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Craft Colas

By amy • • Aug 6th, 2011 • Category: Beverages, Columns

These are interesting times on planet cola. Market leader Coca Cola is celebrating a milestone: in 1886 Georgia pharmacist John S. Pemberton mixed sugar, carbonated water, extracts of cola nut and coca plant with other still-undisclosed ingredients and invented the first cola soft drink. Since then, Coke declares, the company has enjoyed 125 years of “sharing happiness”. Happiness or le deluge (or both)? A recent study has found that an average American drinks 44.7 gallons of ‘soda’ a year, much of it Coke and Pepsi.

However, the market as a whole has been declining since the mid 2000s. And a recent bid for environmental sustainability from both cola giants backfired when their purportedly eco-friendly bottles turned out to be as non-degradable as regular plastic. Pepsi has been particularly hard hit this year – in April it suffered a historic setback when Diet Coke overtook Pepsi as the second most widely sold carbonated soft drink in the US market, just behind regular Coke. In related news, an anticipated spike in Pepsi sales took a dive when top sipper Hugh Hefner was dumped by his runaway bride and forced to cancel his wedding celebration.

The question is: aside from the wannabe Cokes, what are the alternatives? Shelf Life has noticed an increasing number of craft colas in the soft drink aisles, and on this occasion – as The Weekend Post picks its Tournament Of Beverages winner – we’re exploring the pop we call Not Your Mom’s Cola. This test is really a search for long-lost complexity. We’re on a quest for those original recipe drinks that have been dumbed down by industrial conveniences such as high fructose corn syrup and caramel colour. Cocaine or no cocaine, the old concoctions must have been heady. For example, here are some of the reputed ingredients in the Coca Cola formula of 1886: caramel, vanilla, lime juice, and oils of orange, lemon, nutmeg, coriander, neroli, and cinnamon. Sounds good – where are they now, and can we have some?

Wondering if they would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony are this week’s expert judges: Stephen Hobson, beverages maestro at Rivoli and Queen Mother restaurants; mixologist Christine Sismondo, author of the newly published essential history ‘America Walks Into A Bar’; and Chris Zielinski, executive chef at the Air Canada Centre, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste tested and awarded between zero and five stars.

Brand One

Pop Shoppe
355 ml, $1.79
widely available
for more information visit

Stephen: One of the things I like about Coke is its throat-scalding quality, which is partly due to the carbonation. Brand One doesn’t have much fizz. There is a bit of pucker, but overall the taste is bitter. The smell reminds me of walking past the change room by a swimming pool – a whiff of chlorine.

Christine: I think there’s a bit of salt in here – in fact there may be salt in all colas. There’s a conspiracy theory that says many soft drinks contain high amounts of sodium so that you’ll drink more. But I won’t be drinking more of Brand One – it’s got a vague chemical smell and tastes sour. It really is the un-cola.

Chris: Yeah, I know what Stephen means about that cold scrape on the palate from Coke and Pepsi … when I taste this brand I suddenly miss the hit you get from classic colas. Brand One smells like the coating on an aspirin. It tastes acidic yet flat, and someone left out the bubbles.

Brand One Total THREE AND A HALF STARS ***1/2

Brand Two

Sonoma Syrup Company
Classic Cane Cola Syrup
750 ml, $23.50
available at Williams-Sonoma stores
for more information visit

Stephen: This cola is creamy and dark with big generous bubbles. It’s a sweet, treacly experience, as if it was made with St. Lawrence corn syrup. Brand Two isn’t sharp – if I was having onion rings and I wanted a drink to cut right through them, this cola wouldn’t work.

Christine: There’s an intense vanilla flavour up front, with a viscous mouthfeel. I kinda like the bitter taste, which is interesting because Stephen is picking up sweetness.

Chris:  Black gold ! Like Guinness. Brand Two has a rich finish, with molasses maybe somewhere in the aroma. I’m tasting a lot of sugar. If you were on a beach in Jamaica and you mixed this cola with rum you’d probably have a winner, but Brand Two is not something I’d recommend with a burger.

Brand Two Total EIGHT STARS ********

Brand Three

China Cola
355 ml, $1.99
available at fine food and health stores
for more information visit

Stephen: Brand Three is dark with a mild cinnamon flavour, and it’s way too sweet for me. There are very few bubbles so there’s no tang, no follow-through. It smells like a boathouse! If this cola is made by artisanal elves then they should be fired.

Christine: For me part of the appeal of classic colas is that they offer a thought-out mix of flavours, a formula. This brand isn’t complex but it does have a flavour profile. The texture is light; there’s bitterness and sweetness and cinnamon on the tongue; and an indefinable funny odour.

Chris: Brand Three definitely has a different approach, but the mix of flavours is nowhere near what Coke has. The texture is pleasant, and there’s a light, herbal, ginger aroma. Some flavour associations I’m getting are cherry, old wet dark wood, cinnamon, and spice. But there are zero bubbles.

Brand Three Total  EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2

Brand Four

Boylan Bottleworks
Cane Cola
355 ml, $2.39
widely available
for more information visit

Stephen: This one makes my tongue curl! Brand Four has a sweet, soapy, tart taste, and it smells like pine. The bubbles are fat but they disappear quickly. I like this cola – after a while it becomes quite refreshing.

Christine: The few colas that are still made with actual sugar have a dimension that other sweeteners don’t have, which is why Mexican Coke – Mexicoke! – has a cult following. I don’t know about this one. The smell is off-putting – it comes across like fake citrus. Brand Four reminds me of root beer, and it’s got the carbonation; overall it’s pleasant.

Chris: For me Brand Four is more robust than the others. It’s got some froth on it and looks like coffee-coloured cream soda. Big mouthfeel; good balance; plus a nice tight scrape. It smells like lemon peel … Would I cook with it? I’m not crazy about cola in the kitchen. Every time I’ve had ribs cooked in Coke, for example, they’ve been too sweet.

Brand Four Total TEN STARS **********

Results: Boylan Cane Cola turned out to be the pause that refreshes. Sonoma and China colas also brought some fizz, but judges vowed never, ever to revisit Pop Shoppe Cola unless and until it provides a dose of old-school narcotic in every bottle.

Off The Menu: As a species, the panel found these microbrewed colas interesting but underwhelming. We expected a rich, tasty, authentic cola experience, but instead found products that skimped on carbonation and withheld many of the pleasures people look for in a good pop. The verdict? Big Cola’s butt remains unkicked.

Still, we’re thirsty. Judge Stephen Hobson, who has more than paid his dues on the drinks circuit – “I’ve spent years lugging crates of cola around, and one thing I’ve noticed is that Coke is heavier than Diet Coke, make of that what you will” –  has taken the cola challenge. His brief: devise a cocktail using winning brand Boylan Cane Cola. “My idea would be to use it as a Tiger Tail Float, ie. orange and licorice striped ice cream with added Boylan’s cola. The boozier version would be 1 oz triple sec + 1/2 oz Pernod + 1/2 oz 10% cream (one of those little coffee creamers should do) over ice, then add the cola and garnish with a slice of orange. Boy Oh Boylan’s, you’d have a tiger by the tail after a few, wake up missing your shoes after a few more”. For pictures of the cola tasting session visit our flickr page

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