Friday, November 6, 2009

The Soda Pop Stop

There is this amazing little grocery store in Pasadena that my roommate's brother discovered several months ago. He regaled me with stories of hundreds of varieties of little-known sodas. Now, I am a connoisseur of the carbonated beverage... I have my own seltzer bottle, CO2 cartridges, syrups and everything. I try to drink mostly diets now because I definitely don't need to get diabetes by the time I'm 30, but every now and again, I must have something real and note-worthy, and this shop - called the Soda Pop Stop (prepare for music) - provides a world of options.

On my dresser right now, there sits now-empty bottles of Route 66, Dad's & Red Ribbon root beer. I've had many strange flavors of soda... Banana, Tamarind, Rose Blossom... I've sampled many varieties of colas, fruit based sodas, cream sodas, root beers... I am fascinated by the New York egg cream. I say all this in the hopes that you understand how much joy I get from this particular realm of the culinary world. It's a lot of joy.

But not nearly as much as the proprietor of the Soda Pop Stop, John Nese!

Recently, did a video on him and this wonderful store... Watch for yourself:

Before this video, John was just the fabulously helpful man who helped me select a range of root beers to sample, from their 30+ options (I am especially fond of root beer). But now, having seen this film, he is an entrepreneurial hero.

"Big business loves big government", says John Nese. And indeed they do. I love this man.

Chow asks him about high fructose corn syrup, and he discusses the ridiculousness of using corn as a sweetener when cane sugar is one of the most widely produced crops on the planet and tastes so much better. The video doesn't really cover it, but I bet (perhaps I'm projecting a little here) if you sat with Mr. Nese for more than a few minutes, he'd note that subsidies to the agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midlands play a huge role (so do tariffs, but I won't cover that here) in pushing soft drink makers to abandon sugar for artificial sweeteners.

A February 2009, Tufts University study; "Sweetening the Pot: Implicit Subsidies to Corn Sweeteners & the Obesity Epidemic" (PDF), the authors calculate that corn syrup producers like ADM have managed to price corn 27% below cost between 1997 & 2005 and thus have saved over $2.2 Billion during that time period - and as a result, have continued to produce corn regardless of what would otherwise be low profits due to low prices in an otherwise saturated and over-produced market.

Again, we should note that government meddling in the economy has consequences. In this case, the price signals are distorted by the subsidies, and instead of producing some other crop which is actually more highly valued, the subsidy keeps ADM & other agribusinesses producing corn, which then gets made into corn syrup. The result is that Coca Cola and other large-scale soda manufacturers have abandoned cane sugar - which, I assure you, tastes MUCH much better - and which appears to come with fewer health-related side effects. I don't know about the medical harm of HFCS, but I do know that as a lover of fine sodas - sugar is always the way to go, so diabetes aside, just having the market for soda so heavily tainted by these subsidies away from a superior product to an inferior one favored by the government and funded by my forcibly-taken tax dollars is upsetting enough.

And this also entirely avoids the difficult question of what our farming resources would have been spent on otherwise.

When prices are so low, it means that supply has reached or even exceeded demand for a product. In the event of corn, subsidies keep producers working away, and the excess corn winds up being sold at a loss (with the remainder being made up by subsides), or made into products which the market otherwise would not likely waste any money or effort on - such as HFCS and (remarkably inefficient) Ethanol or other bio-fuels. So it's not just a question of my taste buds losing out, subsidies are literally pushing farmers to waste their finite land & labor on producing a crop that is not needed, at the expense of other crops which might be. I can't say what those things are specifically (only a market & pricing free of government intervention can do that), but I can say with relative certainty that without the subsidy, corn production would drop significantly and something else would replace it. Of course... Taking away farm subsidies is basically like saying "Screw you" to Iowa, and what politician within the modern electoral system is going to be doing that? Not a winner, that's for sure!

Additionally... if we dropped some of the ridiculous tariffs on foreign sugar, we would once again live in a world where I don't have to track down Mexican bottles of Coca Cola to truly enjoy the flavor of my soft-drink. I suspect John Nese would agree if asked ;)

There's so much more that makes Mr. Nese a hero though... He also points out that if we really wanted to save the environment we'd be reusing bottles instead of recycling them, since recycling glass actually consumes more energy through the recycling process than simply fabricating new bottles....... So in my estimation, Nese is smart, happy, a brilliant entrepreneur and is obsessed with good soda, runs an amazing shop, and - it would seem quite likely to infer - probably libertarian. I don't usually wish to make assumptions, and especially that one since there are so few of us, but he's said a lot of things that really hit the mark and used a few terms that are pretty indicative.

Political economy aside, I'm out of root beer and I see a drive out to Pasadena in my future. What a great video!

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