Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cheers! All-natural soda inspired by craft cocktails

The craft cocktail movement has given rise to a resurgence of great bars that appeal to discerning customers who favor premium blends from small-batch distilleries and house-made mixers flavored with local fruit, herbs and spices.

Bob Safford is impressed by the creativity of top mixologists and the hip, well-heeled crowds they attract. As a non-drinker, however, he grew tired of sitting on the sidelines when friends would order concoctions far more interesting than his Diet Coke or non-alcoholic beer.

“I remember one night in particular where everyone was talking about the great herbs and spices in their drinks, and it hit me: Why can’t you do this with a soda?” said Safford, who did just that with JOIA, an all-natural beverage available locally at Fresh Market.

Safford researched several alternative soft drinks before he launched JOIA in June 2011. None had flavors as complex or adventurous as his vision, and some included artificial ingredients.

“There’s a strong demand quality products made with natural fruits and spices. It started as a trend in healthy snacks 10-15 years ago when Nabsico and Kraft and other large companies responded to the shift in consumer preferences,” said Safford, who retired from a career at General Mills. “Today, it’s going the other way with small producers getting shelf space.”

Bob Safford
At upscale grocery chains and specialty markets, buyers now have their choice of dozens of snack crackers made by some of the best bakers they’ve never heard of – including ones from their own culinary communities. That kind of creativity just isn’t possible at mega-manufacturers, he said, and consumer demand is making it possible for more small-batch producers to achieve success.

After developing nearly 100 funky flavors in 2010, Safford used focus groups and in-home demonstration parties to winnow the field to four signature Drink Distinct flavors: Pineapple Coconut & Nutmeg; Lime Hibiscus& Clove; Blackberry Pomegranate & Ginger; and Grapefruit Chamomile & Cardamon. Four-packs sell for about $5.99 at Fresh Market, or $1.69 for chilled single bottles.

Safford introduced JOIA in his home market of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which he described as “upscale, highly educated and open to natural products” – much like the Triad, where JOIA recently found space on market shelves.

Being named Best Carbonated Beverage of the year in 2011 by BevNet helped grow the buzz and created opportunities to expand. “Frankly, flew in the face of how we intended to grow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said with a laugh. “We’re working hard to meet the demand and continue offering new products.”

Though they are not yet available in all JOIA markets, the company has introduced two new flavors, Orange Jasmine & Nutmeg and Ginger Apricot & Allspice. Don’t be surprised if Cranberry Pear & Allspice makes its debut around the Thanksgiving holiday.

While JOIA was inspired as a non-alcohol beverage option, Safford does not object if anyone decides to punch up the flavor with their favorite spirits. The brand's website even offer suggestions for cocktail pairings.

“That’s a little controversial within the board of the company,” conceded Safford. “It’s an irony, right? But because of the way these are made it’s not surprising that these are great mixers. If you talk our Lime Hibiscus & Clove and add some gin and lime, it’s an insanely good drink.”

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Taste Test

JOIA provided a sampler four-pack of its signature soda flavors for a taste testing. A highly unscientific test was conducted at my kitchen table, which happens to be located in reasonable proximity to our liquor stash. Testers included two adult females, two adult males, and a surprisingly adventurous and taste-savvy 8-year-old girl.    .

Lime Hibiscus & Clove:  We all warily expected the clove to be dominant and cloying, but the balance was excellent and the crisp flavor highly refreshing.

“It’s sour and it’s perfect; a 10,” said our kid tester, adding, “I’d like to add this flavor to my SodaStream.” “Yummy,” agreed an adult female, who suggested it be spiked with vodka. “Yes, indeed.”

Blackberry Pomegranate & Ginger:  While testers had high expectations, this sample was deemed too sweet and punch-like.

“Add some Smirnoff and lime, my friend, and it becomes an 8,” declared one adult female tester. “Vodka does add a bit of herbaceousness,” agreed a male tester, “but it’s still sweet.”

Grapefruit Chamomile & Cardomon:  For four out of five tasters, this was the best of the bunch.

 “Subtle and delicious with a dry tartness. Perfect for a hot day,” said an adult female tester. “Smells the best,” said a male tester, adding,. “Wow, an 8.” “A little funky to me,” said our 8-year-old, but it smells and tastes very nice.” “Too crisp for me,” said the other male tester. “Kind of like Mt. Dew Extreme.”

Pineapple Coconut & Nutmeg:  The pina colada-like blend was sweet and somewhat reminiscent of Lifesavers. It scored lowest among testers.

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