honey

Appalachian Brewing Co.: Root Beer

History: You know you’re doing something right when everyone knows you as a beer place, but you secretly make more money off of your craft soda sales. That’s what happened with Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Brewmaster Artie Tafoya says “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal.” On paper that’s a pretty impressive feat considering the brewery produces around 15 beers at a time depending on the season and just four bottled craft sodas. Like most in the craft soda business, their signature soda is their homemade root beer, something Tafoya experimented with initially as a family-friendly alternative to the hard stuff. When asked what sets Appalachian Brewing’s root beer apart from a plethora of others, Tafoya said he believes several ingredients stick out including: pure Appalachian spring water, cane sugar, mexican vanilla bean extract, and clover honey. The clover honey is a signature ingredient in several of the company’s craft sodas. It’s a recipe designed to taste like “old fashioned root beer,” Tafoya says. The brewery has been around nearly two decades and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017. And while it’s not much of a secret anymore that Appalachian Brewing Company is as much of a player in craft soda as it is in beer, the company’s dedication is what will keep it at the forefront of both industries in the years to come. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” Tafoya says of his products. That’s a formula for good liquid.

Buy: Due to freezing temperatures in the northeast over the winter, your best bet for placing an order is by contacting the company directly.

Nose: Classic root beer with a vanilla-forward scent and a touch of spearmint. When you’ve tried as many sodas as we have, you can tell that this also smells like it’s going to taste creamy.

Taste: Mint; birch bark; sarsaparilla root; vanilla; mild creaminess. When you think of old time root beers that relied heavily on botanical flavors and mint vs. modern root beers that are all vanilla and very creamy, this definitely leans towards those of yesteryear. Right away you taste a big minty influence, more wintergreen than spearmint. Not spicy, but really permeates the nose. Next there’s a 1-2 combo of sarsaparilla root and birch bark that give the root beer a signature throwback flavor, the kind you used to taste at medieval fairs as a kid. What? You didn’t go to any medieval fairs as a kid? That was just me? Man, you missed out. But there’s also a subtle creaminess to this. It’s not as hard-hitting on the vanilla as most modern root beer recipes, but there’s enough of it for you to taste. As far as the honey, that really comes in on the finish. This is a nuanced, full-bodied root beer with a nice old school flavor.

Finish: Tangy sarsaparilla and mild vanilla flavors that fade into noticeable honey. The more you drink this, the more pronounced the honey becomes.

Rating: It’s refreshing to see a modern company creating a root beer that tastes like it was imported from the past. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Root Beer is bold and layered with big notes of wintergreen mint, sarsaparilla root, and birch. It feels like something you should should drink out of a silver chalice in the woods while wearing flannel and blue jeans. Maybe something to quench your thirst with after chopping down a tree. I also appreciate the mild use of vanilla and honey that make this root beer a lot more approachable for soda hounds who aren’t fans of the more earthy flavors. This drinks easily and is very crisp on the tongue, giving it a pleasant mouth feel. I personally like a little bit more vanilla in my root beers, but I think Appalachian Brewing is really catering to a part of the root beer crowd that feels like their favorite recipes have fallen by the wayside. This is a callback to simpler times and bolder soda. I wouldn’t hesitate to try this if you get the chance.

Four Stars

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Old Dominion Brewing: Root Beer

History: In 2007 a love story began when Fordham Brewing out of Anapolis, Maryland and Old Dominion Brewing from Ashburn, Virgina merged to make beautiful beer together in Dover, Delaware. The brands Fordham and Dominion still maintain separate identities, so you’ll find the more adventurous offerings coming from the Old Dominion side, while the traditional ales and IPAs are made by Fordham. There was no prenup in this marriage, so Old Dominion decided to bring its sodas into the relationship too. Chief among them was the root beer, created during Old Dominion’s first year of existence in 1989. “We love doing it,” Fordham and Dominion CEO, Jim Lutz, says about the brewery’s sodas. There’s an affable charm to Lutz. He tells us he prefers to be called “Head Forklift Driver.” I bet he’s got dad jokes for days. What his brewery also has is soda… and lots of it. In fact, Lutz mentions that about 25% of the brewery’s business comes from its soda. In addition to the root beer, Old Dominion also makes a ginger ale, black cherry, and orange cream soda. But the root beer is the only one that maintains its original recipe, still the same as it was in 1989. Some of the premier ingredients include pure cane sugar, honey, vanilla, and yucca root. The latter is what should stand out to you even though you probably don’t know what it is or how it tastes. Yucca kind of looks like a piece of ginger and a carrot had a baby and it turned out uglier than you expected. The flavor really varies depending on the piece you get, but people often describe it as bitter or tasting like a potato. It’s also occasionally sweet, though. As for the flavor of the root beer, Lutz tells us they wanted it to taste like a sweet treat. “It tastes like the old fashioned root beer when I used to ride my bike up to this old fashioned root beer stand,” he says. Nothing wrong with spoiling yourself with a little nostalgia-inducing root beer.

Where to get: Old Dominion sodas are sold mainly throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Soda drinkers in Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. will have the easiest time finding them. They are also sporadically available in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Surprisingly, Old Dominion also sells lots of its soda in London, England for all you UK folk. The rest of us can purchase it online from Harris Teeter Grocer and Pharmacy or by contacting the brewery directly via email and setting up an order.

Nose: Vanilla; wintergreen. Pretty standard root beer nose with an emphasis on creamy vanilla and mint.

Taste: Honey; herbal; malt; mint; creamy vanilla. This is a sophisticated flavor profile, even for a root beer. A lot going on in the mouth. The flavors are in layers. Up front is a big note of honey on the back of the tongue. This is followed up by equal parts of creamy mint and vanilla. You’re about half way through the sip, and at this point, the root beer is a little sweet. Next come the herbal elements that provide balance. This is also where the carbonation reaches its peak to help provide the root beer’s bite. The wintergreen sticks around longer than the vanilla and is supplemented by yucca. The yucca gives the root beer a botanical element and imparts a little maltiness as well when combined with the mint and honey. It’s a lot for the mouth to process when analyzing, but the flavors work.

Finish: Slightly bitter, herbal mint with undertones of classic root beer.

Rating: Root beers are a dime-a-dozen in the craft soda landscape. The kingpin of the crop; you’ve gotta really make your version stand out to get noticed. Old Dominion Brewing has done a good job putting a different twist on their root beer. It isn’t like anything else. There’s multiple layers of flavor to this beverage, which is what makes it rise above others. Among the highlights include its use of honey, vanilla, mint, and yucca. It’s just a little more herbal than other root beers, while still retaining a crisp sweetness. Usually we take the term “herbal” with root beers to mean mint, but Old Dominion’s Root Beer has a distinct note of sweet malt. It’s likely the way all the ingredients work together, chiefly the yucca and honey. Both the mint and vanilla elements have a creaminess to them and these play well with the root beer’s bite and herbal notes. This root beer is like the opposite of all your break-ups: delicious, fun to process, and you won’t be crying when the pizza guy shows up. I wouldn’t mind seeing the vanilla a little more prominent. I think that would add another enjoyable element to play off the honey and yucca. Old Dominion Brewing has brewed up a really enjoyable root beer that should be savored over time. Sip slowly without ice and up your root beer game.

Four Stars

Sprecher: Cream Soda

History: Sprecher sodas are known for their bold, deep flavors. Turns out you can thank Germany for this. I’ll explain in a minute. In talking to Randy Sprecher on the phone, I get the sense he’s a gentle, intelligent soul with an almost intimidating knowledge on the intricacies of beer and soda-making. Originally from California, he reminisces how he spent 18 months in Augsburg, Germany in the late 60’s. Deustchland is arguably the beer capital of the world, so naturally, Sprecher says he lost his taste for American beer there. This became a problem when he moved back to California because he couldn’t afford to import his favorite beers. Solution? He started making his own in 1971. Despite having a degree in oceanography, Sprecher wanted to pursue beer, and so he packed up his van and drove up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he began working for Pabst. He made about $40,000 before he said the company started deteriorating. Wanting to start his own business for the modest amount he made at Pabst, Sprecher began buying various pieces of brewery equipment via auction. Through his craftiness, he successfully started up Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wisconsin and began selling beer in 1985. Really puts bargain shopping into perspective. Hope my girlfriend is reading this. He’d also researched soda recipes to a great degree on the side, and thought, “What does it take to make a soda that is of much higher quality?” Three years later, he figured it out, creating and selling his own root beer and cream soda.

To a craft soda connoisseur, Sprecher soda might raise an eyebrow or two. What you’ll likely notice is that the brewery uses high fructose corn syrup in its soda as opposed to pure cane sugar. To many, cane sugar is to craft soda what great actors are to movies; you can make it without them, but it’s not the same. Sprecher believes his recipes shouldn’t cause drinkers any hesitation. Let me at least try to explain to you why. Be forewarned, Randy Sprecher is a scientist and I am not. Sprecher Brewery brews their sodas in gas-fired kettles. Everyone knows that water boils at 212 degrees. Well, Sprecher tells us that the skin of the kettles the brewery uses reach up to 1,100 degrees. This causes a chemical reaction in the high fructose corn syrup (which is also bonded to glucose) by splitting the sucrose and forming inverted sugar. As Sprecher explained this process to me, jumping from chemical reaction anecdotes to overviews of molecules, all I could think in my head was, “I know some of these words!” He adds, “Whether you’re talking about cane sugar or fructose, you’re talking about the exact same molecule,” and “I can show you letters from Harvard Medical School” that don’t support the idea that cane sugar is better than corn syrup. I understand this won’t satisfy some people, but just know that Sprecher sodas are also brewed in small batches using Wisconsin-sourced ingredients, including the crown jewel of the cream soda – clover honey from Indian Summer Honey Farms. “We use more honey than they can produce,” says Sprecher. He’s not joking. Indian Summer Honey’s beekeeper literally has to pack up his bees from Wisconsin in the winter and take them down to Florida just to fulfill the massive orders Sprecher Brewery places. When it comes to the cream soda, Sprecher adds that vanilla plays a critical role in addition to the honey, and that he believes the flavor is akin to a toasted marshmallow. “We just strive for big, pure flavor so it really comes at you,” he says. Then come at me, Sprecher. Come at me.

Where to get: Sprecher soda is distributed nation-wide, though it may be sporadic in some areas. If you live in Midwest America, you should be golden… just check one of your local grocery stores. You can also use the company’s online locator (ignore the fact it only lists 10 states. Just enter your zip code) to find the retailer nearest you. For the rest of us, there’s always the Internet. You can buy anywhere from a single bottle up to 36 of them directly from Sprecher’s online store. Amazon can also hook you up.

Nose: Rich, dark vanilla; honey; mild french vanilla ice cream.

Taste: Vanilla cream, brown sugar; semisweet honey; creaminess. This is such a deeply rich, vanilla cream soda. The vanilla comes through more than any flavor and it’s bold, yet not overly sweet like some vanilla cream sodas. The sugar keeps the flavor nice and crisp. Undertones of honey carry the soda throughout each sip and contrast nicely with the vanilla, keeping the sugar levels in check and providing a slightly bittersweet bite on some sips. This is very, very creamy with big honey-vanilla flavor. There are even some brown sugar and caramel notes that float about throughout each sip. On some sips, there’s even a sweet earthiness to it, kind of like a toasted marshmallow. Very satisfying on the palate. When paired with ice, the cream soda becomes even creamier.

Finish: Creamy vanilla caramel with a semisweet bite at the tail end of each sip. Fantastic.

Rating: Sprecher’s Cream Soda is a standard-bearer in its category. It’s incredibly flavorful without being overly complex. Creamy vanilla and bittersweet honey highlight this delectable liquid treat from Wisconsin. Notes of brown sugar and burned caramel dance about in the background of each sip. The vanilla is velvety in the mouth and is sweet with a subtle tartness. It definitely communicates the essence of real vanilla. If I had to use one word to describe this cream soda it would be this: scrumptious. If I had another, it would be rich. When you’re tasting the flavors in this bottle, you know you’re drinking a craft soda. Even the look is mesmerizing. Sprecher’s Cream Soda mirrors a cream ale sitting in a glass with its thick, foamy head that takes considerable time to subside. It’s a nice visual touch. The last time I had something that tasted this good and looked this sexy, I was in Mexico on my post-divorce celebration. The details are kind of hazy. You’ll feel hazy in all the right ways after this cream soda too. It’s heavenly. You’d never taste the corn syrup in it. We can’t even tell and we taste hundreds of sodas a year. I wouldn’t change anything about this. Cream soda is a flavor that evokes stars in the eyes of soda connoisseurs, yet often leaves them in tears because of diabetes-inducing sugar overload. There’s nothing to cry about here. Celebrate the magnificence of this creamy, rich mouth magic and order a four-pack. This is one that just needs to be experienced.

Five Stars

Americana: Honey Lime Ginger Ale

History: The Americana line of sodas is produced by a giant retro soda bottler known as Orca Beverages. Orca came about in the 1980’s and was founded by Mike Bourgeois in Mukilteo, WA, an affluent suburb of Seattle. The first brand they produced was their very own called Orca Sparkling and “contained over 50 percent juice sourced from Northwest juice processors.” Orca no longer bottles their own name brand, but they’ve expanded to become one of the biggest craft soda bottlers in the country. They’ve partnered with over 100 brands to produce their sodas, including classics like Dad’s Root Beer, Moxie Original Elixir, and Bubble Up. According to CFO Charles Funk, Americana is now the company’s flagship brand with 11 different flavors. The Americana bottles used to feature old presidents on the label. Personally, we’re not sure why they abandoned such a neat idea. But I’m also not sure why I’m on my third marriage and sleep on the couch half the time. In the words of the company, the brand is a throwback to the time of “soda fountains, sock hops and five-cent sodas.” You can’t even get a disease for five cents these days, much less soda. But you get the idea. Orca Beverages is steadfast in their emphasis on quality. Says Funk, “One thing about our whole line of sodas we produce is that we use the best ingredients we can find,” even if it means paying more. The company employs their own “Tasteologist.” So do we. We’re called Five Star Soda. Today, it’s honey lime ginger ale made with premium honey.

Where to get: Americana craft soda from Orca Beverages is distributed world-wide and easily found in stores that sell glass-bottled sodas. Americana is one of the more popular craft soda brands, just a touch below Boylan’s, Virgil’s, and Jones. You can find it online at Summit City Soda (better pricing) or on the company’s website. You can also purchase single bottles at Soda Emporium.

Nose: Ginger; honey. Maybe the first soda made with honey I can actually smell in the bottle.

Taste: Ginger; mild heat; honey. This is spicier than you expect it to be for a ginger ale with the word “honey” on the label. It’s light like a ginger ale with enough spice to call it a ginger beer. Probably a 7 on the heat scale with spice that lingers on the tongue. Some of that may be from the citrus of the lime that causes the heat to stick. It takes a few sips to adjust before the honey really comes through. After that initial heat, this becomes quite a sweet ginger ale. Almost too sweet at times. The spice of the ginger and the flavor of the lime form together to create a pepper-like heat. This is a ginger ale that’s definitely sweet with lingering spice.

Finish: Light honey immediately followed by peppery spice.

Rating: Americana Honey Lime Ginger Ale is an interesting take ginger ale and probably won’t fit the preconceived notions of taste you might have about what’s in the bottle. It’s quite spicy, but not the traditional gingery fire akin to ginger beers. No, this tastes like it has some kind of pepper in it. It’s a little too prevalent for me. Yet at the same time, this is also sweeter than most ginger ales. It’s an odd combination of sweet and spicy. The lime doesn’t quite come through in the flavor profile all that much, but that doesn’t really bother me. I just keep coming back to the sweet vs. heat. It feels like a struggle over which one should be more bold on the palate as opposed to working in tandem to create a balanced flavor profile. This is worth a try simply because it’s different, but it could use some tweaks. One thing I will say about this soda is that it benefits from being on ice as opposed to sipping straight from the bottle. There are better ginger ales out there, but you will please your inner soda connoisseur by trying one this different.

Drink More Good: Cassia Kream

History: Craft soda is hot right now. You know what the hottest trend in craft soda is right now? Craft soda… syrup. That’s right, do it yourself! Don’t be a slave to the confines of the man and his portions on taste! Just add some seltzer water and poof! Drink More Good by Jason Schuler started in 2012 to “make this world a better place.” A Bold statement. But one that has a noble explanation. The company has partnered with generosity.org in an effort to help make clean water more accessible across the world through sustainable water wells. In 2014, Drink More Good raised over $14,000 toward the cause. And that’s great. But you’re more interested in what goes in your mouth. And in this case, it ain’t water. Well, actually, it mostly is. Drink More Good makes three different soda syrups. Perhaps the most unique is the one we sample today: Cassia Kream. It’s sort of a hybrid cola/cream soda, leaning more toward the former. Schuler is proud of his creation. He says, “When colas were made with real ingredients, you would have found coriander, star anise, lavender, citrus, and roasted kola nut in a lot of those recipes. I started my spice blend here, then added cinnamon and vanilla.” So there’s a lot going on in this baby. Schuler’s Drink More Good was a 2014 finalist for the Martha Stewart American Made Awards. He adds, “We’re bringing soda back to what it was. Everything you’re tasting is a real herb or spice that’s been crushed by me in an eight inch mortar and pestle” (in his retail spice shop).

Where to get: Drink More Good is sold online through the company’s web site. Bottles can be purchased individually or as a three-pack.

Nose: Raw, organic honey; anise.

Taste: Lavender flower; honey; cane sugar; mild anise; cinnamon and vanilla. There’s a very distinctive organic honey taste to this. It’s very pleasant and refreshing, almost relaxing. The only thing is… there’s no honey in Cassia Kream. So what we’re really tasting is cane sugar being transformed by the spices in the syrup and how they blend with the seltzer water. Lavender is very apparent and soothing. Cinnamon and anise come in next, though the anise isn’t too overwhelming like in some root beers. Often, this almost tastes like a sweet herbal tea with the addition creamy vanilla. It has a very distinctive flavor and the use of spices here are mesmerizing to the tongue. There’s even the faintest hint of lingering orange throughout the body of the drink. A relaxing honey taste is what rises above everything else. If you told me this didn’t actually have honey in it without showing me the ingredients, I wouldn’t believe you.

Finish: Less honey and more cane sugar that fades into mellow cinnamon and anise star. All of this is carried along by a wave of underlying vanilla and citrus that accentuate the flavors they’re carrying.

Rating: Cassia Kream isn’t your every day cola, but in the world of craft soda, every day cola is a thing of the past. Schuler’s starting point of traditional cola and label of “kream” have landed him elsewhere in a foreign, yet flavorful paradise of herbs and sweetness. It’s kind of like when you’re on Tinder and swipe the wrong person, but it works out in your favor. Trust me, this rarely happens. I would know; I’m often on the wrong end of it. But rare wonders do happen and Drink More Good has created a rare wonder. Cassia Kream does not taste like cola. It does not taste like cream soda. It’s truly on its own island of originality. Think flavors and not necessarily ingredients – this tastes of sweet honey and spices to form a highly drinkable herbal tea-like soda with undertones of vanilla. That’s the best description I can give for something that truly needs to be experienced to understand. Notes of cinnamon, citrus and anise are all apparent throughout the body of the soda, while a rich raw honey taste brings it all home. Wild, earthy and full of flavor. If you were anti soda-syrup before reading this, I hope we’ve at least opened you to the possibility. Drink More Good, you should.