Three Stars

Three stars

Virgil’s: Cream Soda

History: If you’ve ever taken a stroll through your local health food store or maybe Whole Foods, you’ve probably seen a bunch of sodas with names you’ve never heard of. Except one: Virgil’s. The company is owned by ginger beer giant Reeds, Inc. It’s about as close to an all-natural soda as you can buy. All Virgil’s sodas are made with real sugar, natural extracts, and herbs and spices. The brand spans from the eccentric Flying Cauldron Butterbeer to the revered Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer. Founder and CEO Chris Reed says the company is “about fun and creating an endearing product to both the company and the customers.” Outside of ginger beer, root beer is king at Virgil’s, but they also feature all of the standard craft soda flavors, including the cream soda we’re reviewing here. The company goes as far as saying “We decided to make a cream soda that would rival the super premium quality of our root beer.” The cream soda has been around since 2004 and according to Reeds, Inc. Sales Operations and Marketing Manager Todd Engstrum, it was designed “to taste like a true craft soda.” The company’s website also says the soda’s recipe contains “the finest vanilla beans and unrefined cane sugar.” We know it took a year to fine tune the recipe and beyond that, Virgil’s is keeping the rest of the soda’s secrets tight-lipped. Good thing we aren’t. Let’s investigate.

Buy: Virgil’s StoreAmazon

Nose: Classic cream soda nose: deep vanilla and soft, creamy caramel. Reminiscent of an older cream soda like Shasta.

Taste: Vanilla, tangy, creamy, sugar. The first striking feature of Virgil’s Cream Soda is the sweetness. It’s upfront and bold. The cane sugar hits you first before the main flavors come in. This is a sugary-tasting soda. Once you get past that, you’ll taste big notes of vanilla extract. It’s a creamy, old fashioned vanilla taste that takes us millennials back to childhood. I think what stands out most about the flavor of this soda, more than the vanilla or the sugar, is the tanginess. I can’t quite place why it’s present. It’s a combination of tangy vanilla and sugar. When the two intersect, they seem to collide dramatically in a way you aren’t used to in cream soda. It leaves an odd taste in the mouth. This is rich, sugary, and tangy. And perhaps more than anything… puzzling.

Finish: Deep, sugary caramel notes that linger and then fade. This is the only part of the soda where the caramel from the nose reveals itself.

Rating: When your nostrils are blessed by the smells of Virgil’s Cream Soda, you’re certain that you’re in for a masterpiece, but the execution isn’t quite flawless. To be fair, this is a perfectly good cream soda. It has nice vanilla flavors and a sweet, cream caramel finish. But the development of this soda is hindered by a funky, sugary tang that’s hard to get past. This is already an excessively sweet cream soda, but when you combine the sugar levels with the strange vanilla tanginess, it raises a questionable eyebrow. Not like a Dwayne Johnson I’m-about-to-make-a-$240 million-sequel-eyebrow, but a hey-I-think-the-weird-neighbor-is-taking-a-bath-in-our-pool-again sort of eyebrow. The bottom line is that the flavor here is at first familiar, then jarring. Creamy vanilla shouldn’t be tangy. It should just be velvety smooth. Again, the vanilla flavor is great before the tang comes in, and the finish is very solid. I just wish those two elements were more present in the soda’s body. Look, there’s potential here and a lot of people are going to like this, especially young kids. It’s worth a try, I’m just not sure I’d put it in the upper echelon of cream sodas.

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NORKA Beverage: Orange

History: I recently had a conversation with a friend about her haul from a popular midwest craft soda store. “I got one that was blue, one that had a cat on the label, and one with a really cool bottle shape,” she said. Michael Considine would turn over in his grave if he was sitting with us. Considine (who is actually not dead, the previous phrase just seemed fitting) is the owner and founder of Akron, Ohio’s NORKA Beverage, a brand with roots all the way back to the 1920’s. The company’s old tagline was “tasting better” and Considine says his goal is to keep the current version of the company in line with that same mentality. For NORKA, it’s not about fancy labels or gimmick flavors; they care about the flavor of the liquid inside the bottle. “Craft soda is such a unique industry full of passion and pride,” says Considine. He’s not wrong, but you could also throw in a third word: nostalgia. And NORKA epitomizes nostalgia to the fullest. The brand originated back in the 1920’s when local soda bottlers were more common than craft beer brewers. NORKA comes from Akron, Ohio. If you didn’t notice, the brand’s name is A-k-r-o-n spelled backwards. Don’t face palm, most of us didn’t realize it either. The company existed until 1962 when it liquidated and disappeared. Its rebirth happened totally by chance. Considine recalls having lunch with his father and seeing an old bottle in the restaurant. “I had no idea Akron had its own soft drink…. It was a cool opportunity to bring something back in the beverage industry” he says. Considine went as far as to research the company’s original labeling designs and ingredients lists. In 2015, NORKA was born anew.

Orange soda is a classic in the industry, yet it’s probably the flavor most overlooked in the NORKA Beverage line. The company is famous for its cherry-strawberry flavor, but according to Considine, orange is its most “refreshing” soda. He tells us that instead of creating a soda with a candy orange flavor like others, NORKA “wanted to return to natural orange taste that’s crisp, refreshing and light.” He added that it was equally important for the soda to not feel thick or have a heavy aftertaste. NORKA orange soda contains no caffeine, like all of the company’s flavors. The company also uses natural flavors in its recipes along with cane sugar and no gluten. Personally, it feels like orange soda is one of the classics that has kind of fallen by the wayside. It’s not going anywhere, but it’s not really advancing. Brands would rather make flavors that cross flowers and fruits or something savory and something sweet. So it’s nice to see a newer (older?) brand sticking to their guns and honoring a flavor that all of our grandparents grew up drinking.

Buy: NORKA StoreSummit City SodaAmazon • Soda Emporium

Nose: A dead-ringer for Sunny D. Uncanny. Have to say this definitely smells artificial, despite the company’s rep for using natural flavors. Hopefully it’s just the smell.

Taste: Big orange flavor, bold, mild zest, Sunny D. The orange flavor here is unrelenting. It’s closer to the Sunny D (only carbonated) taste you were used to as a kid as opposed to a retro orange soda like Slice. It has a light mouth feel, but is bursting with orange flavor. Maybe even a little bit of a San Pellegrino influence here too, but this really reminds us of a carbonated Sunny D with bolder orange notes, and as such the taste definitely has an artificial twang to it.

Finish: Smooth, almost buttery orange. Exquisite. The best part of the soda, unquestionably.

Rating: When you think orange soda, you probably conjure up images of Sunkist, Fanta, or maybe something like Crush – NORKA orange soda is like none of those. Instead, think of this flavor as a smarter, distant cousin of Sunny D. It boasts a strange combination of bold, authentic orange oils and childhood, artificial orange drink flavors. It’s light. It’s easy to drink. And it has one of the most sensational finishes in an orange soda we’ve ever tasted. But the development of the soda definitely doesn’t have what I’d consider to be a “craft” soda flavor. There’s something off here. It’s too close to Sunny D. Remember that friend in high school that hung out in your group, and no one really had a problem with them in the halls… but you definitely weren’t inviting them to the party? Yeah… that’s what NORKA orange soda is like. It’s friendly, it’s drinkable, but I probably wouldn’t put it in my top three orange sodas or stock it in my fridge. Still, it’s worth a shot just for the creamy, buttery orange notes that come through at the end of each sip. It’s a safe bet, but likely won’t blow you away.

Empire Bottling: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer

History: In a saturated landscape where root beer is king, craft soda is constantly looking for the next eye-popping thing within the category. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer might just be the one. Ignore the ugly label that looks like it was designed by a seven year-old; the reason to be infatuated by this root beer is in the flavor. Founder and President of Gardena, California’s Real Soda in Real Bottles, Danny Ginsburg, tells us “it’s got a molasses – brown sugar aura about it which makes it stand out from the other brands.” Ginsburg is the self-titled “Soda Sommelier.” If there’s someone who knows more or is more obsessive about soda in the world than him… I don’t want to meet that person. Real Soda in Real Bottles is one of the largest craft soda distributors in the world. They actually produce a lot of flavors as well, but Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is produced specifically for their company by Empire Bottling, an old school Northeastern U.S.-based craft soda company. To be fair, Real Soda came up with the soda’s name and concept, and yes, it is actually made in Rhode Island. Ginsburg gives us his own critique of the root beer, saying it “reminds me of being in an old sweet shop in the Northeast way back when. Not just another foamy sweet brown drink.” If you’re not intrigued by this, you probably don’t enjoy soda. Admittedly, I don’t really put molasses on a lot of things and given a choice I’d opt for honey but as a sweetening agent in soda, sign me up. We’re always down to get weird and you should be too. Between the label and the idea of molasses in my soda, it really hits me right in the nostalgia tinglies.

Buy: Specialty SodasSoda EmporiumSoda4U

Nose: Smells exactly like those old fashioned root beer hard candies.

Taste: Wintergreen; tangy and thick; sugar; mild spices; mild creaminess. This definitely does have an older taste to it. What I mean by that is older root beer recipes often are more savory and less sweet. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is full of mostly mint and tangy flavors. You get a lot of wintergreen in the body. I think it’s fair to call that the dominant flavor in this soda. But there’s also a semisweet tanginess, which I assume comes from the molasses. If you haven’t tried or don’t remember, molasses is very thick and has a bittersweet tanginess to it. In a more subdued form, that definitely comes through in the root beer’s body. There’s also some decent creaminess, but I think a lot of that comes from the root beer’s frothy carbonation rather than any flavor. Good mouthfeel. Wintergreen and tangy sweetness define the flavor profile of Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer.

Finish: Creamy, yet tangy mint with a more noticeable influence from the molasses. Kind of an awkward flavor.

Rating: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is one for fans of mint. This is clearly an older root beer recipe because there isn’t a lot of flavor variation, minimal use of spices, and more savoriness than sweetness. That’s not to say this doesn’t taste like soda. It does. But the strong wintergreen and tangy molasses flavors are much more prominent than sugar and vanilla. The latter two ingredients are popular in more modern root beers. You won’t taste those here. Props to Empire Bottling for getting the molasses flavor to come through. They do a good job of infusing that bittersweet tangy taste that molasses contains. At the same time, I’m left wanting a little more from this. Beyond strong wintergreen, tangy sugar, and frothy carbonation there isn’t much to the flavor profile. Again, if you like minty root beers, I think there’s a good reason for you to seek this out. If you prefer creamier vanilla-heavy root beers or ones rich in spices, this may not be for you. In our opinion, it’s not bad, just not special. The molasses flavor is certainly unique and something you won’t find in more than a handful of root beers, so it does have a major selling point. I’m just not sure everyone will be buying.

Three Stars

Buckeye State Soda: Scarlet Soda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Stars

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

Fitz’s: Black Cherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Stars

Zuberfizz: Chocolate Cream

History: In Colorado, a deep breath will net you lots of scents. Smell that mountain air? The fresh clay under your boots? Maybe, just mayyyyybe a little pot? Colorado is an olfactory orgasm. But it’s also a mouthful, literally. The state is full of tons of great craft beer and craft soda. But the one with the weirdest name is undoubtedly Zuberfizz, founded by former Colorado State roommates Banden Zuber and Dan Aggeler. And the brand actually has ties to both craft beer and soda because before going completely nonalcoholic with their business, the two had planned on opening a brewery. In fact, if they hadn’t purchased the equipment to make beer, they wouldn’t have been able to make soda. The duo opened the business in 2002. By then Colorado had become flooded with breweries, but craft soda was still ripe for the taking. Zuberfizz produces eight flavors. Perhaps the most inventive is their newly renamed Chocolate Cream Soda. Originally, it was called “Coco Fizz.” The soda’s recipe was created by Zuber as a sales pitch to Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in order to gain the business of a big client. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is a gigantic company. According to Zuber, they have over 300 stores. And in his own words, “they loved it;” a partnership was born. Now, back to the name change thing. It’s a relatively new occurrence, so new that as of July 2016 Zuberfizz has yet to actually change the name on their website. To be clear, Coco Fizz and Chocolate Cream Soda are the same soda; the recipe has not changed. The only difference is the label. Previously, Coco Fizz used the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory logo on the front of the bottle and didn’t look like the rest of the Zuberfizz’s soda labels. The company simply changed the name and label for consistency. As for the flavor? Zuber deadpans, “Tootsie Roll. Two words.” It’s hard to get much dialogue out of Zuber, but after a brief pause he adds, “People either love it or they hate it.” Sounds about right for chocolate soda.

Where to get: Zuberfizz sodas are most prevalent in the Colorado and four corners region, but you can always buy it online directly from the company. Don’t be alarmed if it’s still called Coco Fizz on some websites that haven’t updated the name – again, it’s the exact same recipe. You can also buy the soda online from Summit City Soda in 12-packs and Soda Emporium in single bottles.

Nose: Rich cocoa. Like smelling hot cocoa powder.

Taste: Bold chocolate; mild creaminess; chocolate hard candy; Tootsie Rolls. It’s almost jolting to taste chocolate in a soda because it’s so rare, but this is full of chocolate flavor. Imagine a chocolate breath mint stripped of the mint. That’s the best way to describe the flavor. I’d also say there are some additional undertones of cocoa. Slightly creamy, ala eating a Tootsie Roll. The bigger the sip, the more creamy the soda seems to be, particularly near the end. But overall, it’s overwhelmingly more chocolate than chocolate cream.

Finish: Lingering creamy cocoa notes with a hint of milk chocolate. Still strong chocolate flavor.

Rating: This is chocolate soda. And damn, it tastes like it. In a category where membership is limited, Zuberfizz tried to plant their flag deep in the ground with a soda full of rich, chocolatey flavor. You taste a milky, hard candy chocolate flavor mixed with sweet cocoa notes. When it comes to the creaminess, don’t think along the lines of traditional cream soda. It’s more like the creaminess of chewing a Tootsie Roll along with the flavor too. And that part of the soda is where it excels most. I have to give Zuberfizz credit: this is definitely chocolate cream soda. There’s no denying the authenticity of the flavor. That said, it’s a little harsh for me. All that concentrated flavor is a lot to handle in soda form. It’s a sipper for sure. Imagine the hip hop Gods somehow managed to concentrate the power, boldness, and sassiness of Nikki Minaj in a 12 oz. bottle. Now imagine what would happen if she got out. That’s what I feel like when drinking this. It’s powerful. Note: this is not a sexual reference toward Nikki Minaj, but Nikki if you’re reading, I’m single. Where I think Zuberfizz’s Chocolate Cream Soda could really improve is its carbonation. It’s a cream soda, so to convey that more, I’d make the carbonation frothier than it is in its current form. Fans of chocolate simply can’t pass up trying this. For everyone else, it’s a wild ride if you’re up for the challenge.

Three Stars

Reading Draft: Strawberry Cream Soda

History: Reading Draft is one of the older soda bottlers in America, concocting their own flavors using pure cane sugar since 1921. But there’s a new sheriff in town, baby. Er… sort of. The company had been under the ownership of Martin Radvani and his wife since 2004, but was purchased by the Hiester family in November of 2015. But don’t worry, they aren’t making any sweeping changes just yet and seem to retain the old school mentality the brand has had since its creation. Reading Draft Marketing Director Jared Hiester says “Drinking a great soda is something that’s both nostalgic and tradition, no matter what age you are…. Being born and raised in this area, this brand of soda had a great reputation, and we all loved the idea of continuing a tradition of handcrafted soda.” Hiester says the family plans to retain the “Pennsylvania Dutch” style of the company as well as all of Reading Draft’s current 13 flavors and is planning to add peach cream in the near future. They also gave the company web page a much-needed update. He added that previously, the company was successful with minimal advertising, so the new website of one of the first steps the Hiester family is taking to revamp the scope of the brand. Reading Draft is known for its variety of birch beers, but arguably, their most unique flavor is strawberry cream. There’s a bit of mystery to every Reading Draft flavor because of the amber bottles and tan labels. You can’t see the liquid inside. Strawberry cream is bright red, almost pinkish. It’s primed to give your tongue a nice painting. Hiester says his family describes the flavor as “liquid strawberry sundae” and that his nieces enjoy it on top of vanilla ice cream. He goes to say that he believes it’s a balanced soda with “just enough creaminess to give it a bit of extra sweet.” I wish when my girlfriend was um, “out of balance” around the middle of the month, I could just give her a bit of sweet and make her go back to normal. Don’t worry, she doesn’t know this website exists. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a girlfriend. Speaking of balance, there’s one other element about Reading Draft Soda that contributes to it. Hiester explains “What makes the soda unique is that it is one of the select few on the market that is made with a pinpoint carbonation technique. Carbonation is introduced and absorbed slowly into the soda, which leads to smaller bubbles that have a smooth taste and longer persistence.” Another company famous for this method that’s worth checking out is Natrona Bottling. But we’re here for Reading Draft and its strawberry cream, and review it we shall.

Where to get: Reading Draft Soda is mostly sold locally throughout Pennsylvania. For those of us not living the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle, Amazon has the hook up online in 12-packs.

Nose: Has a very artificial strawberry scent. Think like Strawberry Sour Punch Straws mixed with mild bubble gum. Definitely reminds me of going to the candy store and opening the bin to some strawberry-flavored sugary treat.

Taste: Tangy strawberry candy; sugar; flush carbonation. This is more straightforward than we expected. The strawberry flavor is rooted in old fashioned strawberry soda flavor, but Reading Draft has added a mild tanginess to their version. It’s definitely a strawberry flavor you’d taste in candy as opposed to eating the real fruit. A little bit of an artificial taste, to be honest. It’s a sweet soda, but the tangy notes help balance it in the mouth. One thing we aren’t tasting here – creaminess. No vanilla. No frothy or velvety texture in the mouth. It might have something to do with the fact that this soda’s carbonation definitely plays a part in the flavor. The bubbles amplify the tanginess, and perhaps take away from the intended strawberry cream flavor. Despite what’s on the label, I’d call this more of a regular strawberry soda.

Finish: I’m not getting much of a cream sensation unless I wait for a long time after the sip. It’s mostly a lighter, more floral version of the strawberry from the soda’s body. Pleasant, but again, reminds me more of regular strawberry soda than strawberry cream.

Rating: Reading Draft Strawberry Cream Soda has the classic liquid strawberry candy flavor many of us in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s used to drink as children. A good comparison soda would be Fanta Strawberry, though Reading Draft’s flavor is way less syrupy. The soda is mildly tart, sweet and slightly artificial with nice levels of carbonation. A really nice strawberry soda. Thing is… this isn’t supposed to be a regular strawberry soda. It’s supposed to be strawberry cream soda. The only part of this soda that’s creamy is the finish, and you have to really wait before that sensation comes through. There’s no vanilla or strawberry-vanilla hybrid flavor. Just strawberry. In a few words, this isn’t bad; it’s just not what I expected. Kind of like my sister’s baby. Don’t tell her I said that. I didn’t know babies could have heads that big. Back to this. I think a lot of the people who will wish to try this soda will want to on the basis that strawberry cream is an unusual flavor. I’m afraid a lot of those people may be let down because this just tastes like normal strawberry soda. On the other hand, for strawberry soda, this is good. So are you a glass half empty or half full kind of person? If I’m making changes to the recipe, I’d throw in vanilla or more(?) vanilla to make the flavor match the label. Until this happens, Reading Draft Strawberry Cream is a fine soda for a hot day in the sun.

Three Stars

Fireman’s Brew: Cream Soda

History: It seems apropos that a cream soda designed by firefighters has “definitely a hint of [campfire] marshmallow.” Those aren’t my words. They belong to Fireman’s Brew COO, David Johnson. Fireman’s Brew is a brewery that was actually founded by firefighters. Ever seen the Glendale Mountains of California? Firefighters Rob and Ed have. They saw it all day, only the surrounding forest was set ablaze throughout the treetops and smoldered into the night. After extinguishing their foe, Rob and Ed gazed into the sky, wishing for nothing more than an ice cold beer. But after you’ve gone toe to toe with Dante’s Inferno all day, your appetite extends beyond thirst. These cats needed flavor. They decided try to something new, something their own, and the rest is history. Based in Canoga Park, California, the company began in 2007 with only beer. They quickly realized active duty firefighters would only be enjoying their products off the job, so they created a line of on duty drinks including coffee and soda. To this day, the company keeps things simple: three types of beer, three types of soda. When it comes to the latter, they employ the classics: root beer, black cherry, and cream soda. “You stick to something and you do it really well. People enjoy that,” says Johnson. He adds similarly that the motto of their sodas is “simple and straightforward” when it comes to flavor. Don’t overdo it. Just make it taste good. In a competitive craft soda market, you’d be surprised how many bottlers try to reinvent the wheel as opposed to just making something familiar that’s better. The company uses all-natural flavorings in all their sodas as well as pure cane sugar, and doesn’t include preservatives in the recipe. Cream soda is as archaic a flavor as they come in soda. Fireman’s Brew wanted theirs to be creamy. No offense, but that kind of seems like a given, boys. That’s like an old man saying I’m going to sleep in until 6:00 a.m. But that’s where they started. They also wanted a strong vanilla influence, as well as a little bit of that aforementioned toasted marshmallow taste. But none of these are what the company wants to talk about when it comes to the recipe. David Johnson tells us the “One special ingredient is that we use a historical water source in the mojave desert that emits pure artesian spring water. The rest is top secret!” Annnnnnd the review comes to a screeching halt. But seriously, not only is Fireman’s Brew a brand worth trying out; when you do buy their stuff, the company “donates a portion of its profits to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland,” according to its website. And whether or not you think their beer or soda is worthwhile, that’s pretty dope.

Where to get: Fireman’s Brew Sodas are sold online via Garvey Nuts & Candy. You can also purchase it online from Soda Emporium.

Nose: Spun sugar, which smells like sugar with a little bit of burned caramel. And I know this is uncommon for cream soda, but I’m telling you this kind of smells like cotton candy too. Just sayin’.

Taste: Toasted marshmallow; burned sugar; slight creaminess; vanilla. You’ll taste a lot of familiar cream soda flavor profiles in Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda. Most of them blend together as opposed to coming in waves or standing out in layers. Toasted marshmallow, vanilla, and burned sugar are highest in the flavor profile. The toasted marshmallow gives this soda a little bit of an earthier flavor. Cream soda often has a reputation for being a very sweet soda, but this one is about a 6/10 on the sugar scale despite having 45 grams of sugar. Burned sugar notes are also apparent throughout the body of each drink. Vanilla is the most consistent flavor in the soda. No surprise. That’s another reason it doesn’t taste overly sweet. Real vanilla, despite what candy bars and milkshakes have led you to believe, doesn’t have a particularly sweet taste. This isn’t overly creamy like a root beer, but it’s got a decent-sized foamy head. It looks creamier than it tastes, but there’s definitely a little bit of creaminess going on. Earthy vanilla and toasted marshmallow with notes of burned sugar define the flavor profile here.

Finish: No creaminess whatsoever in the finish, but definitely a heavy dose of campfire marshmallow. Almost smoky. Sweet, but smoky with a hint of vanilla.

Rating: There are a lot of good flavors going on in Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda. I think the colder you can get this, the better. Flavors like earthy vanilla and toasted marshmallow need open air and icy temperatures to maximize their flavor potential. I’d pour this in a wide mouth glass straight out of the fridge and enjoy. Don’t let the head get too big. Drizzle it down the side of the glass. Maybe even try half the bottle with ice and let the water open up the flavors more. It sounds strange, but this soda reminds me a lot of bourbon. I’m not saying it tastes like whiskey, but it has a lot of the same tasting subtleties a nice bourbon contains. And bourbon sometimes needs coaxing with some water to release its flavors for maximum tasting potential. The vanilla is the shining star in this cream soda, followed closely by the toasted marshmallow. These two flavors combine to make Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda an earthier cream soda than most of its relatives on the market. Fans of sweeter cream sodas may be slightly disappointed in this, while fans of more subdued sodas will probably enjoy. I really like the idea of the flavors I tasted here, but like I said, I think they need some help to bring out their full potential. I’d probably dial back the toasted marshmallow notes. I think this is just one of those sodas that I feel is missing that special something, but others will probably enjoy. I’d definitely recommend it and we’d love to hear feedback on this one. I’ll say this: it’s probably the best three-star cream soda I’ve ever sampled. Try this one several ways and find the right fit for you.

Three Stars