Where were you the first time you saw a mountain of LaCroix stacked at the end of a supermarket aisle? I remember how I felt—elation, at having found it, and a small tremor of snobby revulsion, like when you realize your secret restaurant just got four stars in the paper, or your favorite underground band shows up on the radio.
It’s past trendy. It’s no longer hip. Fizzy water, long a mainstay of silent film comedy routines and dinner tables on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is now simply ubiquitous. It makes sense: soda sales are way down and have been falling for decades. That leaves an awful lot of hands without a can to hold. Big companies, like Pepsi, have introduced brands of sparkling water of their own with flavors reminiscent of LaCroix, even if no one has yet to match the style statement. (It takes guts, after all, to make a mostly illegible logo on a swirling mess that looks like a cut and paste job from the famed Solo Jazz cup design. It’s got a sort of Prada-esque disregard for what’s considered attractive: it’s so hot, rich, and sophisticated, it can tear up the carpet and wear it as a coat. You’ll still want to take it home.)
For all this, however, I can’t help but feel that the flavors of fizzy water are being focus group tested on the same room that is approving oatmeal varieties. As a result, we’re still stuck with the water equivalent of brown-sugar-teddy-bear flavor. Because I want more from life than berries and oranges, and I am starting to think that these endless mountains of cans (destined for, hopefully, recycling) are sorta gross, I built my own carbonation system.
I bought a six-liter keg, some tubes, and borrowed a CO2 tank with a regulator. The math looks bad, at first, because these items aren’t cheap, but then again, neither is sustaining my regular seltzer habit.
The act of carbonating something feels like it should be easy, and it sort of is. (Sparkling water, of course, has literally been popular for centuries, coming in and out of vogue. In Europe, it even comes bottled in a range of fizziness levels.) How quickly you become a soda expert really depends on how well you can decipher the postings on beer geek forums to learn about Cornelius kegs, and cold crashing. You also need to figure out how a CO2 regulator works. How’d I do? I’d say I’m squarely average to slightly below average, but I feel like my keg is beginning to spurt bubbly water that is something like what I want. From here on it’s all fine tuning.
If it seems that I skipped over a whole segment of products designed to make soda water at home, you are right, I did. One of the reasons why cans are so popular is that these soda machines and gadgets generally cannot produce the fierce fizziness that I crave. Darcy O’Neil wrote well about this problem in his book, Fix the Pumps, which is all about the history of traditional soda fountains. “The first factor to consider is the size of the bubbles. Taste perception is critically linked to aroma and smaller bubbles pick up more aroma molecules than larger bubbles.” Lots of pressure will make bigger bubbles, but if the bubbles are too big, they’ll quickly come out of solution and the seltzer will go flat. “Lower pressure,” O’Neil continues, “produces a finer bubble, but the seltzer water may lack the biting sensation found in heavily carbonated water.” So, the trick is to find the equilibrium. The technical answer is that good seltzer really comes down to high PSI as well as displacement of air and many home soda makers aren’t able to achieve a balance of the two.
So I asked Chris “Moose” Koons, one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Soda Company, for some advice. He told me to get a “carb stone,” which acts as a diffuser inside the water tank, and that he carbonates the water at up to 40 PSI. (For reference, old-school seltzer was much higher than that.)
When Koons began the Rocky Mountain Soda company, almost a decade ago, his focus was on local ingredients, but after a big supplier changed the way they made their sugar, he started sourcing more carefully. “All our sodas use organic essences and extracts, organic cane sugar, citric acid, and purified sparkling water. Pretty simple. We are finding that once people know that you can have a soda without all the bullshit in it they give it another shot.”
He’s also noted that the water side of the business is booming, and that people are starting to have the same feelings that I have about the flavors. “We have seen our customers develop a more sophisticated palate, as well as a heightened awareness about ingredients,” Koons told me. As a result, Rocky Mountain Soda is even creating a black tea cardamom essential oil water.
I thought, briefly, about carbonating things that were already flavored, but decided that I’d rather carbonate clean and flavor afterwards, both for the sake of variety and to eliminate flavor transfer. I’ve experimented with infusing my bubbly with smokey tea and even mixing it with my own vinegar-based shrub. Both turned out to be delicious.
While my bubbles are not yet perfect, I am thrilled to be released from the tyranny of focus group flavors. Who is thirsty?