The last time I tasted a Faygo grape soda, I was sitting on my neighbor's stoop on a sweltering Fourth of July in Ohio, taking a break from running through the sprinklers. It was 1984. Though my sisters and I were allowed to drink "pop," as it was known in our neck of the woods, we very inconveniently never had any at our house. So what I remember is that my neighbor's Faygo tasted like purple grapes, Popsicles, Big League Chew, and well, freedom. I think a few firecrackers might have gone off with my first sips.
Almost 30 years later, there it was again: a gleaming purple beacon among the more than 700 varieties of bottled nostalgia sitting on the shelves of the Fizzary Soda Pop & Candy Shop.
The Fizzary, co-owned by Aaron Dolson and Taylor Peck, opened in the Mission in August and is an homage to the early American drugstore, which, before Maybelline and condoms, was all about medicine, penny candy, and soda.
The Fizzary's interior is an eclectic mishmash of wood, brass, soda and candy, bringing to mind the sort of dispensary you might have seen during the Gold Rush – if the chemists were sugar addicts.
Old-school candies overflow from steel washtubs and Ball canning jars. There's saltwater taffy (25 cents a piece or from $3 a quarter pound) made by a Utah family that's used the water from the Great Salt Lake for so long that the once lakeside factory is now two miles away from the shoreline. Behind the register are glass apothecary jars filled with the spices and dried herbs flavoring many varieties of the main attraction – soda pop.
The bottles line the walls, a veritable library of soda sorted by flavor family. There are colas, root beers, ginger ales, ginger beers, citruses, grapes, cherries, creams, tonics, and others that defy categorization – like Waialua's Kona Red, a flamingo pink soda flavored with antioxidant-rich Kona coffee berries that tastes vaguely like raspberry. Single bottles are $2 or $6 for a four-pack.
"Everybody has a hometown soda they grew up with," Aaron said when I explained my personal history with the bottle of Faygo I now clutched.
Faygo was the dream of the Feigenson brothers, two bakers who adapted their frosting recipes into soft drinks in 1907 in Detroit. At the time, bottling technology was still in development, and sodas quickly lost their fizz. A short shelf life meant sodas were highly regional. Even after canning machines came around, their high cost and unreliability kept small-batch soda makers loyal to glass bottles and local delivery.
Aaron's own hometown favorite is Dublin Dr Pepper, a fruitier, less syrupy version of the stuff that drops out of today's vending machines. Until earlier this year, the Dublin, Texas, plant was the first and oldest Dr Pepper manufacturer and still followed a recipe from 1895. But in January, 2012, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group settled with Dublin Dr Pepper over a trademark dispute, and now the Dublin version is no more. When Aaron heard the news, he snapped up the last bottles for the Fizzary.
"In the south, people drink soda like water," Aaron said. "So this changeover was disheartening to a lot of Texans. There's a lot of patriotism around your hometown soda."
Aaron and Taylor have their own line of craft-brewed sodas called Taylor's Tonics, which includes Chai Cola, based on the tea Taylor served for more than a decade at Burning Man, and a seasonal holiday soda infused with cranberry and Douglas fir. It was their shared desire to keep the tradition of craft-brewed sodas alive and to bring back unusual flavors that inspired them to open up shop.
"Only 5 percent of what we sell is manufactured by a major corporation. Otherwise, these are family-owned companies making something that you might not find anywhere else," Aaron said.
For instance, there's Tepache, a Mexican fermented pineapple cider sweetened with brown sugar; and Ramuné from Japan, which you open by pushing down on a glass marble. Club-Mate is a German yerba mate soda spiked with cardamom, cinnamon, anise, and caffeine that European gamers live on. It's hard not to compare that to American gamers' beloved Mountain Dew, with its notes of high-fructose corn syrup and brominated vegetable oil, a flame retardant.
Carbonated drinks weren't always just about corn syrup, artificial flavorings, and caffeine. American pharmacists began peddling naturally effervescent mineral waters for their curative effects, often infusing them with medicinal herbs for extra potency. There was birch bark soda to treat fevers and pain, oak bark for the runs, citrus for heartburn, ginger or dandelion for nausea or an upset stomach, and sarsaparilla for everything from eczema to syphilis. Then came Temperance and Prohibition, and around the time soda fountains took the place of saloons, sodas lost their medicinal calling. These days, most sodas are more liquid candy than healing tonic, prompting cities like San Francisco and New York to enact laws limiting their sale.
Sodas can have healthy ingredients and don't have to be about excess. At least, that's what the Fizzary's shelves seem to suggest. Many of the formulations sold here contain less sugar or sweeteners than the industrial versions, and there's an entire section of sugar-free sodas made with sweeteners like Stevia.
"We are a shop that sells a lot of sugar, so we try to make sure that the drinks are as healthful as possible," Aaron said, which means spotlighting companies using organic ingredients, keeping corn syrup to a minimum, and banning all cans and plastic.
"Tastes and habits thankfully are changing," he said. "You don't go home with two six-packs and pound them. Hopefully, you enjoy these sodas one bottle at a time as a treat."
Aaron said they have been working on getting back to soda's roots by incorporating more medicinal herbs into Taylor's Tonics, including the lingzhi mushroom, a deliciously earthy fungus known as the "mushroom of immortality," because of its anti-aging properties.
"You could have those health benefits and a grape soda!" Aaron said, sounding like a health-conscious Willy Wonka.
The Fizzary plans to offer craft-brewing classes in the coming months, including lessons on making flavored syrups by infusing anything from mushrooms to citrus so that home brewers can make their own fizzy elixirs of immortality – or just something tasty to mix with whiskey.
I was mulling over the Judge Wapner Root Beer (slogan: "I sentence you to drink my root beer") when some start-up guys from down the street came in looking for some drinks. Aaron ultimately sent them off with a case of Sparky's, a root beer that is fermented and then brewed in kettles in Pacific Grove, and has a refreshing wintergreen finish. As he rang them up, Aaron cheerfully told them to help themselves to some taffy and to brush their teeth.
Once I had settled on a couple more sodas of my own, Aaron dropped the Faygo grape into a rapid chill water bath set up in a wooden barrel in the corner, and by the time I'd paid, it was ready. I popped it open and out wafted a crisp, vaguely floral, grapiest-grape aroma that made me think immediately of wet grass, sparklers, and summertime. I took a sip. It was better than I remembered.
The Fizzary Soda Pop & Candy Shop is located in the heart of the Mission. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. and offers craft-brewing classes. Tide yourself over between visits by making fizzy water with a home soda maker like a Sodastream. This way, you can customize your flavors and carbonation levels while cutting down on empties. Aaron suggests two parts carbonated water to three parts juice, or try mixing things up by adding carbonated water to a strongly brewed tea.