Antonio Ramos and Caroline Mak of Brooklyn Soda Works have been serving their boldly creative soda concoctions to the crowds at Brooklyn Flea and now Smorgasburg for almost two years. They’ve gained a following for their embrace of unusual flavors – like grapefruit honey jalapeno, or hops and orange peel – all made with fresh and often locally-sourced ingredients.
This year, they’re bringing the forest into their soda, with a line of limited batch sodas each week spotlighting wild ingredients foraged from the woodlands of the Northeast.
We spoke with Antonio to learn more.
So Antonio, foraged sodas? What’s the story?
We did a couple of sodas with foraged ingredients last year for the first time. We did a raspberry soda and a few others. I’m a big fan of hiking and mountain biking. I’m out in the woods a lot and I love foraging for things.
This year, we wanted to do it again, and we wanted to do more of it. We wanted to do a whole series of sodas featuring foraged seasonal ingredients. The problem was that we knew we’d never be able to forage for everything ourselves – we just moved into a new space, and we’re ramping up our production for the markets and for our wholesale clients so there just isn’t time.
But we wanted to do it and right around the time we were thinking about how to make it all work I read an article about this local forager, Evan Strusinski, in Outside Magazine. He seemed like a really interesting guy – he supplies a bunch of New York City chefs with all kinds of foraged things. I thought, “Hm, I gotta look this guy up.”
Oddly enough, two weeks after I read the article and started thinking about how to get in touch with him, he just emailed us out of the blue and said, “Hey, I heard you might be interested in some foraged ingredients.”
It turned out that a chef he works with had come by our booth at Smorgasburg one week when we had a foraged soda, and they chatted about it, so Evan contacted us.
It’s just one of those things. When something happens like that you think, “OK – Now we definitely have to do this.”
Evan works the woods from around Philadelphia up through New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, moving progressively north as things come into and out of season. So he’s been sending us some interesting stuff and we’ve started to make some sodas.
With the foraged stuff, do you just take what he sends you and then figure it out or do you tell him what you’re looking for?
It’s collaborative. At the start I told him some specific things I’m interested in. We talked about the types of sodas we make. For example, we make a root beer, and we had foraged wintergreen for root beer ourselves before. He said, “I can get you wintergreen, and birch, and sassafras and sarsaparilla…” All kinds of interesting roots…
So once he started understanding the sorts of things we were specifically looking for, he started making suggestions. He’d say, “I found this,” or “Have you ever tried that?” He got that we’re generally looking for more aromatic or bitter or tart things, and once he got that he started making all kinds of crazy suggestions.
It’s interesting – most of the things Evan forages I’ve never head, or even heard of. So a lot of the time I’m going on his suggestions and descriptions of what something tastes like. Once I get a box from him with something I’m not familiar with, I’ll spend a week or so just playing with it, coming up with a recipe that will work in a soda. But he’s good – he really understands what we’re looking for and everything he recommends, even if we’ve never heard of it, ends up working.
Have you launched the series yet this season?
The only one we’ve brought to the market so far this year is a soda made with Japanese Knotweed. I had never heard of it. When Evan first sent down a box, I was amazed. It turned out to be really tasty. I has a great rhubarb flavor, but it’s much funkier and not as tart as rhubarb. It’s really interesting. It has a nice taste.
What else went into the Japanese Knotweed soda?
Well the taste was so interesting, and it’s not something most people have ever tried or heard of, so I didn’t want to do anything complicated with it. I wanted people to be able to really pick out the actual taste, the actual flavor, so we kept it simple. It’s just the knotweed and a little bit of honey.
That’s going to be the general principle with the foraged flavors – to let these unfamiliar ingredients take the spotlight. With things like root beer, where people have more of an expectation of what they think it should taste like, we’ll use a little bit more of a complex recipe to deliver that, but most of the things Evan sends are things people have never heard of. In those cases it’s best to let the foraged ingredients shine – you’re giving people the opportunity to taste something they’ve never had.
I’m liking the sound of this.
This is my favorite project. This is what I get most excited about. Every time we get a box from Evan, everyone in the kitchen stops what they’re doing and gathers around the box to see what’s inside. Everyone gets really excited to see what’s in the box.
The soda format is kind of an unexpected medium for showcasing these mysterious foraged ingredients, and it seems to work surprisingly well…
I’ve thought about that a lot. On one hand, if you’re dealing with something most people have never tasted, or even heard of, there’s something nice about seeing it. So in that sense, putting it on a plate is appealing. You can pick up a piece of something like the knotwood, and focus on it visually and taste it.
But on the other hand, making a soda with an ingredient like that can make it simpler or more accessible in some way. You’re getting to the essence of it. And a lot of the foraged ingredients are too intense in flavor to enjoy in something like a salad anyway. Like sassafras. It smells incredible, but you would never serve it on a plate because its flavor is almost overpowering. But by shaving the root bark and fusing it into a soda you can temper it a little bit while capturing its essence – so you can actually enjoy it.
And the carbonation of the water adds a texture to it. It’s almost astringent – it’s like a palate cleanser. It’s a really nice way to present the flavor of those unusual things.
How frequently do you plan on having foraged flavors available?
Our goal is to do one limited batch each week. We’ve just started, so we’ll see how it goes. It might be every other week for the first month or so, but as summer arrives and there are more things to forage out there, we’ll have at least one every week at Smorgasburg or Flea. We want to bring a keg of something foraged every week if we can.
What’s coming up in terms of flavors?
One of the things I’m most excited about is doing a version of our root beer made entirely from foraged ingredients. That probably won’t happen for another month or so. Evan has sent down quite a bit of sassafras, but the wintergreen and birch aren’t out yet. He’s still waiting for those. So hopefully in a month or so I’ll have everything I need for that.
I think the next one that’ll happen is a wild ginger soda. It’s a plant called wild ginger, but it’s actually not related in any way to ginger, and it doesn’t look like it or taste like it so it’s actually really weird that they call it wild ginger. But it’s really amazing. You use the root and the small of it is phenomenal. It’s almost like if you mixed a little rose, ginger, a little patchouli and black pepper. Amazing aroma and the taste is really nice too. I think we’ll be rolling that one out in the next week or so.
Aromatics are one of the things Caroline and I really focus on. We really enjoy making sodas that smell good. Like our grapefruit mint soda – there’s no even that much mint on the taste, but it has this lovely mint aroma. We use a lot of ingredients just for the aroma.
And that’s something we have to constantly mention to people. People aren’t used to smelling sodas. Most soda has no smell. If you buy Sprite or Coke, they don’t really have a smell. So we’re always begging people to take a minute to inhale it, to take a big whiff before sipping.
Brooklyn Soda Works‘ concoctions are available each weekend at Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, and are available on draft at Palo Santo and Beer Table in Park Slope, 61 Local in Boerum Hill, and Parish Hall in Williamsburg.