"Oh, I made some real horrible stuff," says Austin Ashley as he thinks back on the early days of his new business, Wisco Pop.
For years Ashley had puttered around in his kitchen experimenting with scobies for kombucha and soda alike. Yes, scobies - a culture of bacteria and yeast and one of the bases of the fermented tea drink kombucha - are also found in some sodas.
Last July, Austin and his wife, Hallie, took their household hobby and started the all-natural soda business.
The Ashleys see Wisco Pop as a way to offer Wisconsin a thirst-quenching drink that falls between milk and a microbrew. Hallie describes herself as "not someone to skip dessert. I'm someone to make dessert with all local ingredients, all fresh." The couple wanted to approach soda making the same way.
"We really enjoy drinking soda," says Hallie. But they were disappointed with commercially available sodas, many of which seemed to be nothing more than chemicals.
One recipe that always seemed to brew well in the days of their home kitchen concoctions was the ginger brew - and it became their first product.
The Ashleys created Wisco Pop's root beer by going back to recipes for the original sassafras-based drink of the early 1900s, which had a stronger punch than what we know today. Because the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil in 1960, the Ashleys combine vanilla, anise and wintergreen alongside the honey and other natural ingredients.
This winter they debuted a flavor called Cherry Bomb, featuring cherries from Michigan and the tart qualities associated with that fruit. It's not an overly sweet drink, and has a bit of a kick in its finish.
As the weather gets warmer, the Ashleys have a few shocking flavor combinations up their sleeves. Keep an eye out for maple, strawberry and rhubarb varieties.
Wisco Pop is 100% honey-sweetened, using honey from a friend near Viroqua. This means that Wisco Pop has seasonal tones from the honey, making the flavors unique to each season.
Fall's honey, for instance, will bring "more depth," says Austin. "Goldenrod is going to be in there, so it'll be a little bit darker."
Originally from Madison, the Ashleys now live in Viroqua. They strive to include at least one locally sourced ingredient in every soda. That way, there will be something from Wisconsin tucked in each sip.
Currently, Wisco Pop is available only on tap. The couple like the idea that this brings back the old-fashioned tradition of the soda fountain, where soda came in reusable glassware, not bottles or cans.
For home use, a "Party Pig Keg" can serve a family or smaller cafes and restaurants.