Who: Antonio Ramos and Caroline Mak
What: Founders and head juice makers of Brooklyn Soda Works
Where: Brooklyn, New York
It all started on a whim. Back in early 2010, Antonio, a chemist, and his partner Caroline, an artist, just wanted to make a good ginger beer at home, but what followed was the basis for a new business: intensely flavored carbonated fruit sodas made not from syrups (as is the norm) but rather fresh-pressed juice, with over 40 unusual spicy/sour/sweet flavor combinations, like Grapefruit Jalapeno and Blueberry Lavender. But what's interesting about Brooklyn Soda Works is how very unlike a soda company they are: they don't use syrup and they don't bottle. Instead, they sell their soda in 5 gallon kegs so they can be on-tap at local restaurants and bars. They're really more like beer brewers, but for non-alcoholic soda.
The Test Kitchen
Needless to say, Antonio and Caroline don't make batches of soda in their apartment kitchen anymore. After they were accepted into The Brooklyn Flea in summer 2010, they raised $2,800 through a Kickstarter campaign so they could scale up their operations. For the next two years they worked out of Palo Santo's kitchen in Park Slope, Brooklyn and then a rented shared kitchen before moving to their current headquarters last March: 1,000 square feet of space in a massive former Pfizer warehouse in South Williamsburg (which, incidentally, has become a haven for small food start-ups). They have three designated production days a week now, with a rotating staff to help, along with two to three days of cleaning, getting ready for markets, and delivery.
If you didn't know they were making soda, you might think they were brewing beer, since a good chunk of their equipment is actually beer brewing equipment, including the kegs and the brewing kettles. Plastic boxes of ingredients line the storage shelves, giving a glimpse into the the secrets of their soda: peppercorns, vanilla bean, lavender, wintergreen, a big bucket of ginger root, even bags of foraged greens and bark. (One box listed the ingredients for their proprietary Root Beer recipe, developed by Antonio, but I won't list it here!) A cooler room stores about a dozen filled kegs, and the connected spout dispenses whatever fresh juice they're working on that week. (Blueberry Lavender when I was there.) The one piece of equipment that belies their soda (not beer) business is a Ruby commercial juicer, the first piece of major equipment they bought back in 2010. The juicer is really the heart of the business, the soul of their unique soda. Here's why:
The Secret Sauce
Most soda companies make soda by combining a fruit syrup with carbonated water, but Brooklyn Soda Works does it differently: instead of boiling fruit juice down to a syrup, they just carbonate fresh-pressed juice directly! Their idea was to use as much fruit in their soda as a fresh-pressed juice would use. They first started carbonating with a Sodastream. As Caroline tells me, everyone knows that soda syphons warn you shouldn't carbonate anything in them other than water. "We were like, screw that," Caroline says. "Let's try to put fresh juice in and see what happens. And it was fine - you just have to be really careful when you clean it out, that you clean out all the sugar."
But while working with fresh juice allows them to experiment with all sorts of interesting ingredient and flavor combinations, it was also a big risk, because they're now looking at the same problems that fresh juice distributors have: a premium price and a shorter shelf life. Brooklyn Soda Works doesn't use any preservatives in their soda, besides the natural benefits some of their ingredients bring. (For example, lemon and rosemary are both natural preservatives.) But despite these limitations, the quality of their product sells itself to restaurants and bars, and they got early support from big wholesale clients like Blue Hill.
Brooklyn Soda Works offers three flavors year-round: 1) Apple Ginger, 2) Grapefruit Jalapeno, and Honey, and 3) Hibiscus, Orange Peel, and Ginger. Other flavors rotate seasonally depending on what ingredients they can get. They use peppercorns a lot in their recipes, especially in mid-spring to early summer. "Strawberry, Hops, and Pink Peppercorn is a favorite," says Caroline. "The sweetness balances with the hot. [And] Lemon Thyme goes over really well in late Spring." Currant fall flavors include a Spiced Plum and Concord Grape with Fennel.
They experiment with new flavors all the time (in general, Caroline is more interested in working with fresh, fruit flavors, while Antonio likes the bitter, spice-oriented things) but most of them don't make it out of the kitchen. "We have a pretty strict tasting, and at least half the people in the kitchen have to really like it for it to go out," says Antonio. "We do go for weirder flavors." In another ode to beer influence, they do use hops in some of their soda, including a few recent experiments in bitter Italian sodas made with hops and orange peel ("light, bitter, clean.") As Antonio says, "90% of the audience doesn't want it, but 10% will love it. That always happens when you do intense flavors. We love licorice flavors—anise, licorice, fennel— [but] that's another one when you know if you put that in anything 90% of people aren't going to like it, but the people who do will really love it. So we always try to mix it up between more crowd-pleasing flavors and really specific, intense flavors that only some people are going to like."
Curious, I asked about flavors that didn't sell. "Two orange flavors," Antonio says: Orange and Fennel ("Everyone loved it, we all thought it was a great flavor, but no one wanted it") and Orange and Chipotle ("I can understand why that one didn't sell as well"). But admittedly sometimes it's all about the timing: flavors are very specific to the time of year. "There's a lot of things where we'll have a flavor and we just bring it at the wrong time," says Antonio. "In the summer people want, like, lime. They want hibiscus, they want tart and sweet. It's taken us awhile to figure that out, to try to guess which flavors will work when."
When asked if there was one ingredient that defines Brooklyn Soda Works, they unflinchingly said ginger. "People ask us questions about recipe development and we always kind of giggle," says Antonio, "because, like, the basic Brooklyn Soda Works recipe is just add ginger to something and see if it tastes good, and if not, we'll try something else. We love ginger!"
The Business Plan + Community
As mentioned, Brooklyn Soda Works has taken most of their business advice from beer brewers, including the brewers behind SixPoint and the beer lovers at Beer Table. "Brewers have such accurate palates," Antonio says, and he and Caroline are very indebted to brew people who helped them out with technical things. Their model for Brooklyn Soda Works is to work on building up a good local audience by being on draft at restaurants and bars, while they work on fine-tuning their recipes and building up support in the community. Only then will they consider moving into bottling. "Most soft drinks go straight to bottling which is the only way you can really grow," Antonio says. "[Going] bar by bar and café by café is very labor-intensive and slow. You're not going to get the massive numbers that people get by going into bottles." But by relying on wholesale operations right now and building their base, they hope at some point to be self-sustaining, so they can bottle on their own terms.
5 Quick Questions for Caroline and Antonio
Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
We pretty much spend more of our time in our big production space now, so all of our equipment and cookware is from places like The Webstaurant Store which sells commercial grade equipment and restaurant supplies. But for a home cook you can find good quality kitchenwares without the mark up of all the brands.
The one thing you can't live without?
Got to be ginger - the basis of our beverages as well as the food we make for ourselves! And this past summer we became very invested in making ice-brew coffee for ourselves and our staff, so a couple of pieces of equipment have been integral: this "Clever Coffee Dripper" is a nice little tool to have. It snaps onto a cup (or in our case a large jar filled with ice) and you can close the valve to stop the dripping when the time is up.
If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
Oh dear! this is almost impossible to answer! We're just going to be cheesy and say each other. We're very lucky and happy that we get to work with each other.
What's in your Google reader or what have you just finished reading?
Antonio: "The Disco Files 1973-78 - New York's underground, week by week" - a great chronicle of disco by Vince Aletti
Caroline: I just finished reading 'The Siege of Krishnapur' by J.G. Farrell.
If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
This is going to be boring answer, but as owners in a young business the first thing we would do would be to invest parts of it back into the business. Get all the equipment we've always wanted to get, pay back some loans, give all our employees a much deserved bonus. And if there's anything left, maybe build a yurt up in the Catskills.
Thanks, Caroline and Antonio!
Related: 15 Delicious Non-Alcoholic Spritzers, Sodas, and Mocktails
(Images: Cambria Bold)