Natrona Bottling Company: Pennsylvania Punch

History: “It really is a one-of-a-kind product.” About halfway through my conversation with Vito Gerasole, the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Soda” and owner of Natrona Bottling Company, he drops this line that raises my eyebrow about one of his sodas. The culprit? Pennsylvania Punch, a unique take on grape soda made with almost zero carbonation. Grape soda is classic – it’s one of the first flavors I think of when I conjure up images in my head of vintage flavors. And Natrona Bottling is one of the most vintage companies out there. They’ve been around since 1904. They still use pinpoint carbonation to put CO2 in their sodas, a time-consuming, expensive process involving dry ice that produces larger quantities of finer bubbles than traditional methods. It’s a company that does things the old-fashioned way. But here’s the thing: Natrona already makes a traditional grape soda pop. So why make another with almost no carbonation? The short answer: tradition. “The recipe dates all the way back to 1924,” Gerasole tells me. Gerasole himself is an agent of tradition. Back in 2010, Natrona Bottling was a company at the brink of bankruptcy with just $4,000 in its bank account. So with the help of an angel investor, Gerasole saved Natrona, Pennsylvania’s local soda bottler. “I’m a very nostalgic person,” he admits. There was no way he was getting rid of one of the company’s original flavors. He’s honest in telling us Pennsylvania Punch “is not my most popular flavor, but certainly one of my most unique.” Essentially what we have here is a a hybrid between grape soda and Concord grape juice with the latter being more of the goal. In fact throughout most of our conversation, Gerasole refers to Pennsylvania Punch as a “grape drink.” If the name sounds familiar to some of you in the northeast, you might be thinking of “Delaware Punch,” a drink similar in concept but made with high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar. We’re pretty excited to try this one just to figure out what’s going on here.

Where to get: Natrona Bottling ShopAntiqology StoreGalco’s 

Nose: Grape Sprees, artificial grape candy, liquid Dimetapp (don’t hate… I love that smell).

Taste: Sweet candy grape, smooth, sugary, very light carbonation. I see now why Gerasole referred to this as a “grape drink” because there’s hardly any carbonation in this soda. Just a touch of it on the finish. That said, the grape flavor is strong – more purple than green grape and more artificial and candy-like than actual grape juice. This is very grape-y and very sweet, but at the same time it’s also smooth and even kind of refreshing. The flavor is very much an old fashioned one. Fans of grape soda will enjoy.

Finish: Tangy purple grape flavor that lingers. This is actually where I taste the carbonation most. It kind of fizzes on your tongue at the very end of each sip.

Rating: What fun little grape soda… er, drink? Pennsylvania Punch tries to tow the line between grape soda and grape juice, but at the end of the day it’s sort of both. It has the sweetness and artificial grape flavor of a classic grape soda without most of the traditional carbonation. Despite the very sweet taste and the lack of bubbles, this is not syrupy. In fact, it’s pretty clean and easy to drink. I love the tanginess on the finish too as a nice little nuance. On a hot day by the pool, I could guzzle this like my uncles does a sixer of Michelob Light, except I won’t call my ex and then black out while my grill’s still on. Hope you aren’t reading this, uncle Dave. My one qualm with this soda is that it’s very, very sugary. I think kids will love it, but adults may be more apt to drink Natrona’s regular grape soda because carbonation typically pulls back that sugar factor a little bit. Pennsylvania Punch is a treat to be enjoyed on a warm day, but I probably couldn’t go past a bottle or two before needing insulin. That said, I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a refreshing fruit soda or something to drink outside at a barbecue or pool session. Pennsylvania Punch: it’s familiar, but different. Only the best companies can successfully put new twists on something old, and in this case, Natrona’s been doing it since 1924. Go see what they’re all about.


Faygo: Original Grape

History: Most of the country calls it soda. In the south it’s often referred to simply as “Coke,” and you have to specify your desired flavor. But up north, it’s pop. Or so-duh pahp. Detroit, Michigan’s Faygo is one of the original gangsters of soda pop. It’s been making the stuff since 1907 when Russian immigrants Ben and Perry Feigenson started the company. Over the years its image has morphed from highly nostalgic and retro to bright and quirky. Faygo Marketing Specialist Dawn Burch tells us the company now makes over 60 flavors of soda. All the classics are there, but where Faygo catches your eye is with its flashy flavors like Cotton Candy, Ohana Kiwi Berry, or Rock N’ Rye. Burch says the brand’s popularity is in large part because they “offer flavors that other companies are scared to try.” Oh, and I guess we should acknowledge the elephant in the room. The rebellious, face-painted, socially miscast elephant in the room. Yeah, this is that brand. The one associated with the band Insane Clown Possee and its legion of fans known as Juggalos. To be fair, Faygo has no official partnership or affiliation with the group. Burch goes on to tell us groups of these Juggalos will call the company ahead of time to request gallons of Faygo to be sprayed on each other during events like family outings and weddings. The call them “Faygo baths.” Suddenly that family barbecue I wanted to skip this Sunday doesn’t seem as bad anymore.

Now while Faygo produces over 60 different flavors, only six of them are made in glass bottles with pure cane sugar. The rest are made with high fructose corn syrup. Its retro line includes perhaps its two most famous flavors: Red Pop and Rock N’ Rye, as well as Grape, Root Beer, Cream Soda, and Orange. Burch says Faygo “definitely sees the line growing in the future,” but for now the company is committed to its six core old fashioned flavors. And it doesn’t get more retro than grape pop. That’s what grandpa used to drink, among other things. (A LOT of Irish whiskey). We wanted to see how Faygo’s offering in the category stacked up. “Faygo Grape is one of our original flavors and it’s definitely one of the most popular. The strong flavor and aroma make it a fan favorite,” Burch gloats. Faygo also makes a corn syrup, plastic-bottled version of grape, but to be clear, we are reviewing the pure cane sugar version of their grape soda. Faygo didn’t offer a full description of their intended taste design, but did say they believe their glass-bottled grape soda is “perfect for a hot summer day!” Grape is one of those flavors I believe doesn’t have a lot of leeway in terms of taste, so I’m interested to see what one of craft soda’s big boys does with the flavor profile.

Where to get: Faygo Original Grape (the one in glass bottles with cane sugar) can be purchased online from the Faygo store or you can find it at Soda Emporium. Just a click away. You can also use the company’s online locator to find your nearest physical retailer. Just remember, the pure cane sugar versions of Faygo soda are a little harder to find than those in plastic bottles made with corn syrup.

Nose: Crushed up grape SweeTARTS. And also kind of like Dimetapp… but I like the smell (and taste) of Dimetapp, so don’t hate.

Taste: Candy grape; sugar; mild tartness; crisp. Sweet, candy grape permeates the mouth and rises up into your teeth. There’s a mild tartness to this as well. I think it’s probably based off the classic Grape NeHi, and the two are definitely very similar. Faygo Grape is a very sweet grape soda at 50 grams of sugar and 200 calories per bottle. This isn’t one for your diet. Also some really nice, mild carbonation in this bottle that provides some needed tartness and crispness to break up that sugary, grape flavor. This is classic, tangy, sweet grape soda

Finish: Tangy, sweet grape that runs along the back of your tongue. Lingers for maybe 4 or 5 seconds before fading away.

Rating: Faygo Grape tastes like an old-time, classic grape pop. Every time I take a sip, I can feel the nostalgia welling up inside me like a waterfall going in reverse. I was going to make a joke there, but it probably would’ve gone to some weird places. Here’s the deal, you’ll probably either really like this or you’ll hate it. This is one of those sodas that I doubt has much if a middle ground with drinkers. You have to understand what you’re first getting into. Faygo Grape is 12 oz. of sweet, candy grape flavor with a decidedly retro taste that tangy and sugary. It is not a farmer’s market artisan soda that tastes like real grape juice and has minimal carbonation. So if you want something that tastes more nostalgic in flavor, like Grape NeHi, yes, give this a shot. Personally, it’s just a little too sweet for my tastes to drink consistently. The mild tartness provides some relief, but I’d dial this down to maybe 40 grams of sugar instead of 50. Great idea though to channel that sugar rush: tomorrow before I max-out on bench press I’m gonna drink one of these and invite all the hot girls I know. Maybe even my wife. This may not something you put in your normal rotation, but it’s still a good soda and an excellent throwback to vintage grape pop. Crisp, clean, and full of big candy grape flavor. Definitely worth giving it a shot to form your own opinion.

Three Stars

WBC: Concord Grape

History: Chicago’s famous Goose Island Brewery is arguably the most popular place to get local beer in the city. I know I remember the beginning of many fond nights there. Not so much the end. The Windy City brewers started making their own Goose Island Root Beer in 1988, according to WIT Beverage Sales and Marketing Director, James Akers. The brewery eventually added diet root beer, Orange Cream, and Concord Grape, but they also realized the success of their beer was taking away time from focusing on their soda. This is where WIT Beverage in Redding, California comes into play. Akers tells us Goose Island was “chasing money for soda and getting it easily for beer.” Goose Island needed an outside bottler to produce it and in 2010 WIT Beverage stepped in to do the job. In order to meet the quality of the original Goose Island Root Beer WIT reformulated the recipes of Orange Cream and Concord Grape with “all-natural ingredients,” and introduced two other flavors in Spicy Ginger and Vanilla Cream. The other main difference is the name change from “Goose Island” craft soda to “WBC” craft soda. Akers says Concord Grape was originally introduced in 2006. After its recipe was altered, he says WIT spent considerable time trying to ensure it tasted cleaner and crisper than other grape sodas. “We spent a lot of time making sure it tastes like concord grape, like if you were to have concord grape juice,” says Akers. He adds to consider it a treat, which supports the mentality that craft soda is more of a luxury than mass-produced soda and not an addiction. I suppose you could be addicted to craft soda, but damn, it’d get expensive. “Once you have it, you’ll wanna come back,” Akers boasts. Let’s see if he’s right.

Where to get: WBC Craft Sodas are sold mostly throughout the midwest from Minnesota down to Kentucky. If you want to save time searching, Summit City Soda is a sure-fire way to find it online. You can also buy single bottles online from Soda Emporium. And if you’re a retailer looking to sell soda in your shop or you just feel an overwhelming need to order mass amounts of WBC Concord Grape, Homer Soda Company is the place to call.

Nose: Grape popsicle. Also kind of reminds me of those chewable grape Tylenol tablets you’d take as a kid. Hmm.

Taste: Grape popsicle; grape Kool-Aid. The grape flavor in this is immediate and pops on the tongue. Bang! It’s accompanied by a wave of sweetness and tiny, frothy carbonation that intensifies the grape flavor to its highest point. Then the flavor dramatically drops off. What most interesting is how the flavor comes and goes so rapidly without much a lingering effect. The carbonation also brings out the citric acid in the soda, which gives it a slight tartness. The sugar is crisp, but it’s definitely sweet. Grape push pops and grape Kool-Aid are the two best comparisons to the grape flavor in this. It’s big and bold, despite how brief it is on every sip.

Finish: Leaves a little bit of a strange, sweet medicine aftertaste akin to those grape Tylenol chewables I mentioned on the nose.

Rating: Where WBC Concord Grape succeeds is its combination of bold grape flavor up front, followed by a wave of carbonation and slight tartness. Grape is a such a complimentary flavor for sour or tart notes and WBC does this well here. On the flip side, while the grape flavor in this is nice; it doesn’t stick around long enough. Instead, you’re left with lingering sweetness, stripped of grape flavor, and a strange medicinal aftertaste. That candy grape flavor is so robust that it needs to be spread out more over the course of each sip instead of blasting your taste buds and then divorcing them prematurely. I already have trust issues. Don’t do this to me, Concord Grape! The aftertaste needs a little work too. I’d settle for fixing just one of these issues. If that were to happen, I think this ranking would get bumped up a notch. Concord Grape executes its flavor well, but leaves the drinker wanting just a little more.

Three Stars

Wurst Soda: Grape

History: If the mid-south U.S.A. and German Oktoberfest has a child, Mike Sloan would be their spawn. Look at that guy. You wanna be friends with that guy. In his spare time, he enjoys “collecting antique sausage-making equipment.” In fact, Sloan has been in the meat business since he was nine years-old and worked for his parents’ Swiss Meat Sausage Company for 42 years in Swiss, Missouri. In 2011, he decided it was time to create his own legacy in the industry, so Sloan began Hermann Wurst Haus in 2011, cooking up homemade sausages, brats, and bacon. Dude makes 45 flavors of bratwurst and 12 flavors of bacon, among other things. All located in Hermann, Missouri, about an hour west of St. Louis. It’s an area rich in German heritage and culture, and also home to lots of wine makers. And with all that salty meat, you gotta wash it down with something. So in 2014, Sloan introduced Wurst Craft Sodas, “The Wurst Sodas You’ve Ever Had.” Hell of a tag line. Hopefully not literal. Hermann Wurst Haus produces five traditional soda flavors: root beer, cream soda, orange, grape, and black cherry. “These are the sodas you grew up on,” Sloan adds. All sodas are made with pure cane sugar and strive for an “old-time rich, soda fountain flavor.” Today’s review, grape soda, is modeled after old-fashioned grape Kool-Aid.

Where to get: Currently, all Hermann Wurst Haus sodas are only sold in-store, located at 234 E 1st St, Hermann, MO 65041. You might want to pop in. They just received a Tripadvisor 2015 Award of Excellence.

Nose: Grape Dimetapp. Yes, I know this is a medicine, but don’t tell me as a child you didn’t love both the smell and taste of Dimetapp. I would’ve partaken even if I wasn’t sick.

Taste: Grape Nehi; sugar; grape popsicle. Pretty traditional grape soda flavor. Definitely can see the grape Kool-Aid influence. Sugary, but doesn’t leave a syrupy taste in the mouth. Tastes like a grape popsicle from which you’ve sucked out all the juice. The carbonation is soft and nice. Nothing complicated about this.

Finish: Sweet old-fashioned grape soda taste. No difference between the body, finish, or aftertaste.

Rating: This is as straightforward as it gets with fruit soda. Everyone knows what classic grape soda tastes like, and this is it. It’s definitely nothing like the more natural version made by Waynesville Soda Jerks. This is sweet, sugary, classic grape soda. This is your country neighbor in the log cabin next door. He’s not the smartest. He’s not the cutest. But damn, he can chop that wood in a reliable and timely fashion. You can count on him and you can count on Wurst Grape Soda. It’s not the best grape soda we’ve tried, but you probably won’t regret having one every now and then. Maybe drink it with a sausage. For once in my life, I can say that seems fitting in this instance.