california

Sparky’s Root Beer

History: This is a root beer 10 years in the making. This is a root beer as much about approach as it is ingredients. This is a root beer named after a cat. Yup, this is Sparky’s Root Beer. If you just clicked on that link, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, that website was bitch slapped with comic sans and yes, it looks like it was made in the year 2000. Considering the root beer found its final form in 1999, that’s probably a pretty good bet. But it was 10 years earlier when Kevin Knox started his root beer journey in Pacific Grove, California. Initially, it wasn’t even the goal. Knox was a veteran of the restaurant business and wanted to start his own, but admits he was hesitant because “it’s so risky.” This was right around the time when home brewing started to take off. Knox followed the trend and began brewing his own beer, hoping to eventually open a brewpub. The problem? It’s a $1 million venture and California ain’t a cheap place to run a business. Money wasn’t the only issue. Knox says beer was too limiting. “It didn’t take long to figure out I needed to make something for the kids and my non-alcohol drinking friends.” He experimented with fruit sodas to begin with, including a cranberry-apple soda he affectionately called “Crapple.” It didn’t work out. Root beer was the most logical choice for Knox, he says, because “it was always one of my childhood favorites.” After 10 years and “well over 100 batches” he found his desired recipe. But first, he had to name it. And this perhaps the strangest part. “Sparky is the name of my cat and he used to hang around me and watch me make it,” Knox tells us. I think we can almost all agree cats are at best a B- on the pet grading scale. And this one just paddywagoned its way around the kitchen enough to get root beer named after it? I can’t even get one of the local bars to name a cocktail after me, and Lord knows I spend enough time there. As for the flavor, he says it’s designed to be “kind of spicy, but still kind of sweet and creamy.” There’s over a dozen ingredients, with the most prominent ones being birch, local California honey, and pure cane sugar. Knox calls the rest of the herbs and spices in the soda “threshold flavors,” meaning he wants the drinker to be able to taste them, but not necessarily be strong enough to cross a threshold where they’re easily identifiable. Oh, and there is still one connection between Knox’s past homebrewing days and his root beer: Sparky’s is kettle-brewed in the same style of many craft beers. He claims this is what truly makes Sparky’s Root Beer unique. This is a soda as much about process as it is flavor.

Where to get: Sparky’s is available for purchase online in both 12 oz. and 22 oz. bottles. It’s also available from BevMO. You’re more likely to physically find it in the western half of the U.S. with California easily being your best bet.

Nose: Sarsaparilla root; vanilla; birch; spearmint. The sarsaparilla root is most noticeable with a little bit of mint. Really gets up in the nostrils.

Taste: Wintergreen; birch oil; vanilla; spices. This is definitely a root beer with a bite, and it’s up front. There’s a strong mint influence too. We taste wintergreen most, but wouldn’t be shocked if there’s some spearmint too. The birch bark flavor in this is also bold and right up front with the mint. What makes the flavor of Sparky’s Root Beer different from the rest of the pack are the spices. Tastes like there’s a few of them, perhaps some clove and anise. The initial flavors are the most potent part of the root beer and contain a spicy bite. After the mint and spices, you’ll taste a brief creaminess that gives the body of the root beer some variety. Vanilla and honey highlight this section. The creamy wave is gone as soon as it appears though and you’re left with a mildly spicy end of the sip.

Finish: Spicy mint that lingers before fading and leaving mild notes of vanilla.

Rating: Sparky’s Root Beer is a brew with lots of character. It’s highly varied in flavor. You could simultaneously classify it as botanical and spicy, yet creamy and sweet. Wintergreen and birch play a starring role in the flavor profile. They’re upfront and loud. Bold on the palate. And they’re enhanced by all of the spices in this root beer. We aren’t quite sure which ones are used, but whatever they are, they give the root beer a serious punch to the tongue. This is definitely a spicier root beer than what’s typically available; in my opinion those spices are the most critical ingredients in this soda. They provide contrast to the later tasting notes of vanilla and honey, enhance the mouth feel, and help Sparky’s separate itself from a crowded craft root beer field. In short, they’re a tremendous addition. Sparky’s Root Beer is like the foxy next door neighbor whose mature ways you long to experience from afar. Fortunately for you, this is just root beer, so you can. We mentioned above that on the second half of each sip you get a creamier vanilla flavor with big notes of honey. It’s an excellent flavor, but it’s a little too brief for me. The vanilla and honey fade quickly in favor of the strong influence of spices and wintergreen. If the two “halves” of the root beer had a more even stage presence in the mouth, this root beer would get a standing o’. I’d make the vanilla a little bit stronger for balance. But overall, I enjoy the contrast of sweet and savory here. Sparky’s might not have the most inspired label, but it’s flavor is sure to motivate repeat samplings.

Four Stars

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Vignette Wine Country Soda: Pinot Noir

History: After nine grueling months of carrying a baby inside their stomach and then shoving something the size watermelon through an area the size of a lime, the first thing most women want after birth, understandably, is alcohol. But what about during pregnancy? Booze is out of the question, so that doesn’t leave many drinking options with the same regality. Pat Galvin noticed this and set out to do something truly unique in the soda industry: put it on the same platform as wine. “The idea came from seeing my wife go through pregnancy with our first child and seeing how few sophisticated non-alcoholic options were available,” Galvin tells us. He founded Vignette Wine Country Soda in Berkeley, California in 2007. The company believes their soda is “an elevated experience” for the drinker, allowing folks who don’t drink alcohol a new high-end option as well as those who do drink booze the chance to take a night off and still have something interesting in their hand. Vignette Wine Country Soda produces three flavors: pinot noir and chardonnay (the two original flavors), as well as rosé (launched in 2009). Now the question you’re all asking is: does this actually taste like wine? Maybe a little bit, but that’s not the goal. Galvin explains that with the pinot noir soda, they’re “really not trying to match the flavor of wine,” adding “that wouldn’t be possible.” Instead, the company prioritizes capturing “a nice, clean fruit flavor.” Think of this beverage as an artisan grape soda with a mild wine flavor influence.

At Vignette Wine Country Soda, it’s all about the grapes. The company uses varietal wine grapes from California. What are varietal grapes and why are they different? We didn’t know, so we asked. Galvin tells us wine grapes “have more complex flavors than a traditional table grape that you might be used to.” For example, some might be sweet, some sour, and some might even have a berry characteristic to them. Variety. Hence the term “varietal.” Did we mention the grapes are important? They want you to know the grapes are important. “Our juices could easily be made into wine instead…. These are premium grapes,” Galvin explains. Basically, you’re drinking the best of the best. And because of that, the company doesn’t add any sugar to their wine sodas. All the sweetness you’ll taste in each bottle comes from the natural sugar in the juices. I have to admit, I’m pretty excited about this, but also hesitant. We always ask bottlers what makes their soda unique, and Vignette Wine Country Soda has perhaps the most distinct claim to fame. But is being different being better? I’m about to elevate my experience and find out.

Where to get: Outside of California, you’ll have a hard time finding Vignette Wine Country Soda in stores, so your best bet is to buy it online directly from the company at their online store.

Nose: This smells kind of like what I expected – a cross between sparkling grape juice and chilled red wine. There’s a tartness to the grape smell that you sometimes smell in wine, but also a sweetness that you often find in sparkling grape juice. Probably leans a little more on the sweet-smelling side.

Taste: Grape; raspberry; tartness. This tastes exactly like the smell would lead you to believe, like a cross between sparkling grape juice and a slightly sweet glass of pinot noir. The grape flavor in this bottle tastes very natural and not like what you’d drink in something like a NeHi or NuGrape. What’s immediately noticeable besides the grape flavor is tart raspberry. Depending on the variety of pinot noir you’re drinking, raspberry can be a somewhat common tasting note. So that’s a nice ode to the wine. The carbonation isn’t too striking, but the tartness from the raspberry leaves a little bit of a natural sourness that’s compounded by the bubbles. The sugar levels in this are perfect and interact with the tartness well. The more and more you drink Vignette’s Pinot Noir soda, the more you’ll taste the raspberry. It becomes a little more sweet throughout the drink, replacing the grape notes.

Finish: Definitely more of a wine flavor near the end of the sip than the beginning or middle. Grape and a mild dose of that raspberry flavor. Pleasant and doesn’t linger too long, leaving a clean finish on the palate.

Rating: If you like grape soda with just a hint of exoticness to it, Vignette Wine Country Soda’s Pinot Noir is going to be a national treasure for you. Truth by told, I could drink these all day. It’s a wonderful twist on grape soda with natural grape flavor and tart raspberry notes. It’s like a cross between sparkling grape juice and an actual glass of pinot noir. A couple points that I think are the big takeaways: first, the grape flavor is excellent. Each bottle of Vignette Wine Country Pinot Noir Soda contains 50% juice and you can taste it. Second, the accompanying raspberry flavor is also excellent. It provides a nice tartness to the grape’s natural sweetness, something you often taste in wine. The sugar levels in this are very nice and aren’t overdone. To my satisfaction, this also isn’t a soda that tastes bitter. Basically, it’s the correct blend of wine and grape soda flavors, though it’s definitely more grape soda than wine. My only complaint is that the more you drink the soda, the less the grape flavor comes though. The raspberry becomes more prominent. If this maintained the same flavor throughout the bottle, it’d be five stars. Maybe that change is the intention of the bottler, but I’d prefer a little more consistency. Still, this is supremely unique and full of lovely flavor. I really enjoy it and I’d recommend this to anyone and everyone. Works chilled or on ice and in both the hot and cold months. Pour this in a wine glass at a get together with your wife’s annoying friends and no one will know the difference.

Four Stars

 

Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Stars

Indian Wells Brewing: Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda

History: Welcome to the upper echelon of soda, ladies and gentlemen. It looks like a beer, pours like a cream ale, and smells like a confectionary kitchen. Indian Wells is certainly swinging for the fences with their Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda. As you might imagine, with a name this fancy, the brewers have gone to great lengths to ensure quality ingredients inside the bottle. Let’s start with the most interesting part: vanilla barrels. Indian Wells actually purchases chestnut barrels of vanilla bean extract from a tropical island and then adds their soda to the barrels and the one or two inches of leftover vanilla extract. This provides color. The soda isn’t actually its dark caramel hue before entering the barrel. And most importantly, it imparts the soda’s signature rich vanilla flavor profile. Next, the soda’s main ingredient: water. The company uses natural spring water from, well, Indian Wells Spring. Indian Wells is a California historical landmark and the water they use in their sodas and beer is filtered through millions of feet of granite. As with all their sodas, this one is sweetened with pure cane sugar. Finally, Indian Wells is also proud of what’s not in their line of Special Reserve sodas. No sodium benzoate or sorbate preservatives and no high fructose corn syrup. The brewery keeps these sodas shelf-stable by flash pasteurizing them. A couple fun facts: the intended flavor of this cream soda isn’t actually vanilla… it’s roasted campfire marshmallow. The last time I had a roasted marshmallow, I was on a camping date. She ran away in the middle of the night. Another? According Indian Wells Master Brewer, Rick Lovett, the brewery actually sells more soda than beer these days, thus prompting Lovett to test the market’s reaction to a super premium soft drink. It projects regality with its golden wax-coated bottle top staring at you like you need a password to open it. But spoiler alert, you don’t. And we did. Let’s see how it stacks up.

Where to get: Part of this soda’s appeal is its rarity. Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda is exclusively sold at Indian Wells Brewery and Rocketfizz retailers. It is not sold online.

Nose: Vanilla frosting; sugar; angel food cake. This smells like a trip to the bakery.

Taste: Marshmallow; sweet vanilla; sugar. This is a cream soda made with vanilla aged in chestnut barrels. As you might expect, its taste is different from the norm. There’s a deeply rich, sweet vanilla that enters the palate first. It’s very sweet, almost akin to vanilla buttercream frosting. But as the liquid sits in your mouth, the flavor slightly changes and there’s some woody notes that lift off the tongue. This is, of course, due to the chestnut barrels. It’s very interesting and something you’re unlikely to taste in any other cream soda. Then comes a very unique flavor to cream soda: marshmallow. This is by design. Indian Wells sought to recreate a campfire marshmallow taste and they’ve accomplished the task. Again, it’s a very sweet taste. It’s definitely a foamy cream soda with a thick head. The soda is anchored by a rich vanilla flavor that subtlety transforms into marshmallow with some slightly bitter notes from the chestnut barrels. Truly unique.

Finish: Slightly bitter vanilla; charred marshmallow. This is what I find to be the most interesting part of the soda. It’s not like the initial sip or the main flavor profile. As the vanilla and marshmallow flavors fade, you’re left with the chestnut barrel influence. It lingers slightly bitter on the back of the tongue and it turns that sweet, sugary marshmallow taste into more of a charred or roasted flavor. It’s like the marshmallow taste truly undergoes the campfire process with each sip. The longer you take in between drinks, the more prominent the effect. Exquisite.

Rating: This is the most unique cream soda I’ve ever had that I’ve actually enjoyed. Its wax-coated bottle and “Special Reserve” label put this into the top tier of premium sodas. Looking at it, you’d think it was craft beer. Its flavors are rich and change as you drink it, almost like a bourbon. Its frothy pour is distinctly cream soda, but its flavors of rich vanilla with notes of chestnut and campfire marshmallow set it apart. Indian Wells Brewing’s Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda is a spectacle of awe in an ever-changing craft soda world where originality is becoming a requirement to play the game. The sweetness can be intense at times, particularly on the first few sips. The taste buds acclimate over time as the chestnut notes become more prevalent, but this frosting-like sweetness might cut the bottle short early for some drinkers. For those who stick with it, your taste buds shall be rewarded with rich vanilla and roasted campfire marshmallow. Paired with a nice bourbon, this is one of the best things to ever happen to your mouth. I’d divorce my first wife several more times if I could have both of those items stocked around the clock. Go out of your way to try this. It’s a 22 oz. bottle, meaning you can do this once the sober way and the rest the fun way. It’s a touch pricey at $5 a bottle outside the brewery ($3 at Indian Wells), but Abe Lincoln doesn’t want to live in your pocket all day anyway. You’ll thank me later.

Caamaño Bros: High Noon Sarsaparilla

History: Caamaño Bros Soda was the idea of a couple young guns, Sebastián and Alejandro Caamaño. One day, their father, Christopher Caamaño, a chef with a rich family heritage and culinary background, took his family to a restaurant where he was delivered a carafe of water that tasted different. The restaurant told him they carbonated it themselves. With the benefit of an extensive background in the restaurant business, Caamaño decided that with the Berkeley, California area “having the best municipal water in the world,” he’d do the same thing at his home. For reference, the San Francisco area sources their tap water from High Sierra snow melt. Trust me, we don’t know what it means either. But it sounds nice. Long story short, his kids realized if they just added sugar and flavoring to their homemade carbonated water, they’d have soda. So in 2010, Caamaño Bros Soda was born. Christopher Caamaño chose a childhood favorite, sarsaparilla, with which to begin. The home testing blossomed into a lemonade-esque stand in front of a horticultural nursery. Eventually sponsors of local farmer’s markets, as well as restaurant gurus began telling them to take their production to the next level. Today, their soda business is still 100% a family operation. “Our whole promise was to turn the clock back 80 years and make soda pops the way they were intended,” said Caamaño. The family named their first beverage “High Noon Sarsaparilla.” It continues to be the staple of their business. And it isn’t exactly easy to produce. The family sources 14 different ingredients from five different continents. It’s a true vintage sarsaparilla, modeled after the way it used to be made in the old west. Here’s a quick, fun history lesson. In 1960, the. U.S. banned sassafras oil and a substance it contains, safrole, due to the psychotropic effects of safrole. What I’m trying to say is, the government didn’t want you tripping balls off sassafras or the products it could be used in, like sarsaparilla. MDMA is actually rendered from safrole, Caamaño says with a laugh. Needless to say, the family does their research. They family, however, does not do MDMA.

Where to get: Caamaño Bros Soda is distributed mainly throughout the Napa Valley, Sonoma, Oakland and San Francisco areas. It’s also available in Western BevMo outlets. The “High Noon Sarsaparilla” can also be ordered online from various retailers.

Nose: Light; earthy; vanilla; sassafras root.

Taste: Vanilla; sassafras; creamy cola; sweet, earthy notes (yes, I know that’s a contradiction). Soft vanilla and sweet sassafras root begin in this complicated flavor profile. Caamaño and his sons put an enormous amount of research, effort and money into their ingredients. For example, they source their sarsaparilla root from a farm in Jamaica. A gallon of that ONE ingredient alone costs them $500 a gallon. The recipe went through over 60 different drafts. You can taste the difference. As the soda progresses, it transforms, giving it a balanced, creamy cola flavor with just a hint of root beer. It literally begins to taste like cola as opposed to sarsaparilla. You get a little bit of light cherry in there too. This soda morphs as you get to know it, kind of like my ex-girlfriend, except the changes in my sarsaparilla don’t give me nightmares. Caamaño recommends drinking this with lots of ice. As the ice melts, the flavor once again morphs back to more of a root beer, this time with a little bit more of an earthy, creamy flavor. It’s light. The sugar amount is perfect. It isn’t syrupy and has just the right amount of creaminess without going overboard. All in all, this is spectacular.

Finish: Light; creamy vanilla with some lingering earthiness; then mild cherry-vanilla cola. It changes back and forth as you drink it.

Rating: This has all of the right dynamics going for it. It manages to maintain a creamy, smoothness that incorporates a variety of flavors without being too carbonated or too sugary. The root beer bite is perfect. It’s there, but isn’t overwhelming or too sharp. The blend of vanilla, sassafras root and creamy cola flavors take this levels above its competitors. It’s so easy to drink for a sarsaparilla, you’d swear it was a cola if you didn’t focus on the ingredients. Caamaño Bros place an extreme emphasis on their ingredients and its obvious their research and diligence has paid off. This is soda porn. You won’t even want to tell your friends about this. This is your special weekend girl you fly in from the West Coast who’s way out of your league, who you just lucked out with. This is the best sarsaparilla we’ve ever had, hands down. Find the Caamaño family. They’ll spread the love. Sorry, we have to go keep cheating on other sodas with this one now.