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We critique the best and worst brands of sparkling water

Flavored carbonated waters. PepsiCo is introducing a brand called Bubly that it hopes will capitalize on the popularity of fizzy flavored water. Making a big bet that the fizzy flavored water market isnâ\u0080\u0099t saturated by the segmentâ\u0080\u0099s dominant brand, LaCroix. (Jens Mortensen/The New York Times)
Published Apr. 20, 2018

Sparkling water, much like when you shake it before opening, has exploded in the United States the past few years. The fervor for fizzy water has soft echoes of the meteoric rise of bottled water during the early 2000s, just with more pastels perfect for posting pictures to social media.

The running theory is that sparkling water is the millennial's light, tasty and healthy drink alternative to soda. The drinks do not have any calories, most do not have sugar or sodium and they make excellent drinks on their own or as mixers for cocktails.

That theory is definitely correct. I was turned on to seltzer in college, when it was constantly used as mixers by FSU sorority girls looking for low-cal options. I was intrigued, and desperate for anything to cut sugar out of drinks to prevent hangovers. I was sold after one sip. I started to buy various sparkling waters on my own, and have not stopped since.

Large brands are quickly catching on to this trend, with many drink distributors coming out with their own versions. The most aggressive product comes from Pepsi with its new "bubly." The cans are minimalist with bright colors, a modern logo and different chatspeak phrases for "hello" ( "hiiii," "hey u," "haaay," "yo") on the pop tabs.

The cans have been completely stripped of any Pepsi branding. With the individual branding and Instagram-ready design, it seems Pepsi's goal for the product is less about taste or price and more about showing up in the hands of social media influencers. Bubly has a diverse portfolio of flavors, including apple, cherry and strawberry. Zephyrhills has entered the fray, too, with a whopping 10 new flavors of sparkling water that range from Raspberry Lime and Triple Berry to Summer Strawberry and Pomegranate Lemonade.

Healthfulness and cute cans aside, sparkling water is a litmus test for people. You can learn a lot about a person by someone's preferred brand and flavors, and that is why I have brought you here today: to educate you on the correct opinions about sparkling water.

Clearly, the two most important aspects of seltzer are the level of fizz and flavor. That is how I judge all sparkling waters, and you should, too. The carbonation needs to be strong, but not overpowering, the flavors sweet but not syrup-y tasting. Imagine the bubbles as great party guests and the flavor as their conversation: The flavor should be colorful and the party guests should stick around for a while, but not too long.

Let's go through some seltzers available in the store, and judge them. We'll start with my least favorite.

San Pellegrino is one of the most consistently disappointing drinks in the entire world. The level of bubbles is faint, almost nonexistent. Sometimes it seems as if there is only one bubble in the entire plastic bottle. The glass bottles are a titch better, but barely. There is no seltzer I have given more chances than San Pell, and I am disappointed every single time. The sparkling flavored "beverages" (note: not water) are even worse. You'd be better off stuffing fistfuls of sugar into your mouth than drinking that.

Perrier is in the same boat as San Pellegrino. Neither have the level of fizz I am looking for when it comes to sparkling water. Despite being two of the most established brands, both have been easily trumped by new products in the marketplace. Much like fax machines and shopping in department stores, they are outdated.

Dasani Sparkling is just as bad as the bottled swimming pool water of regular Dasani bottled water. The flavors are oddly overpowering for some versions and nonexistent in others. Dasani gets points for creativity in having Strawberry Guava as a flavor. But those points do not make up for the rest of the bad marks.

Pepsi's Bubly is bland. The level of seltzer is not there and the flavors try way too hard. I started with the lime, and would give it passing marks. Bubly's mango tasted extremely unnatural, and strawberry does not make a good flavor for any kind of fizzy drink.

Spindrift is another brand that places emphasis on the can design instead of actually making good seltzer. Granted, the cans are cute, with great color blocking and nice watercolor paintings of the flavor in the can. However, Spindrift barely has any fizz, to the point where I had to keep checking to see if the can said sparkling or not. It is disappointing, since Spindrift is one of the only sparkling waters to have a cucumber flavor. The rest of the flavors look enticing, too: orange mango, blackberry and a new lemonade/iced tea Arnold Palm riff. If only all of the carbonation wasn't gone as soon as you cracked open the can.

Zephyrhills' pomegranate lemonade sparkling option is excellent, with a great balance between tart lemon and sweet pomegranate, but the brand stumbles with way too much flavor in its black cherry drink.

Polar Seltzer hails from Massachusetts and has passionate fans. The cans finally started to show up in stores in the Tampa Bay area, outside of Winn-Dixie, about two years ago. Sorry in advance to snowbird seltzer fans, but Polar is mediocre at best. However, there are some solid flavors. Polar excels with lime (which is pretty hard to mess up), and the Cranberry-Lime makes a superb mixer. Polar's main issue is that the aluminum cans have an odd cola taste that gives off an odd "metal" finish. No other canned seltzer has this issue. You are better off finding Polar in a plastic bottle in cold storage.

Schweppes' intense carbonation is rivaled only by SmartWater's sparkling — oh boy is it a trip. You definitely need to be in the mood for either of these, and those who prefer softer seltzers should stay away. I often buy Sparkling SmartWater at Publix, walk a block or two back to work, then open the bottle only to have it explode all over my desk. That's how intense it is.

A sleeper favorite of mine is the Aldi brand Belle Vie. It has superb levels of carbonation with excellent flavor. There are only four basic flavors: lime, lemon, grapefruit and pure, which is disappointing. But at the Aldi price point it is very worthwhile.

I will also give a shoutout to Hi-Ball energy drinks, which are organic, sparkling energy drinks. They have a zero-calorie, zero-sugar option that is healthier and more natural than Red Bull and Monster. I love the lemon-lime and grapefruit flavors.

La Croix is undoubtedly the best, and beloved by people with true taste. La Croix is perfect cold, at room temperature, by itself and in cocktails. The best flavors are Peach Pear, Lime, Passion Fruit and Tangerine — in that order. Peach Pear has such a unique, calming taste and works perfectly in any situation. Lime is a beloved classic. (There is a new Key Lime flavor I am actively seeking and have heard it is available at Targets in our area now.) Passion Fruit is subtle and sweet without being too floral. Tangerine makes the orange flavor obsolete and has an excellent, bright and sharp flavor. My friends are big fans of mango, which I understand and respect.

The worst flavor of La Croix is coconut, and you should never trust a person who claims it is their favorite. Those people are two steps away from people who press every button in an elevator before they get off. Coconut is akin to chugging a bottle of sunscreen.

But overall, La Croix stands on its own with the "natural essence" flavoring it infuses into its effervescence. No other seltzers can compare to the king.

Seltzer water is not a trend that will go away anytime soon. In 2016, bottled water became the largest beverage category by volume, according to research and consulting firm Beverage Marketing Corp., which confirms Americans are constantly on the prowl for healthier options. There is even an influx of alcoholic seltzers on the market, which is worth another 1,000-word essay in itself.

Contact Scott Pollenz at spollenz@tampabay.com.

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