Over the past year, discerning non-drinkers, drivers, or just hydrators have moved on from the humble can of San Pellegrino or bottle of Perrier. While non-alcoholic options used to be pretty limited — sickly-sweet and sugar-loaded sodas, or synthetic-tasting fizzy waters — that’s not the case in 2021. Almost every coffee shop, wine bar, deli, or general store is stocking a colourful array of craft seltzers and sodas. Much like the craft-beer movement a decade or so ago, these drinks are often produced by small or independent retailers, with a focus on creative and unusual flavour combinations. Plus, they often feature graphics or illustrations that give them an added aesthetic appeal — a craft soda is just as likely to end up in a grid pic as a can of Cloudwater Pilsner or bottle of Chin Chin Vinho Verde from Top Cuvee. “These craft sodas offer more of an artisanal product compared to your bog standard San Pellegrino or flavoured Volvic water,” notes Angela Hui, a food-and-drink writer at Time Out.
But before we go any further, some terminology. Though the term “seltzer” is rarely used in the U.K., they have been big business in the U.S. for many years — our colleagues at Grub Street pinpointed the seltzer boom as occurring in 2011. Unlike sparkling waters, such as Highland Spring, which feature naturally occurring bubbles, seltzers are artificially carbonated, much like what you’d make in a SodaStream. While, traditionally speaking, the two terms are not interchangeable, within the new wave of craft seltzers and sodas, the two are practically one and the same.
As for why they’re both becoming so popular in the U.K. right now, Claire Lancaster, a senior strategist at trend consultancy firm WGSN, said it could be the pandemic. “The last year or so, we’ve seen people invest more in the products on their shelves and in their home. We communicate our values via the things we consume, and supporting local businesses has been a big part of the pandemic,” she says. Favouring local products and “values-led” companies is by no means new — Lancaster says consumers have done it with craft beer for years — but it’s now trickled down to the fizzy drink you might grab at lunch, too.
The wealth of options, though, is overwhelming. And it doesn’t help that they can feel interchangeable. “If you look at the cans/packaging, they all look super similar,” says Hui. “Very Instagrammy, clean, and minimal.” To help you decide which drink might be the best fit for you, we spoke to ten experts, including bar and bodega owners, food writers, and trend experts. We also scoured the shelves of some of our favourite delis and bars, including Good Food deli in Catford, wine bar/bottle shop Shop Cuvée, and sandwich shop Doms Subs. While one option did arise as a pretty unanimous winner, in terms of the most exciting brand out there, our experts suggested that we not forget about a wealth of other emerging flavours and sodas — including a cult-like Mexican cola to a celery seltzer popular in Jewish delis.
Best-rated overall seltzer
Something & Nothing’s seltzers came recommended by six of our experts, making it the stand-out option overall. The East-London brand launched in 2017 and offers three flavours — cucumber, hibiscus and rose, and yuzu. We spotted their cans being sold all over, from sandwich shop Dom’s Subs to Origin Coffee, co-working space Second Home, and fitness studio Frame in Shoreditch. You can even pick them up in Selfridges.
Brodie Meah, co-founder of Top Cuvée (and their bottle shop, Shop Cuvee), called Something & Nothing “proper trendy,” while saying he was a huge fan of the “cool design and low-sugar – the yuzu is tart and fruity, but the hibiscus and rose is so spring-y, too.” Lancaster especially likes their kombucha-like flavour profiles, which are all seeing a surge in popularity at the moment. “We’re seeing profiles like sour, funky, or floral notes — ones that people have already enjoyed in kombucha, natural wines, and other fermented foods — moving into sodas as well,” she notes.
And while Something & Nothing’s seltzers are alcohol-free, Lucas Oakley, a senior editor at Mob Kitchen, said that “the cucumber one is great for cocktails,” while I myself find a shot of rum in the cucumber seltzer, with a spring of mint, makes for a great off-the-cuff mojito. Strategist U.K. editor Ailbhe Malone, meanwhile, likes the Yuzu best. “If I’m drinking alcohol, I’ll mix it with a Sochu to make a kind of Chu-Hi,” she says. If you don’t feel like being your own mixologist, the brand recently branched out into selling two alcoholic spritzes — a sauvignon blanc and cucumber one, and a French rose and hibiscus option, too.
Best-rated overall seltzer (runner up)
You might be familiar with Manchester-based brewery Cloudwater for their hyper-colourful cans of IPA and craft beers. But Missy Flynn, owner of Bodega Ritas in Clerkenwell, told us the brewery’s pivot to soft drinks has yielded one of her favourite craft sodas. “What is interesting is that they use hops, although they are not alcoholic. With my bartending background, we’ve always tried to make sure the soft drinks we work with don’t just feel like pure sugar, and a lot of sodas now offer the layered, nuanced, and complex flavours we typically associate with cocktails.” Flynn says the Mango Sour, which they stock at Bodega Rita’s, has “the kind of flavour profile you might expect in a pale ale.” Oakley also told us this was a favourite of his, and we’ve seen the brand’s green-tea soda on sale at Shop Cuvee.
Some other expert-recommended sodas
Flynn told us that, away from the “botanical” tasting sodas flooding the market, there’s a huge demand for Mexican craft sodas. “Jarritos is a Mexican cola that’s really popular in other parts of the world — the key thing is they use cane sugar, rather than the flavourings and fake sugars in most fizzy drinks,” she says. “Mexican Coke is really big in America for that very reason.” You’re most likely to see Jarritos sodas stocked at Mexican restaurants in London, such as Hermanos Taco House, Elephant and Castle’s Mercato Metropolitano, and Buck Street Market in Camden (you can also find it at some branches of Chilango), but you can find them on a few online grocers as well. [Editor’s note: This six-pack is low in stock, but we found single bottles for sale on Drink Supermarket and Bodega Rita’s.]
East London-based Square Root started out making ginger beer, which is still Hui’s favourite flavour. “It is super refreshing, and has a good ol’ spicy ginger kick,” she says. But they have since expanded into non-alcoholic “spritzers,” in flavours like Negroni and passionfruit mojito. This also came recommended to us by both Rosamund Dean, writer and author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, and Felix Cohen, owner of Daisy’s in Margate. “They have a nerdy dedication to brewing apparatus and sustainable supply chains,” notes Dean. Square Root also does exclusive, limited-edition sodas for cafés and restaurants like Gail’s bakery and Bleeker St Burger.
Oakley says Monty’s Deli stocks this hard-to-find celery soda that is popular with those in the know. The herbal notes from this soda come from the celery seed, which lends an almost aniseed-like taste. Monty’s say this is anis-edged sweetness makes the flavour popular in Jewish delis, particularly in New York.
Flynn says that softer flavoured sodas also lend themselves well to cocktails. “This lychee soda by Velvet Soda, another Mexican brand, is really popular in the shop,” she says, noting that she is planning on using it in a Mezcal cocktail at her restaurants. “You don’t associate the subtle, rose flavour with Mexico, but it works really well. This soda only uses a bit of cane sugar, too, and the lychee flavouring is natural.”
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