Next time you go into La Merenda, 125 E. National Ave., ask for a house-made ice cream float made with chocolate/cocoa soda. Chances are, chef and owner Peter Sandroni will make it happen. And that’s thanks, in part, to a brand new employee he has working at the restaurant named Larry Hanlon.
Hanlon started out brewing beer in 1995 while he was in his final year as a student at Marquette University. In 2006, his inspiration turned in another direction.
"When I looked on the shelves at area stores," Hanlon remarks, "I saw a great selection of local craft beers, but I did not see one locally made natural soda."
So, he took matters into his own hands, did his research, and created an artisan soda that was free from preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, high fructose corn syrup and caffeine.
"It is brewed like a tea rather than cold-mixed with syrup like virtually all sodas on the market today," he explains. "I make it the way people made it in their kitchens 100 years ago: small batches and with really basic ingredients – sugar, spices, extracts and fruit juices. The beauty of the soda is in its simplicity and purity."
Hanlon was a teacher by trade. For nine years he taught Spanish at St. Francis High School. But, when the soda bug bit him, it bit hard.
"I knew I would miss the great parts about being a teacher, but I also knew I had to try going into business for myself; I didn’t want to have regrets that I never tried it," Hanlon tells me. "My business was called 221 Natural Craft Sodas – named after my last classroom number."
For a while, Hanlon sold his product at area farmers markets. Mike Engel of Pastiche also purchased some of Hanlon’s product to include on his restaurant menu. But, sales just weren’t high enough to make his work sustainable.
"In the end I realized that I needed to come up with probably a million dollars to build a brewery – which would allow me to produce it at scale and to truly make a living at it," he says. "So, I closed my business. Then, a half year later I get a call from Peter (Sandroni) who had heard about my company and he asked me to work for him."
Sandroni says that, in part, he’s simply taking advantage of the "do it yourself" movement that’s overtaking the country.
"People make sausage, and they do it well – so I’m not going to make my own sausage. Same with bread," he says. "Larry makes soda well. So, I’m excited about that … this is soda that your grandparents would have drunk."
For Sandroni, it’s all about quality. Like every other product in his restaurant, he’s hand-selected Hanlon’s soda to be a part of his menu.
"Soda is a big deal to me," explains Sandroni. "We have very few processed foods here on the menu. We don’t need the high fructose corn syrup. We made the decision not to buy beef that’s fed with corn. Why wouldn’t we go the same way with soda?"
He says one of the many things that sets the soda apart is that it isn’t as sweet as other beverages on the market. It’s also a feast for the senses.
"The way he makes his soda, he incorporates so much of the aromatic element," Sandroni says. "You can smell the coffee in the coffee soda, the ginger in the ginger beer. That’s so important. That’s what hits you first when you tip your glass back. It’s beautiful."
Hanlon credits his wife with inspiring many of his recipes, and his "taste testers" Colman and Leo (both under the age of 7), along with a variety of relatives and neighbors, with assisting him in getting his soda flavors "just right."
He also admits that it took a great deal of research, as well as trial and error in the kitchen, before he got many of his flavors perfected.
"Early on, I started brewing a root beer recipe using sassafras," Hanlon recalls. "It was really good, but you can’t sell it because the saffrole (a substance in sassafras) has been illegal since the 1960s."
He has also been researching the original recipe for Coca-Cola, which he hopes will assist him in tweaking his current "Kola" flavor, which he brews from pure Kola nut.
"Right now, it’s delicious," he says, "But most people wouldn’t recognize it as cola, since they’re used to drinking Coke and Pepsi. The color is much lighter; it’s not as carbonated."
And the flavor, while delicious, is mild and nutty – more earthy than a traditional cola – and bereft of caramel notes that would make it perfect paired with a great craft rum.
Hanlon says he’d like the flavor to resemble a bit more of the beverage to which most people are accustomed. But, he also admits that education is part of the deal.
"Ninety percent of the company at Coke doesn’t know what’s in the soda," he says. "This is different. This is so transparent. Things should be that way. We should know what we’re eating, and what we’re eating should taste like what it’s made from. In this case, there’s a human being doing it, rather than a machine. It’s high quality, local. There’s thought put into it."
And he’s not lying.
Hanlon says that he’s on the ninth version of his cocoa soda, which premiered at the restaurant this week. And the gratification he gets from perfecting each batch is nowhere near instant.
"There’s a lot of work behind it. A lot of prep work, setting things up, and then cooling them down," he explains. "You have to wait hours or days to see what something tastes like. Things also taste differently when they’re carbonated. So, you have to be patient."
But, Hanlon says that the creative element is what keeps him coming back – along with the satisfaction he gets from seeing the look on peoples’ faces when they try his product.
"You’re stirring a boiling kettle," he says. "It’s not glamorous. What’s glamorous about it is when you’re done and people are enjoying it."
Currently, La Merenda features six of Hanlon’s sodas on tap: kola, kola-lite (with Stevia), tonic, ginger beer, lemon-lime, and cocoa. Seasonal flavors will be rotated in and out and include coffee, vanilla cream, and rootbeer, with more flavors on the way.
"Eventually, I want to come up with a grape and an orange soda," Hanlon tells me. "I have a really strong ginger beer recipe that I’d like to introduce too … It’s fun because we can come up with seasonal flavors all the time."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.