When Stephen Norberg was about 7, his parents took him to what he remembers as a Western-themed event in the Midwest and let him try a bottle of sarsaparilla. He never forgot that root beer-y taste, and right then and there he vowed, “When I grow up, I want to live in this town and spend all my money on sarsaparilla.”
Leap ahead 25 years or so, and Norberg is hunkered down inside a Northeast Washington kitchen cooperative sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a takeout soul-food place. In this hot, humid building with only a fan to cool him, Norberg is doing his best to re-create that childhood feeling, brewing root beer in a 310-gallon tank he bought with money he inherited from his grandfather. He jury-rigged a system that washes the bottles before he fills them, and he built a device that pipes the soda from the tank to the bottles.
He attaches the labels by hand: “Thunder Beast Root Beer,” with a drawing of a bison and a rendering of Abraham Lincoln in sunglasses. Then Norberg loads them into his Pontiac hatchback and drives them to area restaurants, novelty stores and farmers markets.
“I spent years making dozens and dozens of batches with every flavor I could think of. Some were terrible,” says Norberg, a Harvard grad who launched an online directory of root-beer keg vendors right after he left college. “It took me a while to realize that I had a unique dream, and why not put everything into it? I wanted a high-end, luxury product that doesn’t exist in the root-beer market.”
Norberg is riding the wave of a national trend: craft sodas, which are shaking up the soft-drink market in the same way that craft beer has altered the beer world. Small-batch, hand-crafted soda brands — such as Joia in Minnesota, GuS in New York and Maine Root in the Pine Tree State — are springing up across the country. A soda pop-tasting festival, sponsored by an Illinois-based events and entertainment company, is on a second-year swing through the Midwest this summer and fall.
Even national brands are getting into the game. This past fall, PepsiCo announced that it would start selling bottles of Caleb’s Kola, made with fair-trade sugar (as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup), kola nut extract from Africa and spices from around the world; it also has introduced Mountain Dewshine, a clear version of Mountain Dew, also made with sugar and sold in a bottle. The soft-drink giant is introducing a line of craft sodas called Stubborn, with flavors such as black cherry with tarragon, orange hibiscus, pineapple cream and agave vanilla cream.
Not to be outdone, Coca-Cola’s newly created craft beverages division bought two “natural soda” brands, Blue Sky and Hansen’s Natural, in June. And Keurig, best known for its coffeemakers, says it will introduce a sodamaking machine called Keurig Kold this fall, joining rival Soda Stream.
Craft sodas are still a small portion of the $77 billion-per-year soda market — so small that industry newsletter Beverage Digest doesn’t measure it. But that sector is growing even as overall soda sales decline: 8.8 billion cases of soda were sold last year, down from 10.2 billion in 2004, according to the newsletter.
Unlike craft beer — which the Brewers Association defines as made by independent brewers in small batches (6 million barrels or less per year), among other criteria — craft soda has no formal definition. But aficionados agree that it usually comes in a bottle, is made with sweeteners other than high-fructose corn syrup, has as few preservatives as possible and features natural (and sometimes uncommon) flavors.
The craft-soda trend is really a revival of the way things were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. Nearly every town in the United States had at least one unique soft drink, from Chero-Cola in Columbus, Ga. (which became RC Cola) to Ale-8-1, mainly in Kentucky, and Moxie, which originated in Lowell, Mass. Mountain Dew, a Pepsi-owned brand since 1964, originated in 1940s Tennessee.
With the backlash against high-fructose corn syrup and the reinvention of food as performance art, Hanchett and others say, craft soda is having its moment.
“I think we’re getting back to the point where every hip town will have its own hometown soda,” Hanchett says. “It’s tied into the ‘local is better’ thing. We’re in the Etsy generation, the makerspace generation. It makes sense that you’d get this kind of resurgence.”
Taha Ismail grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, a predominantly Muslim country where people imbibe soft drinks made from local fruits instead of alcohol. Ismail, the beverage director for Mike Isabella’s Pepita, Graffiato and Kapnos restaurants, has introduced the exotic flavors he remembers from his mother’s kitchen: pineapple and sage; lemon verbena, coriander and agave; watermelon, tarragon and lime zest; and pomegranate Thai basil. Every morning, several employees squeeze the juice from the fruits used in the sodas. The restaurants use only sugar cane, honey and other natural sweeteners. The result: sarsaparilla ginger beer that is not your grandfather’s Schweppes, and other flavors about as far from Coke as an Oregon pinot noir is from Two-Buck Chuck.
A sip of Ismail’s watermelon soda on a 92-degree day evokes a memory of cartwheels on sprinkler-soaked summer lawns. Five-spice ginger beer hints at falling leaves and pumpkin pie. The sarsaparilla ginger beer delivers a sweet kick, like a Moon Pie with chili pepper on top.
“Growing up, there were always going to be different spices in the food. I got used to eating different herbs,” Ismail says. He uses his mom’s recipe for the syrup for his five-spice ginger beers: cinnamon, coriander, allspice, clove and star anise. Berries and melons are the base for his sodas in the summer; in the fall and winter, he switches to citrus.
Other Washington area restaurants offering craft sodas include &pizza and We, the Pizza. Sodas at &pizza are dispensed from custom-made soda fountains; flavors include burdock and anise root beer; pear and fig elixir; mango and passion fruit; and dark cherry cola. Founder Michael Lastoria says he decided to pair craft soda with his rectangular pizzas because “it’s higher quality. It’s artisanal, it’s healthy and it has unique flavor profiles.” He has arranged to bottle the sodas through a Pennsylvania brewer and says he plans to suggest soda pairings with pizza types.
At We, the Pizza, the sodas have fanciful names: I’ve Gotta Orange Crush on You; Co, Co Nut Soda; Very, Very Sour-ry Cherry; and Heard It Through the Grape Soda. Max Albano — executive chef for the Sunnyside Restaurant Group, which operates We, the Pizza — creates the sodas’ syrups with a few twists: He adds jalapeño peppers to the ginger and sugar to make the Don’t Forget Your Ginger Roots Soda; for the Jupiña Pineapple Soda, he dips the sliced fruit in sugar and bakes it until the sugar caramelizes.
“We want to give you flavors that remind you of when you were growing up,” Albano says. “Craft soda is something that’s got more personality than Coke or Pepsi.”
If it’s a wacky soda personality you’re looking for, specialty stores probably have it. California-based Rocket Fizz has a store in Richmond and sells maple-bacon-, ranch dressing- and buffalo-wing-flavored sodas. The North Market Pop Shop in Frederick, Md., features 250 soda flavors, including a coffee soda from Italy and ginger beer from Bermuda. The store is divided into sections: ginger, fruit, cream, diets, birch and root beers. “People will try anything once, but the flavor they prefer is root beer,” says Pop Shop owner Michelle Schaffer. “I have a guy who’s tried 90 different flavors and kept every bottle.”
Craft sodas even have their own critic, in the form of 16-year-old Joey Godinez from Oceanside, Calif. Godinez, whose entry into the craft-soda world was a root beer he drank at a friend’s birthday party when he was too young to remember, posts a monthly review on a Web site called Craft Beverage Jobs. (He got the gig through his mom, a former food blogger.) Of the dozen or so sodas Godinez reviewed in the past year, “the only two I really did not enjoy were the chocolate hazelnut one and a nutmeg piña colada thing,” he says. “I did review an absinthe soda once. It wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t terrible, either.”
Pennsylvania-based Appalachian Brewing Co. — ABC for short — has been bottling its line of sodas since 2007, after years of making root beer for its brewpubs. Business has been so strong that this past year, the company opened a building devoted mostly to soda bottling in a former Cadillac-Hummer dealership in Mechanicsburg. In addition to root beer, the company makes white birch beer and ginger beer; customers at its brewpubs can order cola, diet cola and Citra, a lemon-lime drink. ABC recently began bottling &pizza’s sodas.
Brew master Artie Tafoya, who develops the company’s soda flavors, says making the drink involves balancing the amount of sugar, which supplies the soda’s “mouth feel,” with the kick of spices such as ginger, and the amount of carbonation, which makes a densely sugary soda taste light and refreshing. “We can be creative with beer, but more creative with sodas,” he says. “Certain flavors don’t go well with malt or hops. With soda, I want it to have the right complexity. Is it too sweet? Could it be a little drier? You play with it a little bit.”
ABC’s sodas are an occasional treat rather than an everyday I’m-so-thirsty-I’ll-grab-the-first-soda-I-can-find drink. Its white birch beer is more palate-cleansing than sweet, and the ginger beer is “more of an adult soda for a more discerning palate,” Tafoya says.
ABC is experimenting with the idea of seasonal sodas, and last Christmas it offered a peppermint-flavored soda in its brewpubs. Bill Murray, the company’s process specialist, imagines creating a soda that tastes like hard cider, but without the alcohol. Or a carrot-flavored soda. Or maybe a soda that tastes like red beets.
Then he thinks about it. The beet soda sounds great, a reminder of what he ate during his childhood in rural Pennsylvania. But for ABC’s customers? “It would be weird.”