Monday, August 17, 2009

Veteran of the Seltzer Wars

The Stop & Shop on Morrissey is running one of its periodic specials on seltzer: two, one-liter bottles for a dollar of the house brand "Zazz." You have to use your card to take advantage of the savings, which is the subject for another disgruntled, curmudgeonly rant. Stop & Shop usually charges 65 cents a bottle, so this savings of 15 cents, not counting the deposit, is nothing to sneeze at if you plan on consuming 14 liters a week.

The main competition in the seltzer market on Stop & Shop's shelves is the bubbly beverage bottled by the PolarCorp, more commonly thought of as the Polar Beverages Company, headquartered a hop and skip away in Worchester, Mass. You may wonder why I mention this since Stop & Shop is headquartered in Quincy, much closer to my snug Dorchester neighborhood than Worchester. Well, in this global economy, Polar Beverages is still a family-owned business. Stop and Shop, on the other hand, has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Ahold (SV?), a little Dutch outfit with over 450,000 employees worldwide. After failing with New Amsterdam and the spice trade, the crafty Dutch, flinty if jolly bankers to the core, have plans to dominate the world's supermarket industry. I'm all for economies of scale, but as a relatively little guy, I tend to side with them and support them, especially when they deliver a superior product.

Stop & Shop sells Polar seltzer for a dollar a liter. When "Zazz" isn't on sale the price differential would be 11 cents, nothing much to notice. When "Zazz" is half the price, reason dictates that a comparison be made to determine what, if anything, you gain by spending double for what should be an identical product: flavored, fizzy water.

I sit with two seltzer bottles in front of me. One "Polar Seltzer with Black Cherry," the other "Zazz Black Cherry Naturally Flavored with Other Natural Flavors." The design of the Polar label is stately, classically inspired, with two woodcut cherries sharing a double stem with a leaf. The "Zazz" label is an audacious blue with the Stop & Shop traffic light logo discretely at center stage. There are three cartoonish cherries set on the right, disconnected from each other in a smattering of effervescent bubbles.

The nutritional information is identical. Each bottle contains zero of everything per serving. Nada. Zip. No nothing. It is water, after all. It's necessary to keep hydrated, but you can't live off a diet of that alone. The ingredients are likewise identical: carbonated water, natural flavor, though the Polar bottle contains an 's' appended to 'flavor' even though "Zazz" is the brand that boasts it has other flavors than black cherry on the front.

If I may digress a moment on the difference between natural and artificial flavoring, indulge me. The only difference is how these flavors are obtained. Both come from factories located in New Jersey's industrial zones. Both are an assortment of chemicals. Natural flavors in the world of mass produced foods are identical in their makeup to artificial. To make natural flavors you boil down fruit (in this case) and then strip out every extraneous element until you are left with a colorless powder. For artificial flavors, you just combine various powders until they produce the flavor desired. If you think you are getting any additional benefit from "natural" flavors, you are mistaken and you should check the Nutrition Facts that is mandated by the FDA on every food package. No vitamins or minerals included, only flavor. It is actually more expensive to extract these flavors from whole foodstuffs than to mix it from scratch and it doesn't make a lick of difference because both are chemically identical.

Back to our taste test. What separates Polar Seltzer from Stop and Shop's house brand? Purely and simply, it is a matter of taste. Whether the difference is worth fifty cents plus deposit is up to each seltzer consumer to decide. I have two shot glasses in front of me.

I take a shot of Zazz and swirl it on the palate like an oenophile. Yes, I can detect some cherry flavor there. I'm not sure if it's really cherry or one of the other natural flavors, but there is a hint of flavor and the bottle says black cherry so, yes. Cherry it is.

I take a shot of Polar Seltzer and the bubbles fly up my nose before I can take a sip. When I repeat the drinking process with the Polar Seltzer, the cherry flavor kicks me in the tongue and knocks around my gums a bit before disappearing down my gullet. This is carbonated water all right but the boys at Polar don't skimp on the other ingredient either. There is no doubt: this isn't bing cherry or maraschino or choke cherry; this is pure black cherry goodness. It's not soda pop. It isn't sweet. It's seltzer with black cherry delivered with va-va-voom, take-no-prisoners, go-for-the-gold gusto.


Matt said...

Thank you for the erudite comparison.

Not Whitey Bulger said...

Worcester, Dorchester. Worcester, Dorchester. Worcester, Dorchester.

Whalehead King said...

Thanks Matt.
NotWhitey, how on earth did I miss this?? Thanks.

Got 2 Trot Librarian said...

Polar all the way! I drink 2-3 cans/day. Black Cherry is good, but my favorite is the unflavored selzter. (Or, "blue" as I call it, since it's in a blue can...)

Whalehead King said...

I was pleasantly surprised by this taste test's findings. As One Smoot Short of a Bridge notes on Universal Hub though, it's cheaper in the long run to make seltzer at home. Then again, I buy ice by the bag. Think of it as doing our part for the economy!


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