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!