(Ed. Note: This is a deeper dive than I intended on Root Beer. I am now sick to death of bloody wintergreen.)
I always find alcohol trends fascinating. I remember the 90’s when Mike’s Hard Lemonade came out and engendered an entire wave of alcopop coolers that people enjoyed during university. Not me. I was sitting there drinking Double Diamond or Harp (the best thing available in Sackville, New Brunswick at the time if you don’t count Frosted Frog. No one counted Frosted Frog. By third year we had Propeller ESB.)
The most interesting thing about a trend like hard lemonade is that they tend to spring out of nowhere, capture the imagination for a brief space of time and then slowly collapse over a decade like a badly constructed gazebo.
At the moment, the trend is alcoholic root beer.
For me, that presents a bit of a dilemma. Usually, if I’m going to review things, I’m interested in there being a framework. If you’re going to review a bunch of beers in the same style, you’ve got the BJCP guide as a reference point. If you’re going to review root beer, there’s not a lot you can draw on. Would it surprise you to know that there are Root Beer Bloggers out there? Possibly not. Anything is possible on the internet.
What I found surprising is that despite having apparently put in hundreds of hours into reviewing root beers, the amount of actual information imparted was pretty small. There’s no Cicerone program for Root Beer Bloggers and as a result the vocabulary was pretty limited.
Which means that you’ve got to develop a framework and some vocabulary before you can actually review the products. Real tabula rasa first principles stuff. I can dig it.
The first question you’ve got to answer is:
“What are the commonalities in Root Beer?”
The problem is that Root Beer is actually something of an umbrella as names go. Usually it’s a mixture of a number of different flavouring ingredients. The main variants, however, are Root Beer and Sarsaparilla. The difference between these two traditional beverages is the main ingredient that’s included in flavouring, both of which are more or less new world indigenous.
For Root Beer, the main historical ingredient was Sassafras Root. That was disallowed in the early 1960’s by the FDA because it contains a carcinogen named Safrole. Safrole is actually a precursor ingredient to the production of MDMA for those of you interested in popping some clandestine Molly. For that reason, Sassafras Oil is a controlled substance in the USA. The rest of the Sassafras tree is useful too. People used twigs as toothbrushes and the powdered leaves as file powder for gumbo down in Louisiana. Apparently everything but the leaves are extremely toxic to the liver.
For Sarsaparilla, you’re dealing with a different plant entirely. It’s a rhizomous trailing vine and the tuber is what people are mostly concerned with using for producing a beverage. There would be some starch in there, but it seems like the tuber of the Sarsaparilla vine is included as much as a textural element as a flavouring one.
Traditionally, flavouring of Root Beer like beverages depends on one or the other of these plants. However, since about 1960, much of the heavy lifting is being done by artificial flavourings. There are still traditional ingredients, but not so much the central, defining ones. What’s left are mostly aromatics. There is no standard list for inclusion, but per wikipedia some of the ones that are most frequently used are: vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, acacia, allspice, molasses, sweet birch, cinnamon and honey. Other more traditional outliers are coriander, juniper, ginger, hops, soapbark, cassia, fenugreek, fennel and clove.
As you can see, Root Beer is pretty much catch as catch can. The surprising thing here is that in some ways it’s very much like a gruit. The idea isn’t bitterness, but rather flavour.
“What Makes A Good Root Beer?”
The Root Beer Bloggers are less interested generally in what goes in the mix of roots and aromatics, which I find sort of surprising. It seems to me like that’s the majority of the interest in Root Beer. For the most part, they seem interested in two factors: Texture and Carbonation. As with all beverages being reviewed, balance is important to the overall conceptual framework here.
I thought that it would be a really good idea to apply some critical thought first to non-alcoholic Root Beer in order to determine what the alcoholic versions are trying to replicate. For that reason, I Pokemon Go’d my way over to the Hasty Market to pick up five different kinds of Root Beer. You get some odd looks doing that, by the way. Especially, when you’re paying with interact while capturing a Drowzee. In a lot of ways, it was like being an enormous 13 year old.
I’m including tasting notes verbatim because I’ve already spent too much time on this:
A&W: Can date BB Feb 06 2017.
The aroma here really is heavy on wintergreen. It might as well be a wintergreen lifesaver especially on the fresh pour, but there’s a eucalyptic note in there as well and vanilla extract as it warms. The last time I had one of these was when I got a Papa Burger at the Eglinton Station food court and at the time it seemed watery and may be in fountain service. There is a vaguely barky presence on the finish, a marshmallowy aftertaste here and an herbal kind of presence on the burp. I would describe the flavour as sweet, but balanced and relatively mild. It’s sort of a weird idea. What do you want with your drive in burger? A vanilla, mint and root bark soda, please, and throw a marshmallow at it. Apparently it uses Quillaia extract, which is the bark of the soapbark tree and is probably used for vibrancy of carbonation rather than flavour.
BARQ’S : Can date BB Jan 23 2017
The aroma here is actually substantially different. It’s anisette, licorice root and whatever it is they flavour jagermeister with (wikipedia says ginger and having cut open some ginger root I agree. Maybe some juniper too.) There’s also some quite mild wintergreen on the aroma. Oddly, it’s cleaner on the palate than the A&W and maybe slightly lighter in body? It is sort of like the difference between dry hopping bringing aromatic compounds and earlier flavour additions bringing bitterness? It definitely does have that bite to it, but then fades away pretty dramatically. With the carbonation cleared out, it loses some of that bite and becomes pretty flatly sweet. Contains caffeine, which is an interesting choice. Wonder if that’s a side effect of the flavourings or just a choice.
The Pop Shoppe: BB Nov 2016
Interesting. The aroma here is relatively subdued. I don’t know why that is, but there is a vanillin quality to it that reminds me vaguely of an ice cream cone. Not like, a waffle cone, but the dry, crumbly packaged ones. Shaken up there really is a tree bark and foliage character here. It’s like wet decidious leaves. There’s a touch of something like cherry here I think. The body is creamier than the Barq’s and the whole issue is a little thicker than the others in texture. It’s actually quite smoothly textured, which I think I like. And there’s the wintergreen as it warms. You can’t get away from it, the wintergreen.
Stewarts Root Beer: Packaging date rather than Best Before. Indecipherable.
Of all of these so far, this has the best head retention by far, which is to say any at all. The aroma is far more complex. Deep caramel sweetness here verging toward molasses and the herbal component is pronounced. Barky, deep licorice here and there’s some kind of dark rummy sweetness to it. Retains its carbonation better than the others without sacrificing texture. Interesting if a little sinister. It’s a more sophisticated flavour profile than the others here. Cinnamon? A little cinnamon. Or maybe allspice. Something. Be pretty good with a goat roti, I think. Definitely vanilla as it warms. Website claims it’s the fastest growing micro soda in America. I can see why. Little maple-y. Maybe fenugreek?
Jones Soda Company Root Beer: Package date indecipherable.
Here you’ve got a profile that really runs more to herb and marshmallow again. Unlike the rest of the options here the mint runs more towards standard mentholation than wintergreen and the entire issue is made incredibly sweet. The ingredients are invert cane sugar and caramel rather than caramel colour. It’s really sweet. It’s light in body, though. It’s closest to Barq’s texturally, but without the aromatic pop. Possibly my least favorite of the list, which is kind of odd. You’d think the all natural product would be better, wouldn’t you? Not the case here.
Having tried those, I think that the most successful Root Beers here are Barq’s, Stewart’s and A&W. Barq’s is successful because of the pop of the aromatics on the front end. It’s assertive if not terribly complex. A&W is successful because of the breadth of flavours in it. It’s complex, If not terribly assertive. Stewart’s is both complex and assertive and features the best mouthfeel and head retention of all of the Root Beers. The answer here is that sweet and smooth doesn’t really cut it. You need aromatic interest, breadth of flavour, and enough textural interest; and you need all of those things to be in balance.
Let’s Apply What We’ve Learned to Alcoholic Root Beer
Dusty Boots Hard Root Beer:
The main aromatic component here in Dusty Boots is Vanilla Extract. I might as well be baking chocolate chip cookies. Actually, on the palate, the alcoholic presence just exacerbates that tendency. There is a mild wintergreen hit and a little sarsaparilla interest, but for the most part it’s like inhaling Vanilla Extract. It’s sweet enough that it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I can’t claim to be a big fan of this. I want more varied aromatics here and less combative sweetness.
Crazy Uncle Hard Root Beer
This comes out of a can, and I think that’s a positive for these products. I feel like the slight amount of oxygen you might leak into bottles could hurt the aromatics. This is really interesting because for the first time across any of these products I’m getting macerated sweetened strawberry in the aroma and that just doesn’t fit the traditional flavour profile at all. It’s a practically berryish root beer with an underlying vanilla extract tone. It’s a little odd and doesn’t really seem to fit the flavour profile of regular root beer. Still pretty sweet, but not as sweet as Dusty Boots.
Mill Street Distillery Root Beer
You’re doubtless aware of the old adage: Give a man a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Well, if you give a man a schnapps distilling system everything looks like it ought to have some schnapps in it. This is the case with Mill Street’s Root Beer. They’ve distilled their Vanilla Porter into schnapps and added it to their Root Beer. The amazing thing here is that it is somehow less vanilla forward than the other hard Root Beers. The flavour profile has vanilla, chocolate, wintergreen and a little herbal interest retronasally. Mill Street Distillery Root Beer is probably the most faithful to the flavour profile of a non alcoholic Root Beer. Problematically, it’s also the only one with pronounced bitterness, which takes you right out of the concept. Also, the slight harshness of the bierschnapps creates a jolting finish. I think it’s a good attempt, but that it’s not what people are expecting.
I think this has been educational for a number of reasons. First of all, we all know how to manufacture clandestine MDMA now. Secondly, I think I’ve discerned the key problem with alcoholic Root Beer as a trend.
They had the launch for the Mill Street Root Beer on a day when I was leading a Heritage Toronto tour and the tour finishes at Mill Street since it’s in old town and that’s the closest brewery. My involvement with the tour actually stops before that, but since there was a launch I tagged along. After an hour and a half of walking and talking, I drank one Root Beer and then promptly adjourned to go drink a Pilsner. The fact is that root beer either hard or soft is far too sweet to be a sessionable beverage. I think that there are people across North America who are going to have “hard root beer stories” in the same way a lot of people have “tequila stories.” Imagine the hangover from all of that sugar! Last night as I was tasting through the non alcoholic varieties I reached a level of fatigue and satiety that I don’t get after judging dozens of beers in competition.
I think this is going to peter out and then collapse because I can’t imagine people drinking more than one hard Root Beer. That said, I have become relatively happy with the complexity of the flavour profile and I’m of the opinion that you could easily turn a Root Beer into a creditable gruit more successfully than you would be able to turn a soft Root Beer into a hard Root Beer.
I’m going to go catch more Pokemon now.