If you’ve walked down the soda aisle in your local grocery store lately, you may have noticed the multitudes of artisanal sodas. Even as the sales of traditional soda declines, artisanal soda sales are growing. To learn more, we got in touch with our new friends at Portland Soda Works in
Portland, Oregon. They told us about their concoction processes and gave us some easy tips to create delicious soda syrups at home. The punch line: it’s a fun, creative process, and it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds!
Founded by Dan McLaughlin and Chris Onstad in 2012, Portland Soda Works brews small-batch handcrafted sodas using all-natural ingredients. I recently spoke with Dan by phone, who explained, “We’re kind of trying to create the Belgian beer of soda.” Much of the initial inspiration for the company came from Chris’s job as a food critic. He didn’t drink alcohol when he visited restaurants, and he found the selections of nonalcoholic beverages to pair with his delicious meals were paltry. So, Chris took it upon himself to create a good-tasting, high-quality, healthier, classy alternative to popular sodas; Dan soon joined him in this noble effort.
How did Portland Soda Works evolve? Dan explains, “Basically, at first we were just tinkering in our kitchen for fun; we just wanted to create interesting flavors.” Then, after a lot of experimentation, Chris (the real flavorist of the two) enlisted his chef friends to help refine the flavors. Within a year, Dan and Chris had a handful of different soda syrups, and they began sharing them with friends at parties. The syrups were a big hit. Before long, bartenders in town began requesting syrup bottles for their cocktails and kegs full of soda for their nonalcoholic customers. Dan says, “We never meant to make a business; we just had a passion and a hobby, and then it took off.”
Portland Soda Works’ syrups can now be found in Portland-area natural grocery stores and co-ops, and the brewer is expanding to other cities in Oregon and Washington. Over time, Portland Soda Works has transitioned to only selling syrups, not bottled soda. “We tried some bottled soda, but we found it was easier and more elegant to sell the syrup so people can essentially create their own cocktails or sodas. You can buy a bottle of soda syrup, and then you can have your own soda fountain at home—you can be the soda jerk,” Dan says. The syrups allow for the creation of custom drinks. You can make your beverages more or less sweet, mix them with liquor for a tasty cocktail, or simply add a splash to carbonated water.
I asked Dan to share some soda-making tips in case you’re motivated to create your own soda syrups at home. Below are six hopefully helpful morsels.
- Stick with whole ingredients and avoid artificial flavors. Dan implores all aspiring soda syrup scientists to use whole ingredients and to avoid additives and artificial flavors. He told me, “If you want to make root beer, start with the actual sarsaparilla root. Unfortunately, 95 percent of root beer in this country is made with extracts or artificial flavors.” Dried or fresh herbs, spices, and roots are great options, and Portland Soda Works uses them all. Dan and Chris do steer clear of fresh fruits and berries, however, because those ingredients are likely to ferment.
- Avoid bark dust. When Portland Soda Works began creating its recipes, Dan and Chris sampled countless spices from all over the world. As they sampled sarsaparilla from India and Mexico and vanilla from Madagascar and Tahiti, they discovered the flavor variations can be quite extreme depending on the country of origin, the harvest month, farming practices, and more. After much taste testing, they settled on the right sarsaparilla for their root beer. “For us, it really has to be organic Indian,” says Dan. “I won’t identify any countries, but there are some herbs that just taste like bark dust. I mean, you might as well just go to a pine tree, scrape off some bark, and boil it up.” In the case of vanilla for the brewers’ cream soda, they ended up creating a custom blend of the Tahitian, Madagascan, and Mexican flavors. So take your time, taste a lot of herbs and spices, and keep in mind that even if you come upon the perfect flavor, it may not be available forever. Dan cautions, “You can order from the same country, from the same farm, two different years and the herbs can have two completely different profiles.”
- Experiment—a lot. To get started, you can brew four or five 4-ounce servings of strong single-ingredient teas (herbs steeped in water for five to 10 minutes). Then, start mixing them together using different proportions and flavors, a teaspoon at a time. Dan and Chris bought hundreds of different herbs and spices and combined them until they figured out which flavors ideally complemented one another. Dan advises, “Just try to get creative. You never really know how things are going to play together until you actually combine them. I think it’s best to think outside of the box and try things that you think wouldn’t work together.” A simple Internet search will give you numerous recipes and lots of inspiration to get your juices flowing.
- Visit your local spice shop. Spice shops are a great resource. Dan told me that the company’s local spice shop was a huge help when the men were getting started, providing expert guidance and nerding out with them on flavor profiles, sourcing, and more. Now that Portland Soda Works has grown, Dan and Chris place bulk wholesale orders, but they still appreciate the insights and advice they received early on.
- All sweeteners are not created equal. More often than not, Portland Soda Works uses organic cane sugar because it provides a neutral base and doesn’t add any extra flavor. However, other sweeteners have their place. Portland Soda Works uses a cane sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, and molasses blend for its root beer (is your mouth watering yet?). According to Dan, “Different sweeteners bring out different flavors, and the sweetener is just as important as the other ingredients.”
- It doesn’t take much equipment. If you’re making soda syrup on a small scale at home, you can use a tea ball or cotton muslin bag to make the sweet teas. Then you can use a SodaStream or carbonated water from the store to turn your syrup into soda. See the recipe from Portland Soda Works below if you want a little nudge to get started.
Author: Mara Rose
Editor: Joy Herbers
Photo: Portland Soda Works