chicago

Cicero Beverage: Salted Caramel Root Beer

History: As children, walking into a candy store was like finally finding the right key to a door that unlocked our wildest imaginations. It was a wave of sensory overload. The vibrant colors, the endless options; it was a fantasy. Desiree Alonzo is drawing inspiration from those dreams. At the Chicago-based craft soda business, Cicero Beverage Co., Alonzo and her team try to create sodas based on the same types of things we found in candy stores as kids and today oogle at on food blogs as adults. Alonzo tells us that Cicero is trying to put dessert in a bottle while keeping it refreshing and flavorful. “I try not to get ideas from beverages because they’re probably already out there,” she explains. Cicero makes a full range of flavors, but they’re known for their nontraditional ones, most notably their salted caramel root beer.

Alonzo started her soda business in 2008, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the salted caramel root beer in late 2013 that it took off. It’s still the company’s most popular flavor today, earning a variety of accolades from competitions and bloggers. In an increasingly competitive craft soda market, Alonzo acknowledges that the company’s flavors “100% needed to make us unique.” And while the salted caramel root beer has seemingly done the job well, she confesses more importantly it gave the company confidence. Alonzo describes her prized specialty root beer as smooth with a unique caramel flavor. The secret ingredient? Salt. And while this won’t surprise most of you based on the name, it is very, very rare for a company to actually add salt to its soda. Sweet and salty still continues to be a hot trend on the gourmet dessert scene. It’s still in its infancy in craft soda. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Where to get: You can find Cicero Beverage’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda at Cost Plus World Market locations around the U.S. If you’re not near a physical retailer, you can also find it online at Summit City Soda or Amazon.

Nose: Vanilla; subtle caramel; sassafras; brown sugar. Smells very creamy, more like a root beer float than root beer itself.

Taste: Vanilla; mild caramel; creaminess; mild maple. You’ll taste the creamy vanilla first and foremost. 7/10 on the creamy scale. The caramel follows next, quickly after the vanilla. The faster you drink this, the more the caramel replaces vanilla as the root beer’s dominant flavor. It also absorbs the vanilla’s creaminess. If you take your time in between sips, you’ll probably notice the vanilla slightly more. Interesting. What you won’t taste are two traditional root beer flavors: birch and wintergreen mint. This does not have a bite and the carbonation is mild. However, it’s also not overly sweet. Vanilla and caramel dominate the body of the soda, while a mild maple flavor permeates in the background.

Finish: Sugar and salt that transitions into bold maple.

Rating: For a sweet root beer, Cicero Beverage Co.’s Salted Caramel Root Beer is a very smooth soda. It pours beautifully with a nice head and has an optimum amount of creaminess. Creamy vanilla and caramel highlight this root beer’s flavor profile. What’s interesting is depending on how long it takes you to drink it, one flavor will stand out more than the other. The longer you wait in between sips, the more you’ll taste creamy vanilla. If you’re excitable and buzz saw through it like my uncle on a pint of Jack Daniels, the more the caramel stands out. It’s subtleties like that a craft soda drinker can appreciate. A couple other flavors also stand out, though much lower in the flavor profile: salt and maple. You taste both on the finish. The salt is barely there. If you really search for it, you can find it. The maple is more noticeable, again, notably on the finish. It’s probably a little too strong in my opinion. It has great flavor, but after a rush of vanilla, sugar, and caramel, another sweet flavor will be pushing it for some drinkers. This is where I think the root beer would really benefit from a flavor that pushes back, like mint or birch or sassafras. Cicero’s Salted Caramel Root Beer will always have its detractors for this reason, a lack of traditional root beer flavors… even though it’s not a traditional root beer. But I gotta hand it to Cicero; despite the trendy flavor choice, this is not a novelty root beer. When looking at the label and thinking, “salted caramel root beer?” many will be hesitant to try this because it is such an odd flavor choice in a root beer. But this is an enjoyable root beer I’d happily drink again and I’d encourage others to twist the cap off one. Cicero takes vanilla and caramel, two flavors more common in cream soda, and successfully incorporates them into root beer in an elegant fashion. This won’t be a root beer you drink every day, but as a drinkable dessert, it does its job well.

Four Stars

Advertisements

Cicero Beverage Co.: Candied Bacon Cream Soda

History: You’ve probably heard of bacon soda by now. Take a look at reviews on YouTube. The results are… unsavory. “Vegetable mixed with gasoline” and “made my eyes water” were some of the comments made in just the first two videos we watched. Simply put, bacon soda is usually a gag gift. It’s a gimmick. Cicero Beverage Co. out of Chicago, Illinois wanted to break the mold. See, this is a company that actually makes real flavors. You’ll find the usual root beer, cream soda, and orange cream flavors scattered amongst the bunch. But we’d be lying if we told you they were known for their “normal” flavors. It was the company’s salted caramel root beer that put it on the map. Cicero Beverage Co. President Desiree Alonzo says after the launch of the salted caramel root beer at the end of 2013, the company “took off as a full time business.” To this day, it’s the company’s most popular flavor. But it’s followed closely by another unique offering. Bacon? Bacon. Yes, Cicero decided to tackle craft soda’s court jester flavor by putting their own spin on it. Instead of doing a strictly bacon-flavored soda, the company introduced a candied bacon cream soda. “It’s not just a novelty…. It’s not bacon forward,” says Alonzo. It is admittedly hard to trust her words because I’ve had my taste buds abused so many times by the bacon sodas of samplings past. There are more and more bacon sodas popping up all over the world now. Each one is like going on a new date with the same broken promise. “No, no. I’m not like her. You can trust me. We’ll have fun ;).” It always ends in a broken heart and a battered stomach. But here’s a bit of information that might ease your fears about this one. Alonzo tells us “I try not to get ideas from beverages because they’re probably already out there.” Phew. Cicero sodas are usually inspired by candies or desserts, rather than soft drinks. Along those lines, she goes on to describe the company’s candied bacon cream soda as “vanilla-forward” with notes of smokey brown sugar bacon and a little bit of maple. “It’s very much a cream soda with a bacon finish,” she explains. Everyone loves a good cream soda. And she does a good job selling it. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I guess I’ll put myself out there one more time.

Where to get: You can find Cicero Beverage’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda at Cost Plus World Market locations around the U.S. If you’re not near a physical retailer, you can also find it online at Summit City Soda or Amazon.

Nose: Caramel; vanilla; sugar; milk chocolate. This smells the same as creamy caramel rich in vanilla and coated in a thin layer of chocolate, like a confectionary treat.

Taste: Vanilla; pork salt; hickory flavor. Definitely a blend of sweet and savory. Sugar and vanilla are immediate on the tongue, quickly followed by a smoked pork flavor. I taste more of a BBQ pork flavor than bacon. The smokiness has notes of hickory chips and salted meat. The sweet and savory elements have a surprisingly good balance due to the fact that this has a very, very, very high sugar content at 58 grams a bottle. The savory flavors are initially strong, but mellow over time after continual sips.

Finish: Smokey bacon with sugar… so candied bacon. The truest part of the soda and the only portion that actually tastes like bacon.

Rating: If there’s one thing the world has an abundance of, it’s bacon-flavored things. A quick Google search gives you some pretty eye-opening results, several of which are NSFW. Cicero Beverage Co.’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda is safe for work, but not everyone will allow it safe passage to their taste buds. This was always going to be a divisive soda simply due to the fact that soda is a prototypical sweet beverage, and Cicero is merging that flavor profile with savory and salty elements. The basic question most will ask is, “does it actually taste like bacon?” Answer: sometimes. The soda definitely has a candied bacon finish with a dash of smokiness. But I think the savory elements taste more of smoked pork and hickory chips than bacon. There’s definitely still a pig influence on this soda. Oink, Oink. Still, this is a cream soda rooted in sugar and vanilla – like most of them, but this one has a smokiness that sets it apart in terms of the overall flavor experience. That smokey flavor can be disjointing on the first couple sips, even when you’re expecting it. The pork flavor is bold, but mellows over time and becomes more of a smoked hickory taste that supplements the sugary vanilla notes. The balance of sweet and savory helps justify why the soda’s sugar content is so high (a third higher than most craft sodas). The vanilla and sugar in this are really nice – they make me want to try just a normal cream soda from Cicero. Despite the taste bud whip flash the soda’s bacon elements might give you in the beginning, the smokey flavor is a fun change of pace. Personally, I’d probably mellow them even more so they had just the slightest influence on the flavor profile. If you’re into cream soda or simply adventurous beverages, Cicero’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda should be on your radar. It probably isn’t something you’ll regularly drink, but it’s a fun one to add to your list.

Three Stars

Berghoff: Root Beer

History: Berghoff Root Beer has been around, in one form or another, since 1933 during the era of prohibition. According to Berghoff Director of Sales, Ben Minkoff, back then the company produced a root beer-esque soft drink called “Bergo” to keep the company afloat along with a tonic. The beer dates back even further. It was created in 1887 by Herman Berghoff and his three brothers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The brewery moved three years later to Chicago and was introduced to The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It remains a Chicago craft beer staple, though it does not have its own brewery under the Berghoff name. Berghoff beer and soda are made to order. Now the history behind who makes Berghoff is complicated, so keep sharp.

We’ll spare you with some of the initial details and start in 1960 with the Joseph Huber Brewing Company, where Berghoff soda and beer were then produced. In 2006, Berghoff beer and soda switched their production location again, this time to Minhas Brewing. According to Minkoff, to this day, Minhas produces Berghoff barreled root beer, but not regular beer. K? You still following? You might know Minhas Brewing because they too make their own soda called Blumers. In 2013, Berghoff beer, but not soda, changed locations again, this time to Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin. Stevens Point makes their own soda as well. Alright, to the four of you who read this far, you probably no longer want soda. You need alcohol. I get it. Let’s do shots after this. But first, a few facts about Berghoff Root Beer. Minkoff says it’s “all-natural, gluten-free, and made with pure cane sugar.” It was made to be a compliment to the company’s beer right down to the way you drink it. Minkoff adds, “We wanted it to taste as much as draft soda as possible” and describes its flavor as very “vanilla-like.” Berghoff also produces black cherry and orange sodas in addition to root beer. Lately they’ve been trying to appeal to both the craft beer and soda crowds by introducing their alcoholic “Rowdy Root Beer.” Minkoff ended our conversation making a bold claim about the company’s signature soda. “It’s the best one out there,” he says with a chuckle. We’re about to find out, Mr. Minkoff. We’re about to find out.

Where to get: To find the nearest physical location near you where Berghoff Root Beer is sold, use the company’s online locator. You can also buy it online from Beverages Direct  in 6-packs or Soda Emporium in singles.

Nose: Licorice; anise; sassafras root. Honestly, the smells on this are pretty mild. It’s got a pretty traditional root beer nose.

Taste: Wintergreen; licorice; anise; sassafras; birch oil; mild creaminess. All the flavors just mentioned are traditional root beer tastes. If you’re looking for a comparison, this is kind of a hybrid between Barq’s and A&W, leaning more towards the Barq’s flavor spectrum. The most noticeable element in this root beer is the mint, which is the first thing you taste and the strongest. Traditional wintergreen with maybe a little bit of spearmint too. The birch flavoring in this is strong as well. This was described to us as a vanilla-heavy root beer, but what we’re tasting is more of a bolder, dryer brew than a creamy one. There is a little bit of lingering vanilla near the tail end, but this is more brassy than velvety in mouth feel.

Finish: Mild vanilla with birch oil that rises off the tongue like fog.

Rating: Root beers can be very generally divided into either creamy or not creamy. Berghoff has created one that focuses more on bold flavors than lighter, creamier ones. A root beer like Berghoff would pair well with a velvety texture, aka vanilla ice cream. This is a great liquid pairing for your favorite ice cream in a root beer float. On its own, the flavors are pretty standard for a root beer. You’ll certainly notice the mint and birch elements. If you enjoy birch beer or root beers more mild in vanilla, I’d look into this one. If you prefer a root beer rich in vanilla with a thick creaminess to it, you may be let down. Personally, I think the mint would work better here if Berghoff played up one of the ingredients in the root beer that might compliment it more, like vanilla or perhaps nutmeg (not sure if nutmeg is in this). This root beer doesn’t list cinnamon as an ingredient, but I think it could really benefit from the sweetness of that particular spice too. With so many root beers out there, I’d put this near the upper middle tier. It’s solid and reliable. If you ask me, its best use is in a root beer float. Do it. I wouldn’t let you down.