beer

Proper Soda: Hop Soda

History: Craft beer’s influence on craft soda is undeniable. It may not be the reason craft soda exists, but it’s certainly a major factor in craft soda’s rise within the beverage industry. Stephen Curtis, founder of Proper Soda in Grand Rapids, Michigan, saw the parallels and boundaries between the two categories. He notes, “It’s similar to the beer industry. They’re looking for things that are unique and tasty.” He wanted to lessen the gap. Soooo… beer soda? Soda beer? In 2013, Curtis came up with the company’s signature product: hop soda. “It may not always be appropriate to drink a beer in the middle of the day,” Curtis says, politely. Tell that to my neighbor, pal. It’s 3:00 p.m. and he’s running around naked in his backyard as I write this. The funny thing is, this beer-soda hybrid that he cooked up originated within the coffee industry. Curtis used to own a small coffee shop and started selling italian sodas there. Eventually he parlayed his knowledge of beverages and beans into espresso soda. Five years later, he sold the business, but his interest in soda never waned. It wasn’t until his buddy decided to enter a hop-coffee soda hybrid into a barista competition that Curtis took notice of hops. He didn’t mince words about his friend’s concoction; “It wasn’t very good.” With coffee-flavored everything rising on the national scene, he turned his attention to hops. “There wasn’t really a market for it,” he added. Hop Soda was introduced to the world in 2013. Curtis notes that hops tea was the basis for the soda’s flavor and that cascade hops are utilized for their citrus and pine tasting notes. He tried to engineer hop soda in a way that gelled with the changing state of the beverage industry. Basically, he wanted an emphasis on flavor and a reduction in sugar. Since Hop Soda’s inception, Proper Soda has introduced a new flavor every year with hibiscus in 2014 and coffee soda in 2015. Curtis says he anticipates those three flavors carrying the company until the spring of 2016. Until then, new flavors are being kept under wraps.

Where to get: To put it bluntly, Hop Soda’s distribution across the country is random. Take a look for yourself via the company’s website. However, it is sold online. You can even buy it by the can.

Nose: Hoppy IPA; floral notes. Smells like a citrusy IPA. Very aromatic.

Taste: Sweet Earl Grey tea; mild hops; floral notes; mild sugar. This is not what you’ll be expecting. Does not taste like a beer. The flavors are a whirlwind in that they all come and go very quickly, each with a crispness to them. The first thing you get is very light hops with a hint of sweetness. Next comes a nice floral body that transitions into a tea-like flavor. Earl Grey comes to mind. Surely this is the hops transforming throughout the flavor profile. There’s also a mild citrus taste that carries throughout the body. If I had to get specific, maybe even some undertones of lemon verbena in here. Very light, very crisp, very refreshing.

Finish: Light, aromatic hops that coat the tongue and leave some citrus tingles. Again, this is very brief.

Rating: Proper Soda decided to go big or go home on their idea. This is soda the non-alcoholic drinker can enjoy around their friends and come off looking cooler than them for it. And don’t worry, this isn’t beer soda and it isn’t too manly. Hop Soda comes in a cute-as-hell 8.4 ounce can and has a light, delicate flavor profile. This won’t be for everybody. In fact, a lot of people will be scared off by the concept alone. We have a word we call those people: boring. For the rest of you, fear not; Hop Soda isn’t overly hoppy. It doesn’t taste like beer. There’s no alcohol. You could even call it a little sweet. There’s only 14 grams of sugar in this, but remember, the can is only normal-sized for hobbits. Hop Soda’s most defining quality is that it’s easy drinking. The flavors are there, but never linger too long. Crisp, sweet hoppy notes transition into a floral Early Grey-like body and finish back off with citrusy hops. If you’re worried about this overwhelming you because you think it’s a watered-down version of beer, your concerns are misplaced. If anything, I wouldn’t mind seeing those flavors a little bolder, particularly the citrus elements. Admittedly, we didn’t have high expectations coming in, but Proper Soda has really put a unique twist on a beer-influenced soda that has an identity of its own. This is one of the more positive surprises we’ve come across in the world of craft soda. Innovators are to be commended and their creations are to be ingested. Cheers to Proper Soda for creating something original.

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Regatta: Ginger Beer

History: Stan Rottell knows the beverage industry. He’s been involved in every facet, from accounting to product development. He was big in the development of Snapple Teas. He even was behind a flavor re-engineering of Barritt’s Ginger Beer that turned the island favorite brew into one made with natural ingredients. This is where things started. After five years of babysitting the Barritt’s brand, the company decided to go a different direction and handed over their business to Gosling’s and went back to cheaper ingredients. This wasn’t the path Rottell wanted for himself or the products he endorsed. So he then made his own ginger beer. As an avid sailor, he named it Regatta Ginger Beer. Regatta typically refers to sailboat races. To this day, it’s still a one-man operation in Westport, Connecticut. Regatta Ginger Beer actually sponsors a fair share of sailing races across the country. As for the ginger beer itself, Rottell says “It’s got a bite, but it’s certainly going to be easy to drink…. I was looking for something that wouldn’t overwhelm what it was mixed with, but could be enjoyed on its own.” He wanted a ginger beer that was bold, but also a little fruity. In order to achieve that, he imports ginger root from the Caribbean, Africa, and sometimes Australia that possess slightly fruitier notes than other ginger roots that are more spicy or earthy. Like many ginger beers, this one is also designed mostly to be paired with alcohol. Rottell estimates 90% of Regatta Ginger Beer goes into some type of cocktail. The company often partners with well-known spirits like Russian Standard Vodka or Mount Gay Rum. Regatta Ginger Beer is made with pure cane sugar and limited preservatives. “There’s no magic,” Rottell adds. It’s all in the ginger root. For now, Regatta solely produces Ginger Beer, but Rottell is open for flavor expansion. He pauses, collects his thoughts and says with focus, “I’m constantly looking for a better ginger ale.”

Where to get: Regatta Ginger Beer is sold in 26 states and is particularly popular on both coasts. You can buy it in cans directly from the company or in single glass bottles from Keg Works.

Nose: Classic strong ginger beer. Smells like ginger fire is coming.

Taste: Ginger; spiciness; sweet sugar. Regatta’s take on ginger beer won’t make you cough from the spiciness, but it’s still got a kick. Soft little bubbles flood the mouth before you get a tinge of sweetness followed immediately by classic ginger heat. This contains just the right amount of sweetness for a ginger beer. Enough for flavor, but not distracting from the heat or flavor of the ginger roots. The ginger flavor is nice and varied flowing back and forth between the fresh-peeled root and candied ginger. There’s also some fruity notes that are difficult to accurately nail down. Mild apple undertones seem most prominent in a supporting role along with some citrus. The combination of ginger flavor, mild heat, moderate sweetness, and crisp carbonation make this one of the more refreshing takes on ginger beer on the market today.

Finish: Mildly earthy ginger with notes of rock candy sugar. Not overpowering, something for a ginger beer that can be hard to attain. This finish begs for additional sips.

Rating: This is a ginger beer you may not be familiar with, but it’s one you should get to know immediately. Its beautiful sea green bottle, yet simple design may not scream “Buy me!” but sometimes the most unsuspecting things are the best. Take my wife’s Porsche for example. I would’ve never expected with our combined income we’d buy it… until she went back and used my credit card without telling me. She’s the best! Regatta has bottled up a delicious, fruity ginger flavor profile using both Caribbean and African ginger roots and paired them with a level of sweetness that doesn’t distract from that classic ginger heat, yet provides additional flavor and balance. It’s about a six on the ginger beer heat scale. Perhaps the highest compliment we can pay to this ginger beer is that’s it’s refreshing and deserves to be consumed entirely on its own. But we all know most ginger beers are made to be mixers. And I’m not afraid to write this: Regatta Ginger Beer is the best ginger beer I’ve had for Moscow Mules or Dark and Stormy’s. You would be doing yourself a disservice not to try this with alcohol. I’d be surprised if this didn’t immediately make a dent in your top five ginger beers. Pull out your credit card, unless my wife somehow has yours too, and add this Florida-brewed ginger juice to your life.

Reading Draft: Creamy Red Birch Beer

History: Reading Draft is a classic, 100% American-made, old-school soda company that’s had roots in the soda industry since 1921. Located in Reading, Pennsylvania (pronounced Red-ing), the business has been through several different phases of ownership. In 2004, it was purchased by  Martin Radvani, but his wife was the driving force. After cashing out of his own previous business, Radvani’s wife got tired of seeing him sitting around the house. When the two met with a banker about the possibility of purchasing Reading Draft, Radvani’s wife said “Give him a check” before they’d even had time to discuss. He pulled out his pen because “happy wife, happy life.” Despite the exchanging of hands multiple times, the company is still known for its handcrafted “Pennsylvania Dutch” flavor. Ah yes, now you’re intrigued. So what does that mean? Well, even the Radvani’s have a hard time putting it into words. It’s a combination of things. On its founding in 1921, Reading was a city heavily influenced by German immigrants who had settled throughout the northeast. The Germans liked their beverages made simple with a bold taste. Ever had German beer? It’s delicious and jammed with flavor. It’s that German, err, “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence that led to Reading Draft’s signature soda: beer… well, birch beer. The company actually makes four variations. Reading Draft birch beer comes in regular, white, red cream, and blueberry. The company is proud of its soda’s emphasis on flavor. “It’s an adjunct to local beers,” says Radvani. Another component unique to Reading Draft’s methods is its style of carbonation. We’ll spare you the science, but the bottom line is that their sodas are infused with lots of pinhead-sized bubbles instead of the traditional carbonated bubbles that are about the size of an eraser head. This is done to ensure a smoother mouth feel. As with most craft soda, Reading Draft uses also pure cane sugar in their recipes.

Where to get: Reading Draft soda is available through the nation. Radvani encourages the public to contact their nearest distributor to ensure the safest method of shipping. That said, the company is open to placing custom orders directly.

Nose: Cream soda; light wintergreen breath mints; yellow cake.

Taste: Creamy wintergreen; minty vanilla; sugar; soft mouth feel. This is interesting for birch beer. You’re greeted right away with that classic wintergreen flavor found in almost all birch beers, but it’s so much lighter in Reading Draft’s Creamy Red. The wintergreen only lingers for a few seconds before giving way to a light classic cream soda taste. Interesting, considering this soda is as burgundy as cheap furniture from the 70’s. You’d expect maybe a red cream bubble gum taste, but it’s definitely just vanilla tinged with mint. When we say wintergreen, don’t think mint or spearmint, despite the photo above. WINTERGREEN LEAF IS HARD TO FIND, OK?! Sorry. Basically, wintergreen is that flavor of candy grandma always has in her glass bowl that’s been there for like seven years. Hence, it’s an acquired taste. Yet, this is surprisingly easy-drinking for birch beer. The more you drink this, the bolder the flavors become. The cane sugar really helps to accentuate the mint up front and the creaminess at the end. Reading Draft does use more sugar in this recipe as opposed to their original. When paired with ice, the wintergreen really mellows out, while the creaminess becomes more noticeable.

Finish: Creaminess that rises on the back of the tongue and evaporates into wintergreen that lingers until the next sip. By the end of the bottle, the creamy aftertaste becomes more mint and less vanilla. Unique and smooth.

Rating: Typically, birch beers are an acquired taste due to their strong mint flavors found in birch oil. I liken birch beer to being the scotch of the soda world because you’re usually older by the time you start enjoying it. But this is something even kids would probably like because of its blend of traditional vanilla flavor with the classic wintergreen taste. Reading Draft’s use of extra sugar in this particular birch flavor is really nicely done and acts as a flavor enhancer as opposed to shocking the drinker’s taste buds. Kudos for pulling that off. However, the increasingly strong mint finish leaves the drinker’s taste buds a little disoriented and longing for more creaminess. While we still can’t really give you a tangible answer of what “Pennsylvania Dutch” flavor is, we can definitely recommend this deep, dark red concoction. Surprisingly easy-drinking for a soda that’s known to be a sipper. Only lumberjacks from the Northeast drink birch beer fast. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be a lumberjack to like this. A must-try for connoisseurs of birch beer for its unique take on an old original. If you’re not big into mint, this may not be for you. This is still birch beer; it’s still minty. If you’re looking for something different, but aren’t in the mood to get really experimental and try a soda with something like white balsamic in it, this is your bottle. Just don’t spill it on your clothes. It will look like you killed something.