by Sally Colby
There’s soda making in the family blood, but BuckSnort Root Beer is a first generation business. Kainoa Lopez, a native of Hawaii who now lives in Boise, ID says that his great-grandfather started a company called Waialua Soda Works on the north shore of Oahu.
“In the late 1800s, my grandfather made sodas with sugar cane from the fields and fruits that grow in Hawaii,” said Lopez. “He bottled and sold sodas to the workers at the sugar cane plantation field at lunch time. He passed that business down to my grandfather, but the family eventually sold the business.”
Lopez worked in the software industry for a while, but in 2009, changes within that sector meant that he’d have to relocate.
“I didn’t want to leave Idaho, but I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Lopez. “I was a novice home brewer and had a lot of brewing equipment in my garage, so I thought I’d sell it.” Lopez cleaned up his equipment, and a trip to the grocery store later that day gave him an idea.
“I saw the craft sodas, and grabbed a couple of different root beers to try,” said Lopez. “When I read the labels on the soda bottles, I noticed there were a lot of artificial ingredients. I knew those ingredients didn’t reflect how root beer was made long ago.”
Lopez says he has always wanted to try making root beer, and drew upon his brewing experience as he started to experiment. “I started doing some research,” he said. “It took a couple of years to pull together, but I came up with a recipe. I tested the first few batches on my friends and took it to birthday parties. Then there was a Fourth of July parade in Hailey, ID and I made a few kegs to take there. I sold it at the parade and we got a tremendous amount of feedback – some good and some not so good.”
The positive comments were enough to encourage Lopez to continue tweaking his recipe. Not long after the parade, a local farmer’s market showed interest in featuring Lopez’s root beer, and several restaurants in the Wood River Valley wanted it on tap.
Lopez says that the first two years involved a lot of trial and error. “I made a lot of batches, and most of them weren’t very good,” he said. “At the farmers’ market, the kids are honest. But I wasn’t necessarily trying to appeal to kids, and I still don’t because I know a kid who spends a week drinking sweet soda isn’t going to be happy. They don’t have a developed palate. But I listen to what people say as they walk away.”
While he stops short of comparing his soda to beer and wine, Lopez points out that soda provides a unique flavor journey. “There’s a variety of flavor profiles happening with a nice bottle of wine or a good beer,” he said. “The finish is very different from the initial flavor profile on the palate. We have a similar response from people who try our soda — there’s definitely an initial up-front sharp flavor profile, then the finish is creamy and well balanced with an earthy flavor profile. That’s what’s unique about it.”
Several years after finalizing his root beer recipe and gaining more enthusiastic customers, Lopez developed a ginger beer and a red cream soda dubbed ‘Sapsucker’. “I was having fun making root beer, but I was getting bored,” he said. “It took a couple years to get the root beer recipe to where I wanted it, but once the process was down, I wanted to see what else I could make.”
BuckSnort also offers an orange cream soda made with California oranges and a ginger beer that features fresh ginger. Another popular summer specialty is a wild huckleberry cream soda. “Huckleberries are wild-grown, and they grow well in Idaho,” said Lopez. “During harvest season, people are super-secretive about where they find them. We buy them and use them to make Huckleberry Cream Soda.”
One wildly popular selection is ‘Black Sheep’, named for the fact that root beer is traditionally a non-caffeinated beverage. “Adding caffeine to it goes against what root beer is all about,” said Lopez, who works with a local coffee roaster for this brew. “Root beer with espresso reminded me of an espresso stout beer. It’s definitely strong, just like an espresso stout, but it still tastes like root beer. People who are into it absolutely love it – farmers market patrons are big fans of Black Sheep. It’s so good with a little vanilla ice cream.”
Fans of BuckSnort can look forward to some new soda flavors this summer. Lopez has experimented with some new pairings, including apple cider with ginger. “I like the way ginger tastes with a fruit concoction,” he said. “It has a sweet, sharp balance.”
BuckSnort Soda is sold by the keg to bars and restaurants, and at the Capital City farmers market in downtown Boise. “We sell it on tap in a pint glass and people can walk around the event with a soda of their choice,” said Lopez. “I feel very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to try out our sodas through farmers markets and events. I had no idea this is how it was going to go. We not only try out new flavors, but the flavors we do have, people come back for.”
Last year, BuckSnort was awarded best specialty food vendor at the market. “We get a chance to talk with people about where they can find our sodas on tap around town, and that’s how we continue to grow,” said Lopez. “People who have been coming to the farmers market and have been supportive of us, when they learn of new locations where they can bring their family and our sodas are on tap, they often choose those locations because they want to support us.”
Lopez handles the majority of the work associated with the business, from washing kegs and brewing soda to delivery. When they’re available, his brother Lyle and friend Sean Myer lend a hand. Lopez is currently analyzing the costs and benefits of adding a packaging line in the near future.
How did Lopez come up with the name ‘BuckSnort’ for his company? He says naming the business was one of the hardest decisions he had to make, but settled on BuckSnort to honor the nickname bestowed upon him by an aunt. And although Lopez didn’t have an opportunity to learn the art of soda making from his forebears, he finds it fascinating that he’s making soda today. “I didn’t know that this was what I was going to do,” he said. “It just kind of happened that way.”
Soda for a sophisticated palate
by Sally Colby