When the gang at Cannonborough Beverage Company got their first keg five months ago, Matt Fendley, Mick Matricciano, and Brandon Wogamon knew exactly what to do with it. They filled it with a batch of mimosa-flavored soda made with orange juice and chardonnay, which was then force carbonated in the keg. But they needed to purge it, a process that takes the oxygen out of the drink while keeping the flavor in.
"Mick was like 'I think this is the way to do it,' and I look over, and I knew what he was about to do was the wrong thing," Wogamon says. "And he pressed the button, and it sprayed 360 degrees in every single direction all over the house."
Every single part of the room was covered in soda. It took three days for them to clean up the mess.
Luckily, things have gone more smoothly for the burgeoning soda company since the mimosa fiasco. You may have spotted them at the Charleston Farmers Market, wearing paper hats and white coats and slinging non-alcoholic suds. "It's kind of a way for us to take a culinary approach to something that often isn't thought about in the culinary world," Matricciano says.
While the company has been in operation for less than a year, it has roots in its founders' adolescence. Matricciano and Wogamon were friends as boys, hatching youthful schemes to make extra cash, from launching lemonade stands to mowing grass. But they lost touch around high school — and soon after, Matricciano became friends with Fendley, and the pair began experimenting with soda making. "We would make our own ginger beer," Matricciano says. "We would carbonate and things like that, but it was all bottle fermented. It didn't work out too well." When Matricciano and Fendley moved into a home on Cannon Street years later, Wogamon happened to be living right across the street.
Matricciano has a culinary degree from the Art Institute, and he worked with Wogamon at the Gin Joint for a while before both moved on to their current bartending jobs: FIG and the Belmont for Matricciano (he won the 2012 Charleston Wine + Food Festival mixologist competition for the latter bar) and Social for Wogamon. Cannonborough Beverage Co. is entirely funded by the three men, with Fendley handling the finances.
"It's tough when you go out and you have all this great local food, and then if you don't want alcohol, you have to drink it with a Coke," Matricciano says. And he's right — Charleston's put a lot of thought into local spirits, but not as much into what could be mixed with them. Fortunately, at the Gin Joint, Matricciano and Wogamon learned the history of soda right alongside the history of cocktails. "Joe (Raya, co-owner of the East Bay Street bar) gave us a lot of great advice ... if we had questions or flavor ideas or things like that, he was always there to bounce off of and that was a great resource." Another big inspiration was the Brooklyn Soda Works, which has been selling drinks at the Brooklyn Flea Market for the last year. "They're doing something very similar to what we're doing," Matricciano says. "When I saw that on a blog somewhere, I thought, you know, I really wish that they were here. And so the idea was: Why don't we go for it?"
The process for making soda is nowhere near as complicated or dangerous as Willy Wonka's Bubble Room: Cannonborough force carbonates fresh-made juices with water in a 5-gallon Cornelius keg with a big cylinder of CO2, and the soda is dispensed from the keg essentially the same way as a homebrew. Currently, they're using Social as their base kitchen, and they've been in touch with DHEC and the agriculture department to see what regulations need to be followed. Frequent visits are made to GrowFood Carolina, whose helpful staff makes recommendations, and recipes are built from there. Cannonborough plans to be as transparent as possible about where they're getting their products, because compliments on the soda are not only beneficial to their company, the men see it as free advertising for local farmers, too.
Whether they're boiling cherries or juicing ginger, there are different methods to creating the flavors that the company offers. If you cook ginger in sugar, it'll be sweeter and have a more minor flavor. If you want it to stand in the forefront, you'll juice it instead. It takes about four days to prepare a batch, with three spent in a keg at maximum carbonation in a cold environment, in order to get the best results. And of course, mistakes have been made along the way. "We could write a book on the things not to do," Wogamon says. "Every single step along the way, we've been like 'This is how it's done. This is how it works,' and we'll do it, and that is not how it works. It doesn't matter what it says, in any book or online. It's gonna mess up." But they say it's still fun. And now they know what not to do and can keep themselves from making the same mistakes in the future. "We're always going to make mistakes," he adds. "It's like practice. You practice all week for a game, and that's what we're doing for game day on Saturday."
For their public debut at the farmers market last month, the men served lemon mint, strawberry jalapeño, and ginger beer. In the future, you'll be able to find similar combinations of traditional and experimental flavors. "We definitely want to recreate some classics," Wogamon says. "We're leaving one of our taps open pretty much all the time to a classic soda." Maybe you'll see some of their personal favorites: Wogamon and Fendley seem to have eccentric tastes, picking Double Cola and Boylan's Black Cherry, but Matricciano likes good ole fashioned Squirt.
But for now, they're starting slow, with three flavors available each Saturday. You can get the keg-poured $3 cups at the farmers market. Don't ask for a straw, though. ("When you drink through a straw, your nose is nowhere near the liquid, and the aromatics and effervescence of the soda make such an impact on how the soda can be enjoyed," Matricciano says.) Demand for a take-away version is so high that they've been working on a solution for the immediate future. Cannonborough has also been in talks with local restaurants who are interested in serving their beverages, and because they're small batch, they can tailor new flavors directly to specific menus. They hope to develop a retail product in the future, but for now, starting in May, the sodas will be available all summer at the Belmont, with the flavor lineup constantly changing. You'll be able to get them unsullied, of course, but they'll be used in cocktails too.
And while Cannonborough Beverage Co. can't legally sell spiked versions of their sodas, with such extensive bartending back grounds, they can point you in the right direction for mixers once they figure out their bottling system.
Tip: the lighter the soda, the lighter the spirit.