Rich, creamy root beers, spicy-hot ginger ales, pithy citrus drinks with real tang, complex, herb-scented colas -- they're all out there, along with surprising one-of-a-kind fizzies in flavors as diverse as spruce, Key lime and espresso. This is the new golden age of soda pop.
Following the first golden age, about 100 years ago, soda-pop flavor began a downward spiral. Natural flavorings were replaced by artificial ones, fructose replaced corn syrup and cool-looking, flavor-friendly bottles were tossed for aluminum cans. By the 1980s, a good soda was hard to find.
Now a band of innovative entrepreneurs has struck back, and a dizzying array of terrific, serious sodas can be found everywhere from supermarkets to the French Laundry.
Some of these soda pop entrepreneurs pursued dreams of creating their ideal soft drink. That's the case with Chris Reed, whose Reed's Ginger Brew was first sold at the tiny health food store Rainbow Acres in Marina del Rey. Others, such as Danny Ginsberg, whose Torrance-based company Real Soda in Real Bottles distributes hundreds of specialty sodas, have made regional favorites more widely accessible through distribution innovations and online sales. Still others, like Paul Bauser of Natrona Bottling Co. near Pittsburgh, simply refused to change the way a great pop had been concocted.
Haute food shops such as the Cheese Store of Silver Lake stock the GuS brand of "dry" fruit sodas in flavors like Valencia orange and crimson grape. Abita Root Beer, a longtime Louisiana favorite, is on tap at Father's Office in Santa Monica. Virgil's Root Beer, poured on tap at Mani's Bakery in Los Angeles, tastes like the ingredients it's made with: anise, vanilla, clove, wintergreen, sweet birch, nutmeg, pimento berry oil, balsam oil and cassia oil.
You can sample American classics such as Moxie -- a gentian root-flavored elixir -- along with imports and local brands at the Refresher soda stall in the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles. Dozens of movie-industry types are among the private customers who have arranged for scheduled deliveries of hard-to-find old-style brands such as AJ Stephans or Stewart's.
You can even find them at Per Se in New York and French Laundry in the Napa Valley. For tasting menus, Thomas Keller restaurant group's master sommelier Paul Roberts matches foie gras and pickled rhubarb with Boylan's Creamy Red Birch Beer or a ginger ale with a Cryovacked honeydew and casaba salad. Root beers go great with roasted meats; they have, says Roberts, "a natural affinity for truffles."
An adult appreciation
REMEMBER, soda wasn't created for kids.
Drinking a soda is one of those experiences -- like riding a bike -- that can be even richer, more complex and more rewarding for adults than for children. An adult drinking soda finds complexity in an experience a child just throws herself into. Drinking a well-crafted soda is not just a wild ride through sugar and primary-colored flavors; it's a series of unfolding sensations -- aroma, effervescence, mouth-feel, complex tastes. It may not be as nuanced as drinking wine, beer or spirits -- but it's in the ballpark. And it's always fun.
In spite of the fact that there are still lots of bubble-gummy brands as well as pretentious upstarts that don't deliver, retailers, restaurants and aficionados are beginning to separate the quirky and flavorful from the merely silly.
There's a terrific selection out there of appealing, refreshing sodas -- some recently invented, some classics, some imports, some very local. They have complexity of flavor, real fruit and spice taste, calibrated carbonation, body and texture -- and satisfying finishes.
And specialty bottled sodas are a real fashion statement, with their long-necked bottles, vintage styling or tongue-in-cheek hipster designs. Some, like Stewart's or Red Rock, are made with applied-color labels loved by collectors (colors are printed directly onto the glass). Others have paper labels as sophisticated as any humor-forward craft beer. Many are designed to call to mind vintage soda labels and ads.
There's a reason for soda nostalgia: Like so many other foods, even mass-market sodas were once made with "real" ingredients. But a familiar old-time name or retro packaging doesn't ensure quality: You can't judge a soda by its bottle.
Look for small-producer beverages: Ingredients and techniques possible in small-batch manufacture can't be translated to large-scale production.
But smaller producers also use regional contract bottlers because the price of shipping filled glass bottles of soda is prohibitive, and different makes have different quality control and contract terms. So just because a bottle has a long neck and a label collectors adore doesn't mean its contents are palatable. Nor can you just pick up an amusingly named "micro-brewed" soda and know it's worth the $1.79 price.
Today's best sodas, whether made from 100-year-old formulas or recently dreamed-up recipes, are, first and foremost, not too sweet. Too much sweetness simply blows out all the other flavors. When drinking a well-made soda, you first notice the aroma, then the flavor -- black cherry, nutmeg, lemon, spice -- that is carried in a buoyant package of sweetened soda water.
A great soda balances flavor, carbonation and sweetness and has pleasing body and texture.
Historically, the bubbles came first. The practice of drinking natural mineral waters for health was embraced by the upper classes of Europe and the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chemists experimented for years with making artificial mineral water through carbonation before Joseph Schweppes perfected a technique for commercial use in 1790.
Mineral water's supposed health-giving properties were ascribed to the new man-made bubbly as well, which was dispensed on doctors' prescriptions, one cup at a time at the pharmacy.
When individual pharmacists added herb extracts (depending on patients' needs) and sugar syrups to make the concoctions palatable, soda was born.
Over the years, the pharmacy counter became the soda fountain. In the U.S., traditions of home-brewed low-alcohol elixirs such as sarsaparillas and birch beers (made with honey, sugar or molasses and carbonated through fermentation) were tapped for soda flavors. Well into the mid-20th century, sodas at many fountains were handmade to order with squirts of flavored syrups and soda water.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ginger ales were aged and root beer extracts were brewed. Soda syrups and bottled sodas were made with ingredients such as citrus oils, wine-based extracts, barks, fruit juices, ginger, and, in dry ginger ales, capsicum.
A fresh, vintage take
MAYBE because the modern American palate is once again attuned to fresh herbs and spices, the best contemporary sodas are often in the vintage style or use decidedly tonic flavors that echo the beverage's origins.
Many of the better flavors come from juices and concentrates, oils and essences (as opposed to extracts) and ingredients such as honey and molasses.
"It's a travesty when they make ginger ale and they've forgotten what ginger is," says Reed, who makes "ginger brews" with fruit juice and fresh ginger root. "I've gone to trade shows and had ginger in the display, and guys from mainstream companies walk by and ask what it is."
John Nese of Galco's Soda Pop Stop keeps track of companies that adhere to high standards. To make espresso soda, he says, Manhattan Special, a New York-based company, "actually roasts the beans, grinds and brews them."
Of the elements of flavor, carbonation and sweetness, sweetness is the most discussed. Aficionados believe that sodas made with cane sugar rather than fructose have superior flavor. Indeed, when tasted without prior inspection of labels, we found that 75% of the sodas we preferred were made with sugar.
"Fructose is such a dominating flavor," says Roberts, the sommelier. "I have to compare it to a big blast of American oak in wine. It ends up being more of a veneer. It covers up everything instead of threading it together. It's about volume control. One extra amount of oak and you've gone too far. One extra gram of fructose and you end up with something sweet and cloying."
Carbonation cuts sweetness, as does acidity (Reed for one is as focused on acid balance as a winemaker might be) and is a bigger variable than is commonly understood. Too little effervescence, and the drink is dull; too much and the flavors are lost in a sinus-clearing experience that is more therapeutic than refreshing.
"The acid adds bite, which is very important," says Reed. "You either add acid with ingredients or carbonation, which creates a carbonic acid. Root beer without acid would be disgusting."
And different kinds of processes create different kinds of carbonation: Something known as "pin-point carbonation" (created with a dry-ice process) is esteemed by connoisseurs for its refined but exuberant effect.
Body and texture in soda are also important. Cream sodas can be thick, soft and creamy (like Fitz's) or bright, sharp and light (like Virgil's). Root beers can be foamy and rich (Hank's), medium-bodied (Berghoff) or silky (Virgil's). Ingredients such as sugar, molasses and yucca impact body and texture. And of course, when evaluating sodas, personal preference in style as well as context -- how will you be drinking this soda -- are key questions.
Undoubtedly, some people love lip-numbing ginger ales, but Roberts points out that such aggressive formulas tend to overwhelm most foods. Try one in the afternoon when you're falling asleep at your desk, though, and the tonic effect will carry you to the end of the day.
And don't forget one of the most perfect pairings under the culinary sun. More than one of our tasters looked up from a delicious pop and sighed, "With a little vanilla ice cream, this would make an incredible float."
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Tops in pops for grown-ups
THE Times tasting panel met over several weeks, tasting more than five dozen sodas in flights of three or four at a time. We tasted only sodas from glass bottles and sipped them over ice. The panel included deputy food editor Betty Baboujon, staff writers Charles Perry and Barbara Hansen, and Test Kitchen director Donna Deane. Overall, although individual preferences were marked (root beer mavens, bitters aficionados, carbonation connoisseurs), the panel agreed on a number of sodas that appeal to the adult palate. The preferred sodas shared several characteristics: They tasted of something from nature (fruits, roots, spices), they weren't too sweet, and they had pleasing texture and finish. Following are our recommendations.
These sodas are available by the bottle or in four-packs, six-packs or cases, depending on the soda and retailer. Virgil's root beer and cream soda are sometimes available in 1-gallon party kegs. Prices average about $1.50 to $2 per bottle.
Abita Root Beer. Cane-sugar sweetened Abita is a punchy, well-balanced root beer, with an appealing swamp-water color, a brisk, satisfying flavor and good carbonation. Less creamy than some but soft in the mouth. (Available at Aero Market in Glendale,  242-0796; Beverages & More stores, www.bevmo.com; Father's Office Brew Pub in Santa Monica,  393-2337; Galco's Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park,  255-7115, www.galcos.com; Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli in Los Angeles,  655-5557.)
Berghoff Famous Rootbeer. From Chicago. This medium-bodied root beer has a nice horehound nose, satisfying root beer flavor and a clean finish. Made with cane sugar. (At Aero Market, Beverages & More, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Big Bear Root Beer. Spicy, not too sweet. Good froth and body; pleasing "barky" flavor. Made by Scott Bennett of Bennett's Ice Cream and the Refresher soda stand at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles. (At Aero Market; Galco's; Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli; and the Refresher,  939-6786.)
Hank's Root Beer. A Philadelphia brand that's recently become available nationwide, Hank's root beer has an inviting floral and fruity aroma, nice effervescence and vanilla overtones. It's not too sweet and has a light mouth feel. (At Aero Market; Beverages & More; Galco's; Sainsbury Deli, West Los Angeles,  826-4388; South Street restaurants in Burbank,  563-2211, and Westwood,  443-9895.)
Virgil's Root Beer, Virgil's Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer. Originally made in Germany and the UK by a New England enthusiast, Virgil's was purchased by Angeleno Chris Reed (Reed's Ginger Brew) and seems to be everywhere lately. Virgil's root beer is delicious -- very rooty, with a texture that's more silky than creamy, and flavors on the spice-and-licorice end of the root beer flavor spectrum. Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer is rich and spicy, "the vintage port of root beers," one taster said, and, yes, you can taste the nutmeg. Both made with cane sugar. (Available at Aero Market, Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Cost Plus World Market stores, Galco's, Sainsbury Deli, Whole Foods. Root beer only available at Mani's Bakery in Los Angeles,  938-8800; Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli; Trader Joe's markets.)
Virgil's Cream Soda. This has a good real-vanilla flavor, but it's light. It doesn't knock out your taste buds, but opens up slowly and has a soft, pleasant finish. It would make a wonderful float. (At Aero Market, Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Cost Plus World Market stores, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli, Sainsbury Deli, Whole Foods.)
Fitz's Micro-brewed Cream Soda. Made in St. Louis, this beer-colored cream soda has the sweet flavor of what one taster pegged as "pineapple hard candy" and more complexity than most cream sodas. Made with cane sugar. (Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Ginger beers and ales
Barritt's Pineapple Ginger Beer. A delicious combination of ginger and fruit flavors. Sharp, not too sweet, with great tang and complexity. (Available at Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Blenheim Ginger Ale. Blenheim makes two kinds: hot, as in clear your sinuses and make your eyes water before you've taken a sip, and not so hot. There's a whole school of ginger ale machismo, and while Blenheim's doesn't burn your mouth, a whiff would revive a person midfaint. (At Bristol Farms, Galco's, the Refresher, Sainsbury Deli.)
Ginger People Ginger Beer. Made with "natural ginger juice" in Monterey, Calif., this is a mellow, not hot, version with a lovely gingery nose and a fresh-ginger flavor. It's not too sweet, with a soft finish. Would make a great mixer. (At Cost Plus World Market stores, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. From the Natrona Bottling Co. in Natrona, Penn., this is a lip-numbing ginger drink, hot in the mouth as opposed to eye-tearing. Exhilarating and fun; made with cane sugar. (Available at Galco's, Sainsbury Deli.)
Red Rock Golden Ginger Ale. Made in Atlanta since 1885, this sugar-sweetened regional favorite has great ginger flavor and a hot finish (too hot for some). (Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Galco's, Mel & Rose, the Refresher, Sainsbury Deli.)
Reed's Extra Ginger Brew. A very different ginger ale with a richer, softer texture than most and a less-aggressive edge. Balanced, flavorful. A Southern California original made with fresh ginger, lemon and lime juices. (Widely available at health food stores and delis, including Erewhon Natural Foods,  937-0777; Galco's; Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli; and Rainbow Acres, Marina del Rey,  823-5373.)
Cricket Cola. Made with cane sugar, kola nut and green tea, this delightful soft drink is rooty and spicy, with gingerbread flavors and herbal notes. It's very lightly carbonated. Not what you'd think of as a cola. (Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose.)
Curiosity Cola. From UK-based Fentimans, this soda has an intriguing fruit-and-spice aroma and an elusive gently spiced cola flavor. Others in the line include a British schoolchild favorite, Dandelion and Burdock, made with pear juice and infusions of, yep, dandelion and burdock. A pleasing taste of fruit and spices. Mandarin and Seville Orange Jigger is a not-sweet soda with pulp, bright orange flavor and an underpinning of ginger and juniper. (Available at Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli; Sainsbury Deli; Tudor House in Santa Monica,  451-4107.)
AJ Stephans Birch Beer. Made in Massachusetts with cane sugar, this light, pleasant soda has a delicate peppermint nose and a clean vanilla-spice flavor. (Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Boylan's Creamy Red Birch Beer. Appreciated for its food affinities at Thomas Keller's Per Se and French Laundry restaurants, this medium-bodied soda has a complex flavor with hints of cherry and bark. Made with cane sugar. (Available at Beverages & More, Cost Plus World Market stores, Galco's.)
Cheerwine. A straight-ahead cherry cola with good carbonation, retro styling and flavor. Not too sweet, it simply reminds you that cherry and cola can be a great flavor combination. (At Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Empire Spruce Beer. Tasters were intrigued to find they enjoyed the sweet piney taste of this soda that, yes, has a flavor you'd imagine you'd get chewing on an evergreen. Made with cane sugar in Rhode Island. (At Galco's.)
Hank's Birch Beer. Refreshing, light, with notes of licorice and mint. (At Beverages & More, Galco's, Sainsbury Deli, South Street restaurants.)
Moxie Cherry Cola. A venerable name ("since 1884"), Moxie sodas are now contract-bottled. Some versions use cane sugar. This not-too-sweet cola has real cherry nose, very cherry flavor and a little bite. (At Aero Market; Beverages & More; Galco's; Juliano's Deli in Torrance,  540-2500; Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli; Sainsbury Deli.)
Moxie Original Elixir. Made with gentian root extracts, this bracing tonic has overtones of chocolate and herb tea. Too astringent for some (the name became '20s-era slang for courage because it took guts to drink it), intriguingly grown-up for others. Versions bottled in Washington State and locally were both effervescent, complex in flavor and made with cane sugar. (Available at Aero Market, Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Galco's, Juliano's Deli, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli, Sainsbury Deli.)
Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer. From Elkins Park, Penn., since 1936, this is a light, subtle brew that's a cross between a cola and a root beer. (At Galco's.)
Apple Beer. A shy, unassuming fruit soda that delivers on the apple flavor and has more complexity than the ubiquitous sparkling apple ciders on the market. From Salt Lake City. (At Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Bundaberg Lemon Lime & Bitters. This sweet-sour citrus soda made with sugar, lemon juice and lime juice is a good grown-up soda by itself, but would be an excellent mixer, too. From Australia. (At Cost Plus World Market stores, Galco's.)
GuS Dry Valencia, Dry Crimson Grape. A quinine note gives an edge to these sodas. The orange has a lovely light orange-juice nose and a good orange flavor -- not bitter, not sweet, but citrus. The grape has a good grapey aroma but, thankfully, no candy texture. There's a palate-cleansing quality to this line of cane sugar-sweetened sodas. (Available at Cheese Store of Silver Lake,  644-7511; Cost Plus World Market stores; Whole Foods.)
Manhattan Special Black Cherry, Manhattan Special Orange. The cherry is gloriously not maraschino-esque but instead tastes of cherry juice. It's balanced, not too sweet. The orange is a bright soda-pop (not juice) style but has straight-ahead orange flavor. Both are made with sugar and fruit concentrates. (At Galco's.)
Natural Brew Organic Grapefruit. From Chico, Calif., this light, tasty soda is "way better than Squirt" because it really does taste like grapefruit. (Available at Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli, Whole Foods.)
Reed's Spiced Apple. Smells like apple pie, tastes like autumn. Very apple-y, soft in the mouth with a gingery base. (Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Riggs and Forsythe Bitter Lemon, Riggs and Forsythe Aronia Cassis. This bitter lemon soda has "more pith" than other citrus drinks. It's not puckering but light and sparkling. The cassis is fruity but not sweet and has root notes without any sticky molasses tones. (At Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Soho Genuine Blackberry Soda. A contemporary soda in a vaguely retro-looking bottle. There's an honest blackberry flavor in this sweet, light-textured pale-pink pop that has a nice fruit acidity. "For drinking in the sunshine," commented a taster. (Available at Bristol Farms, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli.)
Stewart's Key Lime. Though our tasters didn't embrace the entire line from longtime producer Stewart, the Key lime soda is a fun novelty, has the texture of a Key lime souffle and would be great in a float. (Aero Market, Beverages & More, Galco's, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli, Sainsbury Deli)
Ting. A Jamaican grapefruit soda that's smooth, not as harsh as mainstream grapefruit drinks, but with a pleasant tickle. (Available at Galco's, Juliano's Deli, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli)
Jack Black's Blood Red Cola. This tasty brew is made by Skeleteens Counter Culture Sodas (now produced by Danny Ginsberg of the Torrance-based Real Soda), and although it looked at first as if it was all about the label, the beverage has a complex, pleasing flavor of spiced cola. Caution: It contains both guarana and caffeine. (At Aero Market, Beverages & More, Galco's, Juliano's Deli.)
Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda. The results haven't come back from the lab yet, but this Brooklyn-made sweet, creamy soda (there's even a bit of "crema" when you pour it into a glass) seemed to deliver a bigger jolt than our usual afternoon latte. (Available at Galco's, Juliano's Deli, Mel & Rose Liquor & Deli, the Refresher.)
Several producers make superlative diet sodas, including Hank's diet root beer (available at Beverages & More, Galco's, Sainsbury Deli), Boylan's diet black cherry and cream soda (at Beverages & More, Bristol Farms, Cost Plus World Market stores, Galco's), Bundaberg diet ginger ale (at Cost Plus World Market stores), and diet Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda (at Galco's).