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Chris Onstad's Job as a Restaurant Critic Launched His Journey to Soda Maker

He tapped into Portland's collaborative food community to launch Portland Soda Works.

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Dan McLaughlin and Chris Onstad of Portland Soda Works
Dan McLaughlin and Chris Onstad of Portland Soda Works

When former Portland Mercury food critic Chris Onstad was on a reviewing assignment, he was careful never to consume alcohol because he didn't want to give off the impression that his opinion was compromised. But he found drink options were limited since he wasn't imbibing. It was nothing but "milk, Diet R.C. and orange juice," he says — options that pair with chicken fingers and tater tots, but hardly what one's looking for when sampling more evolved fare.

In many ways, that professionalism is what led him to where he is right now: a partner in Portland Soda Works, which produces soda syrups for bartenders and stay-at-home drinkers looking for just the right blend of flavors to mix with spirits or plain old soda water.

After two years of having nothing but kid drinks to choose from, building a better soda appealed to him, so he started tinkering with the chemistry at home. A year later, he left the Mercury for a short art directing stint at a local marketing agency, while at the same time starting his soda business. Then he made the full leap to entrepreneurship early this year, leaving the agency to tackle soda head-on, full time.

Portland Soda Works syrups can now be found behind the bar at places like Tilt and Smallwares, and on the shelves of markets in the greater metro area, including P's & Q's Market and five New Seasons in Portland and Beaverton.

But Onstad admits he didn't get there on his own: Connections he formed with local chefs and tastemakers during his years as a food writer helped pave the way. He credits the staff at Clary Sage Herbarium, which he used as his library when home-brewing his first batches of root beer three years ago.

When he had something he thought could work, he approached the late teamaker Steven Smith, whom he said graciously agreed to a sit-down in the back room of Smith's former NW Portland headquarters, where he schooled Onstad on how to round out a drink's flavors using high-end spices. When Onstad left the meeting, he took two brewing kettles that Smith loaned him to get him started.

Shortly after, he met with Salt & Straw's Tyler Malek, who inquired as to what vanilla he was using. Onstad says he didn't realize that vanilla could be so diverse until Malek had him sample a half dozen varieties.

"The difference between a Mexican vanilla and one from Madagascar is like comparing a coconut with a glass of brandy," Onstad says.

Soda maker David Yudkin at Hot Lips Pizza also agreed to a sit-down and gave Onstad what he recalls a "very frank and valuable afternoon of advice" on the difficulties of starting your own line of sodas.

And Nat West at Reverend Nat's Hard Cider let Onstad and his business partner, friend and neighbor, Dan McLaughlin — whom Onstad credits as helping shape the company's flavors for the better — install Smith's kettles at his NE Portland tasting room. He even carried the company's first commercial batches of root beer on tap.

And Onstad got plenty of invaluable tasting and spice-sourcing advice from some of Portland's most knowledgeable chefs, including Ned Ludd's Jason French, Departure's Gregory Gourdet and Mi Mero Mole's Nick Zukin.

"What Portland gets right is that it's a collaborative environment," says Onstad. "People share ideas and ingredients, and everything in town gets better, and because of that, so does the quality of life."

Portland Soda Works will do tasting demonstrations in five New Seasons stores over the next six months.