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Dining Around with Gene Burns

Gene Burns interviews Greg Warwick, Fentimans
On location at the Chronicle Tasting, Fort Mason, San Francisco
KGO Newstalk AM 810
Gene Burns
February 28, 2009

GENE BURNS: Sorry, I’m getting caught up, I’m getting ready; I’m rehearsing. It’s 11:48, welcome back. We’re at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center, and in addition to the over a thousand wines from over three hundred wineries that’ll be poured here this afternoon at the ninth annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Grand Tasting, there will be food items from many different purveyors available here as well through Jane St Claire at SavorCalifornia.com, and we’ve been talking with some of those people.

Greg Warwick joins us. He is the president of Fentimans Soda. And, I’ve heard of this company, and when I heard they were going to be here, I was delighted, because it’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about, and Greg is here, so we’re going to talk about Fentimans. A very interesting story, actually, of the company’s origins way back when in England, and it’s current incarnation, and I guess you’re now located in Danville, right?

GREG WARWICK: Yes, that’s correct. Our US office is in Danville, California.

GB: Now, what is Fentimans?

GREG: Well, Fentimans…we refer to them as botanically brewed beverages, because these are rather unique sodas in that they’re both fermented and brewed in a brewery.

GB: Really?

GREG: Yes, many sodas are just a combination of syrup and water, but we go through an extended process to create our products.

GB: Well see, you anticipated my next question. I was going to say, “What is soda soda? What is ordinary soda?” And it is, as you indicate, a syrup, flavored syrup of some kind, and soda.

GREG: That’s right. Most sodas are made – sometimes at the fountain by adding water, carbonated water or water and carbonation, and syrup. Ours, again, goes through quite a lengthy process to produce.

GB: But yours are fermented and/or brewed.

GREG: All the products go through a fermentation. It’s a seven-day process where we take what the British refer to as bruised ginger – it’s actually a crushing process – but it allows a lot of surface area. We add water, yeast and sugar to that, and then it brews in a kettle just like you’d make a beer, and it creates rather an interesting formula from that.

GB: Now one of the products you make is ginger beer. Right?

GREG: That’s right. Ginger beer is the original. It was introduced by Thomas Fentiman in 1905.

GB: Now what is the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale?

GREG: Well, ginger beer actually has ginger in the product as opposed to ginger flavor. You have to make it with raw ginger or, you know, fresh ginger.

GB: Right.

GREG: And that’s what really differentiates it. You have a much higher level of ginger that comes through in a ginger beer than a ginger ale.

GB: Ah. And ginger ale that we would get in the supermarket is not a fermented product, I would assume.

GREG: That’s correct. That’s another differentiating point.

GB: Just a common soda.

GREG: That’s correct.

GB: Now my understanding is that Fentimans sort of went away, the family got into arguments about what ought to happen, and sort of just stopped for a while. Is that right?

GREG: Well, it was a brand that was originally in these crocks called “grey hens.” And we have one here today. And they were vessels delivered door to door. Over the years, just like milk would be delivered, in the UK, they had the Fentimans man that would show up with his product. But particularly toward the fifties and into the sixties, as the mass produced sodas came along, many of these types of products fell away. But then in 1992, the great-grandson of the founder, Eldon Robson, saw the opportunity to – along with the growth of other artisanal products – to resurrect this product.

GB: But he resurrected everything but the grey hen?

GREG: That’s right. The grey hen was a bit awkward for … even in the artisanal era, he decided to go to a glass bottle, which now is just a beautiful bottle that the product is sold in.

GB: How many different products do you make?

GREG: There are six different sodas, and the sodas consist of ginger beer, a product called Curiosity Cola, which is truly curious, much like a cola would have been made in an apothecary at the turn of the century. There’s a shandy, which is made with a combination of beer and lemon juice. There’s a Victorian lemonade, which has the juice of one and a half lemons in every bottle. There’s an orange -- a mandarin orange jigger, which has over thirty percent mandarin orange juice in it, and we also have a product called dandelion and burdock, which is also a very British product.

GB: And is that really what it says it is? Is it made from dandelion and burdock?

GREG: Well, I know many of us, enjoy, of course, blowing a dandelion weed occasionally, and there are some of us that enjoy it in our salads, but it is in fact made with the root of the dandelion plant and also the root of the burdock plant. And the burdock is also known as gobo in the Asian cultures, and is a very popular root product.

GB: We’ll follow up on the dandelion and burdock; we’ll do that just ahead. Actually, though, I like the dandelion greens wilted. That’s the way my grandmother used to serve them, with a little hot bacon dressing. They’re quite good, actually, and they’ve sort of gone away. We learned how to get rid of them and lost a great food item as well in the process.

You’re listening to Dining Around with Gene Burns. We’ll continue our conversation live from the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center, the ninth annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting this afternoon, and you’re listening to KGO radio.

[commercial break]

GB: KGO time now 11:57 on Dining Around with Gene Burns. We’re talking with Greg Warwick. He’s the US division of Fentimans, producers of tonic and various…what’s the category?

GREG: Well, they’re sodas and mixers. Those would be the two categories.

GB: Sodas and mixers. How readily available are these, Greg?

GREG: Well, they’ve been in the US for some time, but limited distribution. We have just actually brought on a new distributor in California, Wine Warehouse, and we’re starting to expand retail and restaurant distribution here now.

GB: So is there a website where people can…?

GREG: Absolutely. Yes, we have our website. It’s DrinkFentimans.com That’s F-e-n-t-i-m-a-n-s. And there’s also the UK site, which is called Fentimans.com

GB: Now then, you say these are fermented; are these adult beverages?

GREG: No, they’re not. These are considered non-alcoholic beverages. They have trace alcohol; less than one-half of one percent, and there are many products that have just a residual amount of alcohol, so they can be consumed by anyone of any age.

GB: Right. One of the things I said – we’re almost out of time, and I wanted to mention the burdock and dandelion – what does that taste like?

GREG: It’s amazing. It’s difficult to say, but it’s closer to like a Dr Pepper. It has a little bit of cherry that comes out of it. Again when you ferment items, it creates quite a complex aroma and flavor.

GB: Right, right.

GREG: So I brought some for you to taste.

GB: Oh, terrific! Well, all right, I will do that, and again, drinkfentimans.com

GREG: That’s correct.

GB: Will get you sources of supply.

GREG: Absolutely, yes. We do have stores: Rainbow Foods, Fog City News, Buy-Rite Market, Andronico’s, BevMo, and Lunardi’s and Chow are coming soon. So those are other stores here around town.

GB: Terrific. And six or seven?

GREG: Six sodas and three mixers including tonic, ginger beer and curiosity cola.

GB: Curiosity cola.

GREG: The mixologists in particular just love those products.

GB: And they’re using them to mix drinks at their …

GREG: That’s correct.

GB: Terrific. It’s a great story. Well, thank you for joining us.

GREG: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

GB: We appreciate it. Greg Warwick, president of the US division of Fentimans. These are very intriguing products. Look for them: drinkfentimans. – F-e-n-t-i-m-a-n-s –dot com will get you the sources of supply, and give them a try. Very interesting story, actually, and a very interesting product. We have one other product we’re going to tell you about, and then we’re going to chat with Executive Food and Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, and then we’ll talk about food trends, and also in our next food segment, we will say goodbye to Jane St Claire who brought us all these interesting folks through her website, SavorCalifornia.com

That’s hour number two of Dining Around with Gene Burns on KGO, San Francisco.

 

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