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Sewickley candy shop offers soda-tasting session

| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010

Whiskey drinkers, wine enthusiasts and coffee afficionados all have tasting events to sample, critique and discover obscure and new varieties.

So, asked Village Candy owner Doug Alpern, why not do the same with soda pop?

The small Sewickley candy shop has become known for its comprehensive selection of unusual and hard-to-find soft drinks. Village Candy's root beer tastings routinely draw more than 100 people, Alpern decided to try something really different this Saturday — a birch beer and sarsaparilla tasting. For all but the most avid root beer/ginger beer afficionados, these two old-timey soft drinks are unknown.

"I can't really tell the difference between birch beer and sarsaparilla — I think they're kind of related," says Alpern. "To me, it's kind of like a root beer with hint of wintergreen."

Birch Beer is "made from the sap from the birch tree, and the different colors reflected dfiferent kinds of birch," says Alpern.

After the birch sap is collected, it is distilled into birch oil, then added to carbonated water. Black birch is the most common source of extract for birch beer, but there are also brown, red and clear, which is often called white birch.

Sarsaparilla is more mysterious — there isn't consensus about where it comes from, or even how it's spelled.

"It's pronounced 'sass-pa-rilla,' says Alpern. "Unless you're Yosemite Sam, and you call it 'saspa-rilly.' "

Some say the name comes from from the sarsaparilla plant, native to Central America. The sarsaparilla root was once commonly used for various medicinal purposes, with sugar added by pharmacists to lessen its bitterness. According to Alpern, some old formulas substituted birch oil and sassafras for sarsaparilla root, and most modern versions have this mix.

There will be four or five varieties of birch beer and sarsaparilla available for the public to taste and compare Saturday evening. Everyone who attends will receive a ballot to vote on their favorites. There will be prizes for randomly selected participants.

The birch beers and sarsaparillas for the tasting haven't been announced yet, but most will likely come from Village Candy's vast, regular inventory. They'll probably come from far and wide — West Coast-based Lurch Birch and Maine Root Sarsaparilla are featured on Village Candy's newsletter.

So far, catering to the soft-drink crowd has been a winning strategy for Village Candy.

"I'm not an alcohol drinker," says Alpern. "People can compare different varieties of coffee and chocolate — why not do it with sodas• I know, from traveling around the country, that they brew local sodas all over the place. They just don't get distributed that widely. I thougth 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool to have a collection like this for peole who really like soda?'

"The second reason — actually the main reason I stock them -- is that when I opened this candy store, it used to be a flower shop. And they had a refrigerator. That wasn't part of my original plan. But soda goes well with candy. Kids can drink it, which they can't do with beer or wine. So when we do these tastings, kids can come too."

Where: Village Candy, 344 Beaver St., Sewickley

Details: 412-741-1490 or Website

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