August 2018, BITE!, Food, Weekly Columns
August 24, 2018
Let me begin by saying what I’m not going to do:
-Engage the debate about who makes the best seltzer. La Croix is the answer, but here, it’ll suffice simply as the playing field. And the seltzers I name will be the gaps in the game.
-Dive deep and carbonated into the debate about what brand makes the most out of any given flavor. The nuances and flavor landscapes, or, like, how bubbly or not bubbly it is, or can art, or whatever, between La Croix and Polar and Canfields and etc…that’s another column.
Here’s what I will do:
–As a La Croix die-hard, I will conjure from the bubbly mists of the shopping centers of the unknown flavors of seltzer that are really good and that La Croix has no answer for. These are flavors that are worth your time and money, and they are ones which, for whatever reason, La Croix has no answer for. Nothing comparable. Sometimes, nothing even remotely close.
I’ll meet you halfway on this: La Croix, if you’re a hater, does not need to be the lens you look through as you read this article. It doesn’t need to be the standard by which we judge whether or not other seltzers are good (presuming La Croix is the best, or the standard.) Instead, let’s focus on overlap between flavors (lime, orange, lemon, grapefruit, and others, for example, being standards of most seltzer makers) and see what the most popular player in the game is missing out on; what has fallen through the gaps of the seltzer grid? What should we be training our eyes to look out for?
1. Trader Joe’s Winter Sangria
This has a really rich a sweet flavor that’s hard to explain, and that’s mostly because La Croix doesn’t have an answer for it. Like a concord grape, even an açaí berry. Something that has weightier, almost serious sweetness that could easily become something deep and complex like a fig or a date or a plum. Something that could go with meat and a hearth, something for winter, like the bottle says.
Plain spoke taste:
Grape, açaí berry
Deep grape, like being lost in space in a good way. Have you ever played a bass guitar? Have you strummed the same one chord again and again? So it is the human
2. Polar Vanilla:
A note on Polar: Polar has all sorts of insane, limited edition, genre bending flavors of seltzer that I will not comment on because they are not available in Chicago. And I’m not going to heed a friend’s advice who told me, “just get yourself a Polar Guy.” I’m not looking for an east coast hookup. I need easily available, nationally sold accessible seltzer. And what Polar has chosen from the cabinet of curiosities to sell across the country beyond standards like lime and berry is pretty good, and La Croix can’t touch it.
Vanilla is blissfully simple to describe: a hint of the taste of the smell of vanilla extract. The right word here is a word used in all kinds of culinary descriptive writing: notes of flavor, hints of a just-snapped pod of vanilla, that waft, like a welcoming cloud, so sweet that virtue of nature; it’s amazing something so incredible and miraculous exists at all. So blinding and brilliant the soft spirit of vanilla that it’s like a clarity in white mist: the thought that people may simply exist to cultivate and spread the wonders of nature. For in godliness is their flavor.
La Croix has nothing even close to being like it. Feels PERFECT for soda or sweets addicts looking to kick the habit. It’s like a cheap dessert drink.
Plain spoke taste: vanilla extract, hint of marshmallow
Poetic take: death, simple as life, like looking excellent in an ornamental mirror.
3. Polar Orange Vanilla:
If you played Mortal Kombat 1-3 (I am old, at least if spirit), you’re well aware of what a pallet swap is. Mortal Kombat had tons of ninja characters, most iconic among them Scorpion and Sub-Zero, who had distinctly different moves and character biographies, but were the same ninja whose color scheme had been changed. Scorpion was yellow and stood with his fist raised; Sub-Zero was blue and had one hand at his chest and one at his side. Reptile was green and stood with arms swaying in front of him like a conjurer. Really all were the movements and motions of a green screen actor who could bang this all out in an hour and be immortalized as Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Reptile, Smoke, Noob Saibot, Ermac, Rain, and chameleon, in one version of the game, a ninja who rapidly cycled through all other ninjas. Plus, human Sub-Zero! But he was a totally different guy. A guy who had to work for one character only!
Orange Vanilla is like that: a pallet swap for vanilla. Almost a sweet marshmallow creamy with a sharp edge of citrus, as if dusted with a spray. Creamy like a creamsicle or any orange cream hard candy, this will take you right to memories of the soda jerk. Even if you don’t know what that is or didn’t grow up with a soda stand. I didn’t either. It’s just a really evocative and indelible image of our culture: the old neighborhood alive with youth, the poodle skirt, the soda man in his milk carton hat and wide red pinstripes, the stools, his winking face, the high and tight haircuts, the tight and timeless ferocity of those blue jeans.
Plain spoke taste: creamsicle. Orange cream candies. Vanilla with a citrus edge.
Poetic take: The sun at the arctic edge of a round planet. Everything is round. It is the way.
4. Clear American Unsweetened Strawberry
La Croix had a very strange moment in their production history I’ll call The Slimming. For the longest time, most cans were simply one flavor. They had a few hybrid standards, like Cran-Raspberry and, much later, Peach Pear. Even when they released a controversial new flavor like Coconut or Key Lime, it was singular in association with a fruit. But in the early aughts, La Croix started releasing tall slim cans which blended, inexplicably, multiple fruits together. Kiwi watermelon. Cherry lime. Apple berry. In fact, they already have lime and berry. Now they were showing up again, spliced as if made into cyborgs with another new flavor, like they were soft landing that flavor by delivering it in tandem with something else rather than letting it shine on its own. (I find grapefruit cantaloupe totally disgusting!)
And this is why Clear American’s Strawberry makes this list: to fill in for the tragedy that in La Croix’s Pineapple Strawberry slim can, one which loses both powerful fruits by colliding them into each other. No harmony, no symbiosis. It’s like having the two biggest stars (read: divas) in the flavor community go head to head and leave it all on the line, destroying each other in the process. The flavor of that can is just loud, sharp, but hard to discern strawberry OR pineapple.
This one does it right. Smooth and robust like a strawberry candy. Not the real, watery complexity of an actual fresh strawberry that bursts with dew and meaning in your mouth, but of artificial strawberry flavor, which is so distinct and beloved in ice creams and candies. Why couldn’t La Croix simply make a strawberry seltzer that didn’t have another strongly clashing, overwhelming flavor? The answer remains shrouded in frustrating mystery.
Plain spoke taste: strawberry hard candies and Dum Dums. Strawberry syrups for ice cream or Italian sodas.
Poetic take: creamy fields in a painting of rural nightfall, morning application of makeup and concealer: reds made soft by the brush with a soft hand.
5. Dsani Raspberry Lemonade
This isn’t actually that good, but it’s different, and it’s definitely worth a taste. Another one good for dessert lovers looking to curb cravings: electric lemonade, cotton candy bubble gum, citrus flavored pop rocks or powdery candy dust you roll over with a vibrantly colored edible painter’s roller come to mind here. Very, very sweet, almost acridly so, almost acidic, sometimes almost tin-y with sweetness. A sweetness so sharp and pronounced your mouth may decide it’s a metallic element as a kind of warning. It really does come close to having a lemonade bite. And yes, this is as close to a soothing, refreshing lemon flavor as a lemonhead is, or lemonade from a kid’s stand where the excited young entrepreneur went a little too hard on the sugar while a parent stood by and shook their head and laughed.
Plain spoke taste: this is probably a good mixer for vodka, maybe even wine. Tastes like pink lemonade, even perfume.
Poetic take: a nuclear blast at the sugar factory, the earth scorched with caramelized ash and sticky dust.
Or a party where everyone, slowly but in a building, fever-pitch of one-upping panic, gets naked and destroys expensive glassware and china. Broken glass littering the Hollywood pool aftermath of that annihilating party, the light of the light-polluted stars smeared in the shattered reflection as if by a cakey, frosting-grabbed hand.
6. Simply Balanced Cucumber Mint
Available at all the Targets, wow! Why does La Croix have no mint seltzers? Seems like a massive no brainer and a miss for the top dog in the hunt. This is absolutely perfect for summertime, cooling and refreshing, light, dainty, and when it’s hot out, this is nearly untouchable. La Croix DOES have a cucumber blackberry that has such a refreshing edge and whose vegetable earthiness rounds out the warm sweetness of blackberry. But this one doubles down on a cooling, soothing effect, almost aloe-like, almost carbonation-heightening. Light flavor that pops and bursts like cold winds.
Plain spoke taste: the watery, light, grassy taste of cucumber in a glass of water. Mint. Big time mint. Lighter than a breath mint, stronger than a mint leaf under the tongue.
Poetic take: tide pools, or a walk along train tracks in the countryside slopes, tangles, and greens of Ireland and the UK. A party in the heather with small, angular sandwiches.
7. Simply Balanced Citrus
La Croix has a lot of citrus flavors, but they’re never blended together. Ok, maybe that makes a bit of sense on the surface…why have those flavors share a spotlight when they’re so strong on their own? Well, that logic is wrecked by not just La Croix’s melange of flavor in berry, but also with the almost universally accepted, if not embrace, fruit punch flavor. This is like that, but with citrus fruits instead of berries or just all fruit mixed together and turned red or blue. Think not of orangeaid, but of Orangina. A fizzy orange drink with a lime twist, a little crisper than just orange, almost more honeyed, like a marmalade. If you were a fan of Ecto Cooler back in the day, this is the one for you.
Plain spoke taste: citrus fruit punch, orange-lime, marmalade, Ecto Cooler, sugar-crusted orange gummy candies.
Poetic take: strangely different, a weird beach party that’s intimate and about dusk fires and not hot jumping up and down and DJ’s
8. Whole Foods Italian Sparkling Mineral Water, Lime Mint Elderflower
This a very serious seltzer and it’s the best one on here. If we’re going to compare seltzers to great albums in history, this is Loveless. This is something you can drink for decades and still find new, exciting things to taste and think about. Good warm or cold, freshly opened and bubbly or somewhat flat, this is a complex, well-crafted seltzer La Croix has no answer for in myriad ways. They don’t have the floral hits of elderflower; nothing minty, nothing that makes lime the backdrop for a more soothing, cooling experience. Not sweet but not savory, this is a seltzer that uses lime as a foundation to present flavors that a master chef might see playing off each other, growing in the same field, so close, but traditionally so far away in the world of drinks. Truly epic.
Like some of the other seltzers mentioned, there’s a refreshing mint soothe, like a drinkable balm. But this has what no other seltzer has: floral notes, flowery smells in just the airiest way. Imagine a mist of flower blown by a breeze passing under your nose as you drink something mild.
Plain spoke taste: mint, lime, flowers, lavender, elderflower, honey, hint of plum.
Poetic take: like the wind and the pines, or like a field on the sea full of purple heather in the south of France. Like low lying sweaty nights in cavernous bars. Like the kind of jar that catches the moon from a writing desk. Or if it’s a really hot day or difficult start to the morning, like throat singers welcoming the sun to the horizon as the worship object it is. That epic.
Now my story has been told. These are the flavors of seltzer you need to try, lest you taste your doom.