If there's a season for pop it's summer – the fizz, the candy-like flavours and the cold bottle, dripping with condensation on a hot day.
Craft sodas have become an alternative for those of us who love the pleasures of pop but want to avoid mass-produced syrupy products. Home carbonators such as SodaStream have turned kitchens into mini soda shops, and beer brewers such as British Columbia's Phillips and Halifax's Garrison now offer their own non-alcoholic, naturally flavoured brews.
When I've taste-tested commercial products (cola, orange pop and cream soda), I've found most of the pops overwhelm cheese with their sweetness and their intense carbonation tends to create frothy lab tests on the palate. I was curious, however, how more sophisticated bevies would fare. I gathered five drinks that showcased balanced flavours, less sticky sweetness and a mellow effervescence, along with five cheeses and five eager testers. I wanted to find serious non-alcoholic options that stretched beyond the routine Perrier and wedge of lime.
For the cheese-pop challenge, we met at Cheesewerks, a Toronto restaurant dedicated to gourmet fromage, recently recognized in Toronto Life for its excellent house-made sodas. Hosted by co-owner Kevin Durkee, on the roster were Cheesewerks's watermelon apple soda and its blueberry maple recipe. We added a fresh, clean tasting apple soda (Ikea), Crabbie's Ginger Beer (for a low-alcohol, BBQ alternative) and Barq's Root Beer (yes, made by Coca-Cola but I liked its balance of sweet and herbal notes).
We sampled five cheese styles: a chèvre (C'est Bon, Ontario), a triple cream (Château de Bourgogne, France), a washed rind (Mamirolle, Quebec), an aged cheese (Grizzly Gouda, Alberta) and a blue (Bleu d'Élizabeth, Quebec). We finished with grilled cheese, looking for a perfect match to this gooey fave.
Fruit sodas created the most successful pairings. Both house-made sodas had a thicker texture, containing particles of the fruit's pulp, a natural complement to the cheese. Fruit is a classic cheeseboard partner and the sodas's fruit notes offered sweetness against cheese's salty nature but remained subtle. Unexpectedly – I'd never thought to pair watermelon and cheese – the watermelon soda shone. Its juicy flavour and mellow, soft carbonation was pure summer's day; it worked with the rich blue cheese and brought out the caramel notes of the gouda.
We soon discovered how carbonation poses a challenge to successful pairings. On the plus side, the bubbles carry aromas, and a light effervescence is cleansing between bites. For instance, the rich triple cream could handle more intense fizz (the root beer and Château de Bourgogne created a decadent ice-cream-float feel) but the firmer, complex cheeses could develop an unpleasant quality (one tester likened the root beer and blue-cheese pairing to a "blue-cheese gummi bear").
When it came to sugar, the advantage over generic pop was when sweetness was curbed by other flavours: fruit notes, the herby quality of the root beer or a tingle of acidity. A fizzy cola is the classic pairing with grilled cheese, but the tang of fresh apple in the cider-like Ikea soda had everyone raving. In contrast, the ginger beer's lack of sweetness, plus its spicy bite, made it a tough match.
The fun of an organized tasting is the experimentation. Grab some sodas and set this up as your appetizer course on a sunny afternoon. Our unexpected hit was the chemistry between the Barq's Root Beer and the Mamirolle. The root beer became spicier, the savoury meaty flavour of the cheese shone and the combined flavours created a mouth-watering synergy. Take that, bag of chips.
Blueberry maple soda and C'est Bon chèvre: Creamy and fresh, this pair would make a great brunch option (serve with fresh baguette).
Blueberry maple soda and Bleu d'Élizabeth: The savoury cheese made the soda's berry flavours pop, the cheese's texture became silkier and the finish was luscious.
Apple soda: The most versatile with cheese, a great non-alcoholic pick for a diverse cheese board.
Never again: Anything with the ginger beer. Lovely on its own, its piquancy battled the flavours of the cheese.
Cheesewerk's co-owner Kevin Durkee shared the recipes for his Blueberry Maple Soda and Watermelon Apple Soda.
Blueberry Maple Soda
Rich in flavour, Blueberry Maple Sodae makes a unique and luscious pairing with creamy blue cheese.
2 cups frozen blueberries (with juice), thawed
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup, amber or dark
Purée blueberries and juice to a smooth consistency. Place the purée and sugar into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer for 10 minutes, until sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove from heat and pour mixture through a fine sieve, or colander lined with cheesecloth, over a bowl. Discard any skin/pulp. Allow strained liquid to cool for 10-15 minutes.
Add maple syrup and whisk to incorporate. Transfer to a squeeze bottle or plastic jug. Stir 1/8 cup of the blueberry-maple liquid with 350 ml of carbonated water and serve over ice.
Watermelon Apple Soda
The classic tastes of summer in one cold, delicious glass – this makes for a refreshing pairing for grilled cheese.
3 cups watermelon, cubed and seeded (no rind)
1 cup Granny Smith apple, cored, peeled and cubed
1 ¾ cups white sugar
Purée watermelon, apple and all juices to a smooth consistency. Place the purée and sugar into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer for 10 minutes, until sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove from heat and pour mixture through a fine sieve, or colander lined with cheesecloth, over a bowl. Discard any pulp. Allow strained liquid to cool for 10-15 minutes. Transfer to a squeeze bottle or plastic jug.
Stir 1/8 cup of the watermelon-apple liquid with 350 ml of carbonated water and serve over ice.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.