ginger

Norka Beverage: Ginger Ale

History: Akron is a city in Ohio of just under 200,000 people, but if you ever ended up there for more than a few days, guessing its population would almost be impossible. The dichotomy of personalities in Akron is perplexingly stark. I know from experience – I have family from around the area. Some days you feel like you’re back in the 40’s when you stop in at the local deli and the butcher knows the names of all the shop’s customers. Other times it feels like some bizarro displaced version of New York City where loud Italians on their porches sit their beers down to yell at you just to see what’s up. “Ay, kid whaddahyou doin – you lost?” No, but you sound like you aren’t far from it. One thing all these people have in common? Pride. Michael Considine, Norka Beverage Founder and President, feels the same. He thinks what originated in Akron should stay in Akron. The city is famous for being the home of LeBron James and the corporate headquarters of Goodyear Tires, but back in the 1920’s, it was also where local soda bottler, Norka Beverage originated. Norka is, of course, “Akron” spelled backwards. Considine had no idea about the soda until he spotted an old bottle in a restaurant while out to lunch with his father. The original Norka closed its doors in 1962, but with the rise in popularity of craft soda, Considine dug deeper into the soda brand’s history, finding the old packaging designs with the original ingredient listings. He decided to take a chance, saying, “I had no idea Akron had its own soft drink…. It was a cool opportunity to bring something back in the beverage industry.”

Considine re-opened the doors to the new Norka Beverage in early 2015 and tells us Norka sodas are made with “100% natural flavors and pure cane sugar,” and are also caffeine and gluten-free. Norka is most famous for its cherry-strawberry soda, but another one of the original flavors from 1924 is the ginger ale. It’s Norka’s third-best seller behind cherry-strawberry and root beer. Considine tells us the ginger ale took the longest to get right of Norka’s four flavors, going through six months of focus group taste testing. With the current popularity of ginger in the world of soda, there are no limit to the flavor variants of ginger ales available on the market. “True ginger ale is crisp, refreshing, and does have the real ginger in it” Considine says. He goes on to add, “A lot of ginger ales will try to be spicier…. Ours on the spectrum probably leans towards a Canada Dry.” Norka Ginger Ale uses natural ginger extract and cane sugar, something Considine believes helps eliminate the syrupy aftertaste of many ginger ales, even the comparable Canada Dry. It is designed to be “very crisp and not overpowering.” We’re told it pairs well with both food and alcohol. Considering I already have sweat pants on, this sounds like it could be the beginning of something special.

Where to get: Norka Beverage sodas are sold mostly throughout Ohio with limited regional reach in surrounding states. You can also find it at massive craft soda superstore Pop’s Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Oklahoma, as well as in parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco. For everyone else, the easiest way to buy Norka sodas is by ordering them online from the company’s store or at Summit City Soda.

Nose: Classic ginger ale; lime. This smells more along the lines of a classic ginger ale in the sense that you don’t get a forceful ginger scent that singes the nostrils.

Taste: Citrus; cane sugar; classic ginger ale. This is a crisp and refreshing take on ginger ale. If I had to compare it to a brand you might be familiar with, Canada Dry comes to mind. The ginger in this is very mild, though if you let it sit on the tongue for a second, you do get just the slightest zippy sensation of heat up the nostrils. So the ginger is definitely there. The carbonation is crisp and interacts with the cane sugar in a way that allows for a sweet bite. The most prominent element in Norka’s version of ginger ale is citrus. It’s a citrus closer to a lemon-lime soda than a ginger beer. Mild, drinkable, and very refreshing.

Finish: Light citrus that bubbles on the tongue and tails of for a very crisp finish.

Rating: Ginger is possibly the hottest flavor on the craft soda market. So often bottlers get caught up in who can add the most ginger to their soda. It gets to the point where the ginger is either too spicy or too masking of the other flavors present. Norka decided not to go this route. Instead, they focused on making a light, refreshing ginger ale that stands on its own and doesn’t need to rely on alcohol in order to pull back the reigns on its potency. I’d call this a relative of Canada Dry ginger ale, only this one does everything just a little bit better. The cane sugar plays the fiddle of flavors in this ginger ale, giving the bottle’s carbonation a sweet, crisp bite, enhancing the lime notes in the citrus flavor profile present, and giving the mild ginger bite a drinkable, refreshing finish. This is one ginger ale to which I wouldn’t even bother adding alcohol. And if my neighbor’s cat hadn’t puked on me earlier, I might actually follow that advice. Rough day. But seriously, this pairs excellently with bourbon. It’s also great with ice. Lovers of strong ginger may be let down. This won’t make your eyes water, but it will beg for you to crack the cap on another bottle. This is simple, yet elegant in its taste. It’s an old-school take on a classic flavor in a world that increasingly craves nostalgic, glass-bottled soda. Its flavor and versatility place it in the elite tier of craft ginger ales on the market. Still, the classics aren’t always a sure thing as bottlers continue combining artisan flavors in search of creating a modern masterpiece. Norka didn’t over think this and the brilliance is in the simplicity. This is a near-perfectly done take on a milder ginger ale.

Five Stars

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Top Hat Provisions: Ginger Beer

History: Ginger beer – so hot right now. Ginger beer syrup is even hotter because it’s easier for bartenders to make cocktails with and allows consumers to pour drinks to their own liking. San Francisco native Shane McKnight recognized this popularity and accessibility as an opportunity. McKnight is a veteran in the cocktail scene and at his day job, he “activates cocktail programs for bars at the national level.” He’s the founder of Top Hat Provisions. The name isn’t by accident. Since 2011, McKnight has worked an event in San Francisco called “The Edwardian Ball.” For those wondering, the Edwardian Period generally refers to most of the first decade of the 1900’s. Well there’s a shop at the event where you can buy clothing from that period from long coats to canes. And top hats. There’s top hats all over the place. McKnight notes “I made it a tradition to buy a top hat every year…. I have a lamp that has five top hats on it.” The whole thing is basically a drunk theme party. I guess when you wake up surrounded by top hats, you name your business after it. Based on that logic, my uncle should start a business recycling old Playboy magazines. Top Hat also provides ginger beer to major music festivals, like Coachella. There’s a lot of drunk moms at those things – someone’s gotta quench their thirst. He recalls ordering 1,500 pounds(!!!) of ginger beer for Coachella 2015. As demand continued to rise, McKnight realized making a ginger beer concentrate needed to be done “out of absolute necessity.”

In talking to McKnight, you can tell he knows his stuff and cares about his product. He resisted making a syrup until he found a company that was able to organically extract the vegetal and the heat. I know you don’t know what that really means, but basically it allowed McKnight to create and launch the ginger beer concentrate he envisioned in June of 2015. “The thing that was holding me back was that most ginger beers are spicy in the throat,” he says, adding that he feels many ginger beers on the market are just “ginger ales on steroids.” “Our spice stays in the mouth and a little bit close to the lips,” McKnight says. Top Hat Ginger Beer has three important elements to it that McKnight believes provide balance. The first is the heat of the ginger that we just mentioned. The second is the sweetening agent; Top Hat uses organic cane juice as opposed to pure cane sugar or something like honey because McKnight believes it provides the best taste. The third important element of the ginger beer is it’s acid balance. Like most ginger beers, Top Hat contains citric acid and lemon juice, but it mixes in a little bit of apple cider vinegar to keep the lemon flavors subtle. Based on the balance of sweetness, acidity, and spiciness, McKnight tells us he believes you’d have a hard time ruining a drink regardless of the amount of the ginger beer concentrate you use. In that regard he calls it “very, very forgiving,” which is also what I can already tell one of our staff members will hope we will be tomorrow as he continues to drink moscow mules while we write this review.

Where to get: Top Hat Ginger Beer is growing quickly on the west coast from California to Oregon, but the most reliable way to get your hands on it is ordering a bottle via Amazon (small – 375ml or large – 1L). (At the this this review was written, Top Hat Ginger Beer was just being introduced by Amazon, so if it isn’t available yet, check back in a few days.)

Nose: Ginger; acidic. Smells like it has a bit of zip on it. Maybe the word I’m thinking of is sour. The smell indicates you might need to wear the seat belt for this one.

Taste: Lemonade; ginger spice; pepper; grape. You taste the normal ginger beer elements, and I’ll get to those, but there’s one flavor that really stands out as unique – grape. The label doesn’t list grape as an ingredient, so the flavor is likely a result of how the other ingredients pair together with the apple cider vinegar, but it’s definitely there. It is actually kind of a grape-apple flavor. Very different. The signature flavor in Top Hat Ginger Beer is lemon. It’s a sweet, lighter lemon, like a shrubbed lemonade. The grape and lemon flavors work in tandem together to impart a very different flavor to this particular ginger beer. In fact, the ginger itself isn’t that strong in the flavor profile. You get a little bit of the ginger’s spiciness in the nostrils on the initial few sips. The spice mostly stays on the tongue. The flavors that stick here are aside from ginger are tart, sweet lemon and mild grape that’s reminiscent of sparkling grape juice.

Finish: Tart lemon; lime; spice. You’ll taste the lemonade flavor fade into a more tart lime flavor. The end of each sip is where the ginger beer’s spicy notes seem to take up residence.

Rating: Top Hat Ginger Beer isn’t your average take on the category. This is ginger beer for non-ginger beer drinkers… if that makes sense. What I mean is that this doesn’t taste like a traditional ginger beer, despite containing all of the typical ingredients. It isn’t particularly hot and spicy. The ginger isn’t overly powerful. If you’re looking for a ginger beer full of citrus tasting notes, Top Hat Ginger Beer should be right up your alley. This is light and tart. It’s bright and sweet with a lemon flavor tinged with apple and grape notes, as well as a little bit of spice on the finish. It can be enjoyed on its own, but in small doses at a time. This seems to be tailored more for cocktails. The grape flavor most likely comes from the apple cider vinegar. It’s unexpected, but it works well with the lemon. This will probably be a little tart for some craft soda drinkers. I’d also prefer to taste a bolder ginger flavor, since it is of course, a ginger beer. But all and all, this is too different not to give a try. The use of apple cider vinegar in this is really a home run. Top Hat Ginger Beer is one of the strangest ginger beer I’ve ever tried, but also one of the most fun. If you’re a craft soda fan that also dabbles in the spirits, try Top Hat Ginger Beer in a Kentucky Buck.

Four Stars

P.S. By the time this review was completed, our staff member we mentioned in the beginning is, indeed, drunk.

Spruce Soda Co.: Ginger Beer

History: It is almost impossible not to be tempted by Spruce Soda Co. simply based on their appearance. Their marketing is as crisp and clean as the Minneapolis, Minnesota air they inhabit. Just look at the bottle. It exudes a modern coolness. Matthew McConaughey is probably drinking one of these in his Lincoln commercials out of frame. If we haven’t been clear enough, it was the appearance that drew us to Spruce Soda Co. It’s still a young company, the product of Bryant Scannel and Jordan Hubred in the fall of 2014. The two had worked together at the now out of business Parka restaurant in Minneapolis where in 2013 Scannel began brewing up house cocktail syrups and ginger beer to serve. The ginger beer took off and after about a year of perfecting the recipe, it was clear to Hubred that “this could become a broader soda company.” Part of that realization was geographic. “We’re in Minnesota and there’s not a whole lot of local soda companies that are making soda from real ingredients,” dontchaknow. I added the last part because I’m funny and also eight years-old. Using natural ingredients is what Hubred says matters most to Spruce Soda. And while the company has already had up to three flavors and is working on more, the ginger beer will always be its foundation. It’s made with real ginger, real lemons, and surprisingly – salt. Scannel has always been a big believer in sodium when it comes to cooking and he figured why not apply the same concept to soda, adding it’s about “balancing the sweet with a little savory.” Hubred tells us he believes ginger beer is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of drink, so Spruce Soda’s Ginger Beer tries to sit somewhere in the middle of the flavor spectrum. He explains they want it to be “approachable” and adds that it’s a little more citrusy than normal ginger beer because that’s a comfortable flavor to most drinkers. It was also designed to pair well with alcohol. Shocker, I know. Currently the company is working on new flavors with perhaps the most intriguing being a (potentially) barrel-aged root beer. Sign us up for that. Until then, get out your copper mugs.

Where to get: Spruce Soda Co. is still a small operation. They distribute all their sodas themselves and are mostly found in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The company has plans to expand to online sales, but as of this review, has not. Don’t let that discourage all you non-Minnesotans. Hubred says the company is happy to fulfill individual orders. Just contact them at enjoy@sprucesoda.com.

Nose: Authentic ginger root and lemon. Smells fresh and artisanal.

Taste: Ginger; cane sugar; lemon juice; mild pepper. Definitely more of a sweet than spicy ginger beer, but still has a nice little bite to it. Not overly acidic. You’ll taste sweet lemon and peppery ginger the most in the flavor profile. In fact, if you swish this around in your mouth, you get a slight lemonade flavor before the ginger finds its way to the back of your throat. That’s pretty unique for ginger beer. The lemon tastes fresh, as does the ginger. The more you drink this, the more of a unique ingredient you’ll taste: salt. It’s subtle, but you’ll definitely taste it along the back sides of your tongue. A ginger beer that errs on the mild side.

Finish: Tart lemon with subtle ginger notes for a mild bite.

Rating: For the curious soda adventurer unsure about the notion of ginger beer, Spruce Soda Co. offers up a mild version that should appeal to a wide range of drinkers. It would be a good first step for ginger beer beginners. It isn’t overly spicy; rather, it has more of a pepper bite. I’d give this a 3/10 on the spicy scale. It’s the cute girl in class who’s outgoing, but not stuck up. Definitely approachable. The only difference is this soda won’t date you for eight months and make a severe long-term impact on your bank account. Right, Heather?? Spruce Soda Co.’s Ginger Beer is an excellent mixer. It’s got a good amount of sweetness and absorbs the burn of the alcohol, yet has enough a bite to give a Moscow Mule or Dark and Stormy a signature ginger beer taste. This should appeal to fans of more artisanal sodas because of its authentic lemon and ginger flavors. It’s light and crisp. On the flip side, hardcore ginger beer enthusiasts may be looking for something more advanced that’s spicier and has greater acidity. I, too, wouldn’t mind seeing the heat dialed up to about a five. Something to make the lemon notes pop more and zing the tongue. Spruce Soda Co.’s Ginger Beer is a safe bet. It’s not going to let you down. Whether in a cocktail or on its own, any craft beverage connoisseur would be remiss not try this peppery Minneapolis import.

Four Stars

 

164 Soda Co.: Tree Climber

History: Josh Carnell and Frank Schiffner are soda vloggers… because that is a thing.

In talking with Carnell, he told us the two of them literally just bought some Frostie’s and Bundaberg soda, filmed themselves drinking it with commentary, and a month later became Rocket Pop Stop reviews. “We had no idea what we were doing,” he says. You’re probably not surprised these are the guys behind 164 Soda Co… because why the hell else would we be talking about two strange dudes on the Internet? It’s cool though. We like to get weird too. Carnell is a dreamer. He’s always wanted his own soda shop. Lately though, the dream has been about creating rather than just selling. “I wanted to try my hand at making my own soda,” he says. Turns out filming yourself drinking soda makes you thirsty for what your own version could be like. “Honestly, I think a lot of it had to do with the videos we had done. We really wanted to go deeper about what is special about these sodas.” But first, the St. Charles, Illinois boys needed a name for their potential new company. Carnell reminisced how the two met each other in St. Charles East High School in 2010. It was room 164. Carnell recalls his buddy “looked a little chubby.” Ouch. Regardless, room 164 became the impetus for the two’s label as a soda company. Carnell started experimenting with strawberry soda in January 2014. Fast forward to March 2015 and the two dudes began the soda creating process. Their goal is to break the mold of people who are turned off by stereotypical soda. They’ve visited several craft soda bottlers, like Canonborough Beverage Co. and Gents Ginger Ale to try to gain insight on what the cool, new bottlers are doing. After a few tries in July of 2015, they concocted what just might become their signature soda: Tree Climber. It’s a take on a German beverage called “Fassbrause,” which is essentially a nonalcoholic apple cider drink. Apple Beer was also inspired by Fassbrause. 164 Soda Co.’s version is tweaked a little from the original. Its main two flavors are apple and ginger. When asked about which one is stronger, Carnell says “we’ve found that you seek out the flavor you taste.” He adds that the duo is trying to take soda and make it sophisticated. Hmm, that sounds familiar.

Where to get: Currently 164 Soda Co. is just sold at markets around the St. Charles, Illinois area. The hope is for the company to expand into local bars and restaurants. For now, if you’re interested in what the company is brewing up, shoot them an email at 164sodaco@gmail.com.

Nose: A bit of a sour cider smell reminiscent of alcoholic ciders. The more you waft the bottle under your nose, the more the sweet apple juice smell opens up. Definitely smells like it could be tart.

Taste: Earthy; apple; acidic; mild grape. This has a very earthy taste to it. The sweetness is minimal, almost nil. It really does kind of taste like an alcoholic cider with the ethanol stripped away. It’s strange in that it doesn’t taste alcoholic, yet definitely isn’t sweet enough to meet the definition of a traditional apple cider. It’s a dry soda. Kind of a beer flavor to this too, but it’s sweeter than beer. First thing’s first: it’s tart. The tartness comes from both the apple and ginger. You taste both flavors off the bat, apple more so, and they’re both gift-wrapped in a bow of acidity. An interesting tasting note is malt, like in beer. It’s interesting because there’s none in here, yet the flavor remains. Almost a hop taste too, but not quite. If you go searching for it, there’s a grape flavor in here as well. But what you’re going to taste strongly is an acidic, almost beer-like, earthy apple juice, devoid of sugar, with a pinch of ginger.

Finish: Savory apple with subtle notes of licorice.

Rating: Tree Climber is definitely not from a soda universe that feels familiar. No, this feels like it was imported from a far away land. You’ll taste essentially no sugar and a lot of tartness, two elements that usually don’t pair in soda in that order. The defining flavor here is raw apple juice with a zing, accompanied by mild ginger. I am wondering if the ginger absorbed all of the apple’s natural sweetness because it’s odd to taste this much authentic apple without any sort of sweet relief. Very subtle grape notes dance about near the end of each sip, as does a light licorice taste that most probably won’t even notice. This would really benefit from some added sugar. I wish I had the power to add it to the recipe because I think it would take Tree Climber to the next level. As currently constructed, Tree Climber is like all my past relationships: too bitter and not my fault. It tastes more like a carbonated juice blend to me than a soda, yet it really tastes like something else entirely. I have to hand it to 164 Soda Co. in that Tree Climber is based off of what is essentially a German apple beer, and this definitely tastes like a beer with authentic apple flavor and some added mild ginger. So I think they accomplished the basic framework of what they intended to create. I’m just not sure it’ll fly off shelves with soda enthusiasts without more cane sugar in the recipe. Tree Climber is worth a shot because you’re simply not going to find an American soda with a more foreign taste than this one. We just wonder if we’ve actually seen its final form.

Three Stars

Sipp: Ginger Blossom

History: “Um, hi. Is this coffee organic?” I hear variations of this phrase from girls rushing to yoga or guys trapped in itchy sweaters and tight jeans endless times a week as I write these reviews in coffee shops around town. Organic. Half the time we don’t even know what it means, but we need it. It’s not just coffee or food… it even extends to alcohol. That’s how this whole thing started. Sipp Eco Beverage CEO and founder, Beth Wilson-Parentice, was a mixologist with her own catering company for organic cocktails. They were good. Glasses full of blackberry juice, lemons, limes, tequila; who says no to that? People wanted these drinks. In fact, they wanted to know how to make them on their own, but upon hearing the methods involved they’d often tell Wilson-Parentice that they weren’t competent enough or didn’t have time. People are lazy. Case in point, I almost didn’t put pants on to write this. Wilson-Parentice decided she’d do the leg work for everyone by creating a nonalcoholic sparkling beverage customers could mix with their favorite spirits. She launched Sipp Eco Beverage in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania in 2009. Company communications manager Carly Mitchell explains that at the beginning of the “organic movement” in 2008 when the idea first came about, “eco” had kind of a hippie vibe to it. Wilson-Parentice wanted to turn that feeling into one of sophistication with a beverage that was versatile with layers of flavor. She wanted to create something that be enjoyed as both a mixer and on its own. “It’s really an anti-soda,” Mitchell notes because she says the beverages are not heavy or syrupy. However, she adds “at the same time, it sort of is a soda” because of its carbonation and use of natural extracts. Five Star Soda take: it’s soda. Shocking, I know. Upon launch, the company’s first flavor was the one we’re reviewing today, Ginger Blossom. “Everyone kind of enjoys the Ginger Blossom because it doesn’t have that harsh ginger taste,” Mitchell tells us. She goes on to explain that it’s a closer relative to ginger ale, but with smoother flavors. As you might’ve guessed, all ingredients in Sipp beverages are organic, but the big takeaway from our interview with Mitchell is the use of agave instead of pure cane sugar. Sipp believes agave gives their soft drinks a more crisp and unique sweetness than sugar. It’s also more expensive. “The biggest thing that we find is different is this very crisp taste,” Mitchell notes. She admits that so often “sparkling” beverages have no flavor and that Sipp wanted to be a company that broke the trend. Take me to flavor town, baby.

Where to get: Sipp Eco Beverages are sold nationwide at a variety of locations, including Albertson’s, Schnucks, Fresh Market, and copious natural or health food stores. Take a look at the company’s online locator near the bottom of their website to find the retailer nearest you. You can also purchase it online directly from SIPP here.

Nose: Mostly a lime-ier version of lemon-lime with a little bit of a floral ginger scent.

Taste: Lime; floral ginger; vanilla bean. A rare instance in soda where the smell translates almost exactly to the taste. You’ll taste lime first. It’s a familiar lime, like in lemon-lime soda… it’s just that there’s no lemon flavor. The lime isn’t sour, but has some tartness. The tartness slowly fades into the background, but stays throughout the rest of the drink. Next come the ginger and vanilla. These two flavors seem to be tied together. You’ll taste more ginger first, but it’s a subdued ginger flavor. Nothing like ginger in a ginger beer. No, this ginger flavor is slightly sweet and floral due to the vanilla. Definitely closer to ginger ale. The longer you take between sips, the more you’ll taste the vanilla notes. It’s nice and soft and adds just a touch of transformative flavor near the end of each drink. This tastes very light with mild sweetness, but has convincing flavors.

Finish: Vanilla bean. Slightly, slightly creamy. Also a little bit of lime. Vanilla-lime, actually. Refreshing and unique.

Rating: Sipp Ginger Blossom is definitely part of the new age of soda. It’s soda for those who are more health-conscious. It’s soda for those who still want flavor, but won’t put up with excessive calories. At only 21 grams of sugar and 100 calories a bottle, in the eyes of traditional soda drinkers, Sipp is like a cute hipster girl with fake glasses and a nose ring ordering kale at the local market – you’re not sure the two of you would work out, but you wanna try it. Ginger Blossom’s core flavors: ginger, vanilla, and lime certainly sound intriguing on paper. In my opinion, any combo of two of those flavors sound great. Combing all three sounds like a challenge. But to the company’s credit, the flavors don’t overpower each other or combine to form some sort of liquid experiment gone wrong. The lime is the boldest flavor you’ll taste, but the vanilla might just be the star of the drink – funny, for a soda called Ginger Blossom. The lime’s tartness meanders throughout each sip as the vanilla gives the ginger a soft, floral taste. I suggest waiting several seconds in between sips to get the vanilla’s full effect. To dumb it down, Sipp Ginger Blossom is like a more sophisticated version of lemon-lime soda fused with a floral ginger ale. The lime’s tartness is excellent and the vanilla pairs great with its companion flavors. I’d just like to taste the ginger more and see it emboldened in the flavor profile, especially for a drink that bears its name. Think ginger ale as a template going in instead of ginger beer and I think you’ll enjoy your stay with this beverage much more. Sipp Ginger Blossom is one of those sodas that just catches your eye based on its flavors. It’s an intriguing mixture of flavors. We can’t object to you indulging yourself in it.

Four Stars

 

Bruce Cost: Ginger Ale

History: Bruce Cost knows about ginger. Dude’s been writing books about it and using it in his Asian-inspired restaurants since 1984. According to Bruce Cost Ginger Ale Marketing Manager, Kevin Li, Cost is also a “2-time James Beard nominee as ‘Best Chef in California.'” As of this sentence, I’m a two-time Bruce Cost Ginger Ale and rum consumer. I wonder if I can make it to four by the end of this review. If I do, I wonder if I’ll even make it to the end. It’s good timing for Cost, considering in mid-2015, we’re in the midst of a ginger boom in craft soda. But, as Li tells us, Cost started making his “chef-driven” unfiltered ginger ale back in 2010 in Brooklyn, New York, introducing it in three flavors: original, jasmine tea, and pomegranate. You can literally see pieces of ginger floating in the bottle, hence the “unfiltered” label. The chef went through 14 different restaurants before putting all of his eggs in the craft soda basket. “The idea was to produce a kind of soda that was more akin to a microbrew beer, full bodied with the mouth feel of beer or wine rather than the sparkly flavored, sugar water that is familiar to most people,” says Li. But don’t think this soda has no sugar. He adds the company strives for a flavor that is “somewhat sweet and lightly carbonated.” There’s a reason we’re reviewing the original. Look around on the Internet. You’ll notice that Bruce Cost Ginger Ale has quite the reputation. Li notes the company sources its fresh ginger from Shangdong, China and does not use any ginger extracts or flavorings in its soda. Each bottle contains a whopping 40 grams of ginger. Though not fermented, Bruce Cost ginger ale’s unfiltered look, slightly foamy head, and use of only fresh ginger make it a close cousin to ginger beer. Like Arkansas-cousin close. Sorry, Arkansas readers. In fact, Li surprises us with a scoop, telling us the company is entering the other side of ginger soda market this fall and will introduce an 8.4 oz can of ginger beer. Until then, we pull back the curtain on Bruce Cost’s original ginger ale and see if the critical claim has merit.

Where to get: Bruce Cost Ginger Ales are sold in physical retailers mostly in New York and California. You can also find it at The Fresh Market stores nationwide and Whole Foods in five regions. Check out Bruce Cost’s online store locator to find out where the nearest retailer is to you. For the rest of us eating pizza in our Snuggies, there’s always the Internet. Amazon, BevMo, Harney and Sons Teas… just take your pick.

Nose: Musky, kind of has an agave syrup smell to it. Definitely not spicy ginger like you might be expecting from a soda with actual pieces of ginger floating in the bottle.

Taste: Cane sugar; candied ginger; light spiciness. An easy-drinking ginger ale that surprisingly leans on the sweeter side of things. This is an unfiltered ginger ale, and while this is obvious when looking at the pieces of ginger in the bottle, it seems to have an effect on the sugar as well. The sugar, in turn, really impacts the flavor profile. The signature flavor in this is more of a candied ginger than one that’s raw and full of fire. There is a little bit of spice to the ginger on the backend every now and then, but not enough to make those hesitant of spicy flavors bat an eye. You’ll taste more sweet than spicy with just enough of the latter to provide balance. The carbonation is very light and the ginger intensifies throughout the drink. Definitely does not have the same bite and tartness you’ll find in a ginger beer, but also isn’t as dry as most ginger ales. Lots of sweet ginger flavor.

Finish: Sweet ginger with a tinge of pepper. Almost a little bit of a mild herbal effect if you take enough time in between sips.

Rating: Generally ginger ales are full of carbonation and fairly light on flavor. Bruce Cost flips the script with its Ginger Ale by filling each bottle with unfiltered pieces of ginger root packed with big, sweet flavor and hardly any bubbles. The ginger flavor tastes more candy than spicy, but it permeates every sip from beginning to end, increasing in strength as you continue to drink it. Probably one of the sweeter ginger ales you’ll try and not quite as dry as some others. This makes it a great candidate for cocktails. I understand a lot of you will leave at this point to go make a drink. I get it. For those of you who stuck around, the password is wast3ofAsentenze. Bruce Cost certainly tastes like a gourmet ginger ale, but it is a little on the sweet side, coming in at 37 grams per bottle. I’d probably chop that number down to around 30. But this has a nice ginger flavor and is versatile enough to be enjoyed on its own or in your favorite Friday night concoction. One of the better ginger ales on the craft soda market. It certainly seems to be a fan favorite.

Glam Cola

History: Nermin Çelik wanted to invent a soda that existed, in her own words, “in this realm between weirdness and brilliance.” Çelik and her family live in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Germany, a flashy area that inspired the name “Glam Cola.” It’s a clear cola that might remind a few readers of Crystal Pepsi. But Glam Cola is designed to taste “fresh and more elegant than common cola,” says Çelik. You can’t have a soda called “Glam Cola” and not explain the name first. But the inspiration behind the soda’s creation came from Çelik’s children. She notes “I saw them drinking it in alarming quantities and the huge amount of sugar worried me.” Newsflash: it isn’t just America where soda has a bad reputation. Unable to find a replacement that satisfied her motherly standards, Çelik decided to make one herself and by March 2013, Glam Cola hit the market. Looking at the label, Glam Cola is an interesting mish-mash of flavors: cola, lemonade and ginger. It’s also devoid of phosphoric acid and contains a large amount of caffeine at around 53 mg in a 12 oz. bottle. This is very similar to Mountain Dew. So, low sugar and lots of caffeine. Yeah, definitely sounds like a soda for kids. Glam Cola is not made with cane sugar and instead uses fructose (not high-fructose corn syrup… there is a difference). Another big marketing point for the soda is that it’s vegan-friendly. Çelik adds “Glam Cola is not only vegan but also halal and kosher.” I think this also makes it the most politically correct soda on earth. Çelik is currently at work on new flavors, including rose and lavender. No word on how glamorous those flavors will be, but we’re about to get pretty with the original.

Where to get: For a list of where to purchase Glam Cola, check out the store’s online locator. The brand is in the midst of expanding sales to Eastern Europe, Russia, and China. At the time of this review, Glam Cola is not sold online. If you are outside of Germany, your best bet is to contact the company.

Nose: Traditional cola; mild lemon; light cinnamon.

Taste: Bitterness; cinnamon; lemon. This is quite bitter for a cola. It has a very nontraditional taste. Surprising considering it smelled quite a bit like cola with notes of lemon. And there is definitely some lemon in this that you can taste, but there’s also ginger and I don’t quite taste that element considering how powerful ginger typically is in soda. Some of that bitterness may come from the ginger and lemon, but I think what you’re primarily tasting here is actually the caffeine. We all know caffeine can make you hyper, but most of us don’t know what it tastes like. Raw caffeine is very bitter. It really comes through in the flavor profile here. There’s no cinnamon in this, but the combination of the cola and bitterness create a flavor that’s very similar. Overall, this is nothing like an American cola. It isn’t particularly sweet and is noticeably bitter.

Finish: Bitter cinnamon with mild, traditional cola notes.

Rating: Glam Cola is a clear cola that tastes way outside the normal realm of what’s expected from this particular category of soda. The label of “cola” evokes a certain expectation of flavor and this is nothing like anything to which you’re accustomed. Sodas outside of America are often less sweet and more bitter. This certainly fits that bill. We were told the primary elements in this are cola, lemon and ginger. You definitely taste traditional lemon and cola influences, though they’re both subtle. What isn’t as subtle is the bitterness. It’s harsh. The combination of ingredients creates a cinnamon flavor that when mixed with the lemon and cola notes, just enhances the soda’s overall bitterness. Americans are likely to be turned off by the lack of sugar. I mean, look at how many of us have diabetes. The flavors just didn’t work for us. It’s as simple as that. Glam Cola has a fancy name and a foreign flavor that doesn’t beg for a second date. She’s the beautiful German vixen you found at the club in stilettos and a sequin dress, but just doesn’t have much personality. Now, any fans of bitter sodas out there should give this a shot the next time your travels take you to Deutschland. As for the rest of you, looking will tide you over. Glam Cola is beautiful to gaze at, but its flavor isn’t so glamorous.

Top Note Tonics: Ginger Beer

History: Mary Pellettieri was growing increasingly tired of the soft drink selection in restaurants. It was always the usual brands. No creativity. No variety. And seemingly no room for improvement. She disagreed. She wanted to dial the clock back and return to the days of flavored tonics, something a little more bitter on the palate. Italian sodas, another bitter soft drink, were a major inspiration. When you think tonic, let’s be real, you think alcohol. But based on her background in beer, her desire might not seem so surprising. In 2014, Pellettieri founded Top Note Tonics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an all-natural artisanal tonic and soft drink mixer company. “People forgot tonics could be used in the soft drink category,” she notes over the phone. Top Note Tonics lives the best of both worlds, serving both the craft cocktail and soft drink markets, though admittedly, it gets more mileage from booze. If you’re a soda fan, Ginger Beer and Bitter Orange are the two flavors most likely to stand out. Just add a couple ounces of syrup to eight-ish ounces of seltzer water and you have a do-it-yourself craft soda. If you’re into booze, try the exotic spice-infused Indian Tonic or the company’s most popular Gentian Tonic. Pellettieri recalls how difficult of a process it was making all-natural syrups with premium ingredients. Often soda companies work with what are called “flavor houses” to get their syrups tasting just right without using expensive ingredients. Pellettieri says many flavor houses are hesitant to innovate and that Top Note Tonics was unwilling to compromise on the quality of its ingredients, making any kind of partnership difficult. “We don’t use any fake ingredients. Everything that we use is derived directly from an herb or a natural extract we work with,” she adds. You also won’t find any preservatives in Top Note Tonics. Because Ginger Beer is so hot right now, and because it seemed like the syrup with the most logical connection to craft soda, we chose that one to review. The ginger beer came in the company’s second wave of flavors and is made with lots of fresh ginger, prunes, grapefruit peel, and a Belgian candy sugar often used in beer brewing. Sign us up. We’ll sign you up too. Maybe.

Where to get: Top Note Tonics are available to purchase online here. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, you can buy Top Note Tonics at Sendiks, Groppis, and Outpost stores.

Nose: Out of the bottle, there’s a musky ginger smell going on. When mixed with the seltzer water, the smell becomes much sweeter and more like a traditional ginger beer.

Taste: Citrus; ginger; spice. There’s a definite citrus note to this on the first sip. Yes, you can taste the ginger immediately, but it’s paired with a citrus element. Top Note Tonics’ Ginger Beer is made with grapefruit peel, so that’s likely what you’re tasting. The ginger has a little bit of heat to it, but nothing that’s going to overpower anyone. Like on the smell, the ginger flavor to this is a bit musky, but it’s accompanied by an unusual sweetness. Likely, this is simply due to the way the ingredients interact, but I taste a little bit of burned brown sugar in here to go along with the ginger. That could be the Belgian sugar coming into play. It’s a different type of sweet. Definitely an earthier ginger beer with a little bitterness.

Finish: Bitter grapefruit and ginger notes.

Rating: Let’s just call it like it is: most soda purists approach craft soda syrups with a lot of hesitation. Bottled soda feels safer, and more importantly, it’s less work. I have to walk all the way to the fridge and add WATER to this? What if I mess the proportions up? What if I don’t even like the recommended recipe? People are willing to think out strategy, but much less inclined to actually take a few more steps to ensure refreshment. It’s just the way we are. Why do you think Netflix and pizza delivery are so popular? That said, Top Note Tonics has managed to make a ginger beer syrup that when added with seltzer water, forms a very serviceable soda. If someone poured the right combination of water and syrup into a bottle and served it to you, I’d seriously doubt you’d know this began as a bottled soda syrup. The ginger spice is mild, probably a four or five on the heat scale. That gets paired with some semisweet grapefruit notes and a distinct, earthy sugar flavor. You’ll taste a little bit of bitterness at the end of every sip. When paired with rum, this makes a tremendous dark and stormy. On it’s own, it’s solid. I’d prefer the ginger to be a little bolder and the sugar to be crisper. But the more and more you drink it, the more you like it. Here’s what I did would do: drink one on its own as a soda, then four one with rum and pass out see what you think. The grapefruit goes a long way in supplementing the lack of heat in the ginger. It really adds some nice citrus flavor to a ginger beer that needed a companion flavor. The two elements work well together. Even we at Five Star are cautious when it comes to soda syrups, but we’re here to tell you that this one can come over and stay the night. Let it show you a good time.