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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Vintage Buzz

2005 Buzz

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes



October, 2005

The 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 it.

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 parenthetical. 

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 sugar tariffs!).

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). 

Next 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 more deeply.

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: September 30, 2005