Thursday, January 2, 2014

Evan's Root Beer Roundup

(Post by Evan)

I enjoy complex things. I love books and movies with tons of plot twists and turns. I listen to music with elaborate arrangements and high degrees of musicianship. And I relish well-orchestrated, labyrinthine culinary creations that stimulate my taste buds in pleasurable ways. There is one particular beverage that I have enjoyed over the decades that is delightfully complex, but ofttimes underrated and undervalued. This is the drink we know as root beer.

I have spoken to many who dismiss root beer as a kiddie drink. There are others who gag at the thought of drinking it associating its taste with that of medicine. And there are others like me who cherish the thought of popping open a bottle on a hot summer's day, sipping and swirling the dark liquid in their mouths trying to discern the discrete elements that make up the taste.

Root beer has its roots (pun intended) in the 18th century of American farm life when it was brewed as a lightly alcoholic beverage for social events. There was no standard recipe, but the primary flavor came from sassafras root complemented with other aromatics, primarily sarsaparilla. (I just learned at this writing that I had been spelling and pronouncing sarsaparilla wrong all my life.) The other flavorings included the likes of vanilla, licorice root, black cherry, spruce tree sap/resin, dandelion leaves, wintergreen, and host of spices and herbs including allspice, fenugreek, anise, clove, ginger, fennel, mint and hops. It was usually brewed and sweetened with sugar and/or molasses, then fermented with yeast. Are you beginning to see the complexity?

Charles Hires was the first to produce it commercially in the late 1800s. Now there are over 100 different brands concocted in every US state and a few countries around the world. The popularity of root beer is highest in North America. I've lived in several foreign countries and have discovered that those living there who've had the opportunity to taste root beer generally dislike it, citing the resemblance of its taste to that of cough syrup.

I was raised with the likes of A&W, Hires, and most frequently Shasta root beer in my home. We weren't cola drinkers, so it was the dark beverage of choice in terms of soft drinks. Root beer was just another soft drink to me until I had the opportunity to try Barq's on a ski trip to Utah. The flavor "popped" in my mouth. I think I single-handedly emptied the vending machine at the place I was staying!

During my college years I noticed more types of root beers available for purchase. I tried out new ones when I saw them, but found most were average, on par with A&W. Barq's was still the one I preferred.

I lost interest in root beer until about 2000 when I had my first bottle of Virgil's Microbrewed Root Beer. This was a very pleasurable beverage to consume. The flavor was deep. It became my go-to "treat" beverage when I wanted one, and also became my personal gold standard for comparison to other root beers.

Knowing that I enjoyed root beer, my thoughtful wife got me a wonderful gift for Father's Day, a collection of root beers from across the country. I thought it was a really cool gift! I enlisted the help of my family in tasting and grading the different root beers over several weeks. (It is definitely possible to overdose on root beer if you try too many in one sitting, as I found out!) All root beers were served chilled without ice. I jotted down my reactions and thoughts, incorporating the opinions of others when proffered. The following is compilation of the sampling experience.


Henry Weinhard's: Vanilla first notes.  Very sweet. Reminiscent of A&W. Butterscotch finish. OK, but not engaging.

Avery's: Watery first notes. No strong flavor. Clean taste. Better with second sip. Nice as a beverage, but not a strong root beer contender.

Bulldog: Very root beer like. Heavy vanilla. Would probably drink again.

Judge Wapner: Clean taste. Not so sweet. Honey and herb notes. Fine bubbles. Very subtle.

AJ Stephans: Light taste. Not very sweet. Licorice notes. Dr peppery. Good amount of carbonation. Overall impression is pleasant.

Hank's (Diet): Weak, watery butterscotch notes. A bit reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol. Wouldn't buy again.

Sprecher's Lo-Cal: Excellent "diet" beverage. Robust flavors. Smooth. A good one when you want to avoid the sugar.

Filbert's: Classic sweet root beer taste.  A little reminiscent of A&W. Nothing special.

Jones: Very unusual taste. Hints of mouthwash or medicine, but not in an unpleasant way. Butterscotch first notes. Minty aftertaste. Generally liked by everyone despite the unusualness.

Towne Club: Tastes like root beer barrel-shaped candy. Very light carbonation. Nothing notable.

Boylan's Diet: Strong caramel and vanilla notes. Very sweet. Good carbonation. Took me a few sips to realize it was "diet."

Dr. Brown's: I was actually surprised by this one. I thought this would be a lightweight, but the flavor was very intense and the carbonation was just about perfect. It had a very nice bite. I'd drink this one again for sure.

IBC Diet: Weak on all fronts. Will avoid in the future.

Thomas Kemper: Well rounded and pleasant. Perfect carbonation. Almost candy-like,  but no deep flavor.

Empire: Average A&W style. Sweet. Can't recommend.

Langer's Gourmet: Tastes exactly like those hard yellow butterscotch candies. Almost no carbonation. Pass. 

Polar Classics Diet: A little watery at first,  but then very sweet, followed by dry aftertaste. I was confused by this sweet/dry combo until I realized it was diet. For a diet, it's very drinkable!

Mason's: Smooth and pleasant with very light carbonation. Root beer flavor isn't very deep. Overall kind of unremarkable.

Kutztown: First sip seemed a little watery, but I realized that this one was just not as heavy on the sugar. Nice light clean taste. Subsequent sips were very pleasurable. Especially liked that it didn't leave heavy film. Would drink again.

Jackson Hole Buckin': Great first sip. Strong wintergreen notes. Not too sweet. Smooth carbonation. Definitely would drink again.

Foxon Park: Great initial root beer taste. Very sweet, though. Has a light bite with good wintergreen notes. Aftertaste leaves mouth a little fuzzy. Mixed feelings.


That's 21 micro-reviews in all. Although there were 24 bottles originally, 1 was duplicated, and 2 were consumed by guests unaware of my root beer project. (There were no hard feelings.) The standouts in my opinion were Jones, Dr. Brown's, Kutztown, and Jackson Hole Buckin'. For a sugar-free experience I would heartily recommend Sprecher's Lo-Cal, Boylan Diet and Polar Classics Diet.

This was a really fun undertaking. I hope to discover some more gems in the root beer family in the future!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dog Poo Christmas


(Post by Evan)

I was ten years old. Earlier in the year we had acquired our first family pet, a cute little Samoyed-Sheltie mix puppy we named Tia. The rules for Tia included the proviso that she could be indoors during the day, but had to sleep outside or in the garage at night. I understand my parents’ logic on this matter since it obviated the need to wake up in the night or wee hours of the morning to let the dog out when the need arose.


On our first Christmas with Tia, my 8-year old sister Audrey thought it was a crime that our poor little doggy couldn’t spend Christmas Eve with us. She sneaked out of bed and secretly ushered Tia back into the house and sheltered her in her bedroom. Audrey easily got away with this since she, being the only girl, had a room to herself. (I had to share my room with my two younger brothers.)

Sometime during the middle of the night, Tia awoke with the urge to do what dogs do when their bowels and bladders are full. Being unaccustomed to having to alert a human of her need, I’m sure she tried to find what she figured to be an acceptable spot to do her duty.

Due to our past proclivity to catch Santa in the act and/or getting a sneak preview of the newly arrived gifts before Christmas morning, my parents had slightly barricaded the hallway to discourage nocturnal exploration. All the children were required to meet with mom and dad before anyone was allowed out to see what Santa had delivered. Once we were gathered and had exchanged Christmas greetings, being the oldest child, I felt it was my duty to be the first one into the living room to assess the Christmas bounty when the barricade was cleared.

I gleefully ran into the sunken living room with its avocado-green shag carpet. I had barely gone three steps when my bare foot made contact with the “deposit” made by the dog. Although it took me a second to register what happened, I didn’t have much doubt as to what I stepped in.

I was furious! I was mad at the dog. I was mad at whoever let the dog in. And I was really grossed out that I had dog poo on my foot! (I really hate poo.) Everyone was laughing at me. I remember my mother trying not to laugh, but I could see her turning her head with her hand over her mouth and secretly snickering. After my father gained some semblance of composure, he told me to go wash my foot off. He also asked my mom to clean up the mess on the carpet. He assured everyone that Christmas wouldn’t start until I got back.

I hopped down the hallway and into the bathroom where I turned on the spigot in the bath tub to let the warm water flow over my foot. I didn't dare scrub until all the chunks had been loosened and rinsed away. After a full disinfecting with mounds of soap, I headed back to the room to get on with the Christmas joy.

The gift distribution duly commenced and all was forgiven for the moment. A few minutes later I was asked to fetch a large present behind the tree. I dutifully got up and made my way to retrieve the package when, all of a sudden, I felt the familiar squish of another “dog bomb” between my toes.

At this point there was no containing it. I howled with disgust. Everyone else howled with laughter. My family members were all literally rolling on the floor with tears streaming out of their eyes laughing at the unbelievable bad luck I had just encountered. I screamed, “It’s not funny!” trying to garner some sympathy. But after a moment of fuming, a smile cracked my face and I too started to laugh, albeit grudgingly.

It took a while, but I eventually forgave my sister for her indiscretion and everyone else for laughing at me. I am now able to look back through the clear lens of hindsight and see just how funny this really was. I have since shared this incident with my children. They beg me to reprise the story each holiday season. I laugh with them each time I recount the story of The Dog Poo Christmas.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Superman, I'm Not

Post by Evan




On a recent trip to an amusement park, I got to experience a brand new type of feeling on a thrill ride. Panic! This is not a normal emotion for me. I truly love roller coasters and their kin (see previous post, Fear Factor). From my early days at Disneyland in Southern California rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain have always excited me.

I love to try new things in general (food, music, etc.), so when given the chance to try a new type of roller coaster in which you "fly" like Superman in a horizontal position with outstretched arms and nothing below you, I knew I wanted to go for it. (See image above for a depiction.)

Luckily I have a daughter who is fearless in this category as well. Since she was the only one of my three children tall enough to ride, I separated from the rest of the family to sneak away and enjoy it with her. We made our way over to the entrance where we saw no one in line. We ran up to the front only to find the ride was closed. (This should have been an omen in retrospect.) They said it would be open shortly so we walked over to another ride that had no line. Upon return, we were number three in line. Score!

As Sophia and I ran up to our moving car, we were required to jump up, climb a small ladder, grab some handholds, and situate our heads on a chin-rest. Once nestled in, the ride operators came in from behind and locked us down in an elongated clamshell to keep us in place. Now secured, we cruised forward along the track where a mechanical guide transitioned our cages from vertical to horizontal "flying" position.

Adrenaline began to flow as were pushed into the spiral elevator that takes you to the top. About twenty seconds later we reached the top where we saw a lot of open space below us in that split second before you launch. The downward plunge made my stomach give that traditional funny feeling you get when you're falling. We immediately went into a horizontal loop (which I had no idea was coming) and I was completely disoriented. A few more twists and turns brought us up to the secondary apex of the track where upon making the turn and orienting for the next drop, I heard a loud "clack" and felt a sharp pain in my chest.

I finally realized that the ride had literally "hit the brakes." We were completely stopped. In the process of that sudden stop all my body weight shifted forward and smashed against my hat and sunglasses that I had stashed there upon request of the ride operators. Ow! I assumed that there was a temporary delay and waited there for the ride to resume, taking in the limited view I had while hanging there.

After the passage of about 2 minutes, I got the feeling that were more than just delayed. I announced my suspicions to Sophia who seemed pretty amused by the whole thing. She pointed out the car below us that was further into the ride that had applied its "emergency" brakes on a 45-degree bank turn. It did look kind of funny to see others' legs hanging out from behind. I began to become a little annoyed at this point. I wondered how long we would have to be here. It was also at this point I started to become uncomfortable in the apparatus suspending me.

Had I not tried to adjust my position, I would have never realized that I was pinned from behind. But as soon as my butt and shoulders touched the cage that was keeping me in place, it was all over. The sheer panic of claustrophobia hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks! I took several deep breaths and tried to use logic to calm myself down, but about thirty seconds later I found found myself uncontrollably shouting for help.

This is where it all got fuzzy. The rational brain processes went out the window. I remember shouting something to the effect of "You don't understand! I have to get out of here!" and also a couple of choruses of "Help!" I vaguely remember them talking to me on a bullhorn and asking me if I was all right. I gave the thumbs down sign. They told me someone was coming to get me.

The last time I had a major claustrophobia attack was in an MRI machine which I'm told I almost broke as I clawed my way out. I hearkened back to that unfortunate event, and it amplified my feelings of being trapped. I didn't want to cry but the urge was definitely there. It was at this point I asked Sophia to hold my hand. I couldn't see her face, but I could see her arm. We linked fingers and I truly did feel better.

I watched yet another stranded car lower on the ride as the rescue crew climbed up to them. The engineers helped the passengers down to the platform below. I now felt hope, but I had wished they had gotten me first. About 8-10 minutes later, a man wearing a tie with a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt appeared in front of me. I had reached the point where I had calmed down, but was pretty ecstatic when he arrived. I couldn't see anything, but I felt him jump onto the carriage, heard a click then heard him directing Sophia how to crawl backward. Didn't they know I was the one who needed to get out?!


My turn arrived shortly after that. I climbed backward onto the horizontal ladder, the jumped down to the platform over which were were stranded. I was still pretty whacked but remember the chief engineer and an assistant trying to calm me down. The assistant climbed down onto the service ladder (the top of which can be seen attached the leftmost support beam surrounded by a cage). He told Sophia to follow him down.

After they were half way down, the main engineer asked me to follow him. The only thing I really remember about the climb was the 3-foot jump I had to make from the bottommost rung to the ground. (I vaguely remember babbling on the way down. I think I even apologized for inconveniencing them. Go figure.)

A park ranger and a police officer met me at the bottom. They made sure I was OK and walked me underneath the ride over to a service staircase where I found Sophia there waiting for me with a big smile. The park manager was there too, a kind-faced woman who made sure we weren't hurt, and later told us to follow another employee to Guest Services where I assumed they were going to debrief us.

Once we arrived there we just stood in front of the window. I then realized that Liz probably wondered where I was. I pulled out the cell phone and saw that I had all manner of missed calls, voicemails and texts. My battery was low so I thought a quick text would at least let her know we were OK. I then heard my name being called. She was about 30 feet away from me trying to get my attention as the park employee was guiding us to the window. Turns out they wanted to give us free passes and that was it. (Better than kick in the pants, right?)

I joined Liz and explained the whole thing. I'm sure I was visibly shaken and she was quite understanding. I realized then the amazing fortitude and emotional strength my daughter, Sophia, had shown during the crisis. She was a real star throughout the whole ordeal. She helped me get through my personal hell by keeping me talking while we were stuck. I owe her! Thank you, baby!

It looks like my adventure to fly like Superman was not meant to be in the end. I got a brief taste of soaring, but ultimately ended up getting a dose of Kryptonite instead. Life is like that sometimes. Will it deter me from trying it again? Probably not.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh my Birthday!

My birthday was one of those extra special days this year. Ask me why and I won't be able to give you an answer but I had a near perfect day and week! Facebook might have had something to do with it as I was shrouded in lots of birthday love and wishes there. I had so many people go out of their way to wish me well and check in. That's all I need. Thanks for the fun and memories and all of the lunches and flowers and presents and mostly the phone calls and notes and texts and cards. 39 was easy and I'm looking forward to 40! xoxo

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

LUKE!

Luke is really coming into his own. Lately he is all about the color pink and anything to do with balls. While we were picking out Sophia's softball stuff at Modell's yesterday, he insisted on this pink batting helmet (and Sophia chose metallic blue, go figure!), you know the one with the hole in the back for the pony tail. It was too cute. I had to snap a picture! Luckily, we avoided tantrum #569 for the day by offering a gumball from the machine by the checkout.


.25 gumball vs. $63.49 for all of this gear! One more point for TEAM mom!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Male Bonding: Winter!

I hope there are many more days like this one. All 3 loving it. Ski on!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa 2009

For Family Night, we took the kids to their long awaited trip to have a talk with Santa. I was so impressed with Luke running up to him and eager to have a chat. Sophia and Wesley closely followed behind and this cute Santa gave them a window of time that was just their own with no respect to the line behind us. He was very endearing. Thanks Santa! See you in a few days....we hope! ;-)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009!


Welcome to our virtual Christmas Card:


(This isn't our 2009 Christmas Card, it's the runner up but I love it the same!)

2009 is on its way out! It was an eventful year and here are some of the highlights:

Evan worked hard toward achieving a goal of competing in his first sprint triathlon:



Wesley lost his first tooth:

video



and started Kindergarten


(with his bffs Henry & Tyler)




Sophia traveled to Texas for the first time to visit her best friend Halle Kate



and got to do another solo trip to Utah and California to be with cousins







and then when she turned 8 she was baptized!





She continues to have supermodel aspirations and poses anytime there is a camera in her direction.









Luke has finally learned to say a few sentences, started school, taught himself how to somersault and knows how to work the microwave, car remote, camera and most iPhone apps with Jelly Car and Lightsaber being his favorites.












Oh and one more thing on Luke. He renamed everyone in our family:
Saw, Essie and Ook...priceless!



Liz travelled extensively through the espousal/goodness of her flight attendant cousin and enjoyed spending time with helping her mom a lot out in Utah, throwing her a 70th birthday party, and visiting other friends scattered across the US. We love JetBlue!


Liz also turned herself into a vintage lunch lady in September and taught herself the fine art of cafeteria food--gourmet style! (click on the link for some amazing recipes including homemade hostess cupcakes and smokey mac & cheese with bacon!)


(power to the lunch lady!)









Liz & Evan got to slip away a few times this year:


Once to the Dominican Republic



then Southern California





and Montreal, Quebec







by themselves. Lots of kissing.
What a treat!


Evan, Sophia & Wesley became frequent skiers in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.


(Liz even snuck in a run once when Wesley begged so Evan relinquished his skis, boots and coat and off we went!)



Evan continued with his aspirations to become a Rock Star and joined the basement band OnSeven and had their first gig and look forward to many more in the coming year!





The Smiths took a fun roadtrip to Niagara Falls and the Palmyra temple pageant in July


Pictured here with the Buckners who were lucky enough to be in the pageant!
and Who can resist a voyage on Maid of the Mist?!


and one of the most memorable events of 2009...




We managed to kill 21 flats of annuals with acidic mulch. Who knew?! Live and LEARN!



xxxx
2009 has been a year of many ups and downs! We're so grateful we have each other and this Christmas season to reflect on the meaningful things and people (YOU) in our lives!
xoxo
The Smiths

Our house is warmer when we have visitors so please come and play soon!
(The real card)