Creative carbonation

Quite a few restaurants mix up their own soft drinks these days, but Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colorado, takes the idea a step further by bottling housemade sodas with a high-tech double carbonation system.

When the restaurant opened in fall 2010, they made sodas the usual way by muddling fruit and adding seltzer, recalls co-owner and beverage director Bryan Dayton. But when a devastating fire shut the place down for nine months, Dayton and his team used some of the down time to re-conceptualize their fizzy drink technique.

Initially, they used a device to carbonate drinks in 2-liter bottles. “Presentation was a problem,” says the beverage director. “It looked like a plastic bottle you’d have in your fridge at home.” The process Dayton now uses, after three months of experimentation, is to keg the soda base and force carbonation with a CO2 tank. To bottle the soda without losing fizz, extra CO2 is added during the filling process. The 8-ounce bottles are capped and chilled.

For service, bottles are brought to the table and uncapped in front of guests. “They sell like crazy,” says Dayton, who reports selling 40 or more sodas a day at $5 each. A root beer special, pairing the housemade soda with a burger, has proved especially popular.

Indeed, root beer and a ginger beer are perennials on the list. Other selections change seasonally. Recent offerings include blood orange & rosemary, cucumber & basil and kumquat & tarragon. “We coordinate with the kitchen on what’s in season, and then dial in the drinks from there,” notes the beverage director.

Often the soft drinks do double duty as components in cocktails, such as the housemade ginger beer in a Dark & Stormy. But Dayton also mixes, carbonates and bottles cocktails; most recently a version of the classic Moscow Mule.

Oak at Fourteenth’s drink list is categorized by alcohol content. Beers, for example, are sectioned into high-gravity Big Beer and average-proof Small Beer. The drinks begin at NA (No Alcohol), which, besides the soft drinks, includes tea doctored with housemade lavender syrup and old-fashioned bitters. LA (Low Alcohol) is comprised of lighter quaffs, including WC and Soda—a mix of Campari and the kumquat & tarragon soda—and HA (High Alcohol) cocktails include the Oak Martini. When carbonating, Dayton creates different batches of drinks for all three categories.

Dayton continues to perfect his technique and range farther afield with flavor experiments. He is also working with a marketing company to design labels for the mini bottles. In the future, he might consider selling the sodas retail. “We’re always having customers asking to buy the bottles to go.”

What’s up with soft drink consumers?

Americans are tight-fisted these days when dining out, and that includes beverage purchases. They are also more cognizant of health concerns associated with excessive soft drink consumption. Mintel’s study of non-alcoholic beverage drinkers reveals these findings:

  • 46% ordered fewer beverages at restaurants for budgetary reasons
  • 62% said free refills were an important factor when ordering drinks
  • 51% say they are concerned about the health effects of regular soda consumption
  • 46% report they are worried about the health effects of drinking diet soda
  • 44% say they plan to drink healthier beverages in 2012
  • 36% enjoy trying new flavors of drinks when dining out
  • 28% look for beverage variety when deciding where to eat out

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