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John Lynden, left, is the co-owner of Lynden’s Soda Fountain in St. Paul, Minn.

Healthier, old-fashioned sodas see revival

Old-fashioned sodas are the hottest thing in cold drinks.

Buoyed by an appetite for everything retro and bolstered by demand for anti-artificial ingredients, handcrafted soft drinks are turning up on menus from small ice-cream shops to popular bars. Featuring ingredients that are fresh, seasonal and local, these sodas, phosphates and egg creams are offering unusual and often surprising flavors.

An egg cream featuring maple syrup, anyone? How about homemade root beer? Or a cola replicating a pre-1900 formula? Actually, that cola recipe was adjusted slightly when it was discovered that the original concoction contained cocaine, which at the time was thought to be harmless.

The reception among the soda-sipping public has been enthusiastic.

“If we tried to take them off the menu, we’d have people throwing torches through our windows,” said Nick Kosevich, a partner in Eat Street Social in Minneapolis and the bartender responsible for creating the restaurant’s drink recipes.

Kosevich considers the drinks a cousin of the modern-day cocktail. Bartenders hand-mix each soda from scratch, adding carefully measured syrups, creams, bitters and carbonated water, which also is made on-site.

Compared with mixing a cocktail, the outcome is different, he said, “but the process is the same.”

At Lynden’s Soda Fountain in St. Paul, Minn., customers are getting a side order of nostalgia with their drinks. Owners John and Tobi Lynden are offering retro-style sodas that are served from a refurbished 1950s soda fountain by clerks wearing shirts labeled “Jerk.” It’s not an appraisal of their personality, but rather a reference to the classic soda jerk, who got the label from yanking the soda dispenser handle.

“I’ve always been an old-timey kind of guy,” said John Lynden, who modeled the shop after mid-century ice-cream shops. Racks of vintage candy line the wall opposite the soda-fountain counter.

“When I found a 1950s soda fountain for sale, I became determined to do something crazy,” he said. “Life is so rushed these days. I want people who come in here to slow down a bit, to sit at the counter and get that experience back.”

Soda fountains thrived in the first half of the 20th century. Soda water was thought to have health benefits, which is why the fountains started in drugstores. But it wasn’t long before they were popping up everywhere and expanding their offerings to include quick, light meals of burgers and sandwiches.

By the 1960s, the American love affair with the car had steered the public to another dining fad, the drive-in restaurant. Fast-food outlets that produced millions of identical burgers started to take precedence over uniqueness. And the proliferation of bottled (and later canned) sodas provided an efficient and economical option to the labor-intensive process of mixing each drink separately.

Soda fountains slowly lost their fizz.

Their comeback started a few years ago when a handful of entrepreneurs around the country began marketing soda fountains as retro-hip. Places like the Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Pharmacy & Soda Fountain in New York City revived the romanticism of the soft drink.

Fresh ingredients are key. Eat Street Social, for instance, uses repurposed sushi coolers to store and display the ingredients on the bar. It also rotates the soda menu based on which ingredients are available each season.

The soda servers emphasize that the drinks’ lack of preservatives.

That distinction is a big part of the allure, especially with the mass-market soft-drink industry coming under increasing pressure from critics who blame soda for everything from obesity to depression to bad teeth.

“People are becoming more concerned about what they put in their bodies,” said Lynden, who offers sodas made with real syrups rather than the high-fructose variety.

While quality ingredients might attract some customers, Lynden acknowledged what is probably the main reason for the soda-fountain revival:

“It’s fun.”