five star soda

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

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

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

Reading Draft: Strawberry Cream Soda

History: Reading Draft is one of the older soda bottlers in America, concocting their own flavors using pure cane sugar since 1921. But there’s a new sheriff in town, baby. Er… sort of. The company had been under the ownership of Martin Radvani and his wife since 2004, but was purchased by the Hiester family in November of 2015. But don’t worry, they aren’t making any sweeping changes just yet and seem to retain the old school mentality the brand has had since its creation. Reading Draft Marketing Director Jared Hiester says “Drinking a great soda is something that’s both nostalgic and tradition, no matter what age you are…. Being born and raised in this area, this brand of soda had a great reputation, and we all loved the idea of continuing a tradition of handcrafted soda.” Hiester says the family plans to retain the “Pennsylvania Dutch” style of the company as well as all of Reading Draft’s current 13 flavors and is planning to add peach cream in the near future. They also gave the company web page a much-needed update. He added that previously, the company was successful with minimal advertising, so the new website of one of the first steps the Hiester family is taking to revamp the scope of the brand. Reading Draft is known for its variety of birch beers, but arguably, their most unique flavor is strawberry cream. There’s a bit of mystery to every Reading Draft flavor because of the amber bottles and tan labels. You can’t see the liquid inside. Strawberry cream is bright red, almost pinkish. It’s primed to give your tongue a nice painting. Hiester says his family describes the flavor as “liquid strawberry sundae” and that his nieces enjoy it on top of vanilla ice cream. He goes to say that he believes it’s a balanced soda with “just enough creaminess to give it a bit of extra sweet.” I wish when my girlfriend was um, “out of balance” around the middle of the month, I could just give her a bit of sweet and make her go back to normal. Don’t worry, she doesn’t know this website exists. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a girlfriend. Speaking of balance, there’s one other element about Reading Draft Soda that contributes to it. Hiester explains “What makes the soda unique is that it is one of the select few on the market that is made with a pinpoint carbonation technique. Carbonation is introduced and absorbed slowly into the soda, which leads to smaller bubbles that have a smooth taste and longer persistence.” Another company famous for this method that’s worth checking out is Natrona Bottling. But we’re here for Reading Draft and its strawberry cream, and review it we shall.

Where to get: Reading Draft Soda is mostly sold locally throughout Pennsylvania. For those of us not living the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle, Amazon has the hook up online in 12-packs.

Nose: Has a very artificial strawberry scent. Think like Strawberry Sour Punch Straws mixed with mild bubble gum. Definitely reminds me of going to the candy store and opening the bin to some strawberry-flavored sugary treat.

Taste: Tangy strawberry candy; sugar; flush carbonation. This is more straightforward than we expected. The strawberry flavor is rooted in old fashioned strawberry soda flavor, but Reading Draft has added a mild tanginess to their version. It’s definitely a strawberry flavor you’d taste in candy as opposed to eating the real fruit. A little bit of an artificial taste, to be honest. It’s a sweet soda, but the tangy notes help balance it in the mouth. One thing we aren’t tasting here – creaminess. No vanilla. No frothy or velvety texture in the mouth. It might have something to do with the fact that this soda’s carbonation definitely plays a part in the flavor. The bubbles amplify the tanginess, and perhaps take away from the intended strawberry cream flavor. Despite what’s on the label, I’d call this more of a regular strawberry soda.

Finish: I’m not getting much of a cream sensation unless I wait for a long time after the sip. It’s mostly a lighter, more floral version of the strawberry from the soda’s body. Pleasant, but again, reminds me more of regular strawberry soda than strawberry cream.

Rating: Reading Draft Strawberry Cream Soda has the classic liquid strawberry candy flavor many of us in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s used to drink as children. A good comparison soda would be Fanta Strawberry, though Reading Draft’s flavor is way less syrupy. The soda is mildly tart, sweet and slightly artificial with nice levels of carbonation. A really nice strawberry soda. Thing is… this isn’t supposed to be a regular strawberry soda. It’s supposed to be strawberry cream soda. The only part of this soda that’s creamy is the finish, and you have to really wait before that sensation comes through. There’s no vanilla or strawberry-vanilla hybrid flavor. Just strawberry. In a few words, this isn’t bad; it’s just not what I expected. Kind of like my sister’s baby. Don’t tell her I said that. I didn’t know babies could have heads that big. Back to this. I think a lot of the people who will wish to try this soda will want to on the basis that strawberry cream is an unusual flavor. I’m afraid a lot of those people may be let down because this just tastes like normal strawberry soda. On the other hand, for strawberry soda, this is good. So are you a glass half empty or half full kind of person? If I’m making changes to the recipe, I’d throw in vanilla or more(?) vanilla to make the flavor match the label. Until this happens, Reading Draft Strawberry Cream is a fine soda for a hot day in the sun.

Three Stars

Rocky’s Ginger Beer

History: Rocky’s Ginger Beer is so cute, you almost don’t want to drink it. Sitting there in it’s little stubby 12oz., clear plastic bottle and gold cap, I wonder when I grab it by its chubby little sides if it’ll giggle at me, “hehe!” But I promise, it doesn’t. This isn’t the beginning of some weird, erotic soda fan-fiction novel. Sorry to those of you we let down. Rocky’s is a relatively new company that markets itself as a lower calorie ginger beer that is both crisper in taste and cheaper in price than some of its more mass-produced competitors like Gosling’s or Barritt’s. The ginger beer was created in September of 2015 and named after the devilishly handsome Chicago beverage veteran Rocky Mosele. Seriously, I have no affiliation with Mr. Mosele and I am a heterosexual man, but I’d put a poster of him in my bathroom. The company certainly affiliates its ginger beer more with the craft cocktail scene than craft soda, but it does contain many signature craft soda traits. For starters, it’s made with pure cane sugar and high-quality ingredients like natural ginger extract, triple-filtered water, and is void of food coloring. The last part is what makes Rocky’s Ginger Beer stand out for me. It’s clear instead of hazy or a tint of pale yellow like most ginger beers. Pour it in a glass over ice and you can’t tell it apart from tonic water or Sprite. Beyond the above information, we don’t know a whole lot about Rocky’s Ginger Beer. When reached for comment about this review, Rocky’s did not return our emails.

Where to get: You can purchase Rocky’s Ginger Beer online via the company’s sister website Caffeinated Club or Amazon. It’s also widely available throughout the Chicago area.

Nose: Ginger candies; peppers. Reminds me of those bite-size, sugar-coated ginger gummy candies.

Taste: Ginger; cinnamon; peppery notes. You taste the ginger right away, and it’s accompanied by another interesting flavor you don’t find in ginger beers often: cinnamon. Ginger and cinnamon dominates the first half of each sip, while the back half is a more peppery ginger. This isn’t particularly spicy. Maybe a 4/10 or 5/10 on the heat scale. Rocky’s Ginger Beer also possesses a large amount of carbonation when compared to other ginger beers. The cinnamon influence is a little jarring when paired with the ginger. The peppery notes near the end of the sip taste familiar, but a little too similar to the cinnamon to provide much in the way of contrast. Also, the flavor drops out of the sip very quickly instead of taking residence on the tongue. Slightly unconventional with lots of fizz and conflicting cinnamon and pepper tasting notes.

Finish: Mild ginger and sugar that don’t last long.

Rating: Rocky’s Ginger Beer seems like something that is aiming to be a direct competitor to brands like Gosling’s and Barritts. Both are common ginger beers you can find in most liquor stores. And while you might see them often on the shelves, they don’t really stand out. I’m afraid the same can be said about Rocky’s Ginger Beer. The intense carbonation, mild spice, and high sugar content make this taste more like a ginger-flavored soda rather than a ginger beer. What makes most ginger beers taste great is the fermentation process. It gives the beverages an extra kick. Sometimes it’s a tartness, sometimes it’s even kind of a skunky taste like you find in certain beers. It’s one of those things where you know it when you taste it. It’s not a one-fits-all flavor. I don’t taste that process here. While Rocky’s Ginger Beer may be made with pure cane sugar, it tastes a little artificial when compared with all of the other wonderful ginger beers out there. I think this could do well with bartenders for creating interesting vodka or gin cocktails that simply have the novelty of containing ginger beer. The best asset of Rocky’s Ginger Beer may indeed be that it’s interesting to look at because it’s clear. Make of that what you will, but I didn’t open this bottle to just look at it. The bottom line here is that the flavors just aren’t strong enough to encourage repeat drinking. I think the ginger-cinnamon flavor you taste near the beginning is interesting, but the peppery finish is too similar to that combo. With ginger beer being the current hottest flavor in soda, it’s inevitable that some brands will swing and miss. How many strikes will you give Rocky’s is the question you have to ask yourself.

Two Stars

Joia: Grapefruit, Chamomile & Cardamom

History: Like many fans of craft soda, Bob Safford doesn’t drink. Unlike many fans of craft soda, Bob Safford had the money to turn his ideas into liquid for the masses. The irony is that Safford hammered home his ideas by drinking (just a sip) of an alcoholic beverage at a fancy cocktail bar. “It just kind of hit me, why couldn’t you do this with soda?” he says over the phone. A veteran of the marketing industry, Safford was no soda expert. So he assembled a team ranging from a veteran beverage entrepreneur to a Minneapolis mixologist. In an interview with CircleUp, Safford explains how they immediately got to work. “We studied cocktail menus from around the United States to see what fruit, herbal/floral and spice flavors were appearing in cocktails with the greatest frequency.” If he was going to make soda, he wanted it to be more artisinal and, frankly, more healthy than the majority of options available. To many of you, I know that’s an oxymoron. It’s kind of like saying “I ate five cream-filled donuts today, but they were made with skim milk!” as you squeeze the life force out your body to fit into those yoga pants. But healthier options in soda can be created. Typically, they’re fruit-based, which is where Safford took the direction of his team’s creations. In 2011, the group made it official, founding Joia All-Natural Soda in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The name is pronounced “Joy-a,” as an ode to the passion and joy the company feels for its products. Safford believes Joia sodas can function both on their own as more refreshing alternatives to mass-produced soda, and as mixers with alcohol. The company produces four flavors, all using natural fruit juices, spices, and herbs. We’ve previously reviewed their Pineapple, Coconut, and Nutmeg, but no flavor is more popular than the widely available Grapefruit, Chamomile, and Cardamom. The latter was picked up nationally in August of 2015 by Panera restaurants. So now you can have a Joia soda with your low-fat sour cream and onion bagel and soup. Their grapefruit flavor accounts for about 40% of the company’s soda sales, according to Safford. When it came to the creation of their grapefruit soda, Safford says they wanted it to be fruity with an herbal flavor. Interestingly, they focused on aroma first. “Who thinks of soda as having an aroma?” he asks. They wanted to create something that not only smelled authentic, but tasted fresh. “We wanted something that was grapefruit-y but didn’t have that typical tartness of the grapefruit.” So essentially the company tried to take all of grapefruit’s greatest attributes and combine them with the complimentary smoothness of chamomile and the mild savoriness of cardamom. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off.

Where to get: Joia’s Grapefruit, Chamomile, & Cardamom is sold nationally at Panera restaurants. You can also purchase it from a number of online retailers, including Amazon, Soda Emporium (single bottles), and Jackeez. To find the physical retailer nearest you, use the company’s online product locator.

Nose: Fresh-cut grapefruit with some additional citrus. This smacks you in the face with authentic grapefruit scents. It couldn’t be closer to the real thing – super impressive.

Taste: Grapefruit juice; bitter spice; smooth. The grapefruit flavor is just as lush as the scent leads you to believe. It’s immediate and upfront, and it caries the soda’s flavor profile throughout. So if you don’t like grapefruit, you won’t like this. Unlike some grapefruit sodas, this one doesn’t try to hide the fruit’s bitterness. You taste real, sweet pink grapefruit upfront, but are then quickly greeted with a tart, bitterness. Some of that comes from the grapefruit itself and some comes from the cardamom. Cardamom is an interesting spice when describing its taste. It’s usually just a complimentary flavor, but in this soda, it has more of an impact and amplifies the grapefruit’s acidity and bitter notes. The chamomile comes through mostly in the aftertaste, but its main accomplishment in this beverage is helping smooth out the soda’s bitterness as it tails off. Strong grapefruit flavor that’s sweet upfront, then sour, and quietly trailing off before the next sip.

Finish: Tart pink grapefruit that transforms into more of an aromatic spiced flavor. The cardamom and chamomile work in tandem on the finish; they give the soda a slightly different flavor as the sip fades. More spiced and smooth with less grapefruit flavor. The chamomile does most of the work here, giving the bittersweet soda a soft, floral ending.

Rating: This is probably the best grapefruit soda we’ve tried thus far. Not just for the website, but life in general. It articulates its main flavor of grapefruit perfectly without hiding its true identity. Grapefruit isn’t a completely sweet fruit. If you ever try a grapefruit beverage that tastes like a trip to the candy factory, the company wasn’t being authentic in its interpretation of the flavor. Joia embraces grapefruit’s bittersweet nature and adds two other flavors that both amplify and assist it. Most of the sugar you taste comes from the fruit itself, but there’s definitely enough of it there to make you feel like you’re drinking soda and not juice. From the very first sniff of the bottle, Grapefruit, Chamomile, and Cardamom gives off the impression that it was made with real ingredients. It is. From the opening sip, the grapefruit’s sweetness is lush and flavorful, before the cardamom intensifies its bitter notes. The chamomile works as a softening agent near the finish, making this soda an extremely smooth one with mild floral notes. For a grapefruit soda, that’s damn impressive. That’s like taking a fat dude and somehow fitting him into 30×30 jeans. All praise aside, this is grapefruit through and through so if you don’t like the fruit itself, stay away from this one. For the rest of you wanting to try something excellent regardless of your fruit prejudices, Joia makes arguably the best grapefruit soda on the market. Put it in your mouth.

Five Stars

Fireman’s Brew: Cream Soda

History: It seems apropos that a cream soda designed by firefighters has “definitely a hint of [campfire] marshmallow.” Those aren’t my words. They belong to Fireman’s Brew COO, David Johnson. Fireman’s Brew is a brewery that was actually founded by firefighters. Ever seen the Glendale Mountains of California? Firefighters Rob and Ed have. They saw it all day, only the surrounding forest was set ablaze throughout the treetops and smoldered into the night. After extinguishing their foe, Rob and Ed gazed into the sky, wishing for nothing more than an ice cold beer. But after you’ve gone toe to toe with Dante’s Inferno all day, your appetite extends beyond thirst. These cats needed flavor. They decided try to something new, something their own, and the rest is history. Based in Canoga Park, California, the company began in 2007 with only beer. They quickly realized active duty firefighters would only be enjoying their products off the job, so they created a line of on duty drinks including coffee and soda. To this day, the company keeps things simple: three types of beer, three types of soda. When it comes to the latter, they employ the classics: root beer, black cherry, and cream soda. “You stick to something and you do it really well. People enjoy that,” says Johnson. He adds similarly that the motto of their sodas is “simple and straightforward” when it comes to flavor. Don’t overdo it. Just make it taste good. In a competitive craft soda market, you’d be surprised how many bottlers try to reinvent the wheel as opposed to just making something familiar that’s better. The company uses all-natural flavorings in all their sodas as well as pure cane sugar, and doesn’t include preservatives in the recipe. Cream soda is as archaic a flavor as they come in soda. Fireman’s Brew wanted theirs to be creamy. No offense, but that kind of seems like a given, boys. That’s like an old man saying I’m going to sleep in until 6:00 a.m. But that’s where they started. They also wanted a strong vanilla influence, as well as a little bit of that aforementioned toasted marshmallow taste. But none of these are what the company wants to talk about when it comes to the recipe. David Johnson tells us the “One special ingredient is that we use a historical water source in the mojave desert that emits pure artesian spring water. The rest is top secret!” Annnnnnd the review comes to a screeching halt. But seriously, not only is Fireman’s Brew a brand worth trying out; when you do buy their stuff, the company “donates a portion of its profits to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland,” according to its website. And whether or not you think their beer or soda is worthwhile, that’s pretty dope.

Where to get: Fireman’s Brew Sodas are sold online via Garvey Nuts & Candy. You can also purchase it online from Soda Emporium.

Nose: Spun sugar, which smells like sugar with a little bit of burned caramel. And I know this is uncommon for cream soda, but I’m telling you this kind of smells like cotton candy too. Just sayin’.

Taste: Toasted marshmallow; burned sugar; slight creaminess; vanilla. You’ll taste a lot of familiar cream soda flavor profiles in Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda. Most of them blend together as opposed to coming in waves or standing out in layers. Toasted marshmallow, vanilla, and burned sugar are highest in the flavor profile. The toasted marshmallow gives this soda a little bit of an earthier flavor. Cream soda often has a reputation for being a very sweet soda, but this one is about a 6/10 on the sugar scale despite having 45 grams of sugar. Burned sugar notes are also apparent throughout the body of each drink. Vanilla is the most consistent flavor in the soda. No surprise. That’s another reason it doesn’t taste overly sweet. Real vanilla, despite what candy bars and milkshakes have led you to believe, doesn’t have a particularly sweet taste. This isn’t overly creamy like a root beer, but it’s got a decent-sized foamy head. It looks creamier than it tastes, but there’s definitely a little bit of creaminess going on. Earthy vanilla and toasted marshmallow with notes of burned sugar define the flavor profile here.

Finish: No creaminess whatsoever in the finish, but definitely a heavy dose of campfire marshmallow. Almost smoky. Sweet, but smoky with a hint of vanilla.

Rating: There are a lot of good flavors going on in Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda. I think the colder you can get this, the better. Flavors like earthy vanilla and toasted marshmallow need open air and icy temperatures to maximize their flavor potential. I’d pour this in a wide mouth glass straight out of the fridge and enjoy. Don’t let the head get too big. Drizzle it down the side of the glass. Maybe even try half the bottle with ice and let the water open up the flavors more. It sounds strange, but this soda reminds me a lot of bourbon. I’m not saying it tastes like whiskey, but it has a lot of the same tasting subtleties a nice bourbon contains. And bourbon sometimes needs coaxing with some water to release its flavors for maximum tasting potential. The vanilla is the shining star in this cream soda, followed closely by the toasted marshmallow. These two flavors combine to make Fireman’s Brew Cream Soda an earthier cream soda than most of its relatives on the market. Fans of sweeter cream sodas may be slightly disappointed in this, while fans of more subdued sodas will probably enjoy. I really like the idea of the flavors I tasted here, but like I said, I think they need some help to bring out their full potential. I’d probably dial back the toasted marshmallow notes. I think this is just one of those sodas that I feel is missing that special something, but others will probably enjoy. I’d definitely recommend it and we’d love to hear feedback on this one. I’ll say this: it’s probably the best three-star cream soda I’ve ever sampled. Try this one several ways and find the right fit for you.

Three Stars

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