Politics of Sweetness
I warned you that this wouldnít always be
about beer or whiskey.
And this month itís about soda, pop, soft drinks, tonics, fizzy
lifting drinks. Iíve been drinking a bunch of different local and
regional sodas lately, partly thanks to a piece on local soda-makers
I did for Ale Street News,
and partly because Iíve always liked the local sodas. There are a
lot more of them than you might think, and not all of them are old
regionals that have survived, like Allentownís A-Treat
soda or Kutztown
Birch Beer, Catawissa
Bottling (home of Big Ben's), Boylanís
Bottleworks or the Carolinas' beloved Cheerwine.
There are new outfits, like Cool
Mountain, and one I kept happily running into while I was
researching Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Breweries, Root
66. And there are a number of very good sodas done by
microbreweries; Sprecher, for instance, sells a lot of soda.
The one that got me thinking about this monthís Buzz was a
hybrid of the new/old thing: Saranac
1888 Root Beer, a relatively new (and delicious) product
from an old brewery. My son Thomas has been a big root beer fan since
he was a little guy; one of my favorite memories of his early childhood
is of the two of us sitting at the bar at Victory,
me with a HopDevil, him with a glass of draft Victory root beer, and
him obviously thinking he was about the coolest kid in the world (which
he is). So when I saw a sixer of Saranac 1888 at Total Wine
in Wilmington last month (when I was doing a book signing), I grabbed
I chilled two bottles, and got out some vanilla ice cream to make
floats. But Thomas wanted peanut butter ripple, and I balked
at putting that in root beer. Call me a purist (or call me a
killjoy, I donít care). He had straight root beer. After the first
sip we both paused, and looked at each other with wider eyes.
"Itís soÖ" he began.
"Öcreamy," I finished.
"Yeah," he agreed. And it was, even without the ice
cream. Why was this stuff so much creamier and mouth-filling than
the other root beers we got, the Barqís and A&W and Mug?
The answer, Iím told, is cane sugar. Cane sugarís just that,
sugar made from sugar cane. (About half of the table sugar in the U.S.
is cane sugar, about half of it is made from sugar beets.)
But mass market sodas are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Why that is makes for a rather long story, which Iíll condense
in the next paragraph -- consider the next paragraph
Blame Castro. Or blame JFK. Or Nixon, or his unfortunately-named
Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Much of our sugar came
from Cuban sugar cane. Then Castro made that politically
uncomfortable, and JFK put the embargo on the little island,
and sugar got expensive (whoa,
duh...). The U.S. sugar industry piled on and got
tariffs in place (always such a
great idea...) and sugar got more expensive. As the 60s wore
into the 70s, another problem arose that would change everything.
Farm incomes were down, but food costs were up. Fix it, Nixon
says to Butz, and Butz did...albeit in a way that would have serious
unexpected consequences. (Despite being a complete
cultural dinosaur and having a funny name, Butz knew a lot
about agricultural policy. He's still alive, by the way, the oldest
living former Cabinet member.) He encouraged farmers to grow more corn
and soybeans -- lots more -- and then found new markets for them. He
had a little help from overseas: Japanese researchers had found a
lucrative new use for all that corn...high fructose corn
syrup. It used up the corn, it was as sweet or sweeter
than cane sugar, and it was a lot cheaper (of course it was: cane
HFCS took off
like a rocket. It was incredibly successful, and is now the sole
sweetener in most sodas sold in America, which is a huge market.
HFCS is everywhere...and some people I know and trust, not whackos,
tell me that HFCS is a real good reason to not drink soda.
Is HFCS all that bad? Depends on your definition of
"bad." There are a number of nutritionists and health
researchers who blame HFCS for the huge rise in obesity in America.
There are people who think HFCS is hard on your liver. There are
people who think HFCS promotes diabetes. There are other people who
argue otherwise. People will tell you HFCS isn't natural --
dude, it's made from corn! -- or that it promotes erosion, or it rapes
the taxpayer. Archer Daniels Midland is a major producer of
HFCS, and a major
beneficiary of government-funded corporate welfare (perhaps the
biggest), and a major donor to both major political
parties, so people get their political knickers in a twist
over that as well. (By the way, if you want to learn more about these
claims, well, Google is waiting.
I can't do everything for you. But they're right there on the Web.)
How much of that is true? Well,
the ADM stuff is largely true, that's public record. As for the
health claims, I don't know, I'm neither a nutritionist nor a doctor.
What I am is a taster, and I say cane sugar tastes better, so
damn ADM, Earl Butz, Nixon, JFK, and those Japanese researchers altogether.
What's that? Castro? Screw him, too. Drop the tariffs,
drop the corn price supports, and let the sweetener market
find its real level! It may cause political and economic havoc,
but so what? What price can you put on good root beer?!
Or...I could just look a bit closer at the ingredients
on my sodas, and follow the advice of the Beer
Yard's Matt Guyer. "Iíve cut back on my sweets,"
he told me recently. "Iím older now. But when I get
something, I get something nice. I donít throw down a
Hershey bar every day, I have a nice chocolate twice a week."
Sound familiar? Maybe Unibroue can make it easier for you: "Drink
less. Drink better." It works for soda just as
well as beer...and for a lot of the same reasons. It's an added
bonus that a lot of the smaller specialty soda makers use cane
(including Old Dominion:
they use cane sugar and honey in their excellent root beer).
time I feel like having a drink with my son, we'll go cane. And
maybe I'll let him put that peanut butter ripple in the root beer after
all. Can't hurt to try.
Drink less. Drink better. Enjoy everything