My Adventures with the SodaStream

I don't blog so much... so I don't have any fancy WordPress pages or anything like that. But, I've been having so much fun with this SodaStream machine that I thought I'd write up a bit about it.

First things first.

I'm a Diet Coke addict. Not Diet Cola, Diet COKE. Diet Pepsi might do in an absolute crisis, but Diet Coke is my favorite.

Second, I am not a believer in the full SodaStream System. I've changed things up quite a bit. More details to come.

Before I learned all my "lessons," I bought the Soda Stream Fountain Jet Starter Kit at a local Target back in September 2013. It came with six sodamix flavor samples, and I purchased additional ones at the same time; Diet Dr. Pete, all three "Diet Cola" varieties, and a few extra one-liter mixing bottles.

The marketing concept behind SodaStream is that it's less expensive, and less waste than buying bottled or canned soda at the store.

While the "less waste" claim should be obvious (one bottle of sodamix syrup is about a pint, but makes up 12 liters of soda. So a one-pint bottle goes into the trash instead of 6 2-liter bottles, or instead of about 36 aluminum cans [which should be recycled, not trashed!]), the "Cost Savings?" Well, we'll get to that in a little bit.

So I took it home and anxiously mixed up my first liter of Diet Cola.

The first one I mixed up was this one:

.. it was just ... "Meh." It was OK, but it wasn't anything close to Diet Coke.

Then I tried this one:

Ok, a little better. But still not Diet Coke, despite the obvious packaging / color choices.

Finally, I tried this one:

It tasted worse than Coke Zero. And I don't like Coke Zero. The contents went down the sink and the bottle went into the trash.

Between the "Blue" and the "Grey" Diet versions, the grey was marginally better... But even then, I'd only give it a 7 out of 10. It just wasn't getting the job done. I managed to drink maybe 3 to 4 liters of the two over the next few days while searching the 'net for alternatives.

One thing kept ringing about:  Just make The Real Thing.

I won't bore you with how long it took me to find Diet Coke syrup. I'll just conclude that I can buy it at the local Sam's Club warehouse for about $75 for a five-gallon Bag-In-Box.

Getting the syrup out of the bag is a bit of a trick and requires good motor skills and an assistant. But ultimately I was able to dispense a pint of syrup. I took the "black" bottle out of the trashcan, thoroughly rinsed it, and dispensed the Coke syrup into the bottle by wedging the end of a wooden spoon into the valve on the bag.

Measuring correctly is a bit of a trick, too.

The SodaStream bottles have a little line on the top to tell you how much water to put in the bottle.

SodaStream Error Number 1: The bottles are NOT 1 liter. I measured the bottles with a graduated flask (yes I'm a geek) and measured the first one at exactly 858 ml. Even after mixing the Sodastream brand syrups according to the directions, the finished product is not 1 liter -- it's 900 ml. 10% less than what they tell you you're getting....IF you follow their instructions to the letter.

Anyway, SodaStream syrups are concentrated well beyond Bag-in-Box syrups. Sodastream is mixed at approximately 24:1 ratio (24 parts water, 1 part Syrup). Coke products are mixed at a ratio of 5:1 (5 parts water, 1 part syrup.) So, I had to come up with a way of properly mixing the Diet Coke.

Simple math:  858 ml divided by 6 = 143 ml. So it's 715ml water and 143ml Syrup.

But you have to carbonate "to the line." So I put water up to the line in the bottle, carbonate it, then discard 143 ml of the carbonated water and replace it with 143 ml of Syrup. That's a perfect 5:1 mix ratio.

I mixed up my first liter of Diet Coke ... and ... Ahhhh! Now THAT'S the STUFF!

...but I had to figure out how to get that darned nectar out of the box easier! 

That's when I found this little gem: A Bag-in-Box Valve adapter. Screw it onto the bag, and press the lever, and out pours liquid heaven. Well worth the $15 I paid for it on Amazon.

Now after all this experimenting, I exhausted the first CO2 cylinder that came with the Fountain Jet. As luck would have it, my wife was at Target, and I had her pick up another 60 Liter "carbonator," which costs about $30 new (and full.)

Later on in the week, I took the depleted carbonator to a local Bed Bath & Beyond, which does carbonator "exchanges." I also discovered that the Fountain Jet can manage the larger 130 Liter carbonator (which are the size of a fire extinguisher!). The exchange cost $30.

After doing some analysis and math, I discover:

SodaStream Error Number 2: The carbonators do not last as long as you might think. The small ones are supposed to carbonate "up to 60 liters" of water. The large ones are supposed to carbonate "up to 130 liters." That's using "Average Carbonation," according to the label.

The instructions on the Fountain Jet say "Average Carbonation is Three Buzzes." (Won't go into a Buzz right now -- google it if you're curious.)  I made EVERYTHING according to average carbonation (three buzzes) and got slightly more than HALF the life out of the carbonator. My 60L carbonator lasted 32 liters. My 130L carbonator lasted 73 liters. Called up Tech Support and they told me that, yes, if I'm doing three buzzes, half is about right. Their labelling is contradictory. According to them, "average" carbonation is ONE buzz. And to my tastebuds:  One buzz is VERY "flat."

Alrighty. Doing rudimentary cost comparisons, I'm discovering that the "Material Cost" of making a liter of Diet Coke is:

Water:  $(basically free)
CO2 Gas:  $0.50
Coke Syrup: $0.62

Hold on a sec. $1.12 for a liter of soda?  That's $2.24 for 2 liters... about 60% more expensive than I can buy it at the store (not on sale!)

This isn't working out. The CO2 gas is just too expensive!

SodaStream Error Number 3: You WILL NOT save money over name-brand sodas! No way. Even using their mixes, just the cost of CO2 will make it roughly close to the cost of name brand soda, but the quality is NOT name brand. In fact, in most cases, it's probably more expensive than the store-brand sodas which are (in my opinion) better quality.

Lesson Learned:  Gotta find a cheaper source for CO2.

You CANNOT refill sodastream carbonators anywhere. Yes, there are various "tricks" such as opening the cylinder and packing it with dry ice (seriously??) to refill them. But my time is worth money, so none of that for me.

Then I found the next little gizmo:   The SodaMod adapter! Yee-haw!  This allows the use of standard paintball cylinders (which are readily and easily available at local retail sporting goods stores and online, but more on that in a sec.)

Screw a paintball cylinder into the bottom, adjust the pin valve, screw the assembly into the SodaStream, and voila.

So why is this cheaper? Well, SodaStream charges about $30 for a 130L carbonator "refill" (exchange.) That's 33oz by weight of CO2 gas. My local Academy Sports & Outdoors shop across from my office fills a 24oz paintball cylinder for $4. Yes, $4. Not $40. $4. Per ounce, that's 17 cents compared to $0.91 per ounce from Sodastream. And if you're curious (and you should be), it takes about a half-ounce of CO2 gas to carbonate 1 liter of water.

Now, just any paintball cylinder won't do -- mechanically they're all pretty much the same. But you want a "clean" tank -- one that's been washed and cleaned and scrubbed on the INSIDE. That's why you want a "Beverage Grade Tank," which are also easily found on the 'net. Particularly from the same company that makes the SodaMod adapter:  Critical Paintball.

I ordered one tank plus the SodaMod adapter (as a package) on Amazon. I didn't want to invest a bunch of $$$ if the whole setup didn't work at all, because I have no other use for paintball cylinders.

I took the (empty) tank to Academy for filling (took them about 15 minutes) and took it home and tried it out.

Ahhh!  It's STILL the Stuff! A week later, I purchased two more 24oz tanks directly from Critical Paintball, and had them filled locally for a total of $9 including tax. That's 48 ounces of CO2 for less than a third the price of 33 ounces from SodaStream.

So. Let's look at comparative costs.

Costs shown are per Liter.

Buying Cans of Diet Coke works out to about $1.20 per liter. (Assumes cost of about $5 per 12-pack.)

Buying 2L bottles of Diet Coke is about $0.79 per liter. ($1.59 average price per 2L bottle)

Buying 5 Gallon BIB Diet Coke (which yields 30 gallons of soda): 
Using SodaStream's cylinders:  $1.08 per liter.
Using The above "modifications": $0.71 per liter.

So, it's cheaper than any store-bought Diet Coke (unless you're constantly tracking sales) by at least $0.08 per liter.

If you use SodaStream full product line, the minimum cost per liter is about $1.10 to $1.40 per liter assuming a $4.99 - $8.99 sodamix.

And comparative waste avoided: Instead of sifting through and recycling 320 aluminum (355ml) cans, or 60 2l plastic bottles, I recycle 1 cardboard box and discard 1 plastic bag.

Let's look at it in a picture  (Items aren't to scale, but you get the idea...)

That's 26 (and two-thirds) 12-packs of 12 ounce cans or almost 57 2-liter bottles, compared to one 5-gallon box and about three (reusable) CO2 cylinders, and of course, 25 gallons of water.

And I don't have to lug, trudge, and transport 260-300 pounds of product from the store, I only transport a ~45 pound box of syrup and a few 3-pound CO2 cylinders.

The payback to me is obvious in terms of convenience; I've worked this down to a science. It takes me less than 2 minutes to prepare a bottle of diet coke. I've never run out. After more than three months (which included the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New-Years party season), I purchased another box of Diet Coke syrup on my way home from work.

By the way, Coca-Cola Corp puts a "Use By" date on the box a little more than 2-months out (at least, that's what I'm finding on the shelf.)  Pay no attention to it... I could taste no difference in the last bottle I made with the first box and the first bottle I made with the fresh box. As long as you store the box at a room-temperature environment, it'll last probably 4 or 5 months (maybe longer?).

Now. Before you get the idea that I will never buy SodaStream's flavors, let me conclude by summarizing that some of SodaStream mixes are quite good. I keep a supply of them (all Diet flavors) for the varieties of soda that the kids enjoy or that I only want occasionally, such as:

  • Dr. Pete:  A reasonable approximation of Dr. Pepper
  • Lemon Lime:  Yep, pretty good copy of 7-Up or Sprite
  • Ginger Ale:  Nice
  • Grape:  Awesome, and hard to find "name brand" diet varieties in the stores at times
  • Orange:  Good on its own, and works great when I am craving a Dreamcicle Ice Cream Float
  • Orange Mango:  Awesome, unique flavor

I have a few other flavors stored in the "Soda Closet" that I've not even tried yet!

Flavors I've tried and will stay away from like the plague:

  • Any of their Cola varieties, especially if you're married to a particular brand
  • The Pink Grapefruit (the after taste is so strong, I was burping acid byproducts for hours, and the smell is still burned into the bottle in which I mixed it two months ago.)
  • Fountain Mist -- a sickly sweet, only-similar-in-neon-green-color "guess" at Mountain Dew
  • Energy

Hopefully, if you've read this far, you'll take some of my advice and try it yourself. But do keep in mind a few things. Let's call it my "Disclaimer."

CO2 purchased from anywhere other than SodaStream may not be "Beverage Grade."  It may not even be safe. Heck. It may not even be CO2! The major difference between the grades is that the suppliers have to regularly inspect, test, and certify to the additional grades, which costs them time and money, so they charge more for those gasses. The cylinders used to distribute and store it may be different as well. So if your soda tastes at all "off" when using "Paintball" CO2, don't risk it -- discard it and go somewhere else for refills. There are numerous home-brew shops that will refill cylinders with BG gas. Or you can rent (basically you pay a deposit on) a beverage grade CO2 tank and stash 50 pounds of the stuff (enough to refill your 24oz tanks (to 23 oz) more than 30 times in your garage for about $40!  I won't be going that far, thank you!