By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
Craft soda was one of the biggest food and beverage trends of 2015. Portland is a rich and varied landscape for this category, and as usual, branches out into the eclectic with its offerings. While the non-alcoholic beverage category in a restaurant may not be the one that gets your average beverage director excited, compelling flavors are on the rise and creativity is piquing. The rising tide that lifts all boats has spawned some fantastic bubbly beverages available at more and more restaurants across the city. When they start to sneak into mixed drinks, the fun really starts.
The Multi-Facets Begin
Portland Soda Works’ Chris Onstad said that in his former life as a restaurant critic for Portland Monthly, he found most of his non-alcoholic options could be boiled down to "milk, Diet R.C. and orange juice.” This ultimately fueled his venture into artisan craft soda. Onstad now churns out flavors like Root Beer brewed with Indian sarsaparilla, Hoprose, which effectively argues the point that hops are not just for beer, and Crimson Turk, a Middle-Eastern spiced soda that is “ideal for mixing with light, clear liquors.” Water Avenue Coffee combines their cold press with PSW’s bottled toddy cola for what is sure to be a game-changing way to caffeinate. Chris also states on his website that the syrups are great as brush-ons for cakes, muffins, cookies, and scones.
FoodableTV recently drew on the correlation between craft soda and consumers that crave more options of the low-sugar variety. Additionally, studies indicate that almost half of those that regularly drink soda are interested in trying those with more natural ingredients. Portland’s Hot Lips Pizza, which opened its original location in 1984, started brewing artisan soda to serve in their restaurants in 2005. Their goal was always to keep it simple, local, and as additive-free as possible. Many of their sodas contain fresh fruit pulp, and some are completely sugar-free. A far cry from the R.C. Cola that set Chris’ wheels turning. The experiment was a huge success, and their products can now be found in 16 states and all over Portland. They even cite their Hot Lips Black Raspberry as a perfect pairing for a cheese course. Who’d have thought?
Eclectic Mixer Spans Soda & Cocktails
One of Portland’s most iconic restaurants, Pok Pok, has been flying somewhat under the radar with one of the most interesting mixers around: the Pok Pok Som. Som is a traditional drinking vinegar, also known to many as a Shrub. Used for centuries in many cultures, Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker says Som has been “an integral part of (their) beverage program for over eight years.” Used as a cocktail mixer as well as in housemade soft drinks, this intriguingly sweet yet tart taste has captivated many a palate. Som currently comes in nine flavors, such as Tamarind, Chinese Celery, Thai Basil, Tumeric, Honey and Pomegranate. The imagination can literally run wild with this kind of diversity. Indeed, the “No Proof” section of Pok Pok’s sister restaurant Whiskey Soda Lounge should make all others weep with jealousy.
We wondered, is it appropriate to lump Som into the "Artisanal Soda" trend? Ricker theorized, “I think that would be appropriate, yes. There are lots of different takes on sodas these days from fruit juice based to low sugar, to herbal blends and I think Pok Pok Som should be a compelling brand in the mix.” He goes on to describe the unique role that Som plays in their beverage programs: “Drinking vinegars are a great accompaniment to spicy foods such as Thai and they have an inherent digestif quality that works well with our dishes also. The concentrate is amazing as a mixer for cocktails as they combine sweet, tart and flavoring into one elixir.”
If you’re still not jumping on the bandwagon, Andy invited us to check out the following cocktail recipe, a collaboration with House Spirits Distillery:
1 1/2 oz. Krogstad Aqua Vit
1/2 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
1/2 oz. Pineapple Som
2 1/2 oz. Soda Water
Mix Krogstad, lemon juice, and Som in a tall glass. Top with ice and soda. Stir.
Should we be on the lookout for a craft cider like explosion in the craft soda category? Or has it flows as high as a non-alcoholic beverage can fly? It certainly seems to be following a familiar pattern: take a known and loved product and add 1.) small batch, 2.) natural &/or local ingredients, and 3.) up the creativity with unusual flavors and a touch of nostalgia. Sounds very familiar. Not to be viewed in a negative light, what sets Portland apart is its cooperative nature.
Along the way, Portland Soda Works’ Chris Onstad says he had help from Portland chefs, soda brewers, and cider-makers alike. "What Portland gets right,” he explained, “is that it's a collaborative environment. People share ideas and ingredients, and everything in town gets better, and because of that, so does the quality of life."
And just to complete the trifecta, national big brands seem to be playing along. Just this year, Mountain Dew released Mountain DewShine, a beverage that is made with natural sugar, and only available in glass bottles. Not to be outdone, PepsiCo recently announced they’d be selling Caleb’s Kola, made with sparkling water, cane sugar and Kola nut extract.
Natural skepticism might question the long-term success of a trajectory like DewShine for a big company. But the rising tide that is Portland’s craft soda scene has certainly risen successfully.