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Gadget review: Sodastream home soda maker

There are many sites on the web with reviews of gadgets of all sorts. I don't propose to compete with them, since I'm certainly not a dedicated "gadgeteer." But I figure that an occasional post on some device that I find interesting or useful can do no harm.

One week ago, I didn't know that devices like the Sodastream home soda maker existed.  I read about it in an article in the NY Times, on how to save money and reduce waste. I did some "homework" (meaning web searches) and decided to purchase one.

The Sodastream device is basically a home carbonator. It forces pressurized carbon-dioxide gas through water to create seltzer, which is nothing more than carbon dioxide dissolved in water (the "fizz"), often called carbonic acid. You can drink the seltzer as it is, or add various flavorings to create fruit seltzers or sodas.

As a modern-era kid, I thought that making seltzer required a big factory or something. Those of a modestly older generation could have told me that CO2+water cylinders used to be a fixture of every bar and home.  So the Sodastream is nothing really new.  The difference is in the marketing: it's advertised to reduce the waste from disposing plastic soda bottles, in addition to saving money versus buying seltzer and soda at the supermarket.

There are three different versions offered on the Sodastream web site.  I saw little reason not to buy the least-expensive one, the "Fountain Jet." The next most expensive one, the "Pure," is made of metal instead of plastic; the most expensive one, the "Penguin," can refill glass bottles, while the less-expensive ones refill custom plastic bottles that can't be washed in a dishwasher.

The system consists of these components:
  • The carbonator itself, which costs about $80.
  • The plastic bottles in which the seltzer is made. The unit comes with two of them; I purchased a kit that included extra bottles, but right now it looks like I'll rarely need them. I may reserve those bottles for seltzers I make for rituals.
  • The carbon-dioxide cylinders. The unit comes with one, enough to make about 60 liters of seltzer. In the kit I got, there were a total of three.
  • The flavorings. There are two sorts: "Flavor Essences" for seltzers with a bit of fruit taste, and sodamix syrups that make conventional sodas (basically imitation colas, ginger ales, and so on). The kit came with eight sodamix flavors of my choice, plus a sampler of 12 other flavors, plus a sampler set of three flavor essences.
Of these items, the bottles that contain the flavorings are the only part that are not reusable, and even those are made of recyclable plastic or glass. Each bottle contains enough sodamix syrup to make about 50 liters of soda. They're about $5 each, with various discounts for purchasing in quantity.

The plastic bottles for mixing the seltzer hold about a liter each. You have to fill them with refrigerated water, otherwise the carbonation process won't work as well; the colder the water, the more carbon dioxide it can hold. Though the bottles are reusable, they have a finite lifetime; there's an expiration date printed on the bottle (mine say "Do not use after 2011") and you're not supposed to use them if they get scratched. You can't put them in the dishwasher, but washing them is easy; it's just soda, after all.

The CO2 cylinders are recycled by Sodastream. When they empty, you contact the company. They'll exchange cylinders two or three at a time; the cost of exchanging two cylinders is $25. They send you a postage-paid box and you ship the cylinders back to them. They send you replacement cylinders in exchange.

Those are the facts. How does it work?

It works fine. It takes about 30 seconds to make a liter of seltzer, including the time it takes to screw the bottle into the carbonator. You force the CO2 through the water by pressing a button; you can choose to press it more or less to get the amount of fizz you want.

You can only carbonate water. According to the printed material that comes with the unit, if you try to carbonate anything else you'll void the warranty. My guess is that if you tried to carbonate almost any other liquid, you'd get so many bubbles that you'd burst the bottle. For me, it's a bit of a shame, since I'd like to try carbonating the iced teas that I make (6-10 bags of Celestial Seasonings tea placed in a gallon of water overnight).

How much money you'll save depends on the amount of soda you consume. I typically drank a 20-oz. bottle every day at work. I occasionally have some soda at home, and I set aside two bottles of seltzer for each ritual. Given the start-up cost of the kit I purchased (about $170, including tax), it will probably take about eight months before I'll make up the cost of the unit.

The real reason I purchased the unit was to reduce the amount of plastic I was throwing away. Sure, I put the empty soda bottles into recycle bins, but nowadays those bottles are ending up in landfill anyway. I'm willing to pay a little extra in the hopes of polluting a little less.

Fine and noble reasons, to be sure. But how do the sodas themselves taste?

They taste like supermarket-brand sodas. They have cola flavors, along with imitations of popular sodas ("Pete's Choice" is their Dr. Pepper equivalent, for example). They taste similar to the major brands, but not the same.

I've only tasted the diet flavors, which are sweetened with sucralose ("Splenda"), instead of the aspartame ("Nutrasweet") used in most major brands. They taste different from the major brands, but this doesn't bother me.  The sampler that came with the unit contains some of their sugar-sweetened flavors, and I'll offer those to my sucrose-eating friends when they visit to get their opinions on the taste.

You have the option to mix the flavors to suit your taste, a choice that's otherwise dictated for you by the soda companies. I blended half orange soda, half ginger ale; not bad at all.

Of course, you can always mix your own flavors for the seltzer. The basic one is to add fruit juice. I hear there are some who add scotch, gin, or other alcoholic beverages to their seltzer... or perhaps it's the other way around.

If only Coke will float your boat, you can make that happen, but it's not easy. You'd have to buy the sodamix syrups for those major brands, and they normally only sell those to restauranteurs and the like who operate commercial soda fountains (many are available from Sam's Club, though Coke isn't one of them). Some only come in five-gallon boxed bags, enough to make about 110 liters of soda. Since the syrups only have a shelf-life of about 3-4 months, you'd either have to drink a lot of soda, or split the container with your soda-making friends. I'd go through the effort for diet birch or diet ginger beer, but those sodamix syrups don't seem to be available.

Overall, I'm pleased with the purchase. If only I could make diet birch beer!

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