Craft soda in San Diego: an idea that’s about to pop
Spring Valley-based Swell Soda offers flavors like pomegranate and coffee-vanilla cream
by James Vernette
San Diego is justifiably famous for its craft beer scene, but Brett Burner admits he’s never been much of a drinker.
“I’ve always been a big soda guy,” says Burner, the man behind Swell Soda, an artisan soda company based out of a Spring Valley industrial park. “I’ve had this idea for years, but started putting the pieces and parts together two years ago.”
A native San Diegan with deep roots, Burner finally saw the final product to market in April.
He wants his soda to reflect the flavor of the region and each of the first three flavors is designed to evoke a sense memory. For example, the tangerine flavored soda was inspired by the tangerines in the backyard of his aunt’s home in El Cajon.
“I didn’t want just another orange soda,” he explains. “I wanted new flavors that weren’t duplicated elsewhere.”
Pomegranate is a tribute to a woman who used to hand out the tangy fruits to kids on Halloween instead of candy. The most unusual flavor for now is the coffee-vanilla cream, which has a chocolaty flavor that makes for a perfect ice cream float. The caffeine jolt makes it a decent pick-me-up on summer mornings that are too hot for regular coffee.
Burner has other flavors in the works, including a “Limon-Lemon” that emphasizes the lime, a very spicy ginger ale and a blueberry soda with hints of grape flavor.
“We’re thinking of doing an extra spicy cola with lots more nutmeg,” Burner says.
Craft soda is a new twist on an old idea, Burner admits.
“It used to be that all soda companies were local,” he says. “Because they needed to get the bottles back to refill them.”
That changed when major soda companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola started buying up the bottling plants for their products.
Although Burner is spending a lot of time getting his syrups just right, he admits the key to a good soda comes down to one main ingredient: cane sugar.
“That’s where the genuine flavor comes from,” he says, echoing the words of anyone who has had a Coke made in Mexico. “I remember when they began switching to corn syrup. They had to increase the carbonation to get rid of the aftertaste that corn syrup has.”
Burner said he’s been getting tips and advice from people in the beer and distilling community, mostly with distribution and carbonation. In other aspects, however, he’s on his own.
“Soda is a food and beer is alcohol so the licensing is different,” he says.
Currently, Swell Soda is only available in about 20 shops countywide, but Burner dreams of saturating the San Diego soda market before working his way to the rest of southern California. That may take some time, and he is only able to make about 100 cases a month, which, for now, makes Swell Soda truly a “small batch” operation. Still, Burner is happy with the reaction he’s had from customers, even if he has to temper their enthusiasm.
“People have asked me, ‘Are you going to have a tasting room?’ Maybe, but when’s the last time anyone asked, ‘Hey, you want to go out for a soda?’”