Three Stars

NORKA Beverage: Orange

History: I recently had a conversation with a friend about her haul from a popular midwest craft soda store. “I got one that was blue, one that had a cat on the label, and one with a really cool bottle shape,” she said. Michael Considine would turn over in his grave if he was sitting with us. Considine (who is actually not dead, the previous phrase just seemed fitting) is the owner and founder of Akron, Ohio’s NORKA Beverage, a brand with roots all the way back to the 1920’s. The company’s old tagline was “tasting better” and Considine says his goal is to keep the current version of the company in line with that same mentality. For NORKA, it’s not about fancy labels or gimmick flavors; they care about the flavor of the liquid inside the bottle. “Craft soda is such a unique industry full of passion and pride,” says Considine. He’s not wrong, but you could also throw in a third word: nostalgia. And NORKA epitomizes nostalgia to the fullest. The brand originated back in the 1920’s when local soda bottlers were more common than craft beer brewers. NORKA comes from Akron, Ohio. If you didn’t notice, the brand’s name is A-k-r-o-n spelled backwards. Don’t face palm, most of us didn’t realize it either. The company existed until 1962 when it liquidated and disappeared. Its rebirth happened totally by chance. Considine recalls having lunch with his father and seeing an old bottle in the restaurant. “I had no idea Akron had its own soft drink…. It was a cool opportunity to bring something back in the beverage industry” he says. Considine went as far as to research the company’s original labeling designs and ingredients lists. In 2015, NORKA was born anew.

Orange soda is a classic in the industry, yet it’s probably the flavor most overlooked in the NORKA Beverage line. The company is famous for its cherry-strawberry flavor, but according to Considine, orange is its most “refreshing” soda. He tells us that instead of creating a soda with a candy orange flavor like others, NORKA “wanted to return to natural orange taste that’s crisp, refreshing and light.” He added that it was equally important for the soda to not feel thick or have a heavy aftertaste. NORKA orange soda contains no caffeine, like all of the company’s flavors. The company also uses natural flavors in its recipes along with cane sugar and no gluten. Personally, it feels like orange soda is one of the classics that has kind of fallen by the wayside. It’s not going anywhere, but it’s not really advancing. Brands would rather make flavors that cross flowers and fruits or something savory and something sweet. So it’s nice to see a newer (older?) brand sticking to their guns and honoring a flavor that all of our grandparents grew up drinking.

Buy: NORKA StoreSummit City SodaAmazon • Soda Emporium

Nose: A dead-ringer for Sunny D. Uncanny. Have to say this definitely smells artificial, despite the company’s rep for using natural flavors. Hopefully it’s just the smell.

Taste: Big orange flavor, bold, mild zest, Sunny D. The orange flavor here is unrelenting. It’s closer to the Sunny D (only carbonated) taste you were used to as a kid as opposed to a retro orange soda like Slice. It has a light mouth feel, but is bursting with orange flavor. Maybe even a little bit of a San Pellegrino influence here too, but this really reminds us of a carbonated Sunny D with bolder orange notes, and as such the taste definitely has an artificial twang to it.

Finish: Smooth, almost buttery orange. Exquisite. The best part of the soda, unquestionably.

Rating: When you think orange soda, you probably conjure up images of Sunkist, Fanta, or maybe something like Crush – NORKA orange soda is like none of those. Instead, think of this flavor as a smarter, distant cousin of Sunny D. It boasts a strange combination of bold, authentic orange oils and childhood, artificial orange drink flavors. It’s light. It’s easy to drink. And it has one of the most sensational finishes in an orange soda we’ve ever tasted. But the development of the soda definitely doesn’t have what I’d consider to be a “craft” soda flavor. There’s something off here. It’s too close to Sunny D. Remember that friend in high school that hung out in your group, and no one really had a problem with them in the halls… but you definitely weren’t inviting them to the party? Yeah… that’s what NORKA orange soda is like. It’s friendly, it’s drinkable, but I probably wouldn’t put it in my top three orange sodas or stock it in my fridge. Still, it’s worth a shot just for the creamy, buttery orange notes that come through at the end of each sip. It’s a safe bet, but likely won’t blow you away.

Empire Bottling: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer

History: In a saturated landscape where root beer is king, craft soda is constantly looking for the next eye-popping thing within the category. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer might just be the one. Ignore the ugly label that looks like it was designed by a seven year-old; the reason to be infatuated by this root beer is in the flavor. Founder and President of Gardena, California’s Real Soda in Real Bottles, Danny Ginsburg, tells us “it’s got a molasses – brown sugar aura about it which makes it stand out from the other brands.” Ginsburg is the self-titled “Soda Sommelier.” If there’s someone who knows more or is more obsessive about soda in the world than him… I don’t want to meet that person. Real Soda in Real Bottles is one of the largest craft soda distributors in the world. They actually produce a lot of flavors as well, but Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is produced specifically for their company by Empire Bottling, an old school Northeastern U.S.-based craft soda company. To be fair, Real Soda came up with the soda’s name and concept, and yes, it is actually made in Rhode Island. Ginsburg gives us his own critique of the root beer, saying it “reminds me of being in an old sweet shop in the Northeast way back when. Not just another foamy sweet brown drink.” If you’re not intrigued by this, you probably don’t enjoy soda. Admittedly, I don’t really put molasses on a lot of things and given a choice I’d opt for honey but as a sweetening agent in soda, sign me up. We’re always down to get weird and you should be too. Between the label and the idea of molasses in my soda, it really hits me right in the nostalgia tinglies.

Buy: Specialty SodasSoda EmporiumSoda4U

Nose: Smells exactly like those old fashioned root beer hard candies.

Taste: Wintergreen; tangy and thick; sugar; mild spices; mild creaminess. This definitely does have an older taste to it. What I mean by that is older root beer recipes often are more savory and less sweet. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is full of mostly mint and tangy flavors. You get a lot of wintergreen in the body. I think it’s fair to call that the dominant flavor in this soda. But there’s also a semisweet tanginess, which I assume comes from the molasses. If you haven’t tried or don’t remember, molasses is very thick and has a bittersweet tanginess to it. In a more subdued form, that definitely comes through in the root beer’s body. There’s also some decent creaminess, but I think a lot of that comes from the root beer’s frothy carbonation rather than any flavor. Good mouthfeel. Wintergreen and tangy sweetness define the flavor profile of Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer.

Finish: Creamy, yet tangy mint with a more noticeable influence from the molasses. Kind of an awkward flavor.

Rating: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is one for fans of mint. This is clearly an older root beer recipe because there isn’t a lot of flavor variation, minimal use of spices, and more savoriness than sweetness. That’s not to say this doesn’t taste like soda. It does. But the strong wintergreen and tangy molasses flavors are much more prominent than sugar and vanilla. The latter two ingredients are popular in more modern root beers. You won’t taste those here. Props to Empire Bottling for getting the molasses flavor to come through. They do a good job of infusing that bittersweet tangy taste that molasses contains. At the same time, I’m left wanting a little more from this. Beyond strong wintergreen, tangy sugar, and frothy carbonation there isn’t much to the flavor profile. Again, if you like minty root beers, I think there’s a good reason for you to seek this out. If you prefer creamier vanilla-heavy root beers or ones rich in spices, this may not be for you. In our opinion, it’s not bad, just not special. The molasses flavor is certainly unique and something you won’t find in more than a handful of root beers, so it does have a major selling point. I’m just not sure everyone will be buying.

Three Stars

Buckeye State Soda: Scarlet Soda

History: Ready for the most pro-Ohio soda you’ve ever come across? Scarlet Soda by Buckeye State Soda glorifies the state. We’re not kidding. They take it very seriously, saying “It celebrates the great state of Ohio which has given so much to the world and changed the course of history.” I haven’t had that much pride in something since I built my dog an igloo out of Legos when I was eight. He ate a lot of them. It was an expensive vet bill and that was the last time I played with Legos. Scarlet Soda is truly a bottle of red mystery. There’s no flavor listed. So we reached out to the company to try to figure out what we were getting ourselves into. Buckeye State Soda CEO David Wolfenberger tells us “Everyone has a different idea of what it tastes like. We think it ‘Tastes Like Victory’.” So… we didn’t find out anything about how it tastes. He did divulge to us that “it is not a red cream soda,” so there’s that. Basically, this is a “decide-what-you-think-it-is” soda. In somewhat concrete terms, Wolfenberger calls it “an old style red fruit soda flavor.”

Scarlet Soda was created in the fall of 2015, but the history behind the company dates back a lot farther. The real name of the business behind Scarlet Soda is Root Naturals located in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company produces root beer, cream soda, and black cherry under that name using “all natural botanical extracts,” according to Wolfenberger. They operate under the name Buckeye State Soda only when selling one product: Scarlet Soda. Confused yet? Back to the history lesson. It was 1937 when Deno Spaccarelli opened his first apothecary in Cincinnati. For those that don’t know, an apothecary was basically an old time medicine shop. They also often sold fountain sodas as a way to mask the awful flavor of the medicine. So while Scarlet Soda is still relatively new, the inspiration behind Root Naturals as a company dates back much further than 2015. Be prepared for an experience. Wolfenberger sums up Scarlet Soda saying, “People either love it and evangelize it or they they think WTF.”

Buy: • Summit City Soda  • Homer Soda Company (for larger orders)  • Other retailers

Nose: This is strawberry. No doubt. It’s like an artificial candy strawberry scent, reminiscent of strawberry Sour Punch Straws without the sour.

Taste: Sweet; artificial strawberry; mild watermelon. Whoa, this is sugary. It leans heavily on the artificial strawberry flavor side, but there’s also a faint watermelon taste that sneaks its way in and confuses you. This is like melted down strawberry hard candies that have been carbonated and bottled. You know those strawberry candies your grandma has in her jar that no one ever eats? Well, if you actually eat them, they’re full of fake strawberry flavor. That’s kind of how Scarlet Soda tastes.

Finish: Tangy fake strawberry flavor that fades quickly and leaves a bit of a film in your mouth.

Rating: We’ve solved the mystery of Scarlet Soda. Maybe. Probably. I think? This soda is chocked full of artificial strawberry flavor. Oh, and sugar. Lots of sugar. Drink a whole bottle of this and you might be able to lift a car. Kids, do not try this. But if you do and succeed, please post a video and give us credit for the idea. Ok, here’s the thing: I know reading that a soda tastes fake and full of sugar sounds bad, but Scarlet Soda is solid. You just have to be in the mood for it. Scarlet Soda has that old fashioned candy strawberry taste one might find at a state fair. This is a soda tailor-made for children. It likely drinks best on a hot day outside. No, I don’t think a ton of adults are going to be into this and I think its audience is limited. Yes, it’s really sugary, probably too much so. Still, there are going to be people who appreciate this. It’s worth a shot. Try one while you’re barbecuing or use it as a mixer with vodka and maybe some bitters. Because the more I try this, the more I enjoy it even the though soda snob in me is telling me no. Seems like an appropriate response for a soda designed to make the drinker think.

Three Stars

P.S. We only had one bottle of this, so we had to take photos before tasting. We guessed on the cherries… we were wrong. At least they look nice though!