Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ode to Creme Soda

Alright, so it's not really an ode. But I do love cream soda. Root beer, too, but that's less important here.

I fancy myself a soda connoisseur, and I jump at any chance to try a new, exotic, fizzy beverage. Anyone who's kept up with my opinions of technology knows that I typically have an aversion to anything new, but in the case of soda (wait--case of soda--that's funny), I look forward to tasting a potentially favorable alternative to something I already know I like. Nothing more, nothing less. New soda is not going to give me a hand cramp, or strain my eyes, or become self-aware and enslave the populace.

Moving to a new location
typically leads to different food and drink opportunities, and I'm finding that where I live now is a good place to find new sodas. It's not uncommon for me to find another root beer to add to my pantheon of Root Beers I Enjoy, and I'm frequently pleased by new flavors and flavor variants from brands I know (e.g. Vanilla Coke, Pepsi Throwback, Orange 7UP). It is uncommon, however, for me to find a new soda that blows everything else in its category out of the (carbonated) water.

I've long been a fan of cream soda, and A&W has always been the standard of what a cream soda should be. Grocery store chain Stop & Shop had an impressively tasty "Main Street" line of generic sodas for quite a while, and their cream soda was the only one that came close to the consistently light, sweet, creamy buoyancy of A&W. I've tried other generic brands that started sitting heavily in my belly before I realized that no quantity of that soda would be as refreshing or satisfying as A&W.

I've had Dr. Brown's cream soda numerous times over the years, and every time it's a completely different taste--depending on the temperature, how long it's been open, whether it's out of a bottle or can, and what I'm eating with it, Dr. Brown's is either a total disappointment, an acceptable alternative to generic, or actually quite nice. Still, it's too unpredictable to compete with A&W.

Jones, Stewart's, and Boylan cream sodas are all very good, but their availability is such that they're almost always an unexpected treat from a convenience store or deli I stop at on a road trip. They're all just as good as A&W, if not better in some ways, but they're not so remarkable that I can reliably call to mind exactly what they taste like after months and months of not seeing them anywhere. Thus, the more readily available A&W remains the standard...at least until the next paragraph.

In the last two-and-a-half months since I moved, I've discovered two new cream sodas: one, whose name I shamefully do not recall, has a sort of candy-vanilla taste that makes it a great "dessert soda" on par with Jones, et al; the other, whose name I do recall, has completely replaced A&W as the standard against which I measure all other cream sodas.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. A&W remains the standard for standard cream sodas; this newcomer has become the standard for any soda proclaiming itself as "premium," "gourmet," or anything of that ilk. In my experience, "gourmet" is French for, "more expensive, with less coherent flavor." The worst offender that immediately comes to mind is the bottle of Hansen's Signature Orange Cream soda I had some years ago, which tasted like orange-colored water. Perhaps my taste buds aren't as discerning as such a gourmet beverage demands, or perhaps I had yet to sample something of the caliber of Virgil's Cream Soda.

I always sound like a shill when I speak highly of a particular brand of food or drink on this blog; perhaps that's because there's a hint of necessary consumerism that's absent from my endorsements of, say, movies you could borrow from your local library for free. Still, Virgil's is worth whatever colored perception of me that I may inflict, because it is the finest cream soda I have ever tasted.

I actually said that, too. I took a few sips and said, "That is one fine cream soda." I scarcely describe anything that way.

I spotted the case of glass-bottled delight at the grocery store during one of my first major restocking trips after moving. I was in the midst of unpacking and setting up the apartment in the middle of the summer, and I was going through beverages like Darth Vader goes through Imperial officers who have failed him for the last time. Virgil's Cream Soda didn't even have a chance to hit the refrigerator before I cracked one open.

It was delicious. No cream soda is that delicious at room temperature. It's one thing to be thirsty enough for your beverage to taste better than it normally does, but it's another thing entirely to instantly develop a profound appreciation for a warm soda. The craftsmanship of this drink was impressive--the ingredients were pure, the balance of flavors kept the soda indulgently creamy without trading off on its refreshing lightness, and the amount of fizz gave the drink texture without drawing unnecessary attention to the bubbles. It was a perfect cream soda, and it wasn't even cold.

The next day I pulled one out of the refrigerator. I am not a beer drinker, but taking my time sipping away at this chilled cream soda allowed me to finally comprehend the appeal of sitting on your back porch with a cold one and watching the sunset, or whatever it is that people do in beer commercials. Drinks are meant to accompany a meal in my mind (please parse that sentence the way it was intended), but even when I'm enjoying a drink on its own, it's because I'm thirsty. Chocolate milkshakes are about the only exception, because they're individually handcrafted and substantial enough to qualify as a full-fledged dessert (and not just a "dessert beverage" like that soda whose name I'm forgetting). "Let's go drink cream soda regardless of whether we're thirsty, and make an activity of it" would have sounded bizarre to me until I tried Virgil's.

So, I found myself a new favorite cream soda that raised the bar for anything else claiming to be a gourmet soda, and I came to understand that mass-produced beverages don't have to be resigned to supper sidekick status if they're high enough quality. Not too shabby at all.

Excited about the prospect of an entire line of Virgil's sodas beyond the cream variety, I returned to the grocery store to see what else they had in stock. I had since read excellent things about their root beer, but I simply could not pass up the chance to sample an orange cream soda by people who truly understand the art of sodacraft.

It tasted like orange-colored water.

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