You’ve probably seen the dark glass bottles wrapped in vivid retro labels on shelves around town. “Zuberfizz” sounds like some fantastical name out of “Willy Wonka,” but it’s actually just a play on co-founder Bander Zuber’s last name. “Soda is so bad for you,” conscientious readers might protest. “Isn’t Durango all about healthy eating?” Never fear: All nine flavors of Zuberfizz hand-crafted batches are brewed with natural and organic ingredients, much better than those used by other national beverage companies. The nostalgic feel of the product is another bonus, as Zuberfizz comes in glass bottles instead of plastic or aluminum, hearkening back to classic hourglass Coca-Cola containers of old.
Homebrewed beginnings Zuberfizz co-owners Banden Zuber and Dan Aggeler began homebrewing beer as roommates at Colorado State University. After college, they found themselves back in Durango, where they noticed, in addition to Carver’s, several new breweries (Steamworks and Ska) were sprouting up around town. Steamworks hired Aggeler as an assistant to their head brewer, and Aggeler eventually moved into the head brewer position, where he remained for almost three years. But why continue brewing beer when you could craft something completely different? “I saw the parallels between craft soda and craft beer – but no one had really done that yet, especially in Colorado,” said Aggeler. “Pure cane sugar, glass bottles, quality ingredients, small hand-crafted batches; everything the market brew industry was doing, we wanted to do with soda.” And so Zuberfizz was founded in 2002, 14 years ago.
The same equipment used to brew beer is used for soda, simply skipping the fermentation process. Zuberfizz tanks are turned a lot quicker (24 hours) than brewery tanks, which can be tied up for one or more weeks at a time. All equipment in Zuberfizz’s small Bodo Park headquarters is micro-brewery gear, some of it purchased from Ska Brewing Co. Aggeler and Zuber do the brewing work themselves, and one batch takes about seven hours to complete. In addition to the co-owners, four other employees work at headquarters, doing the bottling operations and packaging work. “We get raw materials from all around, but our four-packs and boxes are made in Denver and our glass is made in California,” Aggeler said. Aggeler says the company logo was designed by “a friend of a friend” in South Dakota 15 years ago, but they now use the local services of Kris Hickcox at Pool Creative. “She does a lot of the design work whenever we work on new labels or packaging,” Aggeler added.
Is it good for you? With their delicious drink, Aggeler and Zuber seek to replicate traditional beverages from decades past, namely with the usage of pure cane sugar (which used to be the primary ingredient in soda). “Then in the ’70s, the government did the whole high-fructose corn push, subsidizing farmers to grow more corn,” said Aggeler. High-fructose corn syrup is a highly processed form of sugar, and it’s a lot cheaper than pure cane.
Created in the ’60s, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) comes from corn, and the additive is indeed used in many processed foods. It’s cheaper for food makers than table sugar because sugarcane requires a hot climate, whereas corn can be grown almost anywhere. Although HFCS has a villainous reputation because of its artificiality, and most people believe it’s more fattening than sugarcane (as Aggeler suggests), scientific research is inconclusive regarding the question of whether HFCS is actually any worse for you. There’s no proof of that being the case. Sugar is non-nutritional, empty calories no matter what form it takes, and any excess can contribute to obesity and diabetes. HFCS is certainly ubiquitous in the United States, a common ingredient in most national soda brands, as well as cereals, crackers, ice cream, ketchup, canned soups, salad dressing, pizza and more.
Still, lots of people are more comfortable buying products without HFCS, especially here in Durango, where our culture often revolves around healthy eating and cooking with natural, organic ingredients. These sugar types might be equally detrimental, but folks prefer the idea of a natural ingredient as opposed to a processed one. It’s more about the attitude than the absolute science.
American soda consumption is additionally on the decline, as obesity awareness has sky-rocketed in recent decades (and bottled water sales have shot up). As reported by the New York Times, while the consumption of soda rose steadily from the 1960s to ’90s, soda sales in the United States have dropped by over 25 percent in the last 20 years. Of course, plenty of people still drink it, miss it or crave it, since sugar can be habit-forming. “Everybody needs sugar, fat, protein and vitamins,” said Aggeler diplomatically. “It’s the balance of it. Where soda got in trouble was with people drinking 32-ounce Big Gulps of high-fructose corn syrup every day. It’s excessive, just not good for you.” He advises consumers to be smart about their share of exercise, food and drink.
Back to basicsThe industry switch from glass bottles to plastic made soda products cheaper to produce, but from Aggeler’s perspective, cutting corners simply to save some money is rarely a good idea. Zuberfizz remains dedicated to glass. “It’s a plentiful resource, plus it’s recyclable and a very neutral container, so it doesn’t contribute any taste or flavor,” Aggeler said. Some people claim they can taste aluminum in aluminum cans, and plastic can contribute a different flavor as well. Plus, there’s just something elegant and vintage about sipping from an ice-cold glass bottle. Zuberfizz also tries to keep a small footprint, using detergents and sanitizers that are environmentally friendly.
The scope of Zuberfizz Though Zuberfizz began their journey selling in Durango, their distribution has grown widely over the years. They now ship out about 40,000 bottles per week, and you can buy Zuberfizz in 43 states and even some parts of Canada. They put a particular emphasis on the Southwest, with the heaviest accounts in Colorado, California and Texas. “We have main distributors in 12 to 15 states, and we have some national accounts, like with Cost Plus World Market,” said Aggeler. “They’re a big national chain, and they do boutique stuff, craft stuff, furniture, wine, cheese, soda. They have about 300 locations across the country, so we’re in all of those.” Several of their distributors serve multiple states. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory also offers Coco Fizz (a chocolate soda Zuberfizz made in collaboration with Rocky Mountain) to all of their franchisees across the country.
Zuberfizz flavors include: Creamy Root Beer, Vanilla Cream Soda, Original Cola, Orange Cream Soda, Ginger Ale, Grape Soda, Key Lime Cream Soda, Coco Fizz and Strawberry Rhubarb. So what’s Aggeler’s favorite? “I like the most recent two, the Ginger Ale and the Strawberry Rhubarb,” he said. “They’re both a reflection of the evolution of Zuberfizz, the things we’ve learned and how we’ve gotten even better over the years.”
Community acceptanceDurango has been key in getting Zuberfizz off the ground. The families of both Zuber and Aggeler moved to Durango in 1975, and the partners both graduated from Durango High School. Zuber’s dad used to own the local Durango Dairy Queen, and when he first introduced the product to the market it was sold at DQ for a trial run. “People want to support a local product,” Aggeler said. “And we’re old-school locals. We’re excited to have a company where we can stay rooted within Durango. We’re raising our kids here, and can give them the same awesome childhood we had. That’s the whole motivation.”