August 22, 2012

Book Review: Andrea Lynn - The Artisan Soda Workshop

from Ulysses Press
Available from: Amazon (also on Kindle), Barnes and Noble, (also on Nook)

So I announced this book back in April, when the release date was set for late May.  The Kindle version came out at that time, but the print version was pushed to July, then to August, and then back to July.  When I received the book, I was astonished at how small it is. I was expecting the 120 pages, but I wasn't expecting the 6"x6" format.  I can almost fit this book in my pocket.  That said, it still contains a fair amount of good information. 

The book is designed around the SodaStream.  That's what the author uses to carbonate her beverages, and so the method for each soda recipe is the same: carbonate water, add syrup.  That makes this book more of a syrup recipe book than an artisan soda book.  (Which is not to say that the syrups aren't artisan, because they are.) If you're looking for fermented recipes, you'll need to look elsewhere.  However, there's nothing stopping you from adding the appropriate amount of syrup to the appropriate amount of water, bumping up the sugar a touch and fermenting from there. 

Because this book was completely designed around carbonated water + syrup, there is a caveat in the opening paragraphs that the recipes are for how the author likes her beverages to taste, and they can be adjusted for more or less sweetness.  I agree that this should be the case, however looking at the sugar:water ratio in most of these recipes, there is no set standard.  Maybe I'm strange that way, but it really helps me when I'm creating a recipe to stick to a general rule of thumb for sweetness, and this book doesn't seem to have one.  I like to think of sugar levels in terms of lbs./gallon.  My preferred sugar level is 1 lb(2 cups)/gallon for most sodas.  This is equivalent to the directions on a packet of kool-aid drink mix, and is familiar to a lot of people.  With that in mind, I was astonished at the sugar level of Lynn's cola recipe.  The syrup calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, and ends up making about 60 oz of finished soda. That ends up being about 1 1/2 lb./gal.  This sort of undermines Lynn's statement about homemade being healthier: "Another benefit to going homemade is that you can cut down on sugar.  Most of the popluar sodas in this country are super sweet... you'll find that homemade sodas usually have a much lower quantity of sugar while still providing superior taste."  I guess the Keyword here is "usually".
Hmm... a 12 oz can of Coke has 39g of sugar, but Lynn's cola has about 57g of sugar in a 10oz glass.  I'll not fault Lynn too much, my lb./gal estimates put me at about 43g/12oz serving.  I also have to pass the buck further to the NY Times, as Lynn's cola recipe is very similar to Krista and Jess's adaptation of a Times Homemade Cola recipe listed here.

This brings to mind her mention that homemade is healthier because "you know exactly what goes into your soda".  While that may be partially true, knowing is apparently only half the battle.  Without a reference point, it's easy to go overboard on the sugar, as we can plainly see.

I shouldn't bash Lynn's work too much, the rest of her recipes have much less sugar than the cola recipe.  Her root beer recipe has about half that amount of sugar (which I think is backwards, I like root beer a little sweeter and cola a little less sweet).  A little shy on the sugar for my tastes, but other than that, it's a good recipe.  It uses sasafrass and burdock extracts; a combination that works very well with the molasses, anise, and cloves in the recipe.  Sasafrass extract is easy to come by from Pappy's, I'm not sure where to find a burdock extract that I would trust to be food grade, though other than getting the roots and doing it yourself. 

With it being 'artisan' there are a few other ingredients that may be hard to track down as well, such as the kumquats for the Smashed Kumquats and Rosemary soda, or juniper berries for the Kiwi and Juniper Berry soda.  I know these are not impossible to find, or maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but they're not your average soda ingredients.  In fact many of the combinations are non-traditional such as Mango-Chile, Lemon-Thyme, and Plum-Vanilla.  I can attest, though, that the Rhubarb-Basil and Pineapple-Basil are excellent combinations. 

My favorite to make was the Blueberry-Lime syrup.  I used fresh picked blueberries, as they are in season, and the flavor came out wonderful.  I was a little concerned with how long the recipe calls for cooking it.  In my experience most fruits burn easily when cooked in sugar.  But I stuck to it and it came out just fine.  The recipe also calls for adding lime juice at the beginning, whereas I prefer to add citrus juices just after removing a syrup from heat.  This allows you to use less citrus for the same flavor impact.  The recipe for the finished soda is big on blueberry flavor and light on sweetness.  I would add more sugar if I were to do it again.  It comes out with beautiful color as seen in most of the many full color photos in the book. 

Aside from the soda syrup recipes, there's a section on shrubs and aguas frescas that I have yet to try.  I find shrubs an interesting class of beverage, though it's been a good while since I've made any. Lynn's recipes seem to have good variety and look relatively easy to make.  They all follow a similar procedure and include a fermentation step, but include unique ingredients such as pepper or balsamic vinegar.  That's part of what I like about the book.  Even though there is some repetition in procedure among the recipes, that's really what gives you the experience you need to understand the process and branch out on your own. 

There is also a section on sparkling cocktails that include some of the syrups previously found in the earlier chapters.  For entertaining guests, this would be very impressive for those who drink. 

All in all, it's a fairly well rounded little book aside from a few inconsistencies such as the sugar levels.  In short, this is a book that caters to the Sodastream owner: the procedure is the same as that with proprietary Sodastream syrups, the batch sizes are comparable the Sodastreams capabilities yet are flexible enough to allow other carbonation methods, the artisan style and flavors of the syrups are just the kind of exotic combinations that a foodie adventurist is looking for (i.e. Watermelon-Jalapeno Agua Fresca), and they're all relatively simple.  For the Sodastream user, it's a great step to making your own soda flavors rather than just mixing store-bought syrups. In that sense, it may very well be a "gateway drug" to moving beyond the small capacity of the 1L Sodastream.  Trust me, upgrading to a kegging system is a good thing.

What the book lacks is a greater breadth of carbonation techniques; a true 'artisan soda workshop' should include fermentable recipes, and straight carbonation recipes for flavors that might be damaged by the high heat used when boiling to a syrup (such as anything with a high citric acid content).  The small size for the price could be a turn-off for some people, but it certainly does have some good recipes.  Speaking of price, this book is also not for those DIYers who are in it for economic reasons.  Making your own soda can be economical.  That was one big draw for me at the outset.  However, with a lot of specialty ingredients and the small batch sizes, I really don't see a lot of cost savings here.  I don't think that the book was ever meant to be that, the word "artisan" should allude to that fact, but if that's what you're looking for, you're unlikely to find it in this book.  I also find some oversights that could have been corrected with perhaps a little peer editing.  For example, the concord grape syrup recipe uses 100% grape juice and boils it down from 2 1/2 cups to 1/4 cup.  I thought that it made more sense to start with a frozen 100% grape juice concentrate when making this recipe.  You'll damage a lot more of the flavor cooking down that far than a commercial low-heat/vacuum process does to the concentrate you'll buy at any grocery store, and you'll pay less money with a concentrate.  The picture for that particular soda does look a little caramelized like the colors were damaged in that much heating, too.

For what it is, it's a decent enough book that I don't mind adding it to my collection.  The recipes are exotic and tasty yet simple and the full color photos are absolutley beautiful.  I do, however, find myself wanting more.  I want some straight carbonation recipes, I want to be able to bottle these, and I want some bigger batch sizes. 
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