Summer is rapidly approaching—well, technically, at the normal speed—and, thus, lemonade season, too, is just around the corner. For my money, fresh homemade lemonade is possibly the world’s best-tasting beverage in its bright refreshing simplicity, its sweetness perfectly offset by its tartness.
As a man in my 20s, however, I feel that spending my time whipping up stirred-pitcher batches of lovingly squeezed, simmered, and chilled nonalcoholic summertime citrus-brew would be a somewhat strangely grandmotherly hobby for me to undertake, which means that, most of the time, authentic lemonade is not within reach. Certain cafes and restaurants offer the real deal, but yesterday I had an early-season craving and, in dire straits, stopped at the supermarket to see which of the commercial mass-market lemonades looked most appealing.
It was hard to figure out which one to get. Bottled, pasteurized lemonade frequently suffers from an excess of sweetness, a deficiency of lemony tartness, and the usual artificiality of flavor that we associate with food-products manufactured by large corporations, but occasionally it serves as a semi-adequate approximation of the true goodness of fresh lemons, sugar, and water. In an effort to educate both myself (for future lemonade purchases) and you, dear reader (in case you too are the lazier sort of lemonade drinker), I bought seven mass-market, widely available lemonades.
Ignoring the odd glances from the cashier and fellow customers, I went home to perform a self-administered consumer taste test. Below are my rankings, from best to worst, according to criteria such as flavor, appearance (non-uniform lightweight cloudiness, with some pulp and accidental scraps of rind intermixed, is best—deep yellowness is suspect), and mouthfeel (ideally not too syrupy, not too watery either).
Minute Maid Premium Lemonade: Convincingly reminiscent of actual lemons with some genuine sourness. Light in body, with bits of lemon visible. Zippy and refreshing.
Simply Lemonade: Thicker, heavier, and sweeter-tasting than Minute Maid Premium (though the sugar content is the same) and thus a little less to my personal taste, but still a considerable and convincing lemonade on the fuller-bodied end of the spectrum, with the most pulp of any of the seven.
AriZona Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear Lemonade with Strawberry: Adding other fruit flavors to lemonade is mostly unnecessary, and this AriZona drink tastes more like a fruit punch (with some extra tartness) than a lemonade—it won’t satisfy your appetite for lemonade, but at least it tastes good: a more elegant, refined Hawaiian Punch.
Minute Maid Lemonade: Unlike Minute Maid Premium, which boasts 12% lemon juice and “100% natural flavors,” the non-premium edition contains 3% lemon juice and a host of ingredients such as modified cornstarch, glycerol, ester of rosin (which sounds like it could be the name of a duchess-type woman from olden times), and yellow #5. More troublingly, it fizzes like a soda when you open it—but its soda-like combination of sweetness and carbonation is actually quite drinkable, if not exactly “good.”
SunnyD Chillers Lemonade: Even more blatantly fake than the non-premium Minute Maid, with an evened-out, homogeneous mouthfeel that suggests a complete absence of the lively organic irregularities of actual fruit, but the flavors are not completely terrible: tart up front, then sweet, then slightly bitter.
Tropicana Trop50 Lemonade: The “healthy choice” of the bunch, Trop50’s label claims “50% less sugar and calories than regular lemonade.” Less sugar could be a good thing here, but Trop50’s usage of the sugar-substitute stevia gives it the same flattened flavor and unhappy backend as any low-level diet drink.
Capri Sun Lemonade: Like SunnyD, Capri Sun is a brand from my childhood that feels like it shouldn’t exist anymore but somehow does—a line of rebelliously bag-based pseudo-juices bearing images of extreme-sport culture (because natural foods are for old, uncool people!) that lately has ditched high-fructose corn syrup in an effort to improve its standing among a marginally more aware customer base. Its lemonade is an unacceptably watery, salty concoction that tastes more of lime than of lemon—aggressive up front with an almost briny quality, and then nothing at all.
For the record, the first two products in the rankings are the only lemonades I’d consider buying again. But did they really satisfy my craving for the beverage? Well, they got rid of it, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing.