Fountain of flavor
March/April 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Matt Salvo
Artisan 'sodasmith' invents sure-to-impress syrups
More online: Tangy makes a comeback
Burly Beverages owner Gabriel Aiello of Sacramento starts with fresh, local produce--such as the blood oranges shown here--to create concentrated syrups used to flavor sodas, cocktails and even ice cream treats.
When Gabriel Aiello of Sacramento began tinkering with home-brewed ginger beer in his kitchen, he never imagined it would lead to a business. Now, as owner of Burly Beverages, he's turned his personal quest for a healthier soft drink into a line of bold-flavored beverage syrups made with natural, locally sourced ingredients.
Aiello's journey began more than four years ago, when he chose to make changes to improve his lifestyle, such as eliminating fast food and commercial sodas. Dissatisfied with the alternative ginger beers on the market, he decided to make his own at home.
He began developing a recipe for the non-alcoholic beverage using ginger spice, yeast and natural sweeteners. It was a process he said he enjoyed, despite a few mishaps.
"At first, I had too many explosions in my house," he said. "Soda, unlike beer, is intrinsically sugary and when you have brewer's yeast or ale or champagne yeast in there with all of that sugar, even after you put it into the fridge, it keeps working slowly and ultimately builds up pressure from the carbonation and explodes."
Once he began experimenting with ginger beer as a concentrated syrup, Aiello said, people started telling him he should bottle and sell it. Crowdfunding helped him launch his venture, and about two years ago, Burly Beverages was born.
A shrub is a centuries-old preservation method that involves making a syrup of fruit juice, vinegar and sugar. Blood orange-beet is one of Burly Beverages' many seasonal shrub varieties.
Syrups for sodas and shrubs
Made in small batches with peak-of-season ingredients, Aiello's line of soda syrups includes classic flavors such as ginger beer, root beer and cream soda. The syrups are combined with seltzer to make sodas or used as mixers for cocktails. Aiello also makes syrups for shrubs, an old-fashioned beverage made with vinegar, fruit juice and sugar that's making a comeback in craft cocktails or enjoyed as a soft drink. Aiello's shrub flavor offerings include blood orange-beet, pomegranate-pink peppercorn, black plum-elderberry and blueberry-rosemary.
"(The shrubs) are a much more healthful product because of the vinegar and the fresh fruit, and spices and herbs are nutrient powerhouses as concentrated sources of nutrients and minerals," Aiello said.
Aiello sweetens his products with turbinado sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup and agave syrup, which he said retain more of their natural nutrient profile.
The response from customers has been positive. Aiello's products are now available at his storefront, at a handful of specialty stores around Sacramento and on menus at several bars and restaurants. Burly Beverages also provides all the ginger beer for the Golden 1 Center, Sacramento's newly constructed NBA arena, where it's used in mixed drinks.
Camelia Miller shows off peak-of-season blood oranges harvested at her family's Twin Peaks Orchards in Placer County. Burly Beverages uses several varieties of the family's citrus fruit, as well as their cherries, plums and peaches.
Inspired by local ingredients
A focus on fresh, California-grown ingredients has been a driving philosophy behind Burly Beverages, and a key element of its success.
"The fruit we use is always in season and we work with lots of small farms to acquire that produce," Aiello said.
In winter when blood oranges are in season, Aiello visits Twin Peaks Orchards, nestled in the foothills northeast of Sacramento in Newcastle. He also buys his grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges, cherries, plums and peaches from the 100-year-old farm.
Twin Peaks is a "family affair," said Camelia Miller, a fourth-generation farmer who works alongside her parents, siblings, aunt, uncle and cousin on the same land her grandparents once farmed. The 80-acre farm specializes in tree-ripened citrus, stone fruit and persimmons, selling produce at farmers markets throughout the region, specialty grocers and through a few distributors.
"Most of our fruit is picked to order," Miller said. "I'll get a call from a customer who needs a certain amount of cases or pounds and we go out and fill that order, because we want to make sure that that fruit is super ripe. We're as ripe as it can be."
Miller described the Moro blood orange the farm supplies to Burly Beverages as a standout, as it "tends to be the juiciest, has good color and has a better flavor." She said she is pleased to see her fruit highlighted in Burly Beverages products.
"We live in this area that is so abundant with produce and you can make so many great things, whether it be syrups or sodas. It's exciting to see all of these producers be innovative and use product that is grown locally," Miller said.
To prepare blood orange-beet shrub syrup, Meg Myers and Gabriel Aiello slice beets and puree blood oranges. Ingredients are boiled to bring out flavors and, once bottled, are labeled by hand.
Back at the Burly Beverages production facility, which has a kitchen and a storefront, Aiello transforms the blood oranges from Twin Peaks and locally sourced beets into his blood orange-beet shrub syrup.
Aiello described the process as "really simple, just boiling ingredients and making sure that the sugar is broken down." But the art and science of creating desirable flavor combinations does require a certain skill.
"I call myself a sodasmith because there is so much chemistry to it. I like science and I like food," said Aiello, who is also an amateur chef. "I really enjoy cooking and I do it all by smell. I don't really ever use a recipe."
Once the syrups are pasteurized, they are filled into sanitized bottles and labeled with a hand-crank machine. Aiello said he is proud to do things the old-fashioned way.
"Everything is juiced by hand, peeled by hand, bottled by hand, labeled by hand," he said.
Jess Milbourn, owner of Devil May Care Ice Cream & Frozen Treats in West Sacramento, uses Burly Beverages syrups to create specialty ice cream floats.
Burly Beverages syrups are sought after by chef Jess Milbourn, owner of Devil May Care Ice Cream & Frozen Treats in West Sacramento. During the season, Milbourn pairs his blood orange cardamom Creamsicle ice cream with the blood orange-beet syrup to create a float.
"The acidic blood orange and beet has a real earthy flavor and when you pair it with the creaminess and sugar of the ice cream, it really ties it together, making it a more sophisticated ice cream float," Milbourn said. "There's just a lot of complex flavors going on. I really love the combination."
Milbourn's ice cream is also made with blood oranges from Twin Peaks—maybe even from the same tree, he joked. He shares Aiello's enthusiasm for creating hand-crafted treats that highlight California-grown produce.
"We can use the insanely abundant amount of agriculture that we have in this region to make sodas or ice cream," Milbourn said.
He starts with organic dairy products from Petaluma and uses locally grown fruits as much as possible, including those from urban farms and farmers markets. Seasonally inspired creations such as persimmon ginger or Meyer lemon sherbet, announced daily through social media, complement his year-round flavors.
At Milbourn's parlor, customers can pair any of his small-batch frozen creations with one of several Burly Beverages syrups, from the classic root beer to more adventurous offerings such as apple pie shrub. The result is a float that aspires to stand out from the ordinary and offer a dose of nostalgia.
"It's fun and it gives you this giddiness about drinking soda," he said.
Long before aluminum soda cans became staples in American refrigerators, people found refreshment in sweet, tangy beverages made with vinegar. Now, these old-fashioned shrubs and switchels are experiencing a renaissance as alternatives to the traditional can of cola, as well as gaining popularity as cocktail mixers.
A switchel is a non-carbonated beverage made with water, apple cider vinegar and a natural sweetener such as molasses or honey, whereas shrubs or "drinking vinegars" add fruit juice to the mix. Makers of both say they offer a satisfying tang and a sophisticated flavor profile.
Burly Beverages creates shrub syrups with equal parts fruit juice, vinegar and sugar, and pairs vinegars carefully to each fruit flavor.
"To make ours stand out from the pack, we blend the vinegars," owner Gabriel Aiello said. "With darker fruits, I tend to use two-thirds apple cider vinegar and one-third red wine vinegar. For the lighter fruits, like citrus, I like to use white wine vinegar and combine it with apple cider vinegar."
Burly Beverages is also working on adding a line of switchels, which date back as far as the 1700s. Originally called "haymaker's punch," switchels served as a thirst-quencher for workers in the field.
"Because a switchel is made with complex sugars, it was like the original Gatorade or energy drink," Aiello said. "They originally used it as a way to refuel; they were getting all of their electrolytes to get them through the rest of the day."
Aiello is experimenting with flavors such as a lemon honey switchel, which could be used for hot toddies or other cocktails, he said.