Nowadays, soft drinks have lost their natural touch. What began in 17th-century Europe as a carbonated drink with natural flavors like lemon juice and honey has now become artificially colored, flavored and sweetened.
However, traditionally flavored drinks like ginger beer and root beers are gaining traction again.
Craft sodas are an emerging niche within a larger nonalcoholic beverage market, sold in locally sourced restaurants, health food stores and farmers’ markets. Soda options are going back in history for inspiration to brew and sell more authentic hand-crafted sodas.
Stephen Norberg, founder of craft soda company Thunder Beast, never felt like he had a traditional path in mind. During his time at Harvard University, Norberg recounts that he “was the guy having wild root beer keg parties in his dorm room.” It was not until after graduation that he realized he had a unique passion for root beer.
As someone who always pursed his interests, Norberg decided to go out on a limb to follow a dream, starting his own craft soda company. As Norberg tells it, he first started in his kitchen but then “put all the money I had in the world into equipment that, in theory, was supposed to make root beer.”
Through sustained trial and error and even building his own bottling device along the way, he would eventually start his company: Thunder Beast.
Although there is no formal definition for craft soda, craft sodas tend to use more real ingredients as compared to generic name-brand sodas — instead of artificial flavoring extracts, real spices like cinnamon, cloves and vanilla are used. As Norberg puts it, craft sodas have “something to it that is not just the mixing up of a lot of artificial flavoring.”
With over 600 brands of root beer in the United States alone, Norberg wanted to do something unique with his drink.
The namesake “root” in root beer is sassafras root. Since the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras in commercial foods for its potential hallucinogenic effects, most root beers in the United States use imitation sassafras or natural substitutes.
In comparison, Thunder Beast’s root beer only uses essential oils, spices and extracts. Norberg’s root beer also uses honey give the brew a thicker and creamier body.
Currently offering a maple and butterscotch flavored root beer, Thunder Beat also produces a seasonal root beer in a cinnamon and caramel flavor. Coupling flavors “good in dessert but not commonly found in drinks,” Norberg aims to layer flavors together in order to build up the most complex taste possible.
Thunder Beast does not just serve root beers; ginger beer uses actual ginger root, providing a stronger spice and flavor not found in generic brands that prefer artificial flavoring. By balancing this ginger root with pure cane sugar and carbonation, the ginger beer has a refreshing yet fiery kick.
Additionally, Norberg is planning to create a new line of cream sodas. Although cream soda is conceptually simple, soda flavored with vanilla extract and sweetener, he aims to use this simplicity to his advantage.
“Starting with something so simple has a lot of opportunity to combine it with things to create something more complex,” Norberg said.
Eventually, Norberg’s goal is to have three flavors in each of his soda line-ups. Starting his own craft soda company has not always been easy, but Norberg’s hard work has paid off — he plans to expand his soda to the greater DMV area soon.
As Norberg says, “Getting into the soda business is not something you just start from the ground-up unless you really love it.”
Even as Norberg plans to distribute Thunder Beast beyond where it was born, for now, you can find Norberg’s Thunder Beast stall every Wednesday at the Farmers’ Market in Red Square.
Anna Jorgensen and Jackie Liang are sophomores in the College. ON TAP appears every other Friday.