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Saturday, April 3, 2010

China Cola

The thing that is initially most striking about China Cola (besides its trapped-firmly-in-the-early-1980s look), is the smell that wafts up when you twist off the bottle cap. It is not one of sugary sweetness as you find with most colas--it is an herbal scent, almost medicinal. And rightfully so; bottled by REED'S Inc., famous for their array of natural ginger brews, China Cola gets its name from the imported Chinese herbs and spices that are a primary part of the drink's recipe. But more than the Szechuan peony root and Malaysian vanilla, the distinct smell of China Cola seems to owe itself to its interesting blend of nutmeg, cardamom, licorice and cloves. A lot of licorice and cloves.

Like its scent, the soda's taste also is much closer to that of a Dr. Pepper in its medicinal sharpness than Pepsi or Coke. It's an interesting quality, but I can't quite say I enjoy it. Drinking a bottle by itself is almost too much, like sucking down some kind of organic cough syrup. It's not very heavily carbonated, and ends up falling flat within a few minutes of being open. But interestingly enough, considering its name, as I was drinking my first bottle, I couldn't help but think how good it might taste alongside a takeout container of General Tso's chicken from China Taste in Ephrata. A nice side of pork-fried rice. Won-ton soup. Mmmm...

Please excuse my wandering stomach. With its prominent but mild spices, I really do believe China Cola would make a nice compliment to a meal like that, regardless of its name. On its own, however, I can't even really find myself wanting to finish an entire bottle. I just sort of want to sniff it, still completely intrigued by the smell. And by the packaging. I'm not sure what they're going for here, but these bottles look like they were lost in the corner of some dusty warehouse for the last two decades. The yellow-red-teal color scheme isn't doing much for the dated design or typography either, and worst of all, the labels themselves are the cheap paper kind that wanted to wrinkle and peel off when I washed a bottle for my archive. Yes, I keep an archive. It doesn't even look appetizing. Labeling a soda in Eighties Coney Island colors doesn't do much for the perception of taste; it's like packaging meat in a green wrapper. A grocery faux pas. It gives off a bad vibe, a subconscious questioning of quality. And so most don't do it. REED'S, however, was not to be deterred. Too bad.

Ultimately, despite being perhaps one of the healthiest sodas I've ever reviewed on here with all of its natural ingredients and herbs and spices--and even raw cane sugar as a sweetener--I don't know if I would suggest it to anyone. It could be conditionally good (if you've got a styrofoam container of noodles and MSG sitting in front of you) but then wouldn't you still rather have something you like otherwise? I'd love to give it an A for intrigue and originality, but like its fizziness (fizzocity?), the drink just falls a little flat for me.

TASTE: 4/10
LOOK: 2/10
OVERALL: D

PRICE: $2.99/4-12oz. btls ($.06/oz)
BUY IT: Right By Nature, Pittsburgh PA

Friday, March 19, 2010

An overhaul!

That's right, I decided that before I start writing new reviews (and I've got two bottles sitting right beside me as we speak!) I should probably do the site redesign that I'd been telling myself I'd do for months now. As you can see, if you are familiar with my regular blog, The Hypermagic Headphase, this one now matches not only in name but in design! It's almost like I'm doing it on purpose. In fact, in the brand new picture I've got up there on the right, I even happen to be wearing the same flannel shirt! Wild stuff, huh?

Of course, don't think this means I'm actually going to start updating this silly thing regularly. I'm still as lazy as ever, and I usually go to the same grocery store every week and Redner's doesn't carry anything beyond Stewarts and IBC. Still, when I see something new and strange, I promise I'll pick it up and give it a try. Perhaps to pass the time when interesting soda-related news comes out, I'll blog about that too. Thankfully that doesn't happen very often, or I'd really be putting myself out.

Still, I'd like to try to make this more of a regular thing, especially because people have actually been down my throat about updating. I had no idea people actually even knew this thing existed, but a friend of mine was over the other night and starting bitching about how I never review things anymore and offered to pick up sodas for me whenever he sees them in his own travels. Which is a brilliant idea. So put your money where your mouth is, Bill Halstrick. I'll give you my home address and you start sending me cases. Then you'll get your reviews, you whiny git.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer

Before I can truly review Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer, I should really get into the difference between birch beer and its more popular cousin, root beer: well, there is none. At one time there was, and maybe in the teeny-tiniest little indie brews with the most organic ingredients there still is, but as of 2009, almost all "beers" have the delectably ambiguous flavoring known only as "Artificial and Natural" on their labels.

Historically, the difference has been that birch beer is flavored with the bark and sap of a birch tree, and that root beer is flavored with sassafras. What this means for anyone less than a tree connoisseur is absolutely nothing, other than the fact that "sassafras" is an awesome word. The flavors nowadays are virtually the exact same. Some argue that birch beer is the milder of the two, but I've always considered it a bit more bitter and sharp, a little more herbal in its flavor. But with the fluctuation just in the popular root beers currently on the market, from Mug's creamy end of the spectrum to the bite of Barq's, it's sort of just a made up differentiation anyway.

Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer falls fittingly right into that mediocrity. It's not a bad soda, but there really isn't all that much to say about it. It's birch beer. Or root beer, maybe. Possibly sarsaparilla. It's kinda brown and tastes like they might have put some kind of plant parts in it. And that's about it. Just like everything we do here in P.A. Dutch Country, it's more function than form. We are veritable masters of flavorless food that just gets you from Point A to Point B and then comes out of Point C at some point later in the day. Much like pot pie or ham loaf, Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer holds its place among our culture of efficiently mediocre edible fuel.

I guess ultimately, as disappointing as USA Beverage, Inc.'s little bottle of birch beer is, they've totally nailed what they are going for. You couldn't ask for a blander, less memorable soda, and that perfectly crystallizes what Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is all about. Plus, with high fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient, you can get fat just like us Central Pennsylvanians as well! Win-win? I think so. At least it has that cool hex sign logo. A single bonus point for that against the weight of the cheesy horse and buggy silhouette for graphic design.

TASTE: 3/10
LOOK: 5/10
OVERALL: D+

PRICE: $2.99/4-12oz. btls ($.06/oz)
BUY IT: Weaver Markets, Adamstown PA

Friday, November 6, 2009

Flathead Lake Monster Sour Cherry

Upon walking into my old local grocery store in Pittsburgh when I visited the other weekend, I was excited to pick up one of my favorite sodas in the world--only to find that the price of it had gone through the roof. I debated picking up some Sprecher's Ravin' Red anyway, but reconsidered with my utter lack of employment and spending money, and went for a bargain buy: Flathead Lake Monster's Sour Cherry. And not a bad replacement it proved to be. Not bad at all.

A cherry-flavored beverage, like the drink I was originally planning on buying (and will, to review, someday), it is a definite step up from my most recently reviewed soda, Olde Philadelphia Black Cherry. I'm not exactly sure what the difference between "sour cherry" and "black cherry" is, but that's why I'm listing all of the different varieties as simply "cherry" anyway. Suffice it to say, the two flavors are very similar. However, Olde Philadelphia's and Flathead Lake Monster's approaches are vastly different. That is to say, Flathead's cherry-flavored bev is actually pretty damn good. It's got a real tang to it, not too sweet but also not lip-puckeringly sour. The taste is memorable, which might be a weird thing to say about a soda. But as I sit here sipping on it, mulling it over in my mind, I can still feel it on my tongue. Where O.P.'s cherry concoction was bland at best, Flathead brings a punch to the flavor, making me want to crack open another one as soon as this bottle is empty.

And really, let's discuss this bottle itself. A serpentine lake monster wearing sporty sunglasses, his tongue trailing back in the wind? You're damn right. It might not be an extremely classy logo, but we're making soda here, not champagne. Just like the flavor, it is memorable. It's just a shame that they ruin it with the "Sour Cherry" sticker on the neck. It's unneeded, in my opinion, and the realistic artwork of the cherry is at odds with the graffiti-style monster and waves. Furthermore, the sticker is peeling off, which gives the entire bottle a sense of cheapness to me. As for the "Montana's Legendary Soda" emblazoned across the top of the main label... who knows? Flathead Lake Monster Gourmet Soda is bottled by North American Beverage Company in Ocean City, New Jersey. I suppose it could have been bought out, or maybe the recipes still come from Montana, or something. Or maybe it's some kind of reference that I just don't get because I come from a part of America where people actually live. Still, I can't hate on it. This stuff is pretty damn good. Chalk one up to a surprise win for the Monster.

TASTE: 8/10
LOOK: 6/10
OVERALL: B+

PRICE: $4.39/4-12oz. btls ($.09/oz)
BUY IT: Giant Eagle Market District, Pittsburgh PA

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Throwin' it back

We are in the midst of something interesting. On the soda front, that is. Just this week, PepsiCo has brought to the table one of their most intriguing ideas yet: the release of "Throwback" versions of its two hottest drinks, Mountain Dew and Pepsi-Cola. What does that mean? Sugar. Not high-fructose corn syrup. Pretty damn cool.

Staying true to CEO, Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi's, vision for the company's future in healthier products and more environmentally responsible leadership, Pepsi's new eight-week long campaign for the spring is certainly something I would never have expected. Truth be told, I am more of a Coke man when it comes to the two major brands, preferring not only the flavor of their self-named cola but also that of Barq's Root Beer (to Pepsi's Mug) and Sprite (to Pepsi's Sierra Mist), but this project of Pepsi's really caught my attention. It didn't hurt that my friends Ryan and Amanda had a case of the new (old) Pepsi in their house. So along with another case of old (new) Pepsi, we spent Friday night doing what anyone would do: a blind taste-test.

We broke out a can of each, and in secretly marked paper cups (with a cup each of water and a sleeve of Saltines as palate cleansers--this was the real deal, buddies), poured an equal amount of both the current recipe including HFCS and the Throwback with its mixture of pure cane and beet sugar. Then, the four of us around Ryan's kitchen table (Miller was there too, after a lengthy bike ride all afternoon), began sipping and philosophizing.

There wasn't a clear directive in our experiment, just a curiousity about how different the two drinks really would be, back to back. We were quick to find that there definitely were differences, leading us to posit two obvious questions:

1) Which one was which?
2) Which one was better?

We sat and thought on both of these for quite a while, each of us with our own theories. Since we didn't know much science on how each should taste, we took shots in the dark, assuming that the "heavier" of the drinks (slightly more syrupy-tasting and prone to clinging to the sides of the cup) must be the HFCS--an assumption that, now, I don't even remember if we were correct about. Sounds right to me though. One of the two drinks was much sweeter than the other also, but we had no idea what that meant. Ultimately, we all ended up pretty much preferring the sweeter of the two, though we were mixed on which we had actually chosen. As we lifted our cups to look for the X Ryan had marked on the bottoms of the HFCS samples, we all had to cringe. There were four X's. Pepsi had gotten us after all--we really did prefer the super-sweetness of the HFCS over the more mild flavor of the sugar.

However, the preference was a minor one. Ryan pointed out that he would be far more prone to actually drink an entire can of the sugar recipe, whereas he usually doesn't finish one of the "normal" cans because the sweetness is too overwhelming. A valid point, especially because we were only taking a few swallows before making our decisions. The kicker for the rest of us had nothing to do with the sweetness but in other aspects of the production itself. In the time it took for us to sample both drinks, the sugar recipe had gone all but completely flat. Whether this is because of the lack of HFCS or due to other changes in the Throwback recipe (and there are a few, if you compare their labels), we did not know. Still, that was a far more major deciding factor than the actual flavor itself for the majority of us.

But as I said before, it was a close call. There was no absolute winner, and later that night when we taste-tested the Mountain Dews in a similar fashion, the Throwbacks turned out a 2-2 draw against the HFCS recipe (though it should be mentioned that at least three of us testing hate Mountain Dew in general, so there may have been confounding variables on what exactly is "good" in said fizzy drink). What we all could agree on when everything was said and done was that we would absolutely welcome a long-term, sugar-sweetened line from Pepsi. The health benefits (or perhaps "lesser detriments to one's well-being," since soda isn't exactly a health food to begin with) of sugar over HFCS far outweigh the miniscule difference in taste. Chances are, the vast majority of the soda-drinking public wouldn't even notice a change. I certainly don't think I'd have realized anything was different if we hadn't nerded out and done a taste test.

It's only too bad that the Throwbacks are only going to be here into June, so if you want to give them a try, you'll have to hit up your local convenience stores soon. Actually, buy up as much as you can: if they make enough money on the promotion, maybe they'll introduce a permanent sugar-sweetned line; if they don't, you'll have collectors items on your hands if you can hold onto them for another thirty or forty years. It's a win-win situation.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Olde Philadelphia Black Cherry

Olde Philadelphia's line of gourmet sodas is actually produced by Lion Brewery way up in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Still a local company, but how they get Philadelphia into their name (or why they need an "E" at the end of "Old") is something of a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the label says "Ben Franklin" in dual-colored italics just under the Liberty Bell logo. I mean, I know he was from Philly and everything, but his name has absolutely no purpose on this bottle. Especially as busy as the decal already is.

But enough about Olde Philadelphia's graphic design short-comings. There are enough short-comings in the soda itself to harp on. Harsh? Eek. OP's Black Cherry isn't the worst cherry soda you'll ever drink for sure, but it just isn't much to write home about. The flavor is a little thin, sort of like a melted snow cone. It is distinctly cherry, but not much more. No zing of honey or ginseng or any of the other common additions that are often used to embolden the flavor of independent sodas. An ingredient I was very excited to see exempt from the list, however: high fructose corn syrup! Yes, OP is pure cane sugar. Though the amount of mysterious "artificial flavoring" (never explained beyond those two words) and coloring they add (Red #40 and Blue #1) to achieve the drink's deep crimson hue are probably more than enough to counteract any health benefits leaving HFCS out might have given. When are these companies going to realize that the people buying their products just don't care what color their soda is, so long as it tastes delicious? We all know coke isn't really brown and that cherry isn't really red. Plus, if you want to approximate natural color, use something natural to do it. I'd almost guarantee an increase in sales from the true-blue organic buyers alone.

Lion Brewery prides themselves on producing classic flavors that hearken back to a simpler time, and I suppose they have succeeded in that. Olde Philadelphia is certainly stripped down to its barest of parts. But while I can definitely appreciate such a mission, I think the flavor suffers from it in this case. Instead of simplifying like they did, it would have definitely been in OP's better interest to "naturalize" instead and keep a certain... pow to their recipe. At least something that I'll remember it by. OP might have done what they set out to do, but they haven't impressed me in the process. The only thing I'll have stuck in my memory is this "Ben Franklin" business. Seriously. What the hell is that all about?

TASTE: 5/10
LOOK: 4/10
OVERALL: C-

PRICE: $2.99/4-12oz. btls ($.06/oz)
BUY IT: Weis Markets, Ephrata PA

Monday, January 26, 2009

IBC Root Beer

Since this is the beginning of a brand new blog for me, I figured there was no better way to try out the ropes than with one of my absolute standbys, IBC Root Beer. Everything about the Independent Breweries Company's root beer is classic: from its simple bottle with subtly raised letters instead of a flashy label, to a taste that instantly makes everything around you turn to sepia tone. Okay, maybe that only happens if you're doing shrooms while you drink it. Don't look at me, the internet said so.

IBC as a company started my obsession with independently brewed sodas. When I used to go to Sea Isle City with my church youth group, we'd always buy Stewart's Root Beer from the convenience store across the street. By the time the weekend was over, we'd have piles of empty bottles in the room where we were sleeping, and I had found a new favorite drink--but it was when I went to the grocery store upon arriving home that first year, I found that there was an even cheaper alternative in stock, a package of blank brown bottles with the letter IBC branded right into the glass. I figured I might as well give it a try, if nothing else I'd save a few bucks.

And so it began. A completely (literally) unhealthy obsession that lives on to this day.

There are two basic types of root beer: the creamy, heady kind like Mug and A&W, and the bitey, zing-to-the-back-of-your-throat-and-scratch-like-an-angry-cat-the-whole-way-down-your-esophagus kind like IBC and Barq's. Obviously, seeing as I think that IBC quite possibly makes the best root beer in the world, I am an ardent supporter of the latter camp. However, I know quite a few people who prefer the creamy style to the point that they feel brews like Barq's and IBC are almost a different kind of drink completely. If you are of this opinion but have never tried IBC, it is probably not the drink for you. It almost burns on the first sip, tingling the roof of your mouth and going down just as sharp. And the burning doesn't stop! Every last sip of an IBC has the same amount of bite. I left a bottle open for a few hours today while I went across town to record music with a friend, and when I arrived home this evening, the last few sips were still well-carbonated--rich, sassafras razor blades even hours later. I have no idea what they put in this stuff, but it's got staying power. Actually, all that's in it, other than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup, is some coloring, sodium benzoate, modified food starch, citric acid and a good ol' dose of flavoring (natural and artificial). No caffeine though.

It's definitely not the healthiest soda on the market, that's for sure. Many indie brewers use cane or beet sugar, and plain old salt for preservation. It's also not technically a completely indie brand anymore. The company started out small in St. Louis, Missouri in 1919, but by the 1970's was sold to a larger company, then in 1980 it was passed off to the Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up Bottling Company (still, a separate entity from the Big Two), but in in recent years, Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up was bought out by the British snack conglomerate, Cadburry Schweppes. However, the recipe through all those changes has remained the same, and the spirit of the tiny, struggling company that started it all almost a hundred years ago remains strong in the taste, the style and the price. As their motto says right on the side of the packaging, "IBC Bottles Memories." I couldn't agree more.

TASTE: 9/10
LOOK: 7/10
OVERALL: A

PRICE: $3.00/6-12oz. btls ($.04/oz)
BUY IT: At just about any grocery store; I got mine at Redners Warehouse Markets, Ephrata PA