Spring has sprung in Brooklyn. That means bright yellow forsythia bushes, pale pink Magnolia blossoms, and the return of the Brooklyn Flea to its outdoor location in Fort Greene on April 10th. The Flea will be adding a few new food vendors this season, including Brooklyn Soda Works, a fledgling project by an artist and chemist couple that creates unconventional, artisanal sodas. I hate sugar filled, syrupy sodas and have often ranted that corn syrup is the cause of most modern evils. However, there are three things that I cannot resist: Brooklyn-based, do-it-yourself projects; ventures run by friends and couples; and soda that’s about flavor and freshness, instead of nasty, overly sweet corn syrup.
I caught up with Caroline Mak, the artist half Brooklyn Soda Works who is also a trained biologist, to hear more about the process of going from kitchen table to Brooklyn Flea vendor and beyond.
Caroline and her boyfriend Antonio began last year by trying to brew their own old-fashioned ginger beer using yeast. She explained, ” We’re both big fans of ginger beer, but can never find a commercially available one that is spicy or gingery enough for our tastes, so we thought we’d experiment a bit. The first few attempts to make ginger beer using yeast were interesting; there was a pretty big variability in taste as the yeast is pretty hard to control, but it was really fun to try make our own beverages.” Brooklyn Soda Works took off once they realized it wasn’t feasible to make ginger beer using yeast that they could sell due to the alcohol content and they started looking into making a variety of carbonated juices. “We bought a little Isi soda siphon to see if we could carbonate fresh juice, which explicitly states to not put anything but pure water in the siphon, and went wild thinking up flavor combinations,” says Caroline.
The couple get flavor inspiration from imagining pairings with favorite meals and collect ideas from family and friends. Some of their flavors so far have included: lemon ginger ale; spiced ginger beer; root beer; grapefruit, jalapeno and honey; cucumber, lime and sea salt; cream soda; chocolate soda; lemon, thyme and pink peppercorn; lemongrass and lime; hops soda; and maple bacon inspired by their favorite Montreal restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon.
While they hope to use seasonal ingredients, beginning in the winter made it difficult to source locally. “I’m not sure about a cabbage soda!” jokes Caroline, “But ideally we’d like to pair up with local NY farms and make seasonal sodas using their produce. Tony is looking forward to autumn – a whole day of apple beverages!”
Both fans of the Brooklyn Flea and the food vendors there, Brooklyn Soda Works’ founders decided to give selling at the Flea a shot. Once accepted as vendors, they realized they would need to significantly ratchet up their soda production to be more than just a kitchen experiment. Caroline elaborates, “We do test batches in our kitchen and have scaled up to our 18 liter corny kegs in our kitchen. Scaling up involves using an industrial juicer, a CO2 tank, kegs, a regulator and a giant freezer – basically the same set up that a homebrewer would have. We’re lucky to have a big kitchen! In order to sell to the public though, you have to make the beverages in a commercially licensed kitchen.” To this end they have teamed up with friend Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of the restaurant Palo Santo in Park Slope to use their kitchen.
There’s already buzz about Brooklyn Soda Works, who got a shout out on the New York Times’ dining blog and levied a very successful campaign to raise start-up capital on Kickstarter. While they are not quite ready to make the jump to selling whole sale to local bars and restaurants, though consider it in the future, Caroline says, “We’re more than happy to just sell from kegs for now, doing events and selling directly to our customers, and working with chefs who we respect. We’re hoping to work with mixologists and bartenders to make interesting cocktails. We’ve just started this whole enterprise so we very much want to keep it a hands on project.”
As joint venture of an artist and a chemist, this approach makes sense. Caroline elaborates, “I actually never considered cooking to be a hobby of mine so I’m surprised at how much I enjoy making these sodas! I love making things and trying to problem solve. It’s very much related to Tony’s work as a research chemist – he’s incredibly meticulous as well as being a good cook.”
Brooklyn Soda Works will be at the Brooklyn Flea starting April 10th. You can follow their progress on their wonderful blog as well.