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Sweet turns sour

Syrup, a thick viscous liquid, is made by dissolving sugar in water or by reducing cane or sugar beet juice. Simple syrup is often used to sweeten beverages because granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve easily in cold liquids; syrup also balances acidity in drinks like coffee, lemonade or citrusy cocktails.

The price of sugar, the main ingredient in most syrups, had remained fairly stable for years until global prices for the commodity began rising in 2009. According to the USDA’s World Refined Sugar Price index, the per-pound price was 15.67 cents in January 2009; by January 2010, the price had more than doubled to 33.32 cents per pound. This past January the price for a pound of sugar hit a high of 35.58 cents. Blame for the spike is placed on bad weather in key growing regions, most notably a drought in Brazil, the biggest producer, and the hurricane and flooding in Australia, the third-largest exporter.

Rising prices have had a ripple effect. Sugar is used in 70 percent of all manufactured foods, according to the American Sugar Alliance, an industry group. As the main ingredient in beverage syrups, the price spike has had a definite impact in that category.

Beverage mega-companies PepsiCo and Coca-Cola both warned of commodity price increases in their 2010 year-end reports. PepsiCo’s chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi cited “pronounced commodity inflation” as a major concern for the company in 2011.

The date game 

Jallab is very tasty. back home in Lebanon we drink it all the time, so I serve it here, too,” says Robert Semaan, owner of the Balade Pitza & Grill, a Lebanese restaurant in New York City. Jallab, a popular Middle Eastern drink, is made from date syrup mixed with water and flavored with rosewater. The non-alcoholic drink is served over ice and garnished with pine nuts; price is $4. “It’s a very healthy drink, good for the blood circulation,” notes Semaan. If available, Balade’s Jallab is made with date syrup imported from Lebanon. Otherwise, the restaurant’s chef prepares the fresh syrup in-house from dates and sugar.

Balade offers another traditional beverage made with rose syrup, flavored with essence of flower petals. In the non-alcoholic Rose Water ($3.50), rose syrup is mixed with water and served over ice. “Customers love the drinks,” says Semaan, who reports going through a case of the syrups every week. “Rose Water is a refreshing summer drink, and I sell more of the Jallab in the winter.”

Balade’s house specialty is Sparkling Rose ($10), which is rose syrup mixed with sparkling wine. The drink’s hue is especially appealing. “Rose syrup is red like a Valentine,” says the owner, and Sparkling Rose was part of a $45 prix fixe Valentine’s Day menu. The promotion was “a sweetheart of a success,” he adds.

No more plain vanilla

The tiki bar trend has generated interest in one old-fashioned syrup—orgeat. Pronounced “or-ZHAT,” it’s usually concocted from barley and almonds, sweetened with sugar and flavored with rosewater or orange flower water. Orgeat syrup is a key component of classic cocktails like the Mai Tai, Scorpion and Japanese. Commercial syrup manufacturers produce an orgeat, but some mixologists are experimenting with their own versions. Former Bay Area bartender Jennifer Colliau markets her handcrafted syrups under the Small Hand Foods brand; besides orgeat, she offers flavored gum syrups and genuine grenadine.

Agave syrup continues to be a strong contender, especially on the cocktail circuit. Made from the juice of the heart of the agave plant, the syrup has a low glycemic index and is a natural sweetener for margaritas. Xagave, a blend of nectar from Agave Tequiliana (the Blue Agave used in fine Tequila) and Agave Salmiana (another variety called White Agave), was created by chef Stephen Richards of BetterBody Foods. The blend reportedly contains more inulin, which minimizes the sweetener’s impact on blood sugar levels.

It’s not just plain vanilla when it comes to syrups anymore. Now vanilla comes in single-origin varietals, like Tahitian, Mexican and Madagascar. “The interesting feature with varietals is that they all taste different—something with a Madagascar or Bourbon Vanilla profile will deliver a darker, complex, creamy flavor with notes of oakiness, while a Tahitian Vanilla will tend to be more floral with some notes of cherry and be very aromatic and lighter in flavor,” says Andrea Ramirez, customer marketing manager for San Francisco-based Torani. “Mexican Vanilla tends to have a creamy spicy flavor.” The company recently debuted Cinnamon Vanilla as a new limited time syrup and added Salted Caramel to its regular lineup.

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