Words Emily Penn
Photography Tim Sugden
Portland Soda Works was founded in 2013 by two friends – Dan McLaughlin and Chris Onstad. When Chris quit drinking he noticed a lack of exciting non-alcoholic options at bars and restaurants. Tired of coffee and soda as his only beverage choices, he set out to create what he called the “Belgian beer of craft soda.” He and Dan started experimenting with recipes in their home kitchens in 2012 and before long they were selling their products to restaurants and bars. Portland Syrups started taking off.
This is probably a good time to point out that Chris and Dan’s company is called Portland Soda Works and the line of concentrates they’ve been creating for the last five years is called Portland Syrups. This was done intentionally, as they hope to expand and create different lines of beverage-oriented products – perhaps a ready-to-drink soda or a line of bitters.
At the time that Portland Soda Works was getting off the ground, Chris was a full time graphic artist. He’s also a former food critic for the Portland Mercury and was heavily immersed in the food and beverage culture of Portland for many years. Dan was a full-time blogger, investigating the 10,000-hour theory (from Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers) and writing about human performance. In 2016, three years after starting Portland Soda Works, they left their day jobs and now both work full time at the company they started.
Chris is deeply familiar with the food and beverage world, where he spent many years working. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about beverages, privy to all the classic flavor combinations. Dan got his first espresso machine in the sixth grade and “was always interested in drinks and beverages and teas and coffees and… combining my own flavors”. Together they’re a team that can draw on classic flavor profiles that people know and love, but put their own unique take on it. According to Dan, “[Chris] would know what a traditional combination was and then I would throw something really random into the equation and it would either be horrible or really good. So, it’s just a ton of experimenting.”
Their flagship flavor and one of their most popular, the Root Beer, went through over 150 variations before they landed on the final recipe. Chris and Dan are serious about their flavors and work obsessively to get it just right.
Currently, the Portland Syrups line has eight flavors: Root Beer, Ginger, Spicy Ginger, Rose Cordial, Hibiscus-Cardamom, Vanilla-Spice Rooibos, and Rose City Tonic. They feature a rotating limited-release flavor that changes based on the season or an exceptional flavor combination they stumble upon in all their experimentation.
Many of their flavors are inspired by local Portland restaurants and their customers. Their Rose Cordial was created when they encountered a brewery who was looking for a very specific flavor profile. They didn’t want that typical potpourri rose flavor that can overpower other elements in a drink. The outcome is fantastic – a slightly sweet and subtle rose flavor that complements and enhances, rather than dominates, the drink it’s added to.
The Rose Cordial is one of their most coveted summer flavors – the bright pink color makes it especially appealing for weddings. Portland Syrups pride themselves on being a fun product for the whole family. “The kids can get a splash in their soda water and then the adults can put it in prosecco or make a vodka cocktail, And if you have friends who don’t drink, you can make them something unique and different.”
In the case of their limited-release Summer Chai, Dan was looking for a chai flavor that would work in cold sparkling water. He tried creating the concoction with different chai teas that he had on hand, but found that none of them tasted just right when combined with effervescence. Dan set out to create a smooth chai flavor that married with the bubbles and he totally nailed it. Slightly sweet and just herbal enough to get that chai flavor across without being overpowering.
In true Portland fashion, they also love to draw from local ingredients unique to the Pacific Northwest. In the past they’ve put out limited edition flavors utilizing Douglas fir tips and juniper berries. They’re hoping to create an Oregon Berry flavor this summer.
Portland Soda Works is growing, but their biggest concern is quality. They take a lot of pride in the high-quality and small-batch process that they’ve created. They also really enjoy their jobs – being a part of the daily process, cultivating relationships with their clients and collaborating with other local companies. The maximum batch size is 40 gallons and they still hand bottle, label and shrink wrap the bottles themselves.
They carefully steep their botanical ingredients to extract flavor and nutrients. Then they add cane sugar as the sweetener. One of the other admirable things about Portland Syrups is that they strive for less sweetener than the typical simple syrups you find behind bars. A traditional syrup is 67% sugar and theirs is 40% sugar. The goal is to continue to knock down the sugar content every year and experiment with using other natural sweeteners.
The original intent behind Portland Syrups was to create a unique alternative to an alcoholic beverage that still felt fancy and tasted exciting. Dan believes that “in a place like Portland, people are gravitating more towards herbals. Less booze and more like oh, I’ll have an edible and a really nice, fun non-alcoholic drink.” Portland Syrups is adding an awesome option to the boozeless culture.
Another cool thing that’s happened is that people have started to use the syrups in totally unintended ways. Some flavors lend themselves to marinating meats and seafood, others can be used as a glaze for baked goods, a syrup substitute for pancakes, and of course added to warm beverages. Dan’s favorite way to use the syrups? In ice cream that he makes himself with coconut milk.
When they began to sell their products to bars, bartenders couldn’t help but create signature (alcoholic) cocktails. Old Gold and Off the Griddle are two spots where you can find cocktails featuring Portland Syrups, and more bars are picking up their products all the time. You can also find Portland Syrups in New Seasons, Whole Foods, Made Here PDX, Tender Loving Empire, Market of Choice, and liquor stores throughout Portland. They have an online store and ship everywhere.