Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dreaming of a Kind-Of-Root-Beer Christmas Field Trip: Real Soda in Real Bottles

(December 2012)

Yes, I realize that we are well into the New Year, probably past the expiration date of most New Year’s Resolutions, and certainly well past the Christmas season, but I’ve been out of the country (more on that later), and thus am just getting around to completing the full documentation of my root-beer-related holiday festivities. As a kind-of Christmas present to myself, I finally heeded the exhortation of an anonymous fellow root beer enthusiast to visit Real Soda in Real Bottles in Gardena, CA. If you’ll recall, said anonymous fellow root beer enthusiast pointed out that my go-to soda pop stop, Galco’s, acquires their wares through Real Soda, so going directly to Real Sodas would cut out the middle man (regardless of how much I like this particular middle man).

Thanks – hearty thanks – Mr./Ms. Anonymous Fellow Root Beer Enthusiast, because you are responsible for no fewer than nine new root beer acquisitions!

This is just the fruit-themed soda aisle.

As you can see, there’s a lot of soda packed into the little outlet store at the corner of Real Sodas’ plant. There are at least 5 more aisles that look just like the one above, holding an ever-expanding variety of sodas, teas, energy drinks, and water – all sold at wholesale prices in the outlet store. While root beer only accounts for half of an aisle, that’s still three whole stacks, six shelves per stack, full of root beer! On the afternoon that I showed up, the plant was actually only staffed by a skeleton crew due to the holidays. Despite this, the very nice lady working in the front office, who had already worked through her lunch break, still kindly opened up the outlet store for me to browse and even re-stocked the root beer shelves so I wouldn't miss any (hence no picture of the root beer aisle itself).

Real Sodas in Real Bottles literally grew out of a hobby for founder Danny Ginsburg (who, I might add, has been quite pleasant himself in our email correspondence). Ginsburg had collected bottle-caps since he was a young child, and would therefore go out of his way to get sodas in glass bottles. When he was in high school during the late 70s, aluminum and plastic were just beginning to overtake glass as soda’s predominant packaging, so Ginsburg, who preferred the flavor of glass-bottled beverages, was often observed carrying his own bottles of soda wherever he went (instead of just buying the canned versions when he got there). Eventually other people started requesting that Ginsburg bring back specific glass-bottled sodas for them whenever he went on his soda procurement treks – which oftentimes entailed driving hundreds of miles away from his home in Southern California. Thus, through his high school and college years, Ginsburg became the go-to specialty soda provider for his peers, his acquaintances, local social events, and even local businesses.

When more businesses came a-calling, Ginsburg realized that his now almost-weekly soda runs were starting to get more serious than simply picking up a few bottles here and there for his acquaintances. He got a business license, naming his company rather matter-of-factly after what he was already known for supplying, and started distributing regional glass-bottled sodas out of his garage, delivering the products himself in his VW van. It didn’t take long to outgrow the garage, and Ginsburg continued moving into larger warehouses, driving larger vehicles, as well as adding employees until Real Sodas in Real Bottles set up shop in their current Gardena facility. Now, Real Sodas not only distributes several hundred different varieties of glass-bottled sodas from other parts of the country (and the world), it also bottles products for several regional brands that would have otherwise been forced out of business by larger beverage conglomerates. And if that wasn’t already enough, Real Sodas also produces beverages of their own, probably the most well-known being Leninade (source).

The soda world has come full circle for Ginsburg – whereas he once had to call soda companies to ask where he could buy their products, businesses all over the country are now calling his company asking if they can sell Real Sodas’ products. According to the company website , Real Sodas in Real Bottles is now “perhaps unquestionably the most substantial purveyor of glass-bottled soft drinks in the USA.” Not a bad place for a four-year-old boy’s bottle cap collection to end up!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hey Song Sarsaparilla

For some reason, Blogger un-posted this post from May of 2011, so I'm re-posting it...

The Pooj is not the issue here, Dude.
(99 Ranch Market, March 2011)

First of all, yes, I realize that the can says it’s sarsaparilla, not root beer – I bring this beverage to you because my father described it to me as “Taiwan root beer.” Second of all, there was a second type of Hey Song Sarsaparilla next to this one which is supposedly preserved plum flavor, which somewhat throws into doubt whether this is actually sarsaparilla, or that’s just the name of the company. Third of all, aside from Bundaberg, I have yet to encounter any other foreign root beers – best as I remember, the only thing available in Hong Kong that falls into the root beer category was something called Sarse, which sounds a lot like “sarsaparilla” for people whose native tongue maybe prevents them from saying “sarsaparilla,” and thus may indicate that sarsaparilla is the closest one will get to home grown root beer in Southeast Asia. Fourth of all, assuming you’re not already tired of it all, as best as I can tell (and please correct me on this if you know more than I do) the name Hey Song is basically sounds like a transliteration of the Chinese term for soda, or perhaps a play on words in that regard. I also read somewhere that it actually says “black pine,” but I can’t confirm one way or the other since I don’t read Chinese. Yes, shameful, I know.

Despite all aforementioned factors, however, is this the root beer of my people?

Ermmmm, maybe yes, maybe no. Let’s start with the maybe no. Actually, let’s back it up a little further. Since we’ve established that drinking out of an aluminum can may affect the flavor of a beverage, we begin by first decanting into something less aluminum.
Which also gives opportunity to show off some nifty glasses one of my best buddies recently gave me for my birthday…

Hey, careful Pooj, there's a beverage here.

They’re made by cutting the top off of an old soda bottle – pretty neat reuse of an otherwise trashed bottle, if you ask me. And they hold a remarkable amount of beverage, given their deceptively small appearance.

Anyways, back to the maybe no: my first reaction is that Hey Song Sarsaparilla smells like gummy worms. Turns out that the flavor is pretty similar – it kind of tastes like candy, like gummy soda bottles. It has a thin syrupy flavor, slightly sour, with only a lingering, slightly root-y aftertaste. Calling the slightly root-y aftertaste barky might not be entirely accurate though.

Which brings me to the maybe yes: since this is a foreign beverage, I would venture to guess it is geared towards slightly different sensibilities when it comes to the herb blend. I’ve said in the past that there have been root beers that taste like Chinese preserved plums – while I’m not saying Hey Song Sarsaparilla tastes like preserved plums (which begs the question of what the Hey Song Sarsaparilla Preserved Plum soda tastes like), I am saying that perhaps those typical root beer ingredients that remind me of Chinese herbs may exist in higher proportions in actual Chinese root beer or sarsaparilla.

That being said, my root beer sensibilities are distinctly American. Or perhaps the preferred nomenclature is Asian American, please (hah!*). I’d probably drink it in the homeland when better root beer options are unavailable, but I’ll skip it when I can get my hands on something better. Hey Song Sarsaparilla therefore gets a 2.

* Say, friend - you got any more of that good sarsaparilla?