These days junk food just isn’t as junky. The burger has gotten a makeover by some of the world’s best chefs. Pizza has gone high-end. House-made ketchups and mustards are all the rage. Even mayonnaise has seen a reinvention by chefs. Soda’s time has finally come.
A number of restaurants in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Chicago have tried their hand at soda-making, but one of the most extensive soda lists (we’re waiting for the next soda sommelier) is at Philadelphia’s Hot Diggity. Known primarily for its heaping dogs piled with house-made sauces, salsas, and condiments, the restaurant is now also making a name for its sodas, which bill themselves as both flavorful and healthy.
The sodas are actually a bit of zeitgeist for consumers and chefs who more and more want to infuse just about everything with bubbles. Chef Keith Garabedian started kegging his own line of in-house sodas seven months after opening, using melon and other fruit juices in lieu of sugar, fruits and roots rarely (if ever) found in soft drinks, and almost exclusively locally sourced product.
Garabedian has created a soda based on Pennsylvania’s native paw paw, a smoky flavored mango-type fruit, as well as one based on peanut butter and jelly. The latter is made from Concord grapes and dehydrated peanut butter (the dehydrated butter is far less fatty than the creamy stuff)—an ode to Federal Donuts' PB&J donut. He’s even brought a bit of Eastern Europe to his line-up, crafting a tarragon and grape flavor, apparently a popular choice in Russia but a bit more obscure in Philly’s Central City. “Most of our customers are conscious of what they eat,” Garabedian says. “They refuse to get any other sodas. The food scene in Philly is really great. People care about farmers markets.”
He’s not afraid of classics, though, and his root beer has since become the best-selling soda at Hot Diggity. He takes sarsaparilla and sassafras barks—the usual suspects in any respectable root beer—and boils them with fresh ginger, citrus rinds, cloves, and juniper berries. He then adds sugar (root beer is one of the few sodas he can’t supplement with fruit juices), strains it, and kegs it for a few days to get carbonation started.
The choice to made fresh soda was not just some artisinal pipe dream; part of it was to maintain the artisanal image, but it was also economically driven. A case of Coke is certainly not expensive, but purchasing a case of fancy, small-batch soda can be. Garabedian’s house-made root beer, on the other hand, costs less than $20 to produce a five-gallon batch, a decent savings since he goes through a keg every week.
Making soda isn’t as easy as shooting syrup through a siphon, though. There are (literally) a million little factors that can alter a soda’s taste. A soda’s carbonation level can drastically alter a soda; too few bubbles and the soda is flat, too many and the fizz overwhelms the flavor. Garabedian, a music-major-cum-soda-scientist, says carbonation affects the “bitter and pain receptors on the tongue,” leading to a too-sharp, too-spicy blend.
Sometimes the high carbonation works. “In a Coke product, they are carbonated at 80 [pounds per square inch], which is a little unstable and loses carbonation very quickly,” says Garabedian, whose sodas usually hover somewhere around the 15 psi mark. “They do it because of convenience. It takes three to four days for us to carbonate [a batch of soda], but for them it takes a day or less.”
Another factor is the time the soda spends in the keg—the more time in, the more subdued the taste. Garabedian ages citrus sodas only a few days so the freshness is preserved; for hardier and bolder-tasting sodas like root beer and tarragon, he’ll let them mellow for a few days more.
Temperature plays a bit part how sodas are made, too. Garabedian avoids cooking his syrups whenever possible, but cooking is essential to extract the essential flavors for other sodas. Cooking ginger helps take out the bite, for example, and he’s found that boiling cranberries in simple syrup helps release the tannins better than just by juicing raw cranberries.
Garabedian is dabbling in other beverages—he’s tried his hand at fermenting lemonade and making kombucha—and would like to bottle some of his brews to sell to neighboring restaurants. But in the meantime he’s giving Mayor Bloomberg and other anti-soda crowd a (somewhat) healthy, small-batch alternative.
House-made Root Beer Technique:
1. Wash sassafras and sarsaparilla and strain four times to remove bitterness.
2. Place barks, lemon peel, lime peel, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, juniper berries, and water in a medium-sized pot. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer for 40 minutes uncovered. Turn off heat.
3. Add the nutmeg, molasses, sugar, and vanilla extract and stir until sugar dissolves completely.
4. Strain ingredients through a metal mesh strainer and quickly cool mixture in an ice bath.
5. Once cooled, strain again through a double layer of cheese cloth into a keg or whipping siphon.
6. Pressurize and refrigerate for at least 3 days to carbonate.