Creativity in the sparkling beverage segment is giving sodas and spritzes their own renaissance.
Sparkling beverages are on the rise—and it’s not just Champagne.
At the Creole-centric Underbelly restaurant in Houston, Texas, the most popular drink order is a bottled fizzy water from Monterrey, Mexico, called Topo Chico. “We’ve had a great response—from people from all over the world,” says Matt Pridgen, the general manager and sommelier. “It’s quite a testament to how good the water is.” Each 12-ounce bottle sells for $2. Although it’s been on the market for 20 years, customers have only started to crave it recently. “Compared to other bottled waters, this has less salt content and larger bubbles,” says Pridgen.
Similarly, a bottled sparkling cider—Duche de Longueville, from Normandy, France—is a huge hit at Graze, a gastropub in Madison, Wisconsin, with James Beard Award winning chef Tory Miller at the helm. “It’s probably one of our more celebratory drinks. We serve it in a flute as we would Champagne,” says Jessica Stebbins, head mixologist.
Beverages with bubbles also take on artisan flair at several eateries, tapping into nostalgic roots for diners young and old. Graze’s Stebbins has rolled out quite a few non-alcoholic options, including a housemade vanilla soda dubbed Alicia’s Folly, in which she makes vanilla syrup and shakes it with milk and seltzer water. “It’s almost like a cream soda, but with vanilla,” says Stebbins.
Also on Graze’s beverage list is a signature housemade creamsicle soda. And Stebbins enthusiastically worked with Quince & Apple, a local producer of preserves, to develop the Tart Cherry Spritz, marrying grenadine, orange juice, and soda water. “It’s layered, so it’s colorful when it comes to the table. It’s a little fruity, sweet, and sour,” she says.
Graze isn’t the only eatery tinkering with craft sodas—with spirits and without. At Cured in San Antonio, chef-owner Steve McHugh loves making craft sodas. But these 6-ounce sodas, which were introduced last summer, have a twist: they are packaged in 325-milliliter bottles, and served with straws. A sticker featuring the restaurant’s logo is affixed to the bottle, making the offering an even greater boon for brand building and recognition.
“What’s great about offering these in summer is that we have this bounty of really good fruit,” says McHugh. Especially during summer and fall, it’s an innovative way to use low prices on seasonal fruits and vegetables. “We have a great heirloom tomato crop and all kinds of melons. You already have something that’s fun, interesting, and local.”
By making the sodas a kitchen project, McHugh built excitement in-house and leveraged the creative culinary minds therein. Not just mixologists, but also chefs, offered input. “We’re not a bar, we’re not a mixology bar. Above all, we’re a restaurant. Our food is not predictable and I don’t think our drinks should be either,” says McHugh. A plus for diners is that the drinks, which are made in batches the day prior, are immediately available. “People do not want to come into this restaurant and wait for a drink. If we can get a drink out in front of the customer faster, we’re that much farther ahead of the game,” says McHugh. “It’s an easy sell.”
Promoting these spirited sodas on social media using eye-catching photography, as well as suggested orders from wait staff, has worked well. What McHugh didn’t expect is that employees from nearby restaurants would stop in after work and sip them, too.
At Falling Sky Brewery in Eugene, Oregon, the craft sodas are nearly as popular as the beers. Both categories are on tap, and the offerings rotate regularly. In fact, there have been up to 50 soda flavors developed since opening in 2011. “We’ve been making our own soda in-house since we opened,” says Scott Timms, the Brew Shop’s manager. “We’re not doing the standard cola or root beers.” They can be ordered in either 12-ounce or 16-ounce pours, served in pint glasses.
“A lot of our sodas are geared for adults—lower sugar content and a fair amount of ginger—but kids like them too,” says Timms. “Lemon-lime was a special summertime flavor we had never done before.”
Yet even with this love affair for cutting-edge soda flavors, there’s also been renewed interest in Lambrusco, a sparkling wine from either Lombardy or Emilia-Romagna, Italy, made from red-wine grapes. While once considered a cheap, everyday bubbly, it’s gaining more traction with wine drinkers these days. Juli Gregg, wine director at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, is quite a fan. “It’s gotten a huge, really good following,” she says. “When people think Lambrusco they think it’s going to be fruity, like the Coca-Cola of wines, but this one is really dry,” she says about a secco Grasparossa style, which sells for $8 a glass on her list and is more of a traditional style of Lambrusco.
Another Lambrusco on her list is always an amabile: an off-dry, semi-sweet style Lambrusco sold by the bottle ($30), in a more “fruity, light” style, says Gregg.
Lambrusco is a favorite order during the warm autumn season in San Francisco. “I like to do my list very seasonal—especially with wines by the glass—and what’s in season food-wise. The great thing about Lambrusco is it’s food-friendly but it’s really light and also fruity. You get bright red fruits (on the palate). The alcohol level is really low, between 6 and 9 percent. It’s this really great sparkling table wine,” says Gregg. Among her favorite food pairings with Lambrusco is thinly shaved prosciutto.
Changing up the glassware is key to giving Lambrusco the attention it deserves. “It should never go in a flute.” Gregg opts for a big glass, in part to open up the bouquet.
And keeping the price low is another incentive for diners to give Lambrusco a try—especially as the rest of the menu items carry moderate costs. “I’m still marking [the wine] up enough where I’m making money, but I’m passing the value along to the customer too. Why not?”
Proof that this Italian sparkling wine is making a name for itself stateside, Pompieri Pizza in Durham, North Carolina, hosts an annual festival all about this red, fizzy wine from Emilia Romagna, Italy. This Lambrusco Fest falls on June 18 in 2016, almost coinciding with World Lambrusco Day (June 20). Guests have the luxury of sampling various styles of Lambrusco, spanning sweet to dry, and experiencing different expressions of the bubbly. Test-driving the ability of this carbonated beverage to be sipped alongside food is a definite option as gelato, cheese, and pizza are all served.