John Romano was having dinner with his family at a small brewery in Ellicottville, N.Y., when his daughter Brooke went bananas over the root beer. “Daddy, daddy, you have to try this,” the 10-year-old girl pleaded. Romano took a sip and the marked taste of anise and cinnamon intrigued him so much he bought a case of 12 bottles. Immediately he started thinking about making it himself at the family’s craft brewery, Better Bitters Brewing Co., in Burlington, Ont. Romano searched the Internet for recipes and fiddled around with a few, but the batches he made were terrible. “The first time it was basically dirty sugar water. Second time? Dirtier sugar water,” he admits. The current list of ingredients in Romano’s Babbling Brooke root beer reads more like a witches’ brew: sassafras and burdock roots, cinnamon bark, star anise, orange peel, vanilla and sugar. Nothing else. No corn syrup or other sweeteners. No fake tastes cooked up in a food lab. “When it says artificial flavours and colours, poof! It’s not real anymore,” he says.
Getting the recipe right was only the first hurdle. There was no way Romano could produce enough root beer out of a bag of cinnamon sticks from the bulk store. He needed to find a supplier who could give him 50 kilos at once. He hired a friend “who’s into natural remedies and that kind of stuff” to help put a supply chain together, but it dragged on for a year.
These days, when the brewery is not making beer, Romano steeps his concoction in a giant kettle overnight, the first step of a three-day process that produces between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of root beer. The result is a spicy and sweet soda that tastes nothing like the stuff you find at the grocery store. The price is also steep: $30 for 24 bottles. “It’s pretty much the price of beer,” Romano says, “but I also have thousands of dollars in ingredients costs.” Romano is now looking for a distributor who can take his root beer beyond southern Ontario, where he’s directly supplying about 40 restaurants and a couple of small grocery chains, which sell a regular 355-ml bottle for as much as $4 a pop.
Making soft drinks from scratch, however, doesn’t have to be that complicated. Just look at what Kevin Durkee and Tom Douangmixay are doing at their recently opened Cheesewerks in Toronto, where the focus is on grilled cheese sandwiches. There is no Pepsi or Coke, just their own pop made to order with simple syrup (sugar dissolved in water) whirled in a blender with mango, strawberry or melon, and then mixed with carbonated water from a pump. When the fruit is frozen, it goes into the blender just like that. If it is fresh, they’ll cook it a little just to break it down. It’s so simple and true to the fruits’ flavours that you can’t compare it to anything poured from a dispenser at a fast-food joint. And, yes, for the bubbles, you can use sparkling water or buy a carbonating machine. As for the sugar, there is approximately two tablespoons in each tall glass. A 591-ml bottle of pop has about 16.
The guys at Cheesewerks are part of a fresh batch of restaurateurs who bypassed the Coke-Pepsi dilemma altogether by declining to go either red or blue. In downtown Toronto alone, the chefs at Woodlot, Ortolan and Hey Meatball! all make their sodas in-house instead of buying them in cans, bottles or kegs. Not even so-called premium brands of bottled pop like Dad’s, Jones or Boylan make the cut for them. “I don’t give my daughter bottled juice, canned pop, none of that processed stuff. So if I’m not going to let her drink it, I’m not going to serve it,” says chef Rodney Bowers of Hey Meatball! Every other week after closing time, Bowers will stay late preparing infusions and syrups, which will be mixed with carbonated water and ice as the orders come in for ginger ale, blood orange or lime pop. Way past lunch time on a Tuesday afternoon, Melanie Desa walks into the restaurant and greets Bowers and a couple of the other customers. She’s a regular, but she doesn’t come for the food. Her drink is ginger ale, which Bowers stirs into a tall glass with ice and a couple of ginger shavings. “I hate canned pop. This is much better,” Desa says of the $3 drink. Last summer Bowers made strawberry, apple and even a celery-cucumber pop, which he says was a sweeter version of a Kew Garden cocktail, minus the rum.
It’s impossible to nail down exactly where the handcrafted pop trend started, but the answer may lie in any restaurant with a decent bar, where the right ingredients from the kitchen meet with bubbles and sugar and the whole thing is turned into a non-alcoholic spritzer. That is the case at Woodlot, where chef Kevin Korslick partnered with barman-in-chief Duncan MacNeill to create recipes for the restaurant’s cola, tonic water, orange soda and other kinds of pop. They didn’t want to commit to a soft-drink supplier anyway, but it turned out to be cheaper to make it themselves. “When you look at the raw ingredients, making a more natural product from scratch is actually more cost-effective,” says MacNeill, who described the cost as minimal. The experience has been so positive that in February he will open a new sandwich restaurant to be called the Federal, where he will sell a pop and sandwich combo for as little as $10.
However recent it may be in Toronto, homemade soft drinks have been around for awhile in New York. That is where, two winters ago, cocktail aficionados Antonio Ramos and Caroline Mak came to an impasse while trying to perfect the Dark N’ Stormy, a drink made of ginger beer and rum. They couldn’t find ginger beer that actually tasted enough like ginger for their taste. So they decided to make their own, but they also saw a business opportunity there and decided to experiment with a few other flavours. After trying out their sodas on friends, when spring came around they got a table at a flea market in Brooklyn, where they live. Not only did they sell out, but a local chef tried the pop and became a client, kick-starting their artisanal soda business, the Brooklyn Soda Works.
Working out of their kitchen and without any culinary training, Ramos and Mak have developed about 40 different flavours, including cucumber lime with sea salt, grapefruit jalapeno with honey, and rhubarb with Thai basil. They supply the pop in kegs to various restaurants in New York, but they also do catering, just in case people want to shell out $80 for a five-gallon keg of apple and rosemary pop for a birthday party. “We can’t even begin to compete with regular soda. Our sodas are the price of fruit juice,” says Mak.
Both Ramos and Mak still hold their day jobs—he is a chemist and she’s an installation artist—while the pop business keeps growing. “We’re happy in our careers. We just like to make things that we would be happy drinking ourselves,” says Mak, speaking from Laos, where the couple was on vacation, trekking and kayaking, but also scouting for new exotic flavours. Judging from their experience, if you’re going to try this at home, by all means do it.