Soda and Cheese Pairings: crossing the fizzy frontier
I'm a pop fan. Critics accuse it of being liquid candy, but who doesn't like candy? I love soda, its sweetness and its fizz, the array of alchemical flavors, and the sting of acid in its tail. I'm not alone, either: sports drinks and bottled water have been eating into the market, but when the average American still drinks about 480 cans' worth of soda / pop / coke / tonic per year, it's hard to argue that the official drink of the USA isn't soft.
While we've already dipped our toes into the high end of the soda market, I wanted to take a look at some less esoteric options. So I met with culture co-founder and cheese expert Lassa Skinner, to taste an array of more-or-less commonly available sodas, and see how they came together with the fine cheese on offer at the Oxbow Cheese Market in Napa, CA.
Our selection was governed by opportunity and diversity, and ranged from fruit (citrus & grape) to spice (ginger, the mysterious Dr. Pepper) to king cola itself. This being California, we also had easy access to excellent Mexican brands like Sidral and Jarritos, but not some of my regional New England favorites, like Polar's Birch Beer or Orange Dry, or Moxie's powerful potion.Also omitted was seltzer or another unflavored carbonated water, which is really a fabulous accompaniment to just about anything—drink seltzer, people.
The most remarkable element of the tasting was its complexity; you'd think that once you'd figured out a "direction" to taste in (funkier, milkier, blue-er) that the combinations would get progressively better on a sliding scale. That wasn't true at all; although none of the beverages could be described as subtle (excepting the colas) they combined with the cheese in exceptionally subtle ways; similar cheeses did not necessarily pair well with the same soda. This being a 'horizontal on horizontal' pairing party, further vertical tastings are certainly in order.
Preferred pairings are marked with a bottlecap.
Cider, both hard and soft, makes a wonderful foil for cheese, so we were optimistic about this delicate apple brew, and started with similarly light cheese, a fresh chevre:
It worked fine with Redwood Hill's Fresh Chèvre.
Humboldt Fog, however, was too goaty for the light apple taste of the soda.
Domaine du Valage triple cream brought out the sweetness of the flavor to good effect.
Normandy Brie didn't work at all, overwhelming the delicate flavor of the soda.
I really wanted to find Ting, a very refreshing Jamaican grapefruit soda that's a bit pulpy, but couldn't locate any. I found the more available and less Orangina-esque Squirt. For this relatively light and tart soda we started again with chevre:
Tangy Redwood Hill Chèvre actually concealed the sourness of the soda, which was part of the point, right?
Humboldt Fog was a good match this time: the cheese's salt stood out and the combo really worked.
A triple cream stripped the fruit from the soda, making it cloying.
Bellwether's Carmody was a decent match, too, but not as tight as Humboldt Fog.
Known to my wife as "the Yuppie soda", Izze's become a widely-available mid-market option (see Jones and Hot Lips for two others). But it proved a tough pairing partner with cheese, until we swerved it a bit and found the first genuine hit of the tasting session.
Chèvre got demolished by the soda's sourness.
So did Humboldt Fog; the up-front sour citrus overwhelmed the cheese.
Garrotxa had the right texture, and enough body to stand up to the grapefruit. I liked the combo, Lassa wasn't so sure.
Carmody turned bland in the mouth with Izze, why bother?
Rogue River Blue, remarkably, came alive with fruit and pungency when paired with Izze Grapefruit. An awesome match that brought the salt a bit down in the cheese but made both shine!
A&W Cream Soda
A&W's version of the classic is very rich, reminiscent of birthday cake, icing and all.
Cream soda and Carmody was cream on cream / butter on butter. Overwhelming, but maybe in a good way.
Redwood Hill Chèvre brought out a very unpleasant chemical / saccharine flavor in the soda. Combine at your peril!
Nicasio's Formagella, on the other hand, was a wonderful combo, with clean, earthy flavors coming out in the cheese.
Boyland's Root Beer
Boyland's makes a nice herby root beer with hints of licorice and other spices that keep the brew from getting syrupy. But it proved tough to pair:
Sheep's milk Flor de Esgueva didn't work.
Neither did our Brie du Normandie.
Garrotxa was a disaster, with the herbaciousness of the tonic deadening the cheese on the palate.
On the other hand, both 1-year and 2-year aged Old Amsterdam Gouda worked marvelously, with caramel and celery flavors coming out of the cheese.
Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola
Despite small differences in the flavors of these two mighty rivals, they were close enough that pairings worked equally well with each. And true to the rumors that cola was a near-universal tastant, Coke and Pepsi were excellent pairings with a number of cheeses. C-c-catch the Wave!
Carmody was a good pairing with cola, developing its flavor slowly.
Vella Dry Jack was a wonderful salt / sweet / sour combination, like ketchup with french fries.
Quebec cheddar was good, but slightly overpowered by the soda.
Beehive's Barely Buzzed was excellent, the coffee flavor of the rind harmonizing with coffee notes in both Coke and Pepsi.
Some other interesting picks:
Dr. Pepper: To me, the odd fruit-herb-molasses confluence of the flavor always seemed to be a "concoction," with all the ambivalence that term carries, and the only soda on the table with an advanced degree was also the toughest one to pair.
Manchegoworked fine, but the sweetness of the soda didn't harmonize well with the sharper notes of the cheese.
Flor de Esgueva came out very salty and sheepy against the good doctor, but was perhaps the best pick we found.
Bundaburg Ginger Ale: With its mellow, beer-y character, Australian Bundaburg wasn't all that hard to pair.Tasted with Nicasio's Formagella, both the soda and the cheese came out creamy and good.
Welch's Grape Soda: the one that got us all the looks in the wine glass.Surprisingly, this very surypy soda went well with the richness of Blu di Buffala. Maybe it's a color thing?
Despite some odd looks from shoppers at Oxbow, we discovered a real treasure trove of pairings, but as with wine, our palates (and pancreases) started to give out near the end; as with a wine tasting, portion control is key. Amazingly, though, we've barely scratched the surface of the soda world, leaving popular favorites like Orange Fanta and 7UP, and succulent alternatives like Pineapple Crush or Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray yet to be tested. Our journey beyond the fizzy frontier continues.
Will Fertman is a contributing writer for culture
Top image: Lassa gets down with Welch's Grape