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Artisanal soft drink makers deliver plenty of flavor
FOOD SODA-ARTISTS 2 KC
Sean Henry pours a bottle of strawberry-lavender soda to pair with a Chicago style hotdog at Big City Hot Dogs in Kansas City, Mo. - photo by Jim Barcus

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sean Henry gently nudges the stopper on the cobalt blue bottle with his thumb and beckons me to lean in close.

He wants me to hear the faint popfftttt - just like Champagne - as it ekes past the stopper .An old-timey looking bale top, the sort of clamp typically used on Grolsch lagers, holds the stopper in place.

That effervescent sound? The fizz of carbonation, a sure sign the yeast that is a part of the natural fermentation process has finished its job.

Henry skips the fine dining pomp of Reidel stemware and pours three different samples of Soda Vie's Thai basil clove into plastic condiment cups. The local bubbly - which is handmade and naturally brewed in miniscule batches in the back of a hot dog shop in south Kansas City, Mo. - actually has more in common with a Bordeux or a Belgian quadrupel than a Coke.

The first soda sample we sip has been "aging" for three or four weeks, enough time to show off the heat of ginger mingled with the herbaceous zing of Thai basil. The second three-month-old sample definitely tastes "clove forward." The third gulp is a double-strength batch originally intended to be a bar mixer that "deepens the experience," one that Henry acknowledges might clash with various food pairings.

We move on to compare root beer with a hint of African coffee against a root beer with chili overtones.

"You can totally taste the cayenne pepper," Henry says, a pink blush rapidly spreading across his nose and cheeks to meet his red hair and beard.

But the smoky overtones need something sweeter to add balance. "Maybe ice cream?" I say.

Henry rises from the table and returns with cups of vanilla ice cream. He pours root beer over the top and pronounces the impromptu float quite tasty, even though a premium ice cream shop he approached about carrying Soda Vie "just didn't get it."

He's not really discouraged by the rebuff. Just incredulous, because that's how much he believes in his alternative pop.

"This is where the future is for us," he says. "I think we're going to make small adjustments, and we're going to extend fermentation and (storage) temperatures to get a deeper extraction. But what we realize is that we're creating a flavor delivery mechanism. Now it's just about finding the flavors we enjoy."

FIZZ WHIZ

In a world of high-fructose corn syrup-infused soft drinks, Soda Vie (www.sodavie.com) is a refreshing change of pace. The sodas are made from natural (and where feasible, organic) ingredients, including fresh ginger, whole cloves, fresh Thai basil and, when a bit of sweetness is required, cane sugar.

Unlike popular commercial sodas, which use water that has been highly charged with carbon dioxide, a process known as forced carbonation, Soda Vie goes into the bottle still and achieves its sparkling quality a few days later as it naturally ferments. The process takes anywhere from 12 hours to three to four days. The finished product must be refrigerated to keep the gas from building up to the point it showers a customer when opened, and each bottle comes with an expiration date.

Since January, Henry and business partner Benjamin Topel have been brewing their artisanal sodas in nano-batches - six and a half gallons, or 48 bottles, at a time. All the production work, from peeling and juicing the gingerroot to snapping the bottles shut, is done by hand. The soda sells for a premium price: $3 to $4.25, plus a $2 bottle deposit.

Topel, 28, shy and quiet with dark, spiky hair and a stripe of a goatee, stumbled onto the soda brewing process while experimenting with root beer and ginger beer recipes.

"We're just emulating what a tavern owner was doing 100 years ago," Henry says, although lab tests have confirmed that there is no more than trace alcohol in the finished brew. "It's not that esoteric a process."

Topel worked in the custom-home construction trade before the recession hit. With extra time on his hands, he began taking test batches of his sodas to Henry, 40, a former software developer who transplanted his family from California three years ago in search of a lower cost of living.

"The first ginger beer I brought Sean was really strong," Topel recalls. "I kept bringing him new batches and kept dialing it back, using his criticisms until one day he said, ‘You should sell this."'

Together they created the Get Real Food Co., which includes Soda Vie, as well as Local Bucha, a line of naturally flavored kombucha teas they sell to health food stores.

Their Soda Vie lineup - which is growing as fast as they can think up new and interesting flavors - includes Thai basil clove, mojito, pineapple-cilantro, cucumber, celery, citrus kicker (ginger beer with grapefruit and cayenne pepper), strawberry-mint, strawberry-lavender. For spring and early summer, they offered the Abby Jo, a limited edition strawberry-rhubarb flavor. For summer's end, they're toying with peach-tarragon. For fall, they're mulling over sodas featuring figs, quince and apples.

Creating flavor profiles is Topel's strength.

"I'm not good with broad strokes. I'm very detail-oriented. I like to organize nuts, bolts and screws," he says, pausing to insert three leaves of Thai basil just-so into the mouth of a bottle.

The more outgoing Henry takes care of the marketing - and most of the bottle washing. (Just about anytime I call his cell phone, I can hear glass bottles clanking in the background.)

So far, only 40 percent of Soda Vie bottles have been returned for the $2 deposit. While Henry admits the bottles are way cool, he prefers to drink his soda from a glass to better taste and smell the flavors of the fruits and spices. He's also not wedded to the cobalt bottles - a clear bottle would better show off the herbs, spices and flower petals.

FLAVOR VEHICLE

At the trendy hamburger bars Blanc Burgers + Bottles and B2, customers can order a Soda Vie straight up or as a mixer - the cocktail menu includes Soda Vie's cucumber-citrus mixed with Hendrick's Gin or Thai basil clove with Wild Turkey American Honey Whiskey.

"We wanted something that we could use (at the bar) that was quick and easy, but chef-oriented," says David McMullin, beverage manager and co-owner of the expanding restaurant chain. "We were looking for a more foodie thing. Something that was a little more sophisticated for adults but that didn't feel like a kids' beverage."

Is there anything else like it on the market?

"Not that I'm aware of."

Initially skeptical of a naturally brewed soda with organic product floating in it, McMullin changed his mind after hisfirst sip of ginger beer.

"My eyes just popped open, and I said, ‘Wow!'

"Next I asked, ‘What are your limits? Can you create any flavor?' They said, ‘Yes.' They make it seem really easy. These guys are definitely unique. They have big imaginations."

McMullin and his business partner, Ernesto Peralta Jr., initially thought in terms of an exclusive partnership with Soda Vie, but soon it was clear there was more demand for the brews.

"We've been watching these guys grow. I don't care if they're in every shopping center across the city because that means that it spawned from a relationship we started, and we're happy for them," McMullin says.

Recently, Peralta went one step further, introducing Henry to Danny O'Neill, founder of the Roasterie Coffee. By the end of the meeting, the energetic O'Neill had green-lighted a co-branded "high-intensity" coffee-flavored Soda Vie to highlight the Roasterie's coffee blends.

"The trick will be how to get residual sweetness in it," Henry says.

"I want bam!" says O'Neill, who also has been experimenting with coffee-flavored ice cream."So in soda, it's not for the faint of heart. You have to like coffee to like this soda. Like ice cream, this is not for the uninitiated."

After the business meeting, Henry lingers at the Roasterie Cafe to talk about life's little synergies.

"Starting our business was serendipitous. Just like this meeting," he says while sipping a cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

 

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