“It’s way too late now, but we always think ‘we probably shouldn’t have put soda in the name,’ because what we make is not actually really soda, and it’s kind of confusing, but you know, whatever,” says Tony Ramos, co-owner of Brooklyn Soda Works, about his company’s product.
“‘Brooklyn Soda Works’ is catchy; that’s our name. ‘Brooklyn Carbonated Fruit Juice Works?’ Ehh, it doesn’t sound so good.”
Strictly speaking, Brooklyn Soda Works’ line of carbonated juices are by definition, sodas. But except for a few smaller, limited batches, they focus on juice-based drinks over cola (however, some bottles of housemade cola extract, made with Everclear, can be found in the back).
Brooklyn Soda Works was born in 2010 when Ramos, then a research chemist, and his partner, Caroline Mak, an installation artist, were looking to make their own dark and stormy mixer, with a more balanced sweetness and more natural tasting spice than what was available in stores. The couple then experimented with fruit juices, directly carbonating apple juice and orange juice, which resulted in something that they and their friends enjoyed as a lighter, fresher alternative to conventional sodas.
“Conventional sodas are made with a syrup, and then you pour carbonated water in,” explains Mak. “What we do is we take the fresh juice and carbonate that directly. Which requires a lot more fruit.”
Since then, Mak and Ramos’s apartment soda experiment has expanded into a full-time operation. They operate out of the old Pfizer building at 630 Flushing Avenue (alongside a veritable who’s who of Brooklyn artisanal-y businesses), sell at bars, restaurants, fairs, and events around the city (including a permanent presence at the High Line) and have two full-time retail and distribution Managers on staff.
Seasonality has a tremendous effect on Brooklyn Soda Works product line. Any number of factors can affect the flavor: Fruits grown in upstate taste different than fruits from South Jersey, fruit from early in the season will have different sweetness levels than mid-season fruit, and weather patterns can affect flavors from year to year.
While Mak and Ramos strive for consistency, they ultimately care most about whether their sodas taste good on their own while hoping that customers will allow for minor variations in flavor.
On the other hand, using seasonal, local produce allows them to offer a range of similarly seasonal flavors, all with very short ingredient lists. For example, their red currant and shiso soda features red currants from New Jersey and shiso from Brooklyn Grange, and is available during midsummer
“So basically, our deal is that the ingredient list, when I say it’s rhubarb and ginger, I mean the ingredients are rhubarb, ginger and a little bit of organic cane sugar — and that’s it,” says Mak.
However, several flavors are available year-round, including their ginger beer and the top-selling apple ginger, which features apples from Red Jacket Orchards in the Finger Lakes. Dried hibiscus is used year-round for a number of flavors, including a winter soda with cinnamon and clove, and excess blueberries and cranberries are often frozen for later use.
As Mak describes it, Brooklyn Soda Works’ research and development process is defined by a mix of logic and experimentation.
“So every spice and every herb has a temperature and a time that you can steep it to extract the best amount of flavor. You know, it’s like, star anise, and then you have cloves, and you have allspice, and you have so many different things — how do you get the best flavor out of an herb or spice without getting it too bitter or anything?”
Ramos’s knowledge of chemistry plays a major role in the science behind flavor development, as Mak explains.
“We have a giant Excel sheet of perfect times and temperatures for each spice and herb. So then we created a building block for ourselves: ‘Star anise has these qualities, like these notes, it would therefore go well with these fruit and vegetables.’”
However, there’s still an element of artistry and surprise involved.
“I never would have thought that rhubarb and Thai basil tasted good together, but they do,” Mak adds. “And then honestly, with a lot of flavors, it’s not rocket science. You get inspired when you go to the farmers market and you pick things and you try things.”
To test out a new flavor, they’ll make a series of one liter test batches. Once the flavor is honed enough to taste good from a seltzer siphon, they work their way up to larger batches. If it still tastes good in a 5-gallon keg, they’ll do a few test runs for regular customers at weekend markets before adding it to the lineup.
The day we came, Brooklyn Soda Works was producing batches of their cardamom cream and watermelon sodas, and were bottling blueberry lemon and apple ginger:
The cardamom cream soda is the result of a relatively quick boil of a laundry list of ingredients: whole vanilla beans and Madecasse extract, fresh lemon juice, cardamom pods, cane sugar and water.
The solid flavorings are placed in a pouch, and boiled for 40 minutes.
The resulting boil is then loaded into a carbonation tank and hooked up to a carbon dioxide line in the walk-in fridge, where it will remain until the next morning.
Even though the watermelons won’t be pressed, and the juice won’t be carbonated until the afternoon, production manager Matt Hertzberg has been cutting up watermelons all morning.
“It’s more like a lab than a kitchen.” Retail manager Tim Haggerty cleans the carbonation tank before any watermelon juice is put in. He estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the job is cleaning, and while Monday through Thursday are production days at Brooklyn Soda Works, Fridays are devoted entirely to cleaning.
Washing off a fresh batch of watermelons for cutting. Hertzberg will cut up and press about 30 watermelons before the end of the day.
Hertzberg loads the cut-up watermelons into the industrial cold press. Each load of watermelons will be pressed two to three times before new ones are loaded into the machine.
Freshly squeezed watermelon juice.
A better view of the cold press, working on the next container’s worth of juice.
Slowly but surely, this carbonation tank will contain nine kegs (or 45 gallons total) of watermelon juice by the end of day.
According to Mak, a fully automated bottling line is a million-dollar investment, plus distribution costs, selling bottles to only a few retailers in New York, and to individual buyers by mail in a few East Coast states. Because of this, they only bottle about 5 percent of their output (the rest is kegged), and Ramos and Haggerty do most of the bottling themselves.
Haggerty applies labels to the 12-ounce bottles using this nifty little contraption (apple ginger is the only flavor that goes into these bottles).
A finished bottle.
Finished 12-ounce bottles are placed in a rack before being filled.
Mak writes the production and expiration dates on by hand.
Haggerty manually places labels on the liter bottles.
Cleaning the liter bottles.
Haggerty uses a bottling gun, connected to a keg, to fill the bottles with soda, one-by-one.
And now for apple ginger…
Cleaning the 12-ounce bottles.
Haggerty uses the same bottling gun to fill the 12-ounce bottles with apple ginger.
Ramos individually caps each bottle using this machine.
Hard at work (not pictured: watermelons being pressed 10 feet away)