin Dr. Pepper. In June 2011, the beverage giant sued Dublin Bottling Works. According to Horton, they claimed Dublin Bottling Works was “diluting the brand” with Dublin Dr. Pepper. On January 11, 2012, Dublin Dr. Pepper came to an end. Horton recalls 15 employees being laid off. By now Kloster’s son, also named Bill Kloster, was the company’s owner. He remains so to this day. Horton notes, “He could’ve easily closed the doors and it would’ve been cheaper…. But he wanted to maintain the legacy his father started.” So Dublin Bottling Works went back to the drawing board.

After about four months of research and development, Dublin Bottling Works reemerged with a new line of pure cane sugar sodas. Today the company has 12 different flavors, including classics like root beer and cream soda and mysteries like Fru Fru Berry. Horton says root beer and black cherry are the two top-sellers. But we wanted to review something a little more daring, something off the beaten path. Enter Dublin Cherry Limeade. Horton tells me over the phone that the Dublin soda jerks used to make cherry limeades with real cherries and limes at the company’s old soda fountain in the 1930’s. The company wanted to replicate that flavor as much as possible in bottled form. This soda is wildly red. Like, I drank an entire bottle and I’m pretty sure my stomach glows in the dark now. But that’s fine. They wanted to make the flavor smooth, Horton notes. “We definitely wanted the lemon-lime, but not an overpowering lemon-lime.” Fun fact: Cherry Limeade is the most popular Dublin flavor at Cost Plus World Market. Alright, that’s enough information. Let’s drink.

Where to get: Dublin Bottling Works soda is sold throughout Texas, including HEB, United, and Kroger stores in addition to Cost Plus World Market. You can find it online for purchase from the Dublin store (24) or Soda Emporium (6) or (singles).

Nose: Lime; cherry limeade; cherry grenadine.

Taste: Sweet cherry; tart cherry; mild lime. This is a soda anchored by a classic cherry limeade flavor. Think Sonic Route 44 Cherry Limeade, only a little sweeter. The cherry flavor in this is more like the juice Maraschino cherries sit in. It’s got that sweet, candy cherry flavor on which most cherry limeades are built. The carbonation is light, but flush on the tongue. You get a sweet cherry flavor first, followed by a rush of carbonation that helps transition the cherry taste to a tart one. That tartness then transforms once again and this is where you taste the lime. It’s subtle, but certainly noticeable. Just a squeeze.

Finish: Mild cherry with undertones of tart lime that change in strength depending on the sip.

Rating: Dublin Cherry Limeade Soda tastes exactly like you want it to taste. It really does have that classic cherry limeade flavor. We even let one of our grandfathers try it and he’s so old, he’s basically disintegrating; and he said it tasted like his childhood. We think that warrants the label of “retro” flavor. The sweet, Maraschino cherry syrup flavor is just right. It’s crisp, sweet, and delicious. Not overly sugary and syrupy. The accompanying tart cherry flavor provides excellent balance, while maintaining enough sweetness to keep the soda refreshing and flavorful. The final, mildly bitter lime finish completes a simple, yet brilliantly executed flavor profile. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing the lime brought out just a little more. But alas, this is absolutely stellar. We could spill more eloquent prose about its flavor and distinctly vintage label, but the bottom line is this a must-try for all ages and anyone with the slightest interest in soda. Cherry and lime are two flavors meant for each other, always waiting for their next honeymoon. Dublin Bottling Works has married the two tastes together in a way that delights the palate and begs for a bulk purchase. Don’t waste pairing this with alcohol. You’d be selling yourself short. Life is too short not to drink good soda. This is one for the bucket list.