Seattle's DRY Soda founder, Sharelle Klaus, has created beverages that offer a light and bubbly, sophisticated alternative to alcohol.

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Shortly after giving birth to her fourth child, Sharelle Klaus, a passionate cook who loved going out to dinner with her husband, grew frustrated because she couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. “With four young children, I was either pregnant or nursing for long stretches, and so I felt I was missing out.”

So the young mother started thinking through the concept for a “dry” soda, a nonalcoholic, less sweet alternative to conventional soda pop.

Klaus, a Seattle native who was raised in Oregon and graduated from Seattle Pacific University, had tried her hand at politics (very briefly) and airport consulting. But she always harbored an entrepreneurial streak.

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In 1999, she launched Planet Squid, “a secure Internet portal for 10- to 14-year-olds.” Although similar to today’s popular MySpace and Facebook, the company was ahead of its time, and folded during the dot-com bust.

But by 2005, the idea for an alternative soft-drink company seemed ripe. “Carbonated soft drinks are far and away the highest per capita beverage in the U.S., so I forged ahead,” Klaus says. “A lot of people told me not to do it; it’s the most brutal, intensely competitive business.

“But we didn’t know what we didn’t know, which was both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. What I did know was that this was what the U.S. needed — that there was room for a modern, cool brand that just wasn’t in the beverage space at the time.”

She started reading books on food-and-wine pairing and began to understand the science of it; fellow stay-at-home mom and former Fullers chef Monique Barbeau tutored her.

Once Klaus was introduced to a food chemist at Seattle-based DaVinci Gourmet (which makes flavored syrups), “We talked over the phone on a Saturday afternoon, and he gave me one hour to learn how to make soda,” she says with a throaty laugh. “I wrote it all down, and ended up with things I’d never heard of before — a refractometer (to measure sugar levels), a Ph-balance meter, special water and phosphoric acid.”

The chemist opened the door to several flavor houses, which created the natural extracts that Klaus mixed with purified carbonated water, cane sugar and phosphoric acid to make soda. She experimented with the extracts in her home kitchen, keeping aromas and flavors from her garden and larder (herbs, fruits, Asian elements) firmly in mind.

From her experience with Planet Squid, she knew branding and marketing were paramount. Before the sodas were even finalized, Klaus hired Seattle-based Richmond Public Relations to begin building the buzz among potential customers.

The DRY Soda Co. officially launched in August 2005 with four flavors: Lemongrass, Lavender, Kumquat and Rhubarb. Chefs quickly caught wind of the sophisticated alternative to wine and cocktails. Within the first month, 10 restaurants had signed on.

Jason Wilson, chef/co-owner of Crush, was so smitten that he introduced the soda at the prestigious Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., sharing samples with his fellow chefs during impromptu poker games. Soon, DRY began popping up in top U.S. restaurants such as The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and craft los angeles.

Recently, Wilson was hired as DRY’s creative consultant to help devise 16 new flavors. Vanilla Bean and Juniper Berry rolled out this month, the first new flavors since the company’s inception.

Juniper Berry is described as “crisp, piney and dry, with high acidity.” Vanilla Bean is “aromatic and delicate, with low acidity.” Vanilla bean is a bit of a departure, Klaus explains. “It’s a more familiar flavor, less cutting edge, and one we think will bring more people to the table.”

Now widely available across the United States and Canada, DRY Soda is a wonderful alternative not only for pregnant and nursing women, but for designated drivers and businesspeople who want to avoid alcohol at restaurant meetings. During the calorific holiday season, DRY offers a lighter beverage choice, and a four-pack makes a thoughtful hostess gift.

Bartenders are one audience Klaus never anticipated for DRY, but they are using the sodas as cocktail mixers. Weight watchers appreciate it, too, because each 12-ounce bottle contains 50 to 70 calories (compared to a typical soft drink with 150 calories) and 14 to 19 grams of sugar. It’s also all-natural and caffeine-free.

Klaus waxes poetic about proper food-and-wine pairings with her sodas. Among her favorites? Lavender and dark chocolate. Or oysters on the half shell with Kumquat, which she describes as the most versatile flavor. Rhubarb soda is a natural with Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce. And she swears by Lemongrass paired with Thai food, especially dishes simmered in coconut milk.

Klaus’s new Vanilla Bean is recommended with roasted chicken, cream-sauced pasta dishes and pasta salads. Juniper Berry goes well with cured meats and game dishes as well as tomato-based sauces.

Much like a winery, DRY Soda’s Pioneer Square headquarters features a small tasting room where locals (often Mariners fans) and tourists stop in to sample the sodas, which are served, chilled and without ice, in Champagne flutes. From her loft office near the tasting room, Klaus overhears customers’ comments, which help her think up new flavors. Kaffir lime, rosemary and basil are among current contenders.

“Our company’s sales in Seattle are off the charts,” she reports, “which says a lot about who we are as a city, and I’m proud to share that with the rest of the country.”

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” and writes a column for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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