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Cannonborough BevCo.: Sorghum Thyme

History: Soda keeps getting weirder and weirder. And in the words of Matthew McConaughey, “that’s good for me.” Sorghum is an ingredient most southerners are familiar with, and you might be too if you enjoy molasses. But never did I think I’d see the day when sorghum was used as one of the main ingredients in a soda, much less paired with an herb. Then again, the guys at Cannonborough Beverage Company are southern gentlemen, hailing from Charleston, South Carolina (although they actually look like three dudes you’d meet at a frat party. The guys grew up playing soccer together.) So the trio took sorghum from a Tennessee farm called Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill and paired it with… thyme? Yup. According to CannonBevCo’s head PR Rep Mick Matricciano, geographically, “it just made sense to incorporate it into our sodas.” Sorghum Thyme soda was introduced near the end of fall in 2015. The company was founded three years earlier in 2012. What’s really interesting about the particular sorghum they sourced for the soda is that they felt it tasted like something else entirely.”One thing that jumped out at us right away was, at a certain dilution, it starts to show flavors very similar to pressed apple juice. We thought that was super unique, so we moved forward treating it as if it was apple juice, pairing it with ingredients we would normally use with apples.” Matricciano also added that “it ended up being one of those fun, humbling moments” after the team realized that instead of taking the ingredients to its final destination, the ingredient guided them. Once they realized that was the case, they ran with it. “We wanted to maintain that cool apple-like flavor of the sorghum,” he says.

At the time of this review, there are only 30 bottles left of Sorghum Thyme. Will it ever be made again? Who knows. That’s the thing about CannonBevCo; it’s a company all about keeping things fresh, literally and figuratively. All sodas are made with real ingredients from local partners and farmers. Hand-picked herbs and spices. Fresh-squeezed juices. In fact, the ingredients are so authentic that they have to force carbonate the liquid they create and flash pasteurize each bottle to turn it into soda and keep it shelf-stable. Basically, they blast CO2 into said batch of liquid, which bonds with water, and when the CO2 dissolves you get bubbles. If you need a better explanation than that… I’m not a scientist; I write about soda on the Internet, you’re kinda dreaming here. Bottom line, whatever you taste is real and most flavors are seasonal, meaning once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s up to you and the guys at Cannonborough to decide whether or not they’re gone for good. So if you like one of their flavors, make a fuss about it once it leaves to keep it coming back. As for their next round of seasonal sodas? We’ll keep that a mystery, but leave you with some clues. Something fruity. Something citrusy. And something with a kick.

Where to get: CannonBevCo Ginger Beer is available in bars, restaurants, and cafes throughout South Carolina. You can also order their sodas in 750ml bottles for $10 + shipping at their online store. Sorghum Thyme can be found right here.

Nose: Smells a little bit like apple cider and a lot like a kitchen full of lush herbs. Smells like it might have an herby citrus bite to it, but soda assumptions are a dangerous game, friendo.

Taste: Apple cider; herb; citrus; slight earthiness. I want you to know that we write out the tasting portion of our reviews first and then conduct an interview with the bottler. That said, I dunno if I’m crazy, but this tastes like a shrubbed apple cider with earthy undertones. All of us here think that. It’s not just me being the weirdo. Thing is… there’s no apple in this. The main ingredients are sorghum, thyme, and lemon juice. And I definitely taste a citrus influence from the lemon and some earthy, herbal qualities that infuses themselves into the cider taste, but the flavor of apples is what really stands out. It tastes like an artisan apple cider with a twist, the twist being mild citrus and maybe just a slight savory, herbal influence. Listen, I’m not dumb; I taste soda all the time. And I’ve run into sodas before that taste like an ingredient not included in the recipe, but never like this. This has a dominant, powerful apple cider taste. Look, it’s good. It’s a great cider. I’m just confused because I don’t see it on the label.

Edit post-interview: Vindication.

Finish: I think I taste the citrus influencing the apple taste most here. I don’t get as much from the thyme, but the lemon stands out to give the apple taste a unique tanginess as the sip fades into the distance.

Rating: I gotta be real, when I first heard about this flavor, one that combined an herb with a different sweet plant; I thought it’d be butt. Not like Beyonce butt. Like Danny Devito butt. But I was wrong. I should’ve known too. The guys at Cannonborough Beverage Company seemingly only make delicious soda, based on past reviews. This is a surprising flavor based on the label, but a familiar one to the tongue. It’s like going on a date with a beautiful New York woman… only in China. Lush apple cider is the flavor that you’ll take away from CannonBevCo’s Sorghum Thyme soda. It forms the base of the drink. Very fresh and light, while also having an element of mild citrus sourness. The lemon juice and thyme interact in a way that give the cider taste some additional tangy notes with just a slight herbed influence. If you’ve ever had a shrub syrup in a cocktail, there are definitely some influences of that here. All in all, it’s one of the most surprising sodas I’ve ever tasted in an enjoyable way. The South Carolina trio continues to delight with their unique artisan soda flavors that tickle the tongue and boggle the mind. CannonBevCo should be on your short list of brands to try if you’re a fan of craft soda.

Four Stars

Appalachian Brewing Co.: White Birch Beer

History: 2015 has been the biggest year in the still-emerging gourmet soda market, but it was in the late summer of 2014 when CNBC raised the question of if craft soda was the next big thing in the beverage industry. And if you’re a weirdo and way too into this stuff like we are, you know the article itself set off a chain of others that raised the profile of craft soda. The brand under the brightest spotlight in that article? Appalachian Brewing Co. When I think of Appalachia, I envision brawny-chested, flannel-wearing, goat-faced men lumbering across mountaintops, trekking deep into the forest, and chopping wood for no apparent reason. But Appalachian Brewing Co. isn’t on mountain top or nestled in a forest. The brewery is headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and has brewpubs in smaller surrounding areas. It’s a big business for a craft brewer. And its biggest business now comes from soda, not beer. The microbrewery was founded in 1997 with root beer and ginger beer available in the brewery from day one. The company added birch beer in 2008 and diet root beer in 2009. Despite having 15 beers and only four sodas, the lower cost of producing soda and its growing popularity resulted in the brewery investing heavily in its soft drink line. “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal,” says Artie Tafoya, Appalachian Brewing’s Director of Operations. Tafoya says that soda sales ballooned so much from 2008 onward that the brewery opened a fully operational soda manufacturing plant in 2014. “We try to make it as genuinely as possible,” Tafoya says, adding that all Appalachian Brewing Co. sodas are batch brewed, made with pure cane sugar, and use as many natural ingredients as possible.

Being located in Pennsylvania, it seemed like a logical choice to review the brewery’s birch beer. For those who don’t know, Pennsylvania is without a doubt the most popular state for birch beer because of its “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence. Tayfoya explained to us that Pennsylvania is a state with a large population of German immigrants who brought with them many culinary traditions, one of those being birch beer. There’s also a ton of birch trees in the state, so it’s easier to produce it there. Birch beer is kind of like cream soda in the sense that both are available in a wide variety of colors, but Appalachian Brewing wanted a birch beer as natural as possible in both flavor and hue, which is why theirs is white. There are no artificial ingredients or caffeine in Appalachian Brewing’s birch beer. “We like our flavorings because they’re very crisp and clean…. It almost cleanses the palate,” Tafoya says of the birch beer, adding he believes the company found the right blend of spearmint and peppermint to round out its flavor profile. There’s also a touch of honey in their birch beer, something you don’t often see with this flavor. As we wrapped up our phone call, he told us his motto is to go all-out to achieve great flavor, something we’ll always respect. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” he says. In talking to Tafoya, I’m not surprised the company’s soda has done so well. Commitment often leads to consistency and it’s clear the Appalachian Brewing Co. is dedicated to quality. It sounds good on paper. Let’s put it in practice.

Where to get: Appalachian Brewing Co. craft soda is sold across the midwest and upper northeast, but your best bet is to order online directly through the company via its Ebay store by going here.

Nose: Smells more like a root beer with extra mint than a birch beer. Rich, almost creamy, which likely comes from the honey.

Taste: Wintergreen; sugar; birch oil; light carbonation. Definitely a strong use of wintergreen. That’s undoubtedly the signature flavor of this soda. It has a crisp, minty bite along the tip and sides of the tongue, though I wouldn’t consider this spicy. Just a minty bite. I’m also not tasting the honey in this in a distinctive way. This is a little smoother than most birch beers, something the honey may influence, but the honey notes don’t come through for me. This is very clean and minty on the palate.

Finish: Mild wintergreen that rolls along the back of the tongue. Smooth.

Rating: Birch beer is really a northeast phenomenon in the world of craft soda. Certainly, it’s sold across the world, but you won’t find a more condensed area of birch beer fans than in the northeastern portion of America. Sometimes I feel like others don’t really appreciate birch beer for this reason – they aren’t often exposed to it. Appalachian Brewing’s White Birch Beer is a straightforward take on the category. It’s clean. It’s fairly smooth. And it’s loaded with wintergreen mint flavor. Not particularly spicy. Not particularly sophisticated on the palate, but it’s easy enough to drink if you like minty soda or are a fan of birch beers. I liken birch beer to being the scotch of craft soda because it’s an acquired taste, especially for drinkers new to the category. This won’t be for everyone because of the large reliance on mint flavor. Mint isn’t like vanilla; it doesn’t win everyone over. If you’re a birch beer fan or are looking to try out something new, this should be up your alley. Personally, for a soda made with honey, I’d like to taste its influence and I didn’t feel like I got what was advertised in that respect. It’s like going on a Tinder date and realizing their photo was hiding about thirty extra pounds. That’s my only real complaint. You’ll probably either love this or hate it, as is the case with most birch beers. Will you pop the top and take a chance or play it safe?

Three Stars

Homer Soda Co. Maple Root Beer

History: Warning: nostalgic and heart-warming story incoming. Homer, Illinois is a town of about 1,000 people. It’s a small, farm town. Life is simple there. In the early 2000’s, an antique shop popped up in the city’s Historic Main Street Building and made vintage sodas available. The public reception was so strong, the soda selection began expanding. And expanding. And expanding. Until they had over 500 sodas. If you do the math, the amount of people in Homer, Illinois only outweigh the number of unique sodas in the city by a ratio of 2:1. It’s small. Eventually, the owner was forced to close the shop due to personal health reasons. Kate Boyer didn’t want to see it go and stepped in to run it. Eventually, she bought it. Boyer’s love of local community eventually led her to gear her company’s business model towards wholesaling, so other small communities could get these cool, vintage sodas too. Today, Home Soda Company is one of the most recognizable retro soda distributors in the nation. Every year the company puts on the Homer Soda Festival where people can try up to 100 craft sodas from across the nation. The event attracts upwards of 10,000 people and de-cuples (10x) the city’s actual population. Picture a bunch of soda geeks drinking shot glasses of craft deliciousness and eating BBQ as bluegrass music blasts their ears until they forget how much sugar they’ve ingested. ‘Merica. It wasn’t until January of 2015 that Homer Soda decided they wanted to actually make their own soda. Inspired by a 400-tree maple grove about three miles from their town in Homer Lake, Boyer and her co-workers settled on Maple Root Beer. A portion of the proceeds from every bottle goes back to an interactive program at Homer Lake designed to educate children about maple syrup. The kids also get to run around and tap the trees for their pancake-topping magic. The company’s maple root beer uses a natural maple syrup extract and is GMO-free. A fun aside: the original founder of the antique shop is now the mayor of Homer, IL. The more you know…

Where to get: The best way for you to find Homer Soda Company’s Maple Root Beer, among a boat load of other sodas, is to go online to their Web site where you can purchase it directly. It should also be available within a couple months on Amazon.

 

Nose: Sugary root beer; syrupy maple that fades into light butterscotch

Taste: Initially very sweet. Classic root beer bite that fades within seconds, giving way to sweet maple. Homer uses an all-natural maple extract in this baby and the flavor holds for several seconds before a sweet, caramel butterscotch flavor takes over and really coats the palate. If you swirl it around in your mouth, the root beer flavor lingers longer. Not much in the way of carbonation. This isn’t one of those foamy root beers you see in commercials. I’d say if this had more bubbles, the classic root beer notes would shine more as carbonation typically enhances flavors with a bite.

Finish: Butterscotch that morphs back into classic root beer. The more you drink, the more the root beer flavor eventually comes through, but butterscotch really seems to dominate the overall flavor profile and finish.

Rating: If you enjoy sweeter root beers, this is probably up your alley. If you’re into more of an earthy, sarsaparilla sort of thing, this will probably overwhelm you. A little too syrupy for me without enough of a crisp, bite. More butterscotch than maple in my opinion. Kids and root beer enthusiasts are likely to be more receptive to its flavors. Here’s the deal: I would have a one-night stand with this and then call it back four months later when I wanted to feel young again. Tip: Mix this with a mid-tier bourbon and pour over ice cream for a sweet, spicy treat.

 

Cannonborough BevCo: Grapefruit Elderflower Soda

History: Three young dudes running a soda company… what could go wrong? Who knows, but fortunately for Cannonborough Beverage Company in Charleston, South Carolina, a lot has gone right. And a lot of it has to do with their location. Charleston is a city renowned for its local produce and fruits with a vibrant farmer’s market community. The farm-to-table movement is strong there. There’s a lot of plaid. People drink PBR in the afternoon. Lots of life talks. You get where I’m going? It’s a hipster town. People there are used to what’s authentic. So, with their boyish good looks and background in cocktail mixing, the guys at CannonBevCo set out to make sodas that appealed to a more health-conscious audience. “Sometimes you feel a little guilty drinking soda. We wanted to take the vehicle of soda we loved and elevate it a little bit,” they said. But they wanted to do it right. That background in the bar business has translated to their soda production. They use the same type of equipment used by craft beer brewers to make their soda. The three partners began at farmer’s markets in April 2012. They’ve since found their niche using a bevy of fresh, local options to create high-end, non-pasteurized, fruit sodas. Flavors are often dictated by season, with Honey Basil, Ginger Beer and Grapefruit Elderflower available year-round.

Where to get: Currently, Cannonborough sodas are available in about 50 restaurants throughout the Charlestown, South Carolina area. The company is set to soon nationally debut a 750 ml bottle that is shelf-stable, meaning it doesn’t have to be constantly refrigerated. Until then, the guys are more than happy to take orders directly. Expect shipping to be around $10-15 due to their larger 32 oz. bottle size.

Nose: Grapefruit; lemon; very soft orange; slight vanilla notes.

Taste: BANG, summer just smacked you in the mouth, yo! Extremely crisp, refreshing citrus taste. The tang of the grapefruit is immediate and then softens out with just a hint of sweetness and a mild floral note you get from the elderflower. I’m even getting a little bit of candied ginger, which is interesting because there’s no ginger in this soda. Most importantly, this tastes real. Cannonborough’s emphasis on sourcing local, fresh ingredients is evident. No syrupy, mouth-coating feeling with this soda. It has a little bit of a San Pellegrino thing going on, but its carbonation makes it more drinkable and its ingredients give it more flavor. This could be your Mountain Dew, hipsters! Those who don’t enjoy grapefruit obviously should avoid this. The grapefruit is very prominent, but never overbearing. I’d have liked to get just a little bit more sweetness in this to cut some of the tang of the grapefruit. But its drinkability is undeniable. This is pool party soda.

Finish: We kept drinking this over and over because we weren’t sure how this was happening, but there’s a very soft, floral candied cherry finish that comes from the elderflower. It’s extremely pleasant after the citrus zing. Best part of the soda.

Rating: It’s refreshing; it’s different; and most of all, it’s good. Hipsters, keep your pants on and put down your PBR. This is for you. Normal people, this is also for you. The bite of the grapefruit can be a bit much at times, but the elderflower aftertaste does a nice job at mellowing that out. Not many people make sodas the way these guys do. Everyone talks about being “all-natural” and using “real ingredients.” These dudes actually do it and the proof is in your mouth. If you’re willing to fork over a little bit more money than you’d normally pay for a soda, give the guys at CannonBevCo a call. You’ll be glad you did. And for you grown-ups: When mixed with an aged bourbon, this becomes the most dangerous mouthgasm-inducing cocktail you’ve had in a long time.