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[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]

The Winners!

#1: AJ Stephans
#2: Nesbitt's
#3: Jackson Hole

What says summer more than an ice-cold strawberry soda? Okay, perhaps it's not the first thing that comes to mind, but a bright, sweet strawberry soda can be a real pick-me-up on a hot day, especially if it's paired with a fat scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Chances are, whatever you find won't taste like actual strawberries (unless you can track down the Hot Lips version, which isn't currently being produced due to technical difficulties), but soda fanatics should be used to the industry-wide embrace of artificial flavors by now.

We collected 9 varieties of strawberry soda, tasted them blind, then ranked them from best to worst. Of course, we can't track down every soda available in the entire United States, but we do our best. If we missed your favorite, do tell us about it and why you prefer it over the competition!

The Contenders

AJ Stephans
Crush
Faygo
Filbert's
Fitz's
Jackson Hole
Jarritos
Nesbitt's
Sunkist

The Criteria

Each soda was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:

  • Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can sting the mouth and mask flavors. In addition to the levels of initial carbonation, we also looked at how quickly these sodas lost their bubbly effervescence once emancipated from their respective bottles.
  • Sweetness: This is soda, so there should be some sweetness, but it shouldn't be so sugary as to become undrinkable. Does the sweetness taste natural, leaving your mouth feeling crisp and clean, or does it feel syrupy, coating your tongue? We rated them on a scale from "dry" to "sugar rush," and the best fell somewhere in between.
  • Overall strawberry flavor: We're not really looking for the taste of fresh strawberries here—these sodas don't even attempt to replicate it. Instead, we're measuring the balance of sugar to strawberry flavoring, and whether one overwhelms the other.

20110522-153183-strawberry-soda-cups.jpg

The Results

When the dust settled and the tasting rounds were over, the strawberry sodas were divided into three distinct groups. At the top, with very close scores, were the across-the-board favorites. Just below that were the polarizing ones, which some testers rated highly and others gave an emphatic thumbs-down. Unanimously disliked ones fell into the third faction, and in a first for these soda tastings, this group was comprised of only nationally available brands.

The sodas also tended to remind us of one of the following: candy, popsicles, or strawberry Jell-O. Read on to see which flavor profile was the winner!

#1. AJ Stephans (7.7/10)

20110522-153183-aj-stephans-strawberry-label.jpgAlmost everyone in the tasting ranked this soda among their top three choices, for a variety of reasons. This soda deeply reminded us of strawberry Jell-O, or at least a cold, carbonated version of the liquid gelatin before it sets (what we used to call "Jell-O Juice" growing up). Sweet, but not too sweet, the sugar is cut by the intense carbonation AJ Stephans is known for. It also has a crisp finish that made it easy to take multiple sips—something not every soda in this tasting can claim.

This soda is pretty widely available in New England and along the East Coast. If you can't find it in your area, you can always order it from Galco.

#2. Nesbitt's (7.6/10)

20110522-153183-nesbitts-strawberry-label.jpgThis soda was nearly as popular as our winner. That's easy to understand when you drink the two sodas side-by-side: they have a lot in common, flavor-wise.The same strawberry Jell-O flavor dominates both beverages and made it hard to distinguish between the two.

It's possible Nesbitt's received slightly lower scores because it isn't quite as carbonated as the AJ Stephans, causing the sugar to come across a tad more predominantly. Whatever the reason, it's a very good example of a balanced, pleasant strawberry soda.

#3. Jackson Hole (7.4/10)

20110522-153183-jackson-hole-strawberry-label.jpgWhile Jackson Hole's strawberry soda may not have been picked as #1, just about everyone agreed that they could see themselves finishing the entire bottle.

What separates this soda from the others is the inclusion of a sour element in the form of rhubarb juice. This makes for an interesting combination that was drier than every other soda we tried, but not so dry that it became bitter. It retained a mild sweetness, and one taster remarked that it would make for a "good mixer." We'll let you decide the alcohol.

#4. Fitz's (7.3/10)

20110522-153183-fitzs-strawberry-label.jpgFitz's claims the prize for "Sweetest Strawberry Soda By Far."

This soda really reminded us of candy, specifically strawberry Jolly Ranchers. The sugary strawberry aspect might come across a little too assertively for some, but for those who enjoy a bold, grab-you-by-the-throat kind of soda, this one's right up your alley.

#5. Filbert's (6.5/10)

20110522-153183-filberts-strawberry-label.jpgHeading up the second tier of strawberry sodas is Filbert's offering. This Chicago company began as a milk-delivery service in the early 1900s, but switched to soda in 1926 when it shot up in popularity during Prohibition.

More than one taster picked up on notes of vanilla in both the scent and flavor of this soda. Its sweetness was around the middle of the spectrum, but there was a hint of bitterness in the aftertaste. Some tasters praised this soda's mildness, but others weren't so kind: "Tastes like watered-down Benadryl," said one.

#6. Faygo (6.4/10)

20110522-153183-faygo-red-pop-label.jpgFaygo usually does well in these taste tests, but as it proved in the Grape Soda tasting, it's not above the occasional misstep. Which isn't to say their Red Pop was a total failure, because even though half the testers gave it a pass, the other half ranked it among the very best.

This was definitely one of the candylike sodas in the testing, reminding us less of strawberries and more of, say, an amalgam of strawberry and cherry Mambas. Some were reminded of cough syrup, though plenty of tasters liked the faint vanilla overtones and balance between the flavor of the soda and its sweetening agent (even if that flavor was more cherry than strawberry).

#7. Crush (5.3/10)

20110522-153183-crush-strawberry-label.jpgAnd now we move on to the lowest-scoring group of the taste test. Crush may be available just about everywhere in the country, but with the strawberry soda you might want to stick with something more regional.

"Sugar overload" seems to be the consensus on this soda, with a distinct lack of strawberry flavor. In fact, most testers commented that it veered closer to cherry than strawberry. It reminded us of cherry Otter Pops, which really wasn't what we were looking for in a strawberry soda. On the other hand, if that is what you're looking for in a strawberry soda, by all means grab a Crush.

#8. Sunkist (5.2/10)

20110522-153183-sunkist-strawberry-label.jpgThe Sunkist strawberry soda is probably sitting directly next to the Crush version in your local mini-mart's cooler, but we suggest ignoring this one. A high-scorer in both the orange and grape soda taste tests, Sunkist really fell flat when going head-to-head with its strawberry competitors.

While this soda had good carbonation, it was just too syrupy for us to enjoy. The strawberry flavoring seemed especially artificial.

#9. Jarritos (3.9/10)

20110522-153183-jarritos-strawberry-label.jpgThis Mexican-produced drink was the antithesis of what we wanted in a good strawberry soda. Overpoweringly sweet yet almost dirty-tasting, few of us could stomach more than a sip or two of it. Most of us agreed that it tasted like a watery melted cherry popsicle. The low carbonation didn't help matters.

We've liked other flavors of Jarritos when we've tried them, but we can't recommend their strawberry pop when compared with the others we tried.

What strawberry soda do you hold near and dear? Do you have a favorite to recommend?

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