Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Soda Stream: Back from the dead

Last week I wrote a blog for Chow.com about an exciting new product called Soda-Club that adds carbonated sparkle to tap water. It's a great idea if you like fizzy water but don't want to buy it bottled. But what I didn't mention in that piece is that the reason the Soda-Club machine I saw it at a friend's house first caught my eye was because the same product used to be popular in the UK back in the Seventies and Eighties under a slightly different brand name: Soda Stream.

Back in those innocent, pre-Perrier days, these magical machines were used to make DIY soft drinks. You would fizz up some water, then add some sweet syrup flavoring of your choice. The problem was that the results always tasted really crappy compared to real Coke, Fanta, Irn-Bru or whatever, and so the machines eventually fell from fashion. Seeing a brand new, silvery Soda Stream pop up in a hip San Francisco apartment was an unexpected turn of events.

Of course, no discussion of the Soda Stream would be complete without mention of the weirdest fruit of its loins. When you bought a Soda Stream machine, you would always get a few free bottles of soft drink syrup along with it, one of which (for some peculiar reason no one has been able to explain) would be "Dandelion & Burdock" flavour. This strange concoction can best be described as some sort of ancient, mythical British soft drink: think Moxie combined with Dr Pepper, but much weirder and made by witches.

No one ever drank it, so anyone who owned a Soda Stream would find themselves stuck with an old, yellowed, sticky plastic bottle of the stuff, lurking menacingly behind their shiny modern soft-drinks maker. In fact, lots of forgotten, nearly full containers of this peculiar potion are probably still hiding in the darkest reaches of kitchen cupboards across Britain, ready and waiting for the unlikely revival of home fizzmaking.

Be quiet, strange syrups, your time may come again ...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Last of the summer beer

It's a shame that American beer has such a poor reputation abroad. Budweiser and its ilk have a lot to answer for, because one of the most pleasant surprises about moving to California has been discovering the high quality and wide variety of the local brews. This came as a particular delight after so many years of drinking flat, lukewarm lager in London pubs.

Sure, the names Bud, Coors, and Miller can still be spotted in most places where drinkers gather here (and the dreaded word "lite" is rarely far behind), but almost every local bar and corner store will also sell at least a few far superior all-American alternatives. Some of these lesser-known beers are made locally, while others are shipped in from neighbouring states, but almost are made by small-scale, microbrew-style operations.

In fact, sometimes the choice can be quite bewildering. The bar closest to my work offers 17 different beers on draft, and is by no means an exception. To make room, bars will often mount taps on both the front and back of the bar area (which can make it tough for short-sighted foreigners like myself to work out what's available). And, just in case all that choice wasn't enough, most local breweries also produce a few seasonal beers to spice things up a little at different times of the year.

Which brings me to the sad news that the beer which has become my favourite since arriving on these shores is currently nowhere to be found. Skinny Dip, made by the New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado, is a summer beer and therefore unavailable for the next few months. I had my last bottle (pictured above) a few weeks ago and now face a long wait until spring for my next.

Our time apart is going to be made even more difficult by the fact that I'm not a big fan of the winter beers now appearing all over town. Admittedly, these dark, spicy ales would be perfect to sip while sitting next to a warming fire on a nasty December night back home in the UK. But here in San Francisco, despite the grumbling of the locals, the weather never strays very far beyond a kind of half-hearted attempt at autumn, so fiercely festive winter warmers seem strangely out of place – kind of like Christmas decorations on palm trees (another fairly common sight around here).

At times it feels as if people here are actually pining for bad weather, just to make their winter experience more authentic. And maybe there will come a time when I'm one of them, but right now the only thing I'm missing is my summer beer.