Friday, May 6, 2016

Soda Series Round 2

Last month I started my soda reviews with Round 1. I followed a similar process of randomly selecting bottles around the store. For Round 2, I picked Columbia Soda Works Sarsaparilla, Jackson Hole Snake River Sarsaparilla, Nesbitt's of California Honey Lemonade, Green River, Faygo Rock N' Rye and MacFuddy's Pepper Elixir. 

Columbia Soda Works Sarsparilla

I grew up drinking Hey Song Sarsparilla from Taiwan. As such, it has always been the standard marker for me for these types of sodas. As polarizing as root beer typically is, I've often found sarsaparilla to be even more off-putting to those who don't like it. Columbia Soda Works' sarsaparilla was exceedingly bland, tasting like a weak root beer with some little flecks of liquorice. Maybe this was an old bottle, since it also tasted a bit flat, but it was completely underwhelming. 

Jackson Hole Soda Snake River Sarsaparilla

Fortunately, the Jackson Hole sarsaparilla made up for Columbia Soda Works' failing. This one was complex and varied in flavor. I got much anise on the tongue. It's merely decent at first but grows on you over time. I found myself wishing I had more the deeper into the bottle I got. Jackson Hole Soda produces a variety of "old West" type sodas that I'd be eager to try. 

Nesbitt's of California Honey Lemonade

I picked this honey lemonade to break up the dark sodas I've been drinking thus far, but this raised an interesting question--how is soda defined? At its most basic, a soda is carbonated water with sweetener and flavoring. So this honey lemonade fits that definition, though most people would hesitate to call it a soda. It's really a sparkling lemonade. Funnier yet, it's bottle in Texas, not California, and its main sweetener is sugar, not honey. This bottle of contradictions had little appeal flavorwise. I would've preferred a better quality lemonade; adding carbonation did little to improve it. 

Nesbitt's of California was initially out of Los Angeles and was a leading orange soda producer in the 1940s and 1950s. After changing hands several times, the brand landed in the hands of Big Red.

Green River

Green River grew out of Prohibition by yet another brewery pivoting to stay in business. It has a vividly bright green color, which makes it more of a nostalgia or St. Patrick's Day prop than an actual drink. The lime flavor is unremarkable, though the flavor was not as artificial as the color might suggest. 

Faygo Rock N' Rye

Encouraged by the suggestion of one of my law school friends from Michigan, I tried Faygo's Rock N' Rye flavor. The grape Faygo I had gotten in the last round was awful, but this vanilla cherry cream soda had a spicy tang that kept it interesting. Still a tad on the sweet side, but I'd certainly seek this out in the future as it kept my taste buds engaged. Great for fans of cream sodas. I've also been told that Redpop Faygo is worth checking out. 

MacFuddy Pepper Elixir

T'was MacFuddy's Miracle Elixir, that's what did the trick, sir; true, yes, true. I'll admit that the labeling attracted me to this bottle. I was hooked by the "distinctively strong" description and the throwback label design. It reminded me of a potion that snake oil sellers would hock or a video game item that would give a temporary stat boost. It does give 24 hours of luck, after all. The flavor is black cherry but with a strong ginger spicy kick. Think a cross between Dr. Pepper and a potent ginger beer. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Soda Series Round 1

I recently explored San Jose suburb Campbell for the first time. The downtown has a charming small town throwback feel. And look, there's even an independent bookstore! After a delightful cocktail at newly opened The Vesper (and yes, I did order the Vesper and it held up), I wandered into the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop

Rocket Fizz is a national franchise chain, though you might not suspect as much given the character of the store. Though the chain started in 2007, the shop in Campbell felt more personable like a mom and pop shop. I suppose that's their corporate theme, but it worked for what they were selling. I picked the six sodas below--Moxie, Boylan's Birch Beer, Reading Draft White Birch, Faygo Grape, Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Evergreen Elderberry and Cheerwine. 


Last year, I read Stephen King's novel 11/22/63, now made into a Hulu miniseries staring James Franco. The book was long and tedious, but the brief mentions of this Maine mainstay stuck in my mind. One of the oldest mass-produced sodas in this country, Moxie is branded as an elixir, an echo to the drugstore days of fountains and jerks. Taking a sip, I immediately recalled medicinal qualities. Moxie is flavored with gentian root extract, which is an extremely bitter component. Although there are cola flavors, the root gives it a bitterness not unlike the Campari you might find in a Negroni. It's not so bitter to be unpleasant, but you certainly feel more like you're drinking a soda for adults. 

Boylan Birch Beer

Boylan Bottling Company has carved itself a solid niche in cane sugar sodas. It has never used corn syrup as a sweetener and you might find it in some fast casual restaurant chains with its own fountain. 

I often seek out birch beer, the rarer cousin of root beer, wherever I can find it. It's much more popular in the Atlantic northeast; Philadelphia and New Haven come to mind. Think root beer but with an initial blast of spearmint. Boylan's first soda was its birch beer. I could see the appeal but its flavors are two-noted--crisp mint followed by lingering sweetness. 

Reading Draft White Birch

On the other hand, the Reading Draft White Birch Beer had much more subtlety and complexity in its flavor profile. There's less of that overwhelming mint upon first sip and much more calm balance. Granted, this bottle was white birch, compared to the black birch for Boylan's so this isn't a one-to-one comparison. This is a refreshing sipping soda that would feel terrific on a hot and humid day.

Reading Draft & Universal Carbolic Gas claims to use a low pressure slow carbonation process that keeps smaller bubbles in the sodas longer. I couldn't say I could tell the difference, but it did make for a smooth drink.

Faygo Original Grape

I first heard of Faygo as the beverage associated most with juggalos, the fan culture of the Insane Clown Posse. While I know next to nothing about juggalos or ICP, I did remember the name of the soda and reached for it when I had the opportunity. The quick verdict is that it is reminiscent of a liquid purple Otter Pop. It left my mouth cloying and dyed a dreadful shade of vampire purple.

Faygo calls the Midwest its fan base and home. Although the grape is one of its original flavors, the root beer has drawn rave reviews so maybe I'll give it a shot.

Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Evergreen Elderberry

I'm a big fan of St. Germain and elderflower. To me, the herb flavors make balanced and refreshing cocktails. Rocket Fizz actually had a variety of elderflower or elderberry sodas, so I picked one at random. This was one of my favorites of the batch. It was very drinkable by itself, not needing food to cut the sugar. It wasn't too sweet and tasted of slightly woody raspberry. 

Rocky Mountain Soda Co. prides itself on its natural, vegan, GMO-free and kosher ingredients. While none of those designations matter to me in soda selection, I do appreciate that they, like all the other soda makers on this list, use real cane sugar. According to their website, they also offer a prickly pear flavor that intrigues me. 


While many people in this part of the country probably aren't familiar with Cheerwine, this is a North Carolina mainstay. Whenever I meet people from North Carolina, I often ask for their opinion on Cheerwine and Bojangles', the chicken place, not the entertainer. Cheerwine is a cherry soda. It has a deep burgundy color and none of the cola flavors you'd get in a cherry Coke or Pepsi. It's too sweet for me, no surprising considering it also comes the same general geographical area as sweet tea.

Do not confuse Cheerwine with Big Red, another Southern soda that while sharing the same color, has a completely different flavor. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Destination Maui: Feast at Lele

While I can't speak to the authenticity for native Hawaiians of any of the luaus on Maui, I can say that the luau has become a tradition for Hawaiian tourists. As with all such tourist traps, no matter how noble the origins, luaus have generally become more like Medieval Times--entertainment for kids while the parents get too drunk on watered-down piƱa coladas--rather than anywhere an adult would actually want to be.

Because of these pitfalls, I relished that I had no children to amuse or their picky appetites to satiate. For my luau experience, I traded picnic tables for private white tablecloths, a buffet for sixteen courses, and arts and crafts demonstrations for live music. The Feast at Lele in Lahaina is about 20-40% more expensive than the other luaus on Maui. Its focus on fine food, highlighting dishes from the four regions of Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa, with accompanying performances, catered to those who were tired of teriyaki chicken and poi served out of steam tables. There were few kids at this luau, and you could stay seated comfortably while the attentive and friendly waiters made sure that you had whatever luxury you needed.

The dishes are divided into regional specialties highlighting four Polynesian areas. Pictured above are the famous locals, pohole salad and kalua pork. The pork was among the most succulent roast pig I've ever had, carnitas and barbecue pulled pork included. As the sun set, the dishes were too dark to photograph and I refused to intrude on the romantic atmosphere with flash photos. Among some of the other dishes were locally-caught coconut fish, baked scallops, passionfruit shrimp, grilled squid and duck salad. Much of the food may have been too exotic for all but the most adventurous or prodigious kids' palates. Almost all dishes had some sweet component, such as a fruit glaze or sauce. Yet nothing was overwhelmingly sweet. Each of the sixteen dishes could have stood on its own on a menu, far from the lukewarm concoctions spooned out of steel chafers.

Gentle island tunes set the scene for an amazing sunset. Lahaina, on the west coast of Maui, receives very little rain so the outdoor venue was ideal. All the luaus start about an hour before sunset and are located to take advantage of the gorgeous oceanside views. I felt especially thankful that I could enjoy such a magnificent scene free from the scampering and noise of little children.

As required for any luau, there were hula and other Polynesian dances. The performances were increasingly energetic, culminating in a thrilling fire knife dance. By the time the fire dancer brought out the flaming torch, he had to allow enough clearance between the flames and the guests, who gave off alcoholic fumes from too many of the delicious tropical drinks.

As thankful as I was to be able to enjoy a luau the way I wanted, I recognize that Hawaii holds magic for everyone, whatever their circumstances. Luau, as feasts or parties, are family affairs at heart. Whether a big family vacation, a romantic getaway, or something in between, you can find your own aloha whatever you decide to do.

Make sure to book your tickets early. The Feast at Lele sells out early and never at a discount, which should indicate to you its popularity despite its premium price.

Feast at Lele