Understandably, we here at IPTB get pretty hung up about a good drink. Beer, liquor, wine, cocktails, it’s just the tops! But no matter where life takes you, you’ll never forget that first love. For me it was a summer romance, because there’s nothing that goes with a hot Maine afternoon like a really, really good soda.
These days big brand sodas have all but swallowed the market whole, to the point where many people aren’t even aware that craft sodas exist. But small-batch producers of craft root beers, ginger beers, colas, shandys, and any number of other flavors are turning out products for a more discerning palette than either Coke or Pepsi can provide.
Now there’s no doubt that Coca Cola is an iconic piece of Americana and holds a special place in our cultural history; besides which, we wouldn’t have drinks like the Cuba Libre without it. But the difference between small craft soda producers and their mega-corporate counterparts is essentially the same as that between a microbrewery and Budweiser. Coke, Pepsi, and Budweiser all have to appeal to the widest market possible and produce their products on the largest scale possible. A microbrewery, or in this case a small-scale soda producer, only has to appeal to a niche market. Therefore they can take more risks, put more care into the quality of their beverage, and produce something truly unique and delicious.
Now there are untold brands and varieties of micro-produced sodas, and by their very nature most are only available near where they are produced. But we’re going to cover the two most common types of craft sodas: root beers and ginger beers.
Originally produced from the roots of the Sassafras tree (Sarsparilla and Birch Beer are variations originally derived from different tree roots), all commercially available root beers are now made from artificial flavoring since it was discovered that Sassafras root might cause cancer. This doesn’t necessarily detract from root beer’s status as a craft beverage though. Though cheap brands like A&W and Mug dominate the market, small-scale producers are turning out products with surprising depth and complexity of flavor. For a nationally available root beer that sets the bar for quality, look to Virgil’s. Though even Virgil’s pales in comparison with some smaller producers like Capt’n Eli. When tasting a good root beer, you can often taste subtle flavors like vanilla, caramel, or even anise.
Ginger Beer (or Ginger Brew)
Not as popular as root beer, ginger beer takes a special palette to appreciate. While most sodas are over-sweetened, a good ginger beer should have a spicy bite to it. (This is generally what distinguishes ginger beer from ginger ale, though that’s not always a reliable distinction.) Originating as an alcoholic beverage popular in England and Ireland, which employed a simple fermentation technique, the drink travelled to the Caribbean where it took hold in local cultures. While the original alcoholic version is hard to find commercially anymore, it’s not difficult to home brew. As a soft drink, ginger beer is gaining in popularity. Similar to Virgil’s root beer, Reed’s Ginger Brew is a nationally distributed brand that makes a good benchmark of quality (they’re actually produced by the same company). Again, there are other, harder to find brands that I personally prefer (Maine Root Ginger Brew), but Reed’s is an excellent place to start.
The One that Got Away
Most of what I know about craft sodas I learned as a counselor at a family summer camp in Maine. Once a week the adults would sample local beer and cheeses, and being 18 at the time, I would help entertain the children with a local soda tasting. It was here that I began to appreciate quality made sodas, and especially ginger beer. On one of my days off I meandered down the road to a local T-shirt shop. There, in the shop’s old 1950s style refrigerator I found a single can of a ginger beer brand that I had never seen before (and can’t recall it now). It was a warm afternoon in one of the best summers of my life, and I don’t deny my nostalgia, but I still maintain that that was the best soda I’ve ever had. Later I looked into where I might find it elsewhere and found that the company had shut its doors about six months before that day. By sheer chance I had happened upon what may have been one of the last cans of a Caribbean-made soda in a small T-shirt shop in rural Maine.
You’ll forgive me a bit of sentiment, but this is precisely the sort of thing that led me to boozehoundery. Alcohol has been an integral part of human history literally since the dawn of civilization. Every good drink has a story that goes with it. Booze history and lore, though not always factual and often nostalgic, is part of the appeal of a well-made drink. When done correctly, and in moderation, a good drink can bring people together, spark new friendships, and create a community where before there were strangers.