Thursday, June 21, 2012

Memory Lane- Almost Fictional Brands and Tie-ins

When I was growing up, I remember hearing of two things in passing through mass media, and always thinking that they were fictional products used to avoid copyright/trademark issues(having already asked my parents why there were no brand name products in TV shows/movies). One of those things was Wal-Mart. There wasn't a Wal-Mart for hundreds of miles around me while I was growing up, and it wasn't until I was 17 and Wal-Mart started trying to build inside Toledo city limits that I found out that it was a real, actual store-not just some catch-all generic superstore used for entertainment purposes(like ACME brand everything...).
As hard as it may be to believe for most of you out there that I had never heard of Wal-Mart-consider that I was quite familiar with the Meijer chain of stores, but most of the country has no idea what I'm talking about, unless they're in the midwest.
Anyways, the second brand was Shasta. I had seen and heard about Shasta for years before I finally saw my first can of it. Understand that growing up in Ohio, we didn't need Shasta to step in as the cheap alternative to the major soda cans-our shelves were stocked to the gills with glorious, precious Faygo.
Anyways, what brought Shasta to my market and into my grubby little hands was the Shasta/Nintendo tie-in to go along with the release of Super Mario World. I ended up getting a four pack of 8 oz. cans in Green Apple Yoshi. I really wanted Mario Punch or Princess Cherry, but decided I had already had those sodas and needed to try something new-so I went with green apple and couldn't wait to get home.
Anyways, I remember getting home and cracking open a warm can, and pouring the super-sweet, syrupy goodness into my gaping maw to realize that somehow captured the essence of a jolly rancher in soda form. It was delicious, and a very short lived product, so I was excited when I moved here to Washington state to find Shasta in stores. Of course, my tastes have evolved and I no longer prefer the fake-apple flavor of most mass market sodas, but it was still nice to be taken back to that amazing summer of childhood with that one sip of soda.

Review: Apple Beer

A few years ago on my ride to work, I stopped into a convenience store to pick up a soda, and seeing as it was a hot summer's day, I wanted something fruity and refreshing instead of a syrupy, caffeine-laden cola. I found Sidral Mundet-a Mexican apple soda. It was crisp, delicious and very refreshing.
This set me off on a whirlwind of seeking out apple sodas. Sadly, I found very few-the aforementioned Sidral Mundet, Jones/Shasta Green Apple, and a little while later Manzanita Sol. While Manzanita Sol is a little more prevalent(being owned by Pepsi), Sidral Mundet was always my favorite. I would drink the occasional Manzanita Sol, especially since the others I found were carbonated versions of Apple candy. Sidral and Manzanita tasted very much like apple cider with fizz. Then, just a scant two weeks ago my amazing wife brought me home das Apple Beer...

...and it was good. Really good. Like, if I took a bottle of apple cider and ran it through a sodastream I'd get Apple Beer. It's light, sweet, tart, crisp and very complex. I imagine that it is brewed using a few different varieties of apples to capture the essence and range of complexity that only befits the source material. Another advantage over Manzanita Sol? Sugar instead of HFCS. I'm sold.

Packaging- 5/5
Come on-look at that bottle. That looks downright delicious. If you were walking through the soda aisle and saw that label, you'd grab that bottle and never think twice about the fact that you're not an apple soda drinker.

Aroma- 5/5
The initial uncapping brings about an aerosolized tart smell-like cutting into a perfectly ripe granny apple.

Taste- 6/7
It tastes exactly like a carbonated version of two or more varieties of apple mixed together. It's oh so subtle, but it's incredibly potent. They didn't allow the sugar/sweet to drown out everything else, and that's what makes this so damn perfect

Overall- 16/17
Great packaging, great smell, fantastic taste. I would highly recommend to everyone-even if you've had a bad experience with apple soda in the past-trust me, you'll like this.

Review: Mason's Root Beer

My wife was recently on a grocery excursion when this particular bottle of root beer caught her eye, so she purchased aforementioned beverage and brought it home to me.
On the bottle, Mason's proclaims they have a "Keg Brewed Flavor"-which might be true. It is a good root beer, very root beer-esque, if you will, but it seems the keg it was brewed in was mostly already filled with Hires anyways, so they just put that in their own bottle and called it a day.
I don't really think I need to say anything else.

Packaging- 4/5 caught my wife's eye for some reason-yellow label and kegs maybe? I like the vintage look of the non-color Kegs and the basic brown/red on yellow.

Aroma- 4/5
Smells like Hires.

Taste- 5/7
Tastes exactly like Hires. Fake sassafras, a little wintergreen and a smidge of vanilla for creaminess. There's nothing wrong with tasting like Hires, it's one of the best and oldest out there. Nearly every company has made a Hires clone, so it's not really a wonder I stumbled across yet another one. If you've never had Hires and aren't exactly sure what it tastes like, go to the store and buy a bottle of root beer extract-nearly every brand is just a Hires clone. Root beer barrels are also Hires-flavored, even the A&W brand.

Overall- 13/17
It'd rate higher if it were Hire's, but incidentally it's not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Recipe: Homemade Virgil's Root Beer Clone From Scratch

I'm going to start off by saying this-I'm quite aware that Virgil's lists the spices they use to flavor the root beer on the packaging, however, they do not list amounts. I decided to give it a try, excluding those spices I find either undesirable(cloves), or those things which I did not have in my ingredients vault(birch of any kind).
I combined all of the below together, and came up with a very close approximation of a tasty bottle of Virgil's.

1 tbsp. Licorice Root
4 crushed Star Anise Pods
1 Cinnamon stick(approx. 4 inches)
1 Vanilla Bean(approx. 6 inches)
1tbsp. dried Wintergreen Leaves
1/4 tsp. ground Nutmeg
5 pieces of whole Allspice
2 cups of Cane Sugar
2 tbsp. Blackstrap Molasses
1/8 tsp. yeast
4.5 qts. of Water

Start off filling your stockpot with 4.5 quarts of water, place all ingredients(minus sugar + yeast) into pot, turn to med-hi heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer with the lid on for approximately 20-30 minutes. Stir in your 2 cups of sugar and molasses, place in ice-water bath to allow to cool.
When the mixture gets down to about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, scoop a little bit into a coffee cup and add yeast to the coffee cup. After allowing yeast to culture for about 5 minutes, dump contents of coffee cup back into pot and stir in well. Bottle and wait 3-4 days(dependent on temperature), then move bottles to the fridge. You'll have a nice, homemade version of Virgil's Root Beer waiting for you. I'd say your best flavor comes about 3 days after placing it in the fridge. The amount of molasses can be modified to taste.
Try it for yourself and let me know in the comments how much/little you think it tastes like Virgil's.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: Dad's Blue Cream Soda

Dad's Blue Cream Soda is the first Dad's product I've tried that was made with (inverted) sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, and I can honestly say that I am not completely impressed or disappointed. Anything blue automatically tastes better then if it were any other color-which makes me grateful Dad's didn't make a clear cream soda...
This soda has blue in spades. If I left a puddle of it on the sidewalk next to windshield wiper fluid, my toddler wouldn't know the difference until the vomiting started. Moving on, however, I will say that this iteration of cream soda isn't bad-it's just completely mediocre. When I was a kid growing up on the wooly streets of the East Side of Toledo, we had a discount grocery story known as Aldi that was frequented by the denizens of my neighborhood. In this particular grocer's stock was a bevvy of generic-brand sodas(some of which I would love to revisit and review), and Dad's Blue Cream Soda tastes exactly like their version of cream soda-which I believe was called Swiss Creme and featured a blue can with white mountains and red writing-which is a strikingly similar design style that you see above. 

Taste- 3/7
It's exactly what you expect to find in a cream soda. It's funny that a national brand(that used to be second only to A&W for root beer) seems to have taken a generic formula and added blue food coloring to market a different version of cream soda.

Aroma- 5/5
It smells exactly like fizzy vanilla ice cream.

Packaging- 2/5
Dad's has always had this dated look(it's packaging hasn't changed much since it's inception), and the stark comparisons to be drawn with it's virtual clone leave a bit to be desired. It's exactly like how all Dr. Pepper imitators use the same brick reddish-brown color on their packaging.

Overall- 10/17
I'm surprised at how disappointing Dad's brands have been for me in my adulthood, but maybe that's why it's called Dad's-because it sounds like a special treat from the male parent to his expecting children-Mom's Apple Pie and Dad's Root Beer. Children love it, adults-not so much.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer (Father's Day Special!)

In honor of father's day, I thought I'd review an old childhood favorite of mine-Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer.
Growing up I knew there was something that separated Dad's from all of the rest, and I could never quite put my finger on it-there was a very distinct, earthy kind of flavor that reminded me vaguely of something else from my little pocket of the universe.
After having tried dozens of different sodas with various flavoring agents over the years, I've narrowed it down-Dad's is an Old Fashioned style(meaning it uses an artificial Sassafras flavor) root beer-which puts it in the same category as A&W, IBC, and Hires. The distinguishing feature, however, is birch. The first drink immediately calls to mind that other childhood treat-the stick of gum in a pack of baseball cards. I only realized that birch was  the source of that "bleacher" taste behind the baseball card gum after purchasing and imbibing my first birch beer.
So, in short, if you equate baseball card gum with dirt or the underside of the bench/bleachers at a baseball game, I'd stay steer clear of Dad's Root Beer or any other Birch Beer. However, if you're like me, there's few better carbonated beverages to crack open and poor into a cool, frosted mug on a hot summer's day.
To all the fathers out there on our special day-I tip my metaphorically frosty mug to you!

Packaging- 3/5
Bright blue label, a yellow square and red-lined block writing. Looks old fashioned, grabs attention, but still incredibly hideous. Much more appealing to the child in me.

Aroma- 3.5/5
Unfortunately, I had a HFCS version of this wonderful soda, so it really just smells like sweetness, only a slight hint of the tasty, delicious root-beery goodness that lie beneath. Maybe I'll have to track down some real sugar Dad's.

Taste- 5.5/7
It's not perfect, but it damn near is. The biggest mark against it is the almost immediate flatness that accompanies the second sip and beyond. The first crack gives a moderate amount of fizz-it's as though they only carbonated enough that it pours with a slight head(as any good root beer needs), but nothing else.

Overall- 12/17
So, how did one of childhood favorites get one of the lowest ratings in my site's history? Well, it loses carbonation too quickly, and a flat root beer is not a great root beer. The flavor is amazing, but not everyone is going to enjoy the birch-sassafras combo when the birch is the overwhelming factor. I still love Dad's, but until I find a sugar version it will remain lowly related. Could also be that the 1 liter Big Daddy Size is horrible on carbonation. We'll see.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Hotlips Pear Soda

I've always been a pear lover, and realized a long time ago that I had never had or even heard of a pear-flavored soda. Lo and behold, one fateful sunday morning in February of this year I was participating in another hobby of mine(Magic: The Gathering, in case you were wondering), and I came across precisely that which I craved. I was in between rounds and incredibly hungry. I took a three-block walk to a local deli, and looked in there case to find this...
My eyes did not deceive-this was truly a wonder to behold. I plopped down my cash, and ran ecstatically back to my chosen venue, and proceeded to open and imbibe what can only be described as pure, pear-ile bliss.
It was everything a pear soda should be, and rightfully so-they use actual pears in the making of the soda!
Hotlips is actually a pizza parlor in Portland, Or that began brewing their own soda-eventually releasing it the market at large(recently they got a deal with their bottler that brought them into the Philippines!) 
Listed on their website is which farms they purchase all of their fruit from. How's that for awesomeness? You usually only know where your ingredients come from if you make your own, so kudos to Hotlips Soda for providing us with that information. Pretty awesome of them if you ask me.

Packaging- 4/5
I like the pears on the label-especially considering the fact that they use REAL fruit to flavor their soda-some bottles reportedly contain fruit pulp.

Aroma- 4.5/5
Smells exactly like liquid pear, but not overwhelmingly so-which makes it much more realistic.

Taste- 6/7
It does suffer from the drawback of having to be pasteurized-something which makes all juice-sodas taste a little too tart/wine like in my opinion, but I can't hold it too much against them that they need shelf life. A great tasting soda, just sweet enough and very refreshing. It was a great compliment to my greek salad pita.

Overall- 14.5/17
An amazing beverage. Highly recommended. I can't wait to try the rest of their line.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Recipe: Homemade Pear Syrup

I love pears. They're my favorite non-banana fruit, and I love everything about them. The way their bulbous curve fits my hand slightly better then an apple. The sweet, but subtle flavor. Which brings me to the first of my next two posts-I wanted to make my own pear soda. However, I haven't had much time to plan out and brew my planned concoction, so the next best thing was to make some pear syrup and combine it with some club soda and see how it goes.
First, I peeled the skin from an apple and a pear. Then I set 2 cups of water to boil, adding 2 cups of sugar as I went for a basic simple syrup. After dissolving the sugar and getting a good mix in, I threw in the peels and covered, allowing to simmer for about 7 minutes. Took out a few tablespoons and allowed them to cool. I thought it was okay, but my wife tried it and said it was too much sugar and not enough anything else.
To correct this, I took the leftover pear "core"(which was only about half-eaten) from my daughter's post lunch snack and threw it into the pan with the rest of the syrup. I brought the heat back up to a medium high, covered with a lid and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Wow! I'm glad my wife was there with her sugar-repellent taste buds. Taking a sip of this syrup is liking biting into a fire-roasted pear-super sweet and very peary. It even retained the flavor of the peel-which just makes it that much better. I haven't combined it with club soda to try out the soda aspect yet, but it is great on pancakes along with being a very tasty fruit dip.
Next up I'll be reviewing a pear soda from the Pacific Northwest.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Royal Tru-Orange Soda

On my previous post I had mentioned buying another obscure soda that was of the more classic variety-so here it is. Royal Tru-Orange Soda.
After doing some research(as I tend to do, especially when it concerns foreign-made sodas), I discovered that this drink originated in 1922 in the Philippines and originally included bits of orange pulp-thus the "tru-orange" label. It is also owned by Coca-Cola and features labeling similar to the Fanta line.
A quick check of the label confirms it is bottled with cane sugar, and contains 10% juice. Gives you a bit of viramin C as well. The most interesting thing, however, is that it contains something called "ester gum solids". Whenever you make a soda containing oils for flavoring, you need to include some kind of stabilizer. Most sodas in the United States use brominated vegetable oil-and upon further research I found BVO to be dangerous in large amounts(4-8 liters of soda a day). Ester gum solids are the natural alternative, and much safer. I personally noticed a huge difference in mouth feel.
Anyways, we finally get to what this soda tastes like. In a word-it's orange-tastic(I didn't say it was going to be a real word). This is hands down the best orange soda I've ever had. I would go so far as to say it is an orange soda that even fruit-flavored soda haters would enjoy. It's crisp, refreshing, and the sweetness is perfectly balanced with the sweetness. Most orange sodas leave you with this melted-popsicle syrupy thickness in your throat along with an oily film on your tongue-not so much here. Somebody did a(non-lemon lime) fruit-soda very, very right for once.
Plus, there's more history. Royal Tru-Orange was banned from entering the United States in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration. While Coca-Cola explained this was due to different labeling procedures, they obviously corrected it well enough that it found it's way into my local asian grocer. Or, then again, maybe not. I may have just reviewed my first bootleg soda(is that even a thing?)

Packaging- 3.5/5
It's uninspired and kind of tacky. Granted, it has to compete with some other pretty bright packaging in the Asian market, so I guess it kind of has to be. 

Aroma- 4.5/5
Smells like a freshly-peeled orange. It loses half a point for not doubling as potpouri as a real orange would.

Taste- 6/7
Best orange soda I've ever had. Sweet, tart and slightly sour.

Overall- 14/17
Packaging was meh, but the smell, taste and mouth feel were amazing. The ester gum solids should be an across the board replacement for BVO, which doesn't seem too hard a thing when the E.U. doesn't allow BVO and neither does India. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Sarsi

My daughter and I decided to stop into a local Asian grocer to kill some time while her sister participated in swim lessons, and after browsing cluttered aisles and overflowing shelves packed to the brim with myriad pre-packaged food products that all appeared to contain seafood of some kind, we finally decided to make our way back to the front to check out the eighties-style display coolers to look for obscure sodas. Boy, did I find one(along with another fruity soda that was a new brand but old favorite, which I will review another time).

I found Sarsi. A short, rather squat bottle with a red-white and blue color scheme reminiscent of two of the three most popular cola brands(Pepsi and Royal Crown), and the sickly-thick brown color to match. I got out to car, and went to open it and take a sip-only to find that it was(unsurprisingly) not a twist-off cap. So, I proceeded to unbuckle myself(safety first!), and my daughter and haul the sodas back inside in search of a bottle opener. I asked the man at the front, whom instructed me that the lady working in the cooler had one. After following my nose to the cooler-which at once reeked of rotting fish and dirty bleach-water, I had freed my beverages from their metallically capped prisons.
I got outside, took a sip, and was floored by an amazing flavor. It was familiar, but I couldn't place it. It wasn't like any other cola(although it had small hints of the background bouqet of China Cola), but it also wasn't like any other one thing I'd had before.
So-research was in order. The bottle let me know this specific one was from Singapore, but upon researching the brand name I learned it is produced in the Phillipines, and is a Sarsaparilla beverage. That explains why I recognized the flavor. I also discovered that Coca-Cola tried to bring down Sarsi's hold on the "root beer" market(not that I'd ever call this a root beer)  by releasing Barq's to the area. Lo and behold, Sarsi destroyed Barq's in sales, so Coca-Cola stopped competing- they pulled Barq's from the shelves/restaurants in the Phillipines and simply bought Sarsi. I guess that was one way of doing it. Anyways-onward!

Packaging - 4.5/5
Simple, to the point-but slightly misleading. I was expecting something a little more cola-like in taste based on the colors alone. Don't really know what color it should be, but maybe blue over orange would have been good-Cola Root Beer would have both been evoked and left me with no expectations but no surprises.

Aroma - 3/5
Smelled slightly herbally, and very sweet. Sugar and slightly root beer-esque, but not much so.

Taste - 5.5/7
Tastes good. Sweet, a little tart, some tang to it, and quite drinkable overall. I could drink this to refresh myself, to have something to sip on during the car-ride to work. Strongly preferred over a lot of other drinks-wouldn't consider it a root beer or a cola-maybe something in between.

Overall - 13/17
Really well put together soda. I see why it sold so well and has been distributed across the globe. It's incredibly flavorful without drawing many comparisons.