DIY Carbonation: The Fizz Biz Lifts Off

The gadget’s entry into the U.S. market comes as economic, environmental and health concerns have converged with an interest in do-it-yourself everything

The increasingly popular SodaStream
The increasingly popular SodaStream Image courtesy of Flickr user greychr

For the past year or so I’ve been hearing people rave about this amazing new contraption that magically turns your tap water into seltzer or, with the addition of flavor concentrates, soft drinks. As someone who goes through a 12-pack a week of lime seltzer, this struck me as a brilliant idea—a way to save money and send fewer cans to the recycling center—but I never got around to buying one.

Last week I finally got to try one of these SodaStream gadgets at a friend’s house, and it worked as promised. I was completely sold.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until I mentioned it to my editor that do-it-yourself seltzer is hardly a new concept. Seltzer bottles—also known as soda siphons—have been bringing the fizz to the table for centuries, and in snazzier style.

SodaStream works the same way as those old-fashioned seltzer bottles, by infusing water with pressurized carbon dioxide.

Even SodaStream itself is just an update of a product that’s been around for years. The company’s roots go back to 1903, when Guy Gilbey (a surname familiar to gin drinkers) invented the first home carbonation machine, in the United Kingdom. A smaller version of the machine was popular in Europe and elsewhere for decades, but it wasn’t until 2009, after a global brand revamping, that the product became widely available in the United States.

A recent article in Slate points out how successful the retooling has been: Worldwide sales climbed from 730,000 units in 2007 to nearly 2 million in 2010. The gadget’s entry into the U.S. market seems to have come at just the right moment, when a perfect storm of economic, environmental and health concerns about sugary sodas have converged with an increased interest in do-it-yourself everything, including food and drink. There’s also a nostalgia factor—not for the modern-looking device, but for the old-time soda fountain treats like phosphates and egg creams that the seltzer recalls. Last week the New York Times highlighted a new crop of soda jerks around the country who are bringing fizzy back.

Customization at home is one of the SodaStream’s selling points: It allows you to adjust the amount of fizziness and flavor syrup (and hence, sweetness) in your drink. It’s also possible to make your own creations. During maple-tapping season in the Northeast, Kristin Kimball, farmer and author of The Dirty Life, tweeted her recipe for “Essex Farm soda”—carbonated maple sap with a splash of vanilla. Blogger Andrew Wilder wrote about the SodaStream bar he set up at a party, which led to some creative mock- and cocktails—the Cucumberist, with cucumber and mint, sounds right up my alley. Even better, the blog Former Chef gives a recipe for a spicy-sounding homemade ginger syrup that includes cardamom, allspice, black pepper and star anise.

Suddenly my old standby, lime seltzer, is looking a little vanilla. It may be time to experiment. But I haven’t decided which home carbonation system to buy: Those vintage soda siphons would look great with my other retro barware, though they may or may not work well anymore. New versions, like the sleek aluminum seltzer bottles made by iSi, are also an option. Or, of course, there’s the SodaStream.

One thing is clear: My 12-pack-toting days are numbered.

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