Drink your Michigan fruit from a bottle of Fruitbelt Soda
“We wanted our soda not only to be a delicious and innovative drink but also a distillation of fruits and botanicals native to the Fruit Belt, a place we know and love.”
Snow is gently falling but we’re cozy on the enclosed porch of the white frame home in downtown Sawyer, Michigan, which serves as the corporate office (wink wink) of Fruitbelt Soda. And though the season might call for something hot, I’m happy when Michele Gazzolo pops open bottles of Sour Cherry Zing and Tart Apple Dream, the first two Fruitbelt Soda drinks she and her partners created.
As I take a sip, enjoying the crisp fruit taste unsullied by too much sweetness, Gazzolo, CEO of the company, talks about how she decided to go beyond making pies and jams from the bounteous and lush orchards of Southwest Michigan. She and partners Beth Denton and Will Noll opted instead to focus on producing fruit-based soda pops using only natural ingredients. The first stock of their sodas will be available to the public later this winter.
“We wanted our soda not only to be a delicious and innovative drink, but also a distillation of fruits and botanicals native to the Fruit Belt, a place we know and love,” says Gazzolo. “I thought, ‘How hard can that be?’”
Listening to Gazzolo talk about all they went through to get to this point, it’s apparent that a lot of perseverance and effort were required. There’s a reason why the majority of soda pops are sugary and chemical-laden—they’re much easier to manufacture. Bottling the essence of fruit requires so much more.
Denton, Fruitbelt’s “soda muse” and master blender, worked on developing recipes using sparkling water, fruit juices and natural sweeteners such as honey and monk fruit juice concentrate to produce a drink that would be tasty, refreshing and shelf stable while meeting strict manufacturing guidelines.
Their fruit comes from such local orchards as Tree-mendus Fruit Farm in Eau Claire, Michigan, which supplied the 25 heirloom varietals used in making Tart Apple Dream. The tart cherry concentrate comes from King Orchards in northern Michigan. Denton layered pressed apple juice with extracts of lime and caraway for their Tart Apple Dream. Pressed ginger root puts the zing in their Sour Cherry. Their trademark “extract of native botanicals” was created by Brooklyn-based Shoots & Roots, and was brought to life by Bittercube, a Wisconsin bitters maker.
“The botanicals lend a complexity to the taste and aroma and round out the flavor of the drink,” says Denton.
Originally, the trio wanted their sodas bottled locally. But it turned out their drinks required a specific manufacturing process to preserve their authentic flavor, avoid fermentation and introduce carbonation. After extensive research, they found a bottling facility in Pennsylvania with cutting-edge pasteurization techniques as well as the necessary equipment and certification to bottle the soda on site, using cold-sterilization to preserve the fruit’s fresh taste.
To raise money for their project, the trio turned to LocalStake, a crowd-lending platform where people can purchase shares in the company for $500 or more.
Because they’re located near Journeyman in Three Oaks, Michigan, and because networking with other local food producers is so much a part of their philosophy, Gazzolo, Denton and Noll pair their sodas with the distillery’s organic spirits (see some fun web-exclusive holiday recipes here).
“Our Sour Cherry Zing is really terrific with Journeyman’s Red Arrow Vodka, and the Tart Apple Dream is great with their rye whiskey,” says Gazzolo.
The Fruitbelt team is working on other recipes using such fruits as wild blueberries, red currants, cranberries, saskatoons (a sweet and nutty-tasting berry) and the plethora of Concord grapes that grow in Southwest Michigan.
“We are so thrilled,” says Gazzolo, “that it is all finally coming together.”
For updates on Fruitbelt Soda and where to buy it, follow Fruitbelt on Facebook.
Click here for more about Fruitbelt, including recipes and food pairing suggestions!