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Pop goes the flavor - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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Pop goes the flavor By Michael Machosky TRIBUNE-REVIEW Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When it comes to selling sweets in Pittsburgh, it's hard to find a niche that nobody else has scratched. Doug Alpern's Sewickley shop, Village Candy, has most of the bases covered -from imported dark chocolates to old-timey sweets like Idaho Spuds and Cherry Mash to the kind of wacky novelty candies that make kids bounce around like a mouthful of Pop Rocks. But what really sets his store apart from the rest of Pittsburgh's sugar shops is the refrigerated case of exotic sodas -- or pop, depending on where you grew up -- and the monthly "varietal" tastings. Two weeks ago, a small crowd of pop fans were let in after-hours to sample from Alpern's stock of more than 60 fruit sodas, including Waialua Mango, from Maui; Capt'n Eli's Blueberry, from Maine; and Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme, from Natrona Bottling Company in Natrona Heights. In June, a line of more than 100 people wound out the door and down Beaver Street for Village Candy's first root-beer tasting. Saturday, Village Candy plays host to a free ginger-beer sampling. "The goal is to draw people in who maybe know me as a candy store, but not that I have all these different sodas," says Alpern. "Also, a lot of times, people maybe want to try something, but they're really thirsty. They're afraid if they buy a bottle, they won't like it. Plus, when you try six different kinds, you really see there's a difference between them." Ginger beer originated in England in the mid-1700s, and reached its zenith of popularity in the early 1900s. Jamaica ginger originally gave ginger beer its distinctive bite, according to the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors. Ginger beers usually have little in common with commercial ginger ales, like Schweppes and Canada Dry. Unlike the root beers, which tend to have a very wide appeal, some ginger beers are an acquired taste and tend to attract drinkers with more experienced palates. "Kids will come in. They'll buy the hipper labels," Alpern says, "but the sodas

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8/23/08 1:57 PM


Pop goes the flavor - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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maybe aren't as good. (It's more) people of beer-drinking age. Those people, maybe they don't want to drink beer. Everybody seems to have a hobby of tasting something." "Ginger ales tend to be more sugary, only a hint of ginger," says Alpern. "Ginger beers have much more complex flavors of ginger in them. Some are really hot and spicy. Some are cloudier. The ginger ales that you see around (in grocery stores) are mostly crystal clear." The mark of a good ginger beer, says Alpern, is "just the complexity of the taste. Sugar isn't the dominating thing." "When I'm really really, thirsty, ginger (beer) isn't something I necessarily reach for. But when I want to savor something more, that would be something with lasting appeal." One of Alpern's favorite ginger beers is called Jamaica's Finest -- made in the distinctly non-Caribbean climate of Natrona Heights. Natrona Bottling has run its small specialty-soda operation since 1939. Currently, they make Plantation Style Mint Julep, Red Ribbon Root Beer, Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme, and Champayno -- a non-alcoholic champagne-like soda -- as well as Jamaica's Finest. "You don't want to come up against Coke or Pepsi," says Natrona Bottling Company owner Paul Bauser. "They're like a steamroller. They'll make you part of the pavement if you don't get out of the road. We make things that people like that don't want to make." Jamaica's Finest is microbrewed in small batches, and doesn't use high fructose corn syrup, which makes it fairly unique. "Everything is as close to natural as we can get," says Mary Jane Zdila, administrative assistant for Natrona Bottling. "We use dry ice for the carbonation. We use cane sugar. Everything is done in small batches, microbrewed. We just use citric acid, as far as preservatives go, and the CO2. That's the difference." It's definitely an acquired taste -- and not always an easy sell. Luckily, their distributor in Los Angeles saw an emerging market on the West Coast. John Nese, owner of Galco's Soda Pop Shop in Los Angeles -- probably the premier distributor of specialty sodas in America -- raves about Jamaica's Finest in an interview on YouTube. Nese was looking for an even hotter and spicier ginger beer. Bauser came through with the Hot Hot Hot version of Jamaica's Finest, which can only be found at Galco's in Los Angeles or online.

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Pop goes the flavor - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/search/print_52...

Michael Machosky can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

Images and text copyright Š 2008 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co. Reproduction or reuse prohibited without written consent from PghTrib.com

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Pop goes the flavor  

When it comes to selling sweets in Pittsburgh, it's hard to find a niche that nobody else has scratched. Doug Alpern's Sewickley shop, Villa...