Remember what it felt like to request a hall pass just to go to the bathroom? Teachers could, and sometimes actually would, deny you.
This period of life teemed with petty indignities: being sent to bed when you weren’t tired, waking only to recite the Pledge of Allegiance like a drone each morning at school, being forbidden from walking on “big roads,” and/or having to ask your parents’ permission to drink soda with dinner.
No one of a certian age escaped without begging the adults in their lives to buy them a Clearly Canadian.
Where I grew up, a fast-food chain called Rax (best known for combining roast beef sandwiches, curly fries, and salad bars under late-’80s solariums) stocked these covetable teardrop-shaped bottles. Chilling in ice buckets by the front registers, they’d become glazed in pearls of sweat that mirrored our youthful desperation.
“But they’re sparkling water,” we’d plead, as the Mountain Blackberry flavor glistened before us.
At a certain point, my adults stopped even saying “no.” Silence was (and is) an answer.
Backing up a few steps: There once was a soda called Clearly Canadian. This was before the heyday of La Croix, but it similarly was described as “sparkling water” due to a combo of effervescence and sourcing from Canadian spring water (or something).
As children, we mistakenly believed playing up this point would help sell our parents on the objects of our desire, which were, of course, chock-full of sugar. Its clean design and tantalizing “natural flavors” like Mountain Blackberry, Orchard Peach, and Wild Cherry were downright magnetic.
In 1993, sales of the British Columbia-based Clearly Food & Beverage Company Ltd. hit $155 million. Before Y2K arrived, they’d expanded their portfolio to include Orbitz—yunno, that soda with the floating gelatin beads—and then, just as quickly as they’d descended, both vanished into thin air.
But one day not long ago, I stumbled upon a time machine disguised as a mini fridge, inexplicably stocked to the gills with Clearly Canadian. Its curator is John Nguyen, the buying manager at Green Machine, a tobacco shop on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis.
I should’ve expected Ngueyn would have a horde of Orbitz, too.
“But the new recipe, they don’t have the floating bubbles,” he informed me, as a single tear rolled down my face. “Yeah, there’s another brand, it’s called Capsule. I have that, too. It’s the old formula, with the floating gelatin.”
“They rebranded themselves?” I asked him.
“Exactly. Because Orbitz sold their name to the website Orbitz,” said Nguyen, failing to explain how one dead soda became two separate, niche-market zombie sodas.
Nguyen has positioned the shop’s soda fridge at at the front of the store, where it glows from a dim corner, beckoning to customers like a mirage just when they’ve almost made it out the door. An army of New York Seltzers occupies most of the real estate, arranged in a perfect Pantone spread. On the top shelf, he displays a couple bottles of Fanta that go for 30 or 40 bucks a pop, rare enough that he’ll only put out one or two at a time.
“Oh I be searchin’,” beamed Nguyen.
In his late 30s, Nguyen makes the most of his role at the shop. Everything in the store, which he describes as an “emporium of rare exotic items,” is a means to an end, delivering on enthusiasm and nostalgia.
“This store is like a toy shop for adults. All this stuff is retro. Pinky and the Brain—” he said, gesturing behind us to a pair of 18-inch tall figurines from ’90s classic Animaniacs, who’ve been staring holes in our backs the entire time, “we couldn’t have those when we were kids. [Sodas] were expensive—three bucks?—back then. So I just bring it all back. Now we’re adults. We can buy that.”
Nguyen has been stocking that little cooler with throwback sodas—plus a couple local bottled varieties—for about three years. He says customers love it. All of the beverages are made with real cane sugar plus some ineffable, Proustian quality to which an anonymous internet reviewer gave five stars (for the blackberry flavor), and succinctly described thus:
“This tastes like my childhood.”
Green Machine keeps Clearly Canadian in stock thanks to a rogue beverage distributor with a soft spot for the drink. According to Nguyen, after he “whined” to this guy about wanting to sell it in the shop enough, “he was like, ‘You know what, I used to drink that too,’ and then he picked it up. He’s just not promoting it because he’s drinking it himself, y’know what I’m saying?”
Clearly Canadian’s return to markets from the brink of extinction followed an unlikely route. A successful crowdfunding campaign in 2013 paved the way for the manufacture and preorder of 25,000 cases of the beverage in 2015, which began a new chapter for the retro soda. Capsule (neé Orbitz) followed suit. But outside of Green Machine’s like-minded business hookup, the only places known to stock the beverage in the Twin Cities are Cost Plus World Market and Hy-Vee.
The year 2020 won’t be mistaken for 1993, though. Rax filed for Chapter 11 long ago, and we’re living in the golden age of La Croix, which has profoundly affected our taste buds when it comes to non-alcoholic fizzy stuff. And make no mistake, despite Clearly Canadian’s “sparkling water” proclamations, our parents were right: These cherubs are distinctly sodas. After all these years, their formula hasn’t changed—you have.
But is that really a bad thing? Only you can say how much sweetness you can bear in the here and now.
2409 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis