Sprecher Brewery makes a rich, golden-colored Cream Soda with notes of vanilla and caramelized honey. It's one of the bestselling sodas at the brewery with a dedicated midwestern fanbase and a growing national presence. It's also one of my personal favorites and a fixture of my childhood.
There's something special about cream soda, but also something very unusual about it. If I wrote that first paragraph about cola, pretty much everyone on earth would have the same ideas about the drink as I do. But I wrote it about cream soda, and that opens up a world of controversy.
If you're an Ohioan, you may be asking yourself, "isn't cream soda red?" Canadians are probably wondering why our cream soda isn't pink and bubblegum flavored. South Africans and Japanese people, if they are reading this at all, are shocked at a cream soda that isn't bright green and fruity. Australians, on the other hand, were expecting something a little browner.
Unlike pretty much every other soda flavor, from country to country and even state to state, cream soda can look and taste completely different. So what is cream soda?
The First Cream Soda
Let's start at the start. Asking who made the first cream soda is a natural place to begin, but it's also a vexed question. Bon Appetit's Dan Nosowitz cites two possible origin stories.
The first known recipe for a cream soda was published in 1852 in a monthly agricultural journal called the Michigan Farmer. To me, the recipe is nothing short of horrifying: it includes cream of tartar, Epsom salt, sugar, tartaric acid, and a beaten egg. Nosowitz doubts that this formulation is related to the cream sodas we know today, and I agree. I can't imagine this idea made it very far out of small-town Michigan.
The original Cream Soda Recipe, via Google Books
The other candidate for the original cream soda, which Nosowitz favors, is a pale-tan vanilla-flavored soda called Dr. Brown's cream soda. Dr. Brown developed this soda in 1868 and marketed it as a health product along with celery, black cherry, and ginger sodas. While nobody rushed to imitate his celery soda (as far as I know, anyway), Dr. Brown's cream soda was quickly copied by competitors like Barq's, Jones, and A&W.
Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, via eBay
Dr. Brown's recipe sounds much like the cream soda flavor most Americans are familiar with these days, although the color of American cream soda does vary across brands and regions. It's plausible that Brown's soda was influential in the U.S., but this story leaves a big question unanswered: If Brown's recipe was heavy on vanilla flavor, why are other cream sodas so different?
This question deserves deeper investigation. After all, it's a big leap to go from a tan vanilla-flavored soda to a bright pink bubblegum-flavored soda, or to a neon green fruity soda.
The First Cream Soda II: The Soda Jerk Boogaloo
As I fell down the Cream Soda rabbit hole in search of answers, I came across a useful claim from Canadian YouTuber and cultural commentator J.J. McCullough. According to J.J., "Cream Soda" does not refer to a flavor of soda, it refers to a category of soda. How could this have happened? Enter the soda jerk.
Gastro Obscura's Natasha Frost describes soda jerks as a class of soda fountain workers with "white coats, swift fingers, and even swifter tongues." Frost says that in the glory days of the soda fountain, half a million soda jerks were employed at tens of thousands of small businesses in the United States. Their chief duty was slinging sodas to thirsty customers looking for cheap thrills in the grim days of the 1930's and 40's. For many, the greatest cheap thrill of all was the ice cream soda.
A Soda Jerk, via Wikimedia Commons
Since soda fountains were often small businesses, the competition was fierce, and soda jerks were both showmen and entrepreneurs. In addition to spouting colorful slang to describe their offerings (e.g. a soda jerk might shout, 'stretch it, burn it, and let it swim! when sending back an order for a large float), soda jerks were constantly inventing new drinks and combinations.
In this fast-paced, competitive environment where a huge variety of creative sodas were being handmade to order, it was helpful for people to group sodas into categories. J.J. suggests that the main categories people were used to were fruit sodas, spice sodas, and (you guessed it), cream sodas. Cream sodas, in J.J.'s estimation, were the class of sodas that soda jerks "added milk or ice cream to to give a certain rich texture."
Ice cream sodas were popular all around the country, and because every soda jerk was trying to be different from the jerk next door, the category became something of a catch-all.
What is Cream Soda, really?
In the end, we find ourselves asking the question asked at the beginning. What is cream soda? Is it the invention of Dr. Brown? A bizarre recipe from an obscure Michigan agricultural journal? The brainchild of some jerk in the '30s? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Cream soda is all of those things.
In a sense, J.J. McCullough seems to be correct. Cream Soda is a category of soda, and at one time, the category included any soda that soda jerks would add milk or ice cream to.
In the following years, as the figure of the soda jerk faded from our collective memory, soda companies probably made "cream soda" based on what most people were used to in a given region.
A Japanese Cream Soda, via Wikimedia Commons
Parts of the Upper Midwest and Canada were used to a bright red, bubblegum flavored ice-cream float, and that's the cream soda they got. Other parts of the Midwest and East Coast liked to make a float with a tan, vanilla-flavored soda like Dr. Brown's, which made its debut in Brooklyn, NY. In other parts, fruity green floats must have been preferred. I like to imagine there may still be a small pocket of Michigan that drinks a cream soda with eggs and cream of tartar in it, although that's probably not true.
To me, cream soda is pale gold and cloyingly sweet with notes of vanilla and caramelized honey. It's the soda I found in my Christmas stocking growing up, and the soda that my parents would buy for weekend movie nights. I'm sure many Midwesterners have similar memories of the drink. But if you don't have memories like that, and would like to start making some, you should give my favorite cream soda a try.