Ah, seltzer. What is it about the injection of CO2 into H2O that makes it taste so much better? Even though seltzer, at its essence, is just water plus air, we who partake of the liquid incarnation of a Katy Perry song know it’s so much more. It’s what we drink when we’re thirsty but want something more exciting than water; when we’re sober but we need that fizzy kick to tide us over until the next alcoholic drink; when we’re craving a flavor that is no flavor, and we know a carbonation burn is the only workout we’ll always make time for.
There are so many questions those of us on the high-carb(onation) diet have about the most quenchable of beverages. In fact, our curiosity is driving us to drink more and more, on an insatiable quest to possess full understanding of the elusive effervescent elixir, until our tooth enamel has worn off and all the calcium has been leached from our bones (we know those are scientifically unsubstantiated rumors perpetuated by the still-water lobbyists).
If all seltzers are the same, because they all consist of water and bubbles, why is it that some taste different from others? Do brands influence us, making us crave the poppy, beachy promise of a La Croix whenever thirst strikes? Or could it be that there is some secret je ne sais quoi hovering unseen in the liminal space where bubble meets water, an umami-esque quality, yet to be named, for the sensation upon sipping that both hurts and hydrates so well?
Enough with the questions; we were thirsty for answers! So we put together a six-person panel of pop water enthusiasts to blind taste test six unflavored sparkly waters. Some panelists were daily imbibers; some simply identified as “seltzer curious.” One taste tester was desperately trying to figure out why “people at my job are really into it” hoping to up his small talk game at the seltzer cooler at his startup.
Another panelist showed up because the soda stream he drank from at home wasn’t doing it for him anymore, and he just needed a hit, or six, of the good stuff. Yet another only drinks seltzer when she’s hungover, and isn’t sure if it makes her feel better; on the day of testing, she was not in fact hungover, so we weren’t able to test out her theory.
I, pourer of the seltzers, assembled the panel at Prospect Park’s Long Meadow last Tuesday at 7pm — the blue hour —filling their solo cups full of sparkles to ensure the blindness of the taste test. Our drinkers drank and discussed the bubbles, burn, flavor, and feelings evoked by our six carbonated contenders, until they had their fill, a.k.a., had to pee.
First, meet our panelists: We’ve got Maddie, Brokelyn’s resident rosé expert who consistently brings the bubble knowledge; Ghan, a friend of Brokelyn and noted tank top model; Isaac, Brokelyn’s bike expert and DIY consultant, and, as you’ll soon learn, a pop-water poet; Steven, non dad, dad-bod advocate of Brokelyn; Lea, who reports for us on the intersection of music and pizza; and Will, Brokelyn’s culinary correspondent who would like to branch out to the realm of beverages.
Here’s what they discovered:
Contender 1. Boylan Soda, glass bottle. Consensus: Polarizing.
Panelists were split on their assessment of the carbonation burn, half deeming it harsh, the other half, underwhelming, although all agreed that the bubbles were big and bold. Three said they would drink again, three, that they wouldn’t touch another drop.
Isaac: “Big big bubbles, pleasantly oversized when they dissipate at the surface with a satisfying pop. Crisp, like navigating my tongue through a cool jacuzzi.”
Steven: “Packs a punch. The carbon burn is too much. Much too much. Too much burp. Never again.”
Maddie: “Large bubbles, but light effervescence. Goes flat quickly. Not my first choice. I noticed a fruity element.”
(Ed. note: The seltzer is unflavored, so how can she taste fruit? This must be phantom flavor syndrome, akin to phantom limb syndrome.)
Will: “Very neutral. Low burn, but big bubbles. Only slight prickle.”
Ghan: “I didn’t like the quality of the bubbles. They felt harsh to me.”
Lea: “Sharp burn, kind of hurts, more air than liquid.”
2. Hal’s New York Seltzer Water, plastic bottle. Consensus: It’s all relative.
Some panelists were pleased with the level of bubbles and bubbliness, while others found it undynamic. Four out of six panelists said they would drink again.
Ghan: “I found it so much easier to drink. I liked the noisiness of it, I felt like it was talking to me.”
Maddie: “This one splooged upon opening. The first one (we tasted), the bubbles died out too fast, but this one was a bubbly experience all the way down.”
Lea: “I could drink this one faster than the other one. Better post-hangover option. Loud bubbles, but they weren’t as sharp.”
Will: “Low bubble, late burp, no burn, and a stale, old plastic taste.”
Steven: “Left my mouth happy. Bubbles were less aggressive. Smooth finish.”
Isaac: “Medium-sized, sedentary bubbles. I think they lack a work ethic. Hippies. Tongue floating down a lazy river. Snooze. Meh.”
3. Vintage Seltzer, plastic bottle. Consensus: Crowd pleaser! All six panelists said they would drink again!
Ghan: “There was a multi-variance of bubbles. Big ones, little ones, a polyphony of bubbles. A mild burn. The flavor of the water was good. It had character.”
Isaac: “I was impressed by how consistently bubbly it was considering how chill it was when I was looking at it in my glass. It was more of a grower than a show-er. Its looks belie its enthusiasm for effervescence.”
Ghan, piping in again: “It spoke softly but carried a big stick.”
Steven: “Aggressive bubbles. Anesthetic, numb tongue. Gulpable. Third degree burn in the throat. Once more with vodka!”
Maddie: “Easy to drink. A little burn on the throat in a good way. Very clean flavor. Classic seltzer. Platonic ideal of seltzer.”
Will: “Nice bubble, but nothing to write home about.”
Lea: “A typical seltzer. Have I had this one before?”
4. Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, glass bottle. (Bottled in Canarsie since 1953!) Consensus: Nostalgia is neutral.
Most really cherished the burn on this old-school, deep-Brooklyn pour, while a few felt that it came on too strong, only to leave them high and dry by the last sip. All agreed that upon opening it, it sounded like a toilet flushing in the distance. Despite their range of reactions, all six panelists said they would drink again.
Lea: “Explosive mouthfeel. Burns right from the beginning, tastes really fresh.”
Ghan: “The first sip was like, whoa, but then I lost interest in it. It was a little one dimensional.”
Maddie: “Had the most neutral flavor. Like, it just tasted like water. I would drink this every day. Gives me ghost bubbles in my gums afterwards.”
Steven: “Sonorous seltzer, bada zing, bada boom! The gasses want out of my mouth. Burp, there it is. Even with my last sip of the glass, I could still hear it.”
Will: “Fresh, pleasantly aggressive.”
Isaac: “My tongue: a kayak. The seltzer: river rapids.” (Shall we get him a chapbook deal already?)
5. La Croix, aluminum can. Consensus: Not impressed.
Although we put on Katy Perry before this round, her pop wasn’t enough to make up for La Croix’s serious lack of pop. Still, four out of six tasters said they would drink again.
Maddie: “Gentle and not challenging, so I’d like to drink it at work.”
Ghan: “I’d drink it again, but there’s not a lot to talk about.”
Steven: “It’s uninspiring, but practical. Maybe the Hillary Rodham Clinton of seltzers. Is this the placebo?”
Isaac: “Smaller bubbles. They don’t come to the surface to pop very often. I think they’re complacent or just dead. Mouthfeel: kind of a let down.”
Will: “Cool, didn’t do a lot for me. Katy Perry helps.”
Lea: “Lame bubbles, flat? Just tastes like weird water. Boring.”
6. Schweppes, plastic bottle. Consensus: Seltzer-satisfied!
Tied with Vintage for the panel fave. All six would drink again! Our panelists were the most laconic in their comments about this one, maybe because they had no words for how satiated they felt. Or maybe at this point their tongues were sore from bubble-burn and their bladders full.
Maddie: “Prickly, minerally flavor.”
Steven: “Lingering, tingly feeling.”
Ghan: “It was a strong bubble. Had a good burn.”
Isaac: “Really refreshing.”
William: “Like jumping into a pool on a hot day.”
Lea: “It was the most charismatic one. Everyone would like it because it’s fun and sparkly but not too showy.”
Vintage and Schweppes tied for the winner, showing that when it comes to carbonated water, basic store-wide brands will do the trick. They both presented a range of bubble sizes, with a consistent bubbling that didn’t die out or go flat, and a burn that you can definitely feel, but won’t hurt, or burn out. Each offered a balanced drinking experience that each panelist said they would like to enjoy again. Moderation in all things, as Aristotle, and my mother, have said.
Brooklyn Seltzer Boys is our clear runner-up, as the only other contender besides the winners that every panelist said they would drink again. Although it was a little too harsh for some of our tasters, the fact that the Canarsie carbonators have been bringing the fizz to Brooklyn for more than half a century goes a long way.
Boylan was too polarizing, with our testers unable to come to a consensus. Not a seltzer you can trust. And while a couple of our drinkers noted a pleasant bubbly drinking experience with Hal’s, the majority felt its contents went down easy, but didn’t stand out.
La Croix, once you strip away the bubblegum pop of its advertising, was a uniform let-down across the panel, which teaches an important lesson about the emptiness of trends and why a well-curated Instagram is really only screen-deep. I only wish that the little boys and girls lost who took these selfies in front of the La Croix wall at the new Williamsburg Whole Foods would have first spoken with some of our panelists. We would have set them straight.
After revealing the identity of each seltzer to the panel, most of our tasters were pleased with the results. Ghan was happy that Vintage, one of his favorite seltzers prior to the taste test, also checked out in his mouth even when he couldn’t see what he was tasting. Maddie correctly guessed the identity of La Croix, and the taste-testing experience has helped her be more accepting of its inherent mediocrity, knowing that she’ll still drink it everyday because it’s too easy not to.
Lea was pleasantly surprised when she found out that Schweppes, the normcore of seltzers, was her favorite. Will is now prepared to bond with his seltzer-loving coworkers for weeks to come, and Steven, after learning about Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ long history in the borough, was a little bummed out that it didn’t win. And finally, Isaac has since locked down a book deal, working title: My seltzer, myself.
Now, has anyone tried alcoholic seltzer?
Follow Kate @yatinbrooklyn for more tips and takes on living the high-carb lifestyle.