Friday, November 4, 2016

Damn Fine Root Beer Road Trip, Part 2: The Root Beer Store

One day those logs will have something to say about this.
The store is actually to the right; straight ahead is a … um … cemetery…
(Redmond, WA – September 2015)

In light of the recent news that The Root Beer Store is moving all operations to Idaho – that, and the fact that it’s been well over a year since I made this trek – it’s probably high time I finish writing this post…

Let us harken back, if you will, to oh-so-long ago when life was simpler (um ... not really) and the Missus and I were in the Pacific Northwest for a wedding (yes, really).  As luck would have it, said wedding just happened to put us on the path of a couple different root beer-related field trips that I’d had my eye on for a while.  We’ve already covered the first one (an exciting update on that one is coming soon!) (who am I kidding; nothing happens “soon” any more around here) (let’s just say, “an exciting update on that one is coming … eventually … before the sun supernovas and our solar system collapses … hopefully … and if it doesn’t, we won’t be around to worry about it anyways …”), and the second should be a required pilgrimage for all who number themselves amongst the root-beer-inclined.

Corey Anderson first opened The Root Beer Store in Redmond, WA in 2010.  At the time, he was already a successful small business owner, having spent the past 2 decades running several enterprises including a janitorial service and a wholesale feather duster distributor, the latter of which’s office would become the flagship Root Beer Store (which is the one I visited) [2016 Update: Per Corey’s newsletter regarding the impending move, that feather duster operation has actually been floating the root beer operations for some time now, factoring largely into the decision to move].  Having also grown up making root beer at home with his family, Anderson had originally set out to create his own root beer label.  During an educational excursion down to California to learn from industry professionals / to take a root beer making class, however, Anderson discovered several dozen different root beer labels already in existence, and thus decided to focus on bringing those already-varied brews to the public instead.  The first Root Beer Store started with around 30 different root beers, and has since then expanded to offer, by their own estimate, over 100 varieties in their brick-and-mortar stores and their online operation (sources: 1, 2 this link might be dead, 3).

Pocket Pooj ponders a plethora of pop.

Some of the shelves were partially empty during my visit, which was slightly disappointing since I was hoping to pick up a couple of the out-of-stock labels that had been on my list for a while – not sure if this was due to the fact that it was close to closing on a weekend, or that those items just aren’t available any more.  On the whole though, it was a very successful outing, the highlights definitely being a very helpful “tour guide” finding a bottle of the 30th Anniversary special edition Sprecher for me that wasn’t even on the shelves (!!!), and finding the can of Hire’s that I already posted about.  There was probably somewhere around 50 different brands of root beer available, with probably 30 more non-root beer varietals, as well as an archival wall of maybe 60 labels (root beer an non-root beer alike) that are out of production.  Non-beverage items included root beer flavored candies and BBQ sauce (no root beer themed feather dusters, to my knowledge...).

Not quite 100 brands today, but still a heck of a lot. 

And for the record, yes, I did ship more soda and glass back to CA than a logical person should have, and yes, I did get a membership to the Association of Root Beer Enthusiasts.  Said membership also came with root beer (naturally), a license plate frame (kind of random, but still amusing), root beer barrel candy (always good), and root beer taffy (very good, I might add).  Also, given how late I’m posting this, said membership has also since expired.  …but at least I still have the license plate frame …

Best of luck with your move, Root Beer Store – see you someday in Idaho…!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Melt

Pocket Pooj ponders a pickup peddler.
(The Melt - South Coast Plaza, May 2016)

The Melt is part of a relatively recent trend of food trucks setting down brick-and-mortar roots.  More accurately, The Melt started as a Bay Area brick-and-mortar fast-casual grilled cheese joint, which then expanded into a fleet of food trucks (converted from retired school buses), some of which then shuttled down to Southern California, where they then [retired for good (the Southern California ones, at least), and] once again became brick-and-mortar grilled-cheese (and burger, and soup) joints (source). Confused yet? Good.  

All that, of course, is beside the point. Though I'm generally not hip enough to know the latest news in the food truck world, I at least try to Facebook-stalk the root beer world (you can see, doing his own stalking in the background of the above photo, the reason why even the latter has been lacking as of late).  Which, long story short, is why I happen to know that The Melt's menu is developed in part by chef Michael Mina, whose restaurants have been rumored to serve a house-made root beer (which I have been unable to verify; see the aforementioned "not hip enough").

I don't actually know if the sodas they serve at The Melt are the same Michael Mina recipes, but they do advertise them as "all natural." I also don't know with absolute certainty that the sodas are house-made, since the four available flavors -- cola, lemon-lime, black cherry, and root beer -- could be from any number of soda makers.  All four are actually pretty good, but my completely biased opinion is that the root beer is the strongest.

From the tap (and it's actually a tap, not just a soda fountain) there's a respectable head, but it's gone before I make it back to my table.  Bubbles are pretty big, which may account for the speed at which the head disappears, though the carbonation is only mildly sharp.  It tastes a little watered down, but I'm not sure if that's by design or just an unbalanced mix from the tap. The sweetness is balanced though; not too sweet, and if not watered down might actually be a bit on the bitter side -- there's a little medicinal aftertaste that goes up the sinus, as well as a little licorice.

Not bad; the flavors are all there, just a bit too watered down for my liking. I'd still drink it again if I happen to be eating at The Melt -- in fact, the food and beverage is good enough that I dare say that I would prefer eating at The Melt over other comparably-gimmicky mall restaurants, assuming there's one available.  But I still probably wouldn't make a special trip to eat here just for the root beer.  That's a high 3.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Damn Fine Root Beer Road Trip, Part 1: Triple XXX Drive-In

Behold: The largest lit Plexiglas sign in the Western United States (for reals).


(Issaquah, September 2015)

So the Missus and I were ostensibly in the Seattle area for a wedding, but as you may have already gathered from my previous 2 posts, I had ulterior motives (well, I did want to go to the wedding, too. ...honest...).  Having missed earlier opportunities to ostensibly visit family in Lafayette, IN, home of one of the last 2 remaining Triple XXX establishments, we made sure to take a drive through the (fantastic, big, majestic) woods (Douglas firs, Diane) to find the other one – which just so happens to be the only one that still has the traditional root beer barrel storefront. 

The first Triple XXX Drive-In in the Pacific Northwest actually opened further southwest in 1930, but was demolished to make way for a car dealership.  Its current home in Issaquah was built in 1968, and had traditional car-hop service until 1996, when the drive-up portion was demolished to make way for an office building.  Thankfully, the restaurant portion still remains, and its current owners – the Jose Enciso family – don’t seem to want to remove anything else to make way for anything else (source).

…and perhaps have a serious case of horror vacui…
Evidently we were seated in the Elvis corner.
A fountain barrel from days gone by – with separate spigots for syrup and soda.
Truth.
Triple the X, double the root beer, Porta the Pooj.
These days, the Encisos get their root beer syrup from the Coca-Cola Company, but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s Triple XXX syrup or just Barq’s.  I’m inclined to think the former, given that it has a more licorice-heavy flavor than Barq’s typically has.  On the whole, it has a sarsaparilla-like taste, though less vegetal, and not much of an aftertaste (although it’s a little hard to distinguish much past the lingering smell of hot grease – not a bad thing, per se, but it does dull the senses a bit).  Texture is on the thinner side as well, so it’s hard to tell whether its made with sugar or HFCS.

At the end of the day, I have no complaints (just a very full stomach).  I think I still like the bottled Triple XXX better (and I really should still try the IN version at some point for comparison), but I’m nevertheless enjoying the whole experience here.  Triple XXX Drive-In gets a low 4.

...and bonus points for commitment to the theme, even down to the picnic tables

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rogue

The Porta-Pooj retreats from the herd.
(The Root Beer Store, September 2015)

If you were to throw a Tillamook Baby Loaf in any given direction from any given location in Oregon, you would probably have a reasonably good chance of hitting a craft brewer. Of the glut of breweries that have cropped up during the Pacific Northwest’s micro-brew renaissance, however, you could also probably make a reasonably good argument that Rogue is one of the more successful. From their beginnings in Ashland in 1987, to their fortuitous relocation to Newport – their lease negotiated when one of their co-founders just happened to be stranded in Newport during a snowstorm – Rogue has since grown into a multi-award-winning producer of ales, porters, and stouts. Their vertically-integrated operation includes farming their own barley, hops, and rye, and their production has expanded to include non-beer items such as cheese, tuna (to which I must add ehhhh???), and, of course, root beer (source).

Rogue Root Beer is also award-winning…well, sort of, at least technically-speaking. More accurately, their Root Beer bottle won a packaging design award last year (source). While we can probably all reasonably agree that the bottle is nice-looking on the outside, we wouldn’t want to seem superficial either, so let’s just say that it’s really what’s on the inside that counts, right? Yeah…? OK.

What’s on the inside, when poured outside, has a decent head of soft bubbles; the bigger the pour, the bigger the head (the ingredients list “sparkling foam” as the foaming agent). The scent is heavily licorice, slightly medicinal, and the flavor is crisp, almost fruity, with some clove for good measure. As the fruity flavor fades, the honey flavor builds – light, like blossom honey, not like clover honey – and floats to the top of the mouth. Eventually the fruity flavor comes back in an apple cider-like finish, with a very slight amount of heat in the aftertaste.

The honey – which is also produced at the Rogue farm, by the way – doesn’t really thicken the texture like I’ve come to expect from other honey-sweetened root beers, nor does it make the drink cloying, as I’ve experienced in the past (though don't always expect). Instead, the brown sugar actually adds some depth to the sweetness (and it’s definitely on the sweet side of the scale). Ultimately though, the fruity flavor comes back to dominate, and that imparts an overall tart taste to the whole thing that I’m not really sure I like.

For all that Rogue does right as a company, I just don’t think their Root Beer really hits all the marks of a good, classic root beer. While I’d most certainly welcome trying some of their other sodas (except the Pumpkin Spice, because…why…never…pumpkin spice…eh), I didn’t particularly like the root beer. Rogue Root Beer gets a high 3.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hires

The Pocket-Pooj is a patent-pending original.

(The Root Beer Store, September 2015)

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you already know some of the history, significance, and unfortunate decline of Hires Root Beer.  Much better-written and more detailed accounts are available here and here, but long story (relatively) short, Pennsylvania pharmacist Charles Hires first brought root beer to the forefront of the American consciousness when he introduced his version of the beverage to fair-goers at the 1876 Philadelphia US Centennial Exposition.  While the origins of the beverage are still up for debate – legend says that Hires discovered a “root tea” years prior, during his honeymoon, while other sources suggest that he created it at the behest of pre-Prohibition temperance movement leaders – its seemingly meteoric rise in popularity can be fairly attributed to Hires himself.  Hires first marketed solid concentrate and powdered versions of root beer – claiming that it could purify the blood and bring color to the cheeks, among other health benefits – before shifting production to kegs and liquid concentrates for soda fountains as well as at-home mixing in your very own Hires Automatic Munimaker (additional source).

By 1890, Hires and his company, appropriately named the Charles E. Hires Company, had started small-bottling operations for commercial sale, and sales of these bottles and home-mix extracts would continue for close to another 100 years.  Sadly, Hires Root Beer’s slow death stretched through the latter half of that century of production.  Hires handed over his company to his sons in 1925, and the company would continue to flourish under the family’s watch until 1960, when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods.  Just two years later, Consolidated Foods sold the company again to Crush International, which was purchased in its entirety by Proctor & Gamble in 1980 and sold again to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989 (source).  By the time Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks branch into the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group in 2008, Hires’ parent company had already decided to slowly phase Hires out of production in order to promote its own A&W line (source).

Lest you feel bad for Charles Hires himself, fret not, since he actually did quite well for himself after leaving the company he started.  He would later become one of the world’s experts on vanilla, writing a book on the subject from knowledge he gleaned in the wholesale vanilla bean business (source).  I’m inclined to believe that this expertise resulted in Hires, however peripherally, continuing to influence the product that he made into a household staple.

Personally, I recall seeing Hires Root Beer around here and there as a kid, and even remember drinking a fair amount of it during summer music camp in elementary school.  With production now scarce, distribution limited to a handful of states of which California is not one, I don’t think I had seen any Hires Root Beer in any form at all for at least a couple decades.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised to find a canned version in Washington during a recent foray into the Pacific Northwest (more on that to come).

Decanted into a glass, Hires has a satisfyingly thick head of foam that stays on top of the pour for a while, then sticks around the edges for the remainder of its time in said glass. Surprisingly, there isn’t much of a scent to speak of.  Also surprisingly, it has a relatively rich and smooth texture for a HFCS-sweetened soda.  The flavor is a good balance of sweetness and herbal, somewhere between A&W and Barqs, with a menthol finish (possibly some wintergreen then) that lasts for a long time in the aftertaste.  While there’s nothing that stands out in particular, there’s a good mix of everything that I would typically refer to as a “generic” root beer flavor.  Ordinarily that “generic” label would relegate a root beer to the realm of mediocrity, but considering that (1) Hires quite probably executes the “generic” root beer flavor better than everyone else, and (2) Hires is quite probably the flavor that every other “generic” root beer flavor aims to emulate to begin with, I tend to view that “generic” label very favorably in this case.  My only gripe is that it doesn’t use real sugar, but I’m OK with that for the most part because it still tastes really good.

Am I perhaps giving the current Hires label the benefit of the doubt because of what the original label has meant to the history of root beer?  Yeah, probably.  But the fact of the matter is that I would easily drink this again whenever the opportunity presents itself, and might even consider having it shipped here so that the opportunity presents itself more often.  So by that rationale, Hires Root Beer warrants a 4.5.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Black Bear

I see a Pooj looking at me.
(Real Soda in Real Bottles, December 2012)

So we know that Bulldog Root Beer is named for its owners’ Bulldogs, III Dachshunds Root Beer is named for its owners’ III Dachshunds, and Freaky Dog Root Beer is named for its owner’s Freaky Dog. Following that trend then, Black Bear Root Beer is named for its owner’s … Black Bear …? 

Really, it is… 

Needless to say, Louis Patmont had to release his baby bear back into the wild when it became less baby, but named his business after it in remembrance of their good times together. Patmont had already been bottling spring water in Town of Lake, WI since 1920, but didn’t make the name change until 1924, and didn’t include flavored sodas in his repertoire until 1932. Thirty years later, in 1961, Peter and Esther Caruso bought the business and their family runs it to this day, moving production to Oak Creek, WI in 2001 where distribution would be easier (source). 

There’s a nice scent coming from the bottle, with some vanilla that doesn't really end up factoring much in the flavor. Bubbles are small, and there’s no head at all – not even any bubbles rising to the top of a glass when poured. I don’t know if this is normal or more due to the fact that I have an old bottle – I’m easing back into this game slowly, evidenced by the smaller serving size for my first real post in oh-so-many months. Unfortunately, that means some of my stock of new-to-me root beers is much older than I’d care to admit. 

Disclaimer aside, the taste is very sweet compared to other flavors present – your standard herbal flavor with some clove around the edges. Although Black Bear uses HFCS instead of real sugar, the texture is much improved over standard HFCS, which is typically thin. Black Bear coats the mouth more than HFCS usually does, which helps to leave a pleasant herbal aftertaste that is, again, pleasant, if not particularly distinctive. I’m going to give Black Bear a low 3.5 for now, but I might be inclined to give it another fair shot should the opportunity present itself, given that the bottle is so old. 

Follow me down another rabbit hole (bear hole…?) for a second here (actually, I should recommend not ever following anybody down any bear hole, should anybody ever ask): III Dachshunds is produced by Black Bear, which was purchased by the Caruso family in 1961, for which Caruso’s Legacy Root Beer is named. All three of those labels are now owned by WIT Brewing Company of Redding, CA, which now also runs Goose Island’s soda operation (though evidently not the beer operation), as well as another label called Oak Creek Barrel Aged, also based in Redding (but named for a town in Wisconsin, with a Chicago phone number…?), that ages two root beer varieties in oak barrels for an entire year. I don’t know if any brewing or bottling occur in Redding, but I’d be interested to see what a side-by-side comparison of these labels would reveal. On paper, Caruso’s and Dachshunds have the exact same ingredients list, though the nutritional information indicates different quantities of sugar and therefore calories. Goose Island differs from both in the order that the natural/artificial flavor and citric acid are added, as well as an additional preservative. Black Bear already differs from everything else in its use of HFCS instead of sugar, so there should already be a noticeable difference in flavor. No ingredients are indicated for Oak Creek, but there are already enough differences in its production to suggest a very different experience (source). 

I have somewhat ready access to all the aforementioned labels except the Oak Creek varietals, so perhaps we can find some SCIENCE(!) down that rabbit hole sometime in the future. Meanwhile I need to sort through my stash to see which bottles have already become science experiments in their own right… …Stay tuned…

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Happy Root Beer Float Day!

Hey Folks, it's been a while...

Parental, educational, and vocational obligations are still relegating the pursuit of root beer (i.e., happiness -- not the sole definition of it, of course, but no small factor in its general definition either) to the back burner for the near future. I'll be back soon, I promise.

Ahhh, cafeteria food. Note the whimsically speckled solid-surface table.

Until then, this is unfortunately the best I can muster for today's festivities -- I am at least fortunate enough to be in a place where Barqs and soft serve are readily available.

Once again, celebrate accordingly and responsibly...!