Chris Onstad clutches a scuffed white binder bulging with notebook paper. “Pen down, please,” he says with a smile. “And no pictures.” He then opens the binder, revealing page after page of scribbled lists, calculations, and secret formulas—the meticulous record of his two-and-a-half-year quest to brew what he terms “the Belgian beer of soda pops.”
The 39-year-old’s fledgling venture, Portland Soda Works, crafts intricate sarsaparilla- and cola-inspired flavor puzzles now turning up on bar menus at places like Expatriate, Ned Ludd, and Tilt. With business partner Dan McLaughlin, Onstad is also making custom bottled sodas, including an oddball coffee cola for Water Avenue Coffee. Primarily sold as syrups for restaurants and home drinkers to mix on their own, the nuanced sodas are quietly building a following for strong, layered flavors redolent with everything from kola nut to fresh hops and rose hips. They sip like sweet, crisp teas with a tickle of carbonation.
A nationally lauded graphic novelist and former food critic for the Portland Mercury, Onstad says he turned to soda after years of heavy drinking. But he was soon disappointed in his nonalcoholic beverage options. “I’d be having a $150 dinner and it would be, ‘Do you want milk or Diet RC?’” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So, I poured my passion into something I could drink.” His work at the Mercury introduced him to a cross section of Portland food luminaries who now serve as both customers and flavor guinea pigs, from Salt & Straw’s Tyler Malek to tea maker Steven Smith. But most of the recipe honing happens between one man and his binder. Here’s a rundown on four of his fizzy wonders.
Sarsaparilla: “This is my holy grail: an all-natural, all-American root beer, the way it would have been made by Thomas Jefferson,” Onstad says of his light yet heady quaff. It’s brewed like a tea, with warming spices and black pepper, then married to a mellow mix of three sugars, molasses, and a tropics-tinged Mexican vanilla.
Water Avenue Toddy Cola: Lightly bitter kola nut gets dressed up with spicy lemongrass, holy basil, and cold-press coffee, plus a few “top secret” flourishes. “I’m so proud of this mix. I got it right on the first try,” he says. “That’s when I knew I’d been boiling from a pantry of 50 different ingredients for a long time.”
Cherry Turk: Hibiscus leaf lends this bright, Mediterranean-spiced sip its ruby hue, while toasted cardamom and rose hip sweeten and warm the palate. “Hibiscus tastes of lychee or plum without the pain in the ass of using expensive, seasonal fruit,” he says.
Hoprose: The beery essence of two varietals of citrusy fresh hops mingles with rose hips and rose petals for a creamy, honeyed flavor. “It’s not quite a cider, not quite a beer or a Lambrusco—it’s a totally different animal,” Onstad says. “Very Portland. And great with burgers.”
DIY: Make a cocktail With the Hoprose syrup
Mix 2 oz Aviation gin, 1 oz fresh lemon juice, and ¾ oz Portland Soda Works Hoprose syrup in a cocktail shaker. Cap, shake*, strain, and pour into a coupe rimmed and garnished with grapefruit zest (it fleshes out the more assertive citrus notes in the hops).
*Shake vigorously! “I wince at how many bartenders give the thing a weak jiggle and think anything’s happened,” says Onstad. “You have to break its neck!”
Order Portland Soda Works syrups (and find out which local bars currently feature its sodas) at portlandsoda.com or look for Onstad’s wares at New Seasons Markets.