craft

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

Nichol Kola

History: We have been waiting a long time to write this review. Not because we’re lazy, but because finding the history behind this soda was a maddeningly slow process. In the 2010 edition of Soda Spectrum, contributor Blair Matthews writes “there’s hardly a trace of what was once such a successful and lucrative cola brand.” But searching is our thing… so we searched. We consulted Eric Wideman, “the nation’s expert on Nichol Kola,” according to his boss, Orca Beverage President Mike Bourgeois. And based on the information we’ve gathered from Wideman, I believe it. I mean what an absurdly specific thing to be obsessed with: a soda that started in 1936. Personally I am obsessed with Natalie and Tonya… but they’re not talking to me anymore. Anyway, here’s what Wideman relayed to us about Nichol Cola: first there was Sun-Boc, then there was Ver-Vac, Pow! World War I – sugar problems – yadda, yadda, yadda. And now here we are years later with Orca Beverage resurrecting a forgotten brand. Got it? Good. Peace out. Jk. God, for how long it took us to write this, we are doing it in the most annoying way possible. Here’s a synopsis of the soda’s history as written in the book The House of Quality: The History of the H.R. Nicholson Company by Harry R. Nicholson. Wideman sent us excerpts from this extremely rare publication. We do know it’s a real thing though because we found it online in Australia’s National Library. Go figure. Harry R. Nicholson was a business man. Dude was savvy back in the early 1900’s. With prohibition on the rise, he created Sun-Boc an amber not-quite-beer that became a hit with people looking for something to replace their former definitely-real-beer. After Sun-Boc’s success, Nicholson invested that money into a cola he called Ver-Vac designed to compete with Coca Cola. Well Ver-Vac, despite maybe being the worst-named soda I’ve ever heard of, was a hit. Nicholson raked in $110,000 from investors to go all-in on it. And then he hit a road block called World War I, which led to sugar rationing and a spike in sugar’s price. Here’s the big problem with that; sugar is a huge part of soda and the amount of sugar businesses “were allotted was based on their usage before the rationing” and since Ver-Vac was a relatively new venture, Nicholson didn’t get anywhere close to enough of it to run a soda business. After a bad business deal on sugar and then the sudden stoppage of the war, Ver-Vac’s fizz as a company went flat. In 1926, Nicholson gave cola a shot again, this time branding it as “Nichol Kola” to compete with brands like Pepsi. He would sell the concentrate to independent bottlers who would then mix it up and sell it. Guess how much each bottle sold for?

Nichol Kola continued into the 1970’s, but as independent bottlers fell by the wayside, there were fewer and fewer businesses to which the company could sell their soda’s concentrate. The trend continued until Nichol Kola met the same fate as Ver-Vac. But in 2006 Orca Beverage revamped the brand. If you haven’t read past reviews, Orca Beverage is a large soda manufacturer and distributer based out of Mukilteo, Washington. Their “thing,” if you will, is buying up vintage brands no longer in production and putting them back on shelves. Bourgeois tells us about his company, “We do that because our specialty is vintage soda. We just want to consolidate as many in-house as we can.” The current incantation of Nichol Kola is not the original formula. When asked to describe today’s recipe, Bourgeois played it pretty close to the vest, but pointed out cinnamon and coriander as ingredients used. He also says there are ingredients in it “that typically aren’t found in colas anymore.” Alright, history lesson over. We finally got that part out of the way. Now let’s drink this damn thing.

Where to get: Nichol Kola is commonly available at Rocketfizz retailers. You can also order it online from Summit City Soda or Orca Beverage. Single bottles are available for purchase from Soda Emporium.

Nose: Rich cola scent. Prominent cinnamon and mild citrus smells.

Taste: Cinnamon; vanilla; mild spice; sugar. Nichol Kola’s defining flavor is spice. To give you an idea, imagine a soft cola with prominent cooking spice notes, most notably cinnamon. There’s also some vanilla and mild citrus flavors. Drinks very easy. If you take some time in between sips, the soda’s spices slowly reveal themselves. Coriander jumps out as well as a stronger, spicier cinnamon. It has a really nice lingering effect. It’s very smooth and not as bitter as certain colas like Pepsi. The sugar isn’t too strong either. The real flavor bang comes near the end of the sip, so take your time on this soda.

Finish: Lingering spices. Reminds me of a spice cake with added vanilla. As with the body, cinnamon is probably the most recognizable flavor on the finish.

Rating: Nichol Kola is an exceptionally smooth cola that drinks easy and maintains a nice balance of sweetness and bitterness. Any bottler that uses cinnamon in its cola is already ahead of the game and it’s the starring ingredient in Nichol Kola. This has a warming sensation to it when you drink it. It’s comfort soda. What surprises me is that the majority of the flavor comes on the soda’s finish. You really get the full-bodied flavor after you’ve already swigged the liquid down your gullet. You’ll taste bold cinnamon, similar to spice cake. Also vanilla and mild orange citrus. It also mixes really well with a vanilla-heavy rum if you’re into the spirits. Try Captain Morgan Black + Nichol Kola. We call it the Five Star Fadeout. One of our writers is passed out on the couch as I write this after having several of them. He’s the reason for the name. This is definitely a cola to try. But it’s not without faults. I wish there were more prominent flavors in the first half of each sip. I wanted to be greeted by something lovely rather than having to wait for it. But I use that same philosophy in my marriages and I’m on my third one, so I could be wrong there. If the first half of each sip was as nice the finish, this would be a five star soda. It’s still one that we believe all craft soda connoisseurs should sample and it’ ability to function well as a standalone drink and a mixer make it even more appealing. Definitely try it both ways. Just don’t be like our writer.

Four Stars

Hippo Size: Prodigious Peach

History: I was watching No Country for Old Men the other night. Great movie, one that really gives you a chilling glimpse into the Texas-Mexico marriage to outlaw life. But even Anton Chigurh couldn’t have gotten his evil, clever hands on a bottle of San Antonio’s favorite past time soda brand. Hippo Soda was gone by 1980. Sorry Anton; you lost the coin toss on that one too. You see, the Hippo Soda we’re reviewing today isn’t how the beverage started. That distinction belonged to The Alamo Bottling Company, which founded Hippo in 1926. The company used the name “Hippo” because their bottles (13 oz., 15 oz., 16 oz.) were all bigger than the competition’s. Hippo used to come in numerous flavors, but all of them vanished for 30 years after the company closed its doors. Enter Orca Beverage, the Mukilteo, Washington-based craft soda bottler and distributor that has made its name on reviving previously extinct soda brands. Orca is known for buying up sodas no longer in production, reintroducing their vintage labels, but remodeling their recipes. You’ll see the same roaring Hippo on Orca’s short, stubby bottles that were used on Alamo Bottling Company’s former longnecks. But there are also differences: the recipes, the names, the flavors. The new Hippo flavors are all named with a masculine feel, from Burly Birch Beer to Prodigious Peach. We’ve had the latter requested to be reviewed too many times now to ignore. So here we are. We’re not sure what movie analogy to use for today’s new-look Hippo Peach Soda; we just hope it’s worth the price of admission.

Where to get: You can buy Hippo Prodigious Peach and other Hippo flavors online via both Amazon and Orca Beverage. Single bottles are available for purchase from Soda Emporium.

Nose: This definitely doesn’t smell like peach, but the scent is really hard to place. I don’t think anyone on our staff can quite place it. It smells kind of like dull fruit. Rustic. Maybe the best descriptor would be that it smells like walking into an orchard and getting a whiff of all those pre-ripe fruits. Prodigious Peach confuses your nose.

Taste: Authentic peach; candy peach; artificial flavor. This is interesting. I think there’s really three main components to the flavor: Real peach, fake peach, and an odd accompanying artificial taste. Unfortunately, those tastes comes in reverse order. You’re hit with an overbearing chemical flavor at first that masks the tastier peach elements. It takes several seconds for this to fade before the more redeeming flavors come in. The peach flavor itself is kind of a hybrid between natural peach juice and like a candy peach gummy flavor. It’s really nice, but you only taste it for probably 1/3 of each sip. It’d be much easier to drink if that peach flavor was more pronounced and the artificial taste was less intense.

Finish: Sliced peaches with sugar that permeate several seconds before fading. The second half of each sip is what you’ll be looking forward to with Prodigious Peach.

Rating: Hippo Size Prodigious Peach reminds me of a lot of Hollywood movies: great script, but a miscast lead actor. Peach is such a wonderful flavor in soda. Luscious, refreshing, and flavorful. Prodigous Peach misses the mark on all three because the main tasting notes in this soda are noticeably artificial in nature. The lead actor in this movie is wrong for it. That artificial flavor mars the drinking experience. What’s most frustrating about this soda is that there are really good peach flavors within this bottle, but they’re masked by an initial chemical taste that is so strong it dilutes the peach notes. But when the peach is there, it’s great. Fruity, sweet, and juicy in nature. A mix of natural and candy peach tastes. But again, they’re fleeting and pushed to the back half of each sip. Luckily they remain in tact for the soda’s finish, undoubtedly the best part of the drink. However, the overwhelming take away from Prodigious Peach is that it tastes fake without having a noticeable peach punch. We’d heard good things about this soda, so it definitely has its supporters, but we can’t recommend it. This is a movie I wouldn’t see again.

Two Stars

Roots Soda Co.: Hoodoo

History: As soon as you hear the first chords of the Muse song “Hoodoo,” there’s an entrancing vibration that echoes your down your spine… but more importantly, there’s also a sense of dread. Like peering into an ocean blue sky before looking off in the distance and seeing a dark wave of clouds barreling forward. Middle Eastern-inspired guitar strings pluck quietly, conjuring up the image of a quiet dessert before the song quickly descends into a rapid, more folksy rendition of itself. Lead singer Matt Bellamy calmly croons about for half the song until the music then trades in its exotic flare for one that’s angrier, churning ahead with distorted guitars and sinister orchestral strings. The song shares the same name with an original creation from Roots Soda Co. in Edinburgh, Scotland. And much like the flow of the music, Roots founder Mark Pool describes Hoodoo the beverage as “Jekyll and Hyde, a split personality that would refresh and then burn.” The story is also the inspiration behind the beverage. He likens it to a fruit punch which is an interesting comparison to us after previously reviewing one of the company’s other sodas, Kaleidoscope, one we felt also tasted like a fruit punch. There’s more parallels to the Muse song too. The two share similar cultural influences. Pool says Hoodoo was “inspired by far eastern and South American drinks.” But there’s another, more important influence on the company’s creations. Roots Soda Co. prides itself on using real ingredients in their soda. They acknowledge and agree with the backlash against a majority of soda on the market. Pool is frank, saying “Soda is going to have to change and artificial sweeteners are not the answer. We started out wanting to make our sodas more healthy that what was on offer.” He hammers the point home, adding “The landscape of soda is one of ruin.” Damn, man – tell us how you really feel. Well, he did. And Hoodoo was his first answer.

“It took months” to perfect Hoodoo, a soda with a bevy of ingredients that make you wonder how the recipe will work when they’re all combined. Pool tells us the soda contains orange, lime, lemon and pink grapefruit juices in addition to pomegranate and chili peppers. That was the reason for the delay. Pool struggled with balancing citrus and heat. “I wanted the burn to come on slowly so that the soda first cooled and refreshed, and let you taste all of the ingredients before the burn started to build,” he says. He’s since mastered the level of heat he desired, but still faces battles with every batch of Hoodoo. Again, it’s the pepper that causes Pool to sweat. “The chillies come from different parts of the world throughout the year, and the heat from them can vary. Just like cooking a meal at home, we have to taste and adjust cooking times for the chillies in the syrup, in order to get the heat just right in every batch.” As with many sodas from Europe, the portion size is slightly smaller than the usual 12 ounces Americans are used to. But what the bottle lacks in size, it makes up in personality with its menacing red label and poetry inscribed on the back. It’s clear the crew at Roots Soda Co. have worked hard to make their sodas an experience from the names to the ingredients to the aesthetics. The only thing we all really care about though: the flavor. So here’s to the Jekyll and Hyde of sodas. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted a split personality. At least three or four girlfriends ago.

Where to get: Roots Soda is only sold at physical locations in the United Kingdom. Sorry everybody else; you’ll have to travel for this one. But if you’re in the area, here’s a list of where to find the goods. The company also hinted online sales may be coming, so always be on the lookout.

Nose: Smells kind of like a fruitier version of V8 juice. Some savory vegetable and sweet fruits stirred together in a pot .

Taste: Juicy; pepper; orange; chili; lime; tangy. Each sip of Hoodoo reveals something a little different. Initially you might taste the chili, making the soda seem more savory. Then on the next sip, the orange comes through to make it seem more fruity and sweet. Try it again and you might notice the lime or pomegranate most, giving the soda a tangy characteristic. I’d say orange is the soda’s base flavor with chili and lime being tied for second most prominent. It really is kind of a split personality drink. Sometimes it’s more like a semisweet, vegetable-influenced juice cocktail. Sometimes it’s almost like a citrus fruit punch. But the reality is that Hoodoo is somewhere in the middle, both savory and sweet. Refreshing, yet atypical.

Finish: More savoy than sweet with notes of bell pepper and chili being most prominent and just a tinge of sweet and sour lemon, as well as orange.

Rating: So often we get asked for soda recommendations with the qualifier, “something not too sweet.” Hoodoo has shot up to the short list of sodas meeting that requirement. It’s a hybrid between a botanical and sweet soda, while getting its flavors from real fruits and vegetables. Some sips are rich, even savory with notes of bell pepper and chili. Others are sweet and juicy with a base of orange juice supported by tangy pomegranate and lime. It seems to change each time you bring the bottle to your lips. Even the degree of the flavors are different. Sometimes the pepper taste is subdued. Other times it’s vicious. Sometimes the orange flavor is juicy and upfront by itself. Other times it’s just a supporting player in the background as pomegranate and lime take over. Split personality. I’m not even talking about my exes this time. These two words define Hoodoo. And it’s clearly by design. And in that sense, Roots Soda Co. has certainly succeeded. The company is one of Europe’s best craft soda bottlers. If you’re looking for something truly out of the box, something unpredictable, give Hoodoo a try.

Four Stars

Dry Sparkling: Malali Watermelon

History: It wouldn’t be summer without watermelon… soda? At least it wouldn’t be according to Dry Sparkling. Founder Sharelle Klaus says it’s “such a nostalgic flavor that is synonymous with this time of year.” The Seattle, Washington-based company boasts nine different flavors and decided to add Malali Watermelon and Serrano Pepper as seasonal offerings that run through August of 2016. Dry Sparkling is one of those companies not afraid to be different. Every soda they make is under 100 calories, containing only four ingredients. Basically none of their flavors are traditional. And they’re all designed to be paired with food. It’s soda for the artisan crowd. Klaus says, “I believe we’re creating a new category of soda.” But back to this particular flavor. Straight up, what is Malali Watermelon? It sounds like something you go on a quest for. Stranded deep in the rainforest for seven nights, the young boy returns to his village a hero, carrying in tow the legendary Malali Watermelon as the elders weep with joy. Just kidding, it’s actually a real fruit. Klaus tells us “Malali Watermelon is a smallish watermelon with sweet ruby red flesh and a bright green skin. They mature best in warm, dry climates and are often grown in home gardens.” So I guess we won’t be writing that epic watermelon novel after all. She did say they’re thought to have started growing first in Africa… so we kinda got that part right. According to Klaus, Malali Watermelon is currently the company’s fastest-selling soda. She says people’s first reactions are typically ones of “surprise that it tastes true-to-nature” before adding that another popular review is that it tastes like “summer in a bottle.” Oh, and if you’re looking for a food pairing to go with Malali Watermelon, try sweet shellfish like shrimp or lobster, or savory meats like lamb or grilled kebabs.

Where to get: Dry Sparkling is distributed across the U.S. You can find it in stores like Whole Foods and Target, among others, but the best way to find the retailer nearest you is to use the company’s online soda locator. For a full list of stores that carry Dry Malali Watermelon, click here. But remember, it’s only here through August 2016.

Nose: Sort a mash-up of a variety of melons, including honeydew, cantaloupe, and of course, watermelon.

Taste: Watermelon; tangy; soft; light. A light and refreshing take on watermelon soda. Not as sweet as other watermelon sodas, but still contains a noticeable amount of sugar and nice watermelon taste. A summer soda, for sure. One you could drink quickly. It’s very tangy up front – more of a tangy generic melon flavor than specifically watermelon. This segues into a more direct taste of watermelon that lasts for the finals two-thirds of the sip. The mouthfeel is also noteworthy. It’s soft. There’s noticeable carbonation, but it doesn’t sting the inside of your cheeks and adds to the soda’s drinkability. Not too strong, but still enough flavor there to satisfy watermelon enthusiasts. Very light and summery.

Finish: Softer than the initial tanginess. This is where you’ll really taste the watermelon. It lingers in the background for quite some time with the volume turned down.

Rating: Admittedly I’m not much of a watermelon fan, yet this soda is so light and mild I find myself continuing to sip it. It’s a quintessential summer beverage to be enjoyed by the pool or while grilling. I imagine it pairing well with food. As for the flavor, it’s tangy and full of subtle watermelon notes that show themselves more in the second half of each sip. The good thing about this soda is it’s not too melon-y, to use a technical term. Watermelon seems to be a divisive flavor among fruits. It’s not like cherry, which nearly everyone loves. So it’s nice to see Dry Sparkling not going over the top here. I think it could use just a littttttle more sweetness. Maybe up it from 19 to 26 grams. Other than that, this is a solid offering from Dry. The transition from tangy to fruit is excellently executed. You also don’t see a ton of watermelon sodas, so it’s nice to see one of America’s hippest craft soda bottlers tackle the flavor.

Four 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

Dry Sparkling: Serrano Pepper

History: “Dear spice lovers – this one’s for you” is the message you’re greeted with on Dry Sparkling’s four-pack of Serrano Pepper soda. I know what you’re thinking. How did we get here? Is craft soda really heading this direction? Pepper soda? I can’t say we disagree with you. So we had to ask Dry Sparkling a few questions about their seasonal Serrano Pepper soda. Founder and CEO Sharell Klaus says “We really wanted to create something unexpectedly delicious! No other beverages out there specifically celebrate the taste of spicy peppers, so we set out to do just that.” Not only was this beverage created to be a refreshing take on pepper (it’s hard to even write that and understand it), it was formulated to pair with summer foods like BBQ and Cuban sandwiches. Klaus and her company have always been different. She says “I believe we’re creating a new category of soda.” Founded in 2005 in Seattle, Washington, the company boasts atypical flavors like Juniper Berry, Lavender, and Fuji Apple. That’s not the only unique aspect of Dry Sparkling. Each flavor contains less than 100 calories. Every bottle of soda is clear. And every recipe is made with only four ingredients: carbonated water, cane sugar, natural flavors, and phosphoric acid. For the summer of 2016, they cranked out two seasonal flavors: the one this review is about (if you’re like my girlfriend and just skimming this as I look over your shoulder for approval, it’s Serrano Pepper) and Malali Watermelon. Klaus expands on the former, saying “With Serrano Pepper DRY, you get these very intriguing savory and green, yet balanced notes, plus a touch of spice. We aimed for it to have a kick, but still be refreshing. Like spicy peppers themselves, some bottles of Serrano Pepper DRY are hotter than others due to the natural pepper emulsion that flavors each batch.” I think it’s safe to say, this is a soda for the adventurous. It’s a soda designed to appeal to the more culinary-inclined, a demographic to which Dry Sparkling caters. Klaus says the tastes of Dry’s target audience are more “artisan” in nature and that their drinks are “more of an elevated experience.” Translation: we make fancy shit. And if you’re here, you’re probably a part of the demographic who appreciates that. In her own words, Klaus sums up her company as “The new age warriors of soda.”

Where to get: Dry Sparkling is distributed across the U.S. You can find it in stores like Whole Foods and Target, among others, but the best way to find the retailer nearest you is to use the company’s online soda locator. For a full list of stores that carry Dry Serrano Pepper, click here.

Nose: A subdued pepper smell. Imagine pulling a pepper out of the fridge and then cutting it open. The cold from the refrigerator will slightly dull the pepper’s strong aromas. That’s what I’m getting here. Definitely Serrano/green pepper, just subtle.

Taste: Refreshing; green pepper; brisk carbonation; crisp. For a soda that bases its flavor on a pepper, this is surprisingly very drinkable. Not overwhelming at all. It’s kind of like drinking a flavored tonic, infused with the crisp carbonation of a lemon-lime soda (without the lemon-lime flavor). The pepper really comes through. It’s nice and mild. Not particularly spicy. Anyone should be able to handle this. The initial sip has a savory characteristic from the pepper, and as it fades you taste just a hint of sweetness near the end. I think you’ll be surprised just how brisk and light this drinks.

Finish: Definitely not as strong as the initial sip. Bubbles continue to dance along your tongue as the soda’s sugar briefly reveals itself before going back into hiding.

Rating: Dry Sparkling Serrano Pepper is one of the most surprising sodas you’ll drink. Coming in, I expected something harsh and abrasive. I mean, it says on the label “spicy” and “savory.” Those aren’t exactly typical qualities of a soda. But I wouldn’t call this a spicy soda, rather it’s more refreshing and crisp than anything else. The pepper flavor is strongest on the initial sip before quickly fading in favor of mild sweetness. It drinks like a pepper-flavored tonic. Savory, then slightly sweet. Like my ex. But overall, this is very mild and drinkable, and these are the two characteristics that make Dry Serrano Pepper work as a beverage. I hesitate to say this is a soda for only the adventurous because I really do think more than just a fraction of soda drinker would like this. That said, it’s still pepper soda. The idea alone will be enough to scare many away. And if you’re not a pepper fan, I wouldn’t travel down this road. When I first started drinking this, I thought I’d rate this three stars, but by the end it’s clear that would be too low. Just the fact that I could get through an entire pepper soda and enjoy it says something about the craftsmanship of Dry Sparkling. Get Serrano Pepper while it lasts. It’s only here until August 2016.

Four Stars

Reed’s Raspberry Ginger Brew

History: Chris Reed, founder and CEO of Reed’s Inc. is not a shy man. He’s upfront and original with every thought. And he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks about the competition. How could a raspberry ginger ale not catch your eye? Because c’mon, you know that sounds appealing. Well, the reason Reed created his is because the others… didn’t. He says over the phone, “Probably about 20 years ago, Canada Dry came out with a raspberry ginger ale…. They were so appallingly bad that I wanted the world to taste what real raspberry ginger ale tasted like.” Man, sounds like my ex-wife talking about me. Point is, probably not gonna be a combination soda between Canada Dry and Reed’s anytime soon. Reed adds that most of the competition has fallen by the wayside. If you google “raspberry ginger ale,” Schweppes is the only other brand on the radar. Apparently its a cutthroat flavor. While labeled a ginger ale, Reed prefers to call his line of Reed’s soda “ginger brews” because they contain spices and other fruits not found in traditional ginger beers or ales. Reed’s was making ginger-based sodas before the category became all the rage in 2015. They’ve been doing it since 1989. Raspberry ginger ale was the third flavor Chris Reed created after his traditional ginger brew and spiced apple brew. Upon founding his company, Reed admits “I wanted to dose the world with ginger.” Like all of the company’s sodas, the raspberry ginger ale does not contain preservatives, caffeine, gluten, or GMO’s. It does, however, use real raspberry juice. It’s “a very full-flavored raspberry [soda] with a background of ginger,” Reed says. He also adds that lime is probably the second most noticeable flavor. Speaking of noticeable, you’ve probably heard of Reed’s. It’s headquartered in Los Angeles, but it’s available all over America. If you ever stroll down the organic section of your grocery store, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find something available from either Reed’s or its sister company, Virgil’s. The company also sells kombucha, ginger chews, and several other beverages. But ginger brews are and always will be the company’s marquee product.

Where to get: Reed’s is one of the most popular craft soda brands in the nation. Start by checking your local health food or all-natural stores, or even the organic section of your favorite grocer. Or you could just use the company’s online store locator. You can buy Reed’s Raspberry Ginger Ale online directly from the company or in single bottles from Soda Emporium.

Nose: Getting a lot of apple and pear notes with a little bit of ginger. This is made with apple and pear juices, so it makes sense, but I’m not smelling raspberry so much.

Taste: Ginger; fruity; floral notes; apple; raspberry; blackberry; mild lemon. First of all, this is extremely refreshing for a ginger ale. Tastes more like a punch with a little oomph instead of a fruit-flavored ginger ale. Reed’s Raspberry Ginger Ale is made with a cornucopia of ingredients and many of them come through. Fruity and floral notes shine the most with raspberry, blackberry, apple, and elderflower being most prominent. For those of you not familiar with the flavor of elderflower, it’s a mild floral taste that usually varies depending on what ingredients with which it is paired. Here it tastes more like rose petal because of the sweetness from the raspberries and apples. The ginger is definitely present, but this is not a spicy beverage at all – more of a fruity summer drink with just a tinge of ginger spice. It hangs out in the background, mostly. The blackberry and raspberry flavors seem to switch out prominence with each sip, while the apple taste always stays on your tongue. You’ll also taste just a litttttttle bit of lemon to give this some light acidity and flavor contrast to the sweeter fruits. Another point I’d like to make: this is a very natural-tasting soda. The fruits taste real. But it also still has enough sweetness to make soda fans happy. All and all, very approachable and refreshing.

Finish: Light carbonation with mild raspberry and lemon notes. The apple is still present too, just not as much as in the body. The finish strips back some of the flavors in the body for a less complex, cleaner end to your sip.

Rating: Reed’s Raspberry Ginger Ale is an excellent fruity infusion to the category, but its flavors may surprise you. If you come into this thinking you’re going to taste a straight ginger ale with some raspberry juice, you’re in for a surprise. There’s lots of fruity and floral notes in this that give it a more complex flavor than you’ll probably expect. But it’s also very light and refreshing, so it’s easy to drink. Besides ginger root, spices, and elderflower, there are five other fruit juices in this recipe. As a result, Reed’s Raspberry Ginger Ale ends up tasting more like a fruit punch with mild spice notes from the ginger. In all honesty, the ginger is not the star of this drink. The apple, raspberry, blackberry, and elderflower flavors are much more prominent on each sip. Ginger plays more of a supporting role in the background with lemon to give the soda’s sweeter side some contrast and tartness. The fruity notes of apple, blackberry, and raspberry work well together to make this soda one that begs for warm weather drinking. I could drink this by the pool with a bunch of babes around. Or I could at least pretend to from my living room. What I’m trying to say is this: the fruit punchiness (yeah, I made it up) of this is excellent. If this was called Raspberry Punch instead of Raspberry Ginger Ale, you’d get no complaints from me. And this leads me to my only complaint – sometimes the fruit overpowers the spice so much that I can’t taste the ginger in this at all. Regardless, the flavor should turn a lot of heads in a positive way. If you like fruiter sodas that taste authentic, this is definitely going to be your thing. It’s also Vegan-friendly if you’re into that sort of thing. I was surprised by Raspberry Ginger Beer’s flavor. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was a nice surprise.

Four Stars