Friday, December 30, 2011

Avery's

The Pooj isn't sure he's asking the right questions.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

Sherman Avery started making soda in his barn in New Britain, CT in 1904, personally delivering wares to customers by wagon until 1914 when he finally bought a truck. To this day, Avery’s Beverages are still made in that same red barn in small batches, and are still in some cases home-delivered.

Avery's Root Beer doesn’t have a particularly strong flavor coming out of the gate – only slightly root-y, but otherwise mostly watery. The aftertaste is also ever so slightly root-y, but again, there's really not much there. Same goes for the scent – it’s slightly root-y, but fades fast. It's not that Avery’s doesn't taste like root beer; it’s just that Avery’s doesn't taste like anything in particular at all. Not cola-ish, not sugary, not really anything. Just a slightly sweet, slightly herb-y soda.

Given its interesting history, I'm more than slightly disappointed. Maybe I’m just not familiar enough with Connecticut style root beer, because Avery’s by all accounts still appears popular in its home state. Unfortunately I just won't be asking for Avery’s Root Beer in California again. Sorry, but that'll only get you a low 2.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mercury

The Pooj has a message for you.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

Mercury Brewing Company of Ipswich, MA started in 1991 as the Ipswich Brewing Company. The ale-brewing portion of the company still operates under the Ipswich name and is one of oldest craft breweries in New England, though the soda pop-brewing portion changed its name to Mercury Brewing Company in 1999. Ipswich’s beers are not filtered or pasteurized, but I’m not sure about sodas, although the company website does state that the sodas are caffeine free, gluten free and corn syrup free. Also, the company has a baseball team, which doesn’t really have anything to do with ales or root beers, but is still cool.

Initially, Mercury tastes slightly cherry-ish and slightly artificial. I'm not sure of this is supposed to be the root-y part of the flavor, but it's not so much root-y as medicinal to me. Definitely plant-y to some degree, but perhaps just a different root leaning than I’d typically prefer. My guess is that what I perceive as medicinal flavor may be an overly menthol-y flavor that reminds me of cough syrup, which may in turn indicate a heavy-handed dose of wintergreen in root beers.

Backing up a bit, I should say that the carbonation is initially pretty hard, so perhaps the menthol tastes dominant only because it’s the only thing that penetrates the carbonation. Once the carbonation dies down a little, there's a nicer flavor. It's pretty sweet now, but not so much that the sweetness drowns out the root flavor, and the root flavor falls somewhere in the middle of the root-y spectrum. What was cherry/medicinal flavor early on now helps to fill in the herb factor and make it a little more complex, which gives it a better flavor. As far as texture goes it's not particularly smooth, though it's also not so sharp as to be unpleasant, provided that you wait until the carbonation dissipates a little. The aftertaste is mostly sweet, but there's a little bit of the herb peeking through to round it out.

Overall, it’s pretty good, but probably not one I'd specifically seek out. Mercury Brewing Company Root Beer Soda Pop therefore gets a low 3.5.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fizzies (and SCIENCE!)

The Pooj keeps his distance.
(Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner – Yermo, November 2011)

Red flags should be going up in every consumer’s mind when the producer of a foodstuff has the words “lab” and “technology” in its name, but that somehow didn’t stop me from picking up some of Amerilab Technologies’ Fizzies – affectionately referred to as “America’s Original Candy Beverage” (which should be another red flag, but who’s counting…?). Apparently, “effervescent drink tablets” were quite the rage back in the 50s and 60s, what with the mid-Century push towards modernization and space-aged gadgets and all. Though they were first developed as a headache remedy, producers soon added fruit flavored tablets to their repertoires to better appeal to the masses without headaches. Now if that isn’t enough to keep you away, I don’t know what is. Call it dedication to the cause of root beer or stupid curiosity, I picked up a box of these throwbacks to a bygone era during the return leg of our Vegas road trip at a quaint little place called Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner – a place deserving of more exposition in and of itself, but for the sake of time I’ll summarize by simply stating that it is owned by a former starlet, the entrance is built to look like a juke box, and they’ve got dinosaurs in the back. Given the vintage of the original Fizzies, I thought the venue of their purchase apropos (or probably more accurately, given the vintage of venue’s desired atmosphere, its owners felt it apropos to carry items of the era, e.g., Fizzies) (except, hopefully not Fizzes actually circa that era, because that would be rather…um…unsanitary…).

What were we talking about again?

That’s right – Fizzies.

According to the Fizzies website, production of the tablets ceased in 1968 because the integral artificial sweetener was banned by the FDA in that year. I’m not sure why you would volunteer that information to the people that you’re trying to sell your product to, but I can at least appreciate their transparency. Thanks to a new formulation using sucralose, Fizzies are now back on the market, fortified with 100% of your daily recommended value of Vitamin C, and available in seven flavors, including a seasonally appropriate hot cocoa tablet that you’re supposed to dissolve in warm milk (…!?!).

If all that isn’t already enough to send you running in the opposite direction, one look at the finished product should. One tablet, dissolved in 8 fluid ounces of cold water, per the instructions, yields this:

I think I’ve seen more appetizing coloration in the Los Angeles River...

Needless to say, it doesn't even taste like root beer. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is the main ingredient, so we know where that 100% daily allowance comes from, and what makes the whole formulation taste rather sour, almost like I threw up root beer... Otherwise it’s kind of watery, like I drank some lemon juice that I had previously used to rinse out a bottle that just recently contained root beer. There’s a very faint smell of root beer, like it blew in from the next table over, but it still smells overwhelmingly acidic. Everything else about this supposed “beverage” is exactly what you’d expect from other effervescent drink tablets on the market – by which I mean Alka Seltzer and Airborne – even down to that weirdly thick texture and slightly mucky floating stuff at the top that Airborne produces (though to its credit, the Fizzies tablet dissolves better than Airborne). Ironically, the finished product isn’t actually fizzy.

But why stop there, right? Since we’ve got 12 tablets per box, there’s some freedom for experimentation. We’ve established that a single tablet in 8 oz. of water doesn’t really produce anything noticeably root beer-ish, so you’re probably asking what adjustments could be made to the proportion of water to tablet to potentially create a more root beer-like beverage.

You were asking, right? Because regardless of whether or not you asked, I did it anyway.

Take precautions, as necessary.

Behold: Here they are in action (sorry, the animated gif I made wouldn't load...):


Sample 1, on the far left, is prepared per the instructions: 1 tablet added to 8 oz of water.

Sample 2, in the center, is 2 tablets added to 12 oz. of water, resulting in a slightly more root beer-ish smell, less like real root beer and more like the Missus’ root beer lip balm (yes, the Missus has root beer flavored chap stick – she’s a keeper), only as if smelled from a distance. It tastes a little more like it has root beer flavoring in it, but mostly it just tastes sourer - not quite as unpleasantly sour as the previous iteration, possibly even a little sweeter, but still nothing resembling real root beer. The “carbonation” is a little more evident, not like Sample 1, but it still gives off the overall impression that I was rinsing out a glass and decided to drink the rinse-water.

Sample 3, at the far right, is 2 tablets added to 8 oz. of water – a full double dose of Fizzies. This results in the most visible bubbles on the side of the glass. Whatever that smell is, it's stronger, but I still wouldn't call it a root beer smell. Now for a tas–OH DEAR GOODNESS THAT’S AWFUL… It’s so sour that any possibility of root beer flavor gets overpowered, and I am literally shuddering after each sip. Forget what I said about Sample 1 tasting like I threw up root beer – Sample 3 just tastes like I threw up, and if I drink any more of it, I just might... Even the aftertaste is making me cringe, and I can't get the taste out of my mouth, so I'm still cringing as I type this. Seriously, I can't stop cringing – the muscles in my face will not physically let me stop cringing. I need a chaser but there’s nothing here but I need to find something quickly will that work oh crap it’s worse now I need something else somebody help me please ehhhhhhhhh…

Ahem.









So… apparently, being a human guinea pig for root beer isn't always fun and games. Be thankful I tried the Fizzies, and that you don't have to. In fact, just don't. If my efforts do not prevent you from ever even dreaming of touching this stuff, then my suffering will have been in vain.

Root Beer PSA: For the love of all that is holy, run far away from Root Beer Fizzies.

Actually, just saying so is not action enough. We need a more targeted approach. You’ll notice that the Fizzies packaging looks rather benign, inviting even, with its cartoon kiddie ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the Fizzies in action.

“How interesting. Perchance I shall have some.”

I propose we revise the pictured instructions to one of the following:

How's this for transparency?

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick... Be thankful that I consume this abomination to the legacy of root beer now, so that you won’t have to later. For besmirching root beer’s good name, Fizzies really deserves a -1,000,000,000,000,000, but since I don’t think that will fit on the tag index to the left, I’ll have to settle for giving it a 0.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Joe's

The Pooj coolly quaffs a root beer.
(Whole Foods Market, November 2011)

The eponymous Joe of Joe's Root Beer is Joseph James, the eponymous Joseph James of the Joseph James Brewing Company. It's not clear (at least to me) whether there's actually a guy named Joseph James who started the brewery, but according to the company website, it was conceived in 2006 in Henderson, NV, where it continues to operate today, producing nearly a dozen beers (including their handful of seasonal varieties, but not including their handful of one-off reserve beers) distributed throughout southwest Nevada and several neighboring states. Of course, that wouldn't be of any consequence to us if not for the fact that they also make their own root beer (and cola).


First and foremost, Joe's Root Beer has the vanilla lover in mind, as both the scent and flavor feature the aforementioned bean prominently. It also has a mild root-y flavor that's really only secondary to the vanilla flavor, with a smooth texture that's not quite as creamy as other honey-sweetened brews, but smooth nonetheless. Thankfully, that honey does not dominate the flavor, but adds a nice richness - again, not as rich as other honey-sweetened brews, but rich nonetheless. I wouldn't necessarily say the carbonation is hard, but it has a bit of a bite to it, which is not bad, given that there's also a decent head.


Overall, I think Joe makes a pretty good root beer. Not as good as others I've had, but good nonetheless. That's good enough to get Joe's Root Beer a 3.5.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Olde Philadelphia

The Pooj gets his bell rung.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

Olde Philadelphia’s website says that the company is now owned and operated by Philadelphia natives, so one wonders where its previous owners were from, if not Philadelphia, and if not, why it’s called Olde Philadelphia. Research suggests that they may have once been based out of Wilkes-Barre, PA, over 100 miles from Philly, part of the Lion Brewery, but I can’t confirm whether that is still the case or not. I can confirm that Lion Brewery also makes a root beer that is not under the Olde Philadelphia label, but that will be covered in a future post (I can confirm that as well).

Unfortunately, I can also confirm that Olde Philadelphia Root Beer doesn’t really taste like root beer (well, at least not to me, so maybe I can’t really confirm something so subjective…). It actually tastes more like cola, despite an initially herb-y scent, as if I mixed Coca-Cola with a mildly-flavored root beer (which might be an interesting SCIENCE! posting, assuming we even want to cover such experiments in the SCIENCE! postings…). The scent fades fast, as does the rest of the flavor, so there’s no discernable aftertaste, either cola-ish or root-ish. There’s perhaps a little bit of an artificial vanilla flavor in there somewhere, so it’s more of a Vanilla-Coke-mixed-with-a-mildly-flavored-root-beer flavor. While there are both quillaia and yucca extracts listed with the ingredients, presumably as foaming agents, there’s no head to speak of, even though the carbonation has a hard bite that burns the back of my throat.

In short, I’m not impressed. Let’s hope Lion Brewery represents Wilkes-Barre better than Olde Philadelphia represents Olde Philly. Olde Philadelphia Root Beer gets a 2.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Root Beer Road Trip: Las Vegas, Part 3

Speaking of Old Vegas… I was 6 years old the first time I ever visited Las Vegas, on a family road trip with my grandparents who were visiting from overseas. Back then, Vegas was just starting the whole “family friendly” casino concept, so what we now know as the Vegas Strip was pretty much only Circus Circus, Bally’s, and just-opened Caesar’s Palace. There was no lack of bright lights though; you just had to head into Downtown Las Vegas to see them, where casinos were still overtly predominantly serving their intended purpose (i.e., taking your money). As you’d expect in a city focused almost entirely on the superficial (that, and taking your money, of course), time had not been friendly to the old casinos in recent years, to a point that I'll bet even the iconic neon cowboy and cowgirl feared that they might breathe their last.

Enter The Jerde Partnership, commissioned in the mid 1990s by a cadre of casino owners led by Steve Wynn to design The Fremont Street Experience. Jerde added a huge barrel vault of even more twinkling lights, transforming old Glitter Gulch into a covered exterior plaza, once again making it a tourist destination. Again, as you might expect, crowds have waned in the years since its opening, yet The Fremont Street Experience still retains a steady stream of visitors here to see foundations of the Vegas casino empire like the Golden Nugget, Golden Gate, and Four Queens. We, or course, are here for the root beer.

The Pooj doubles down.
(Chicago Brewing Company, November 2011)

The Chicago Brewing Company has a stand-alone location elsewhere in the city, but I opted for the location inside Four Queens for a bit more Vegas flair. Expectations are a bit high since their root beer was voted best in Vegas in at least one recent poll. For the most part, Chicago Brewing Company’s root beer delivers the goods. It’s not too sweet, with a mild root-y flavor that’s a little thin for my preference, but tasty nonetheless. My senses may again be diminished by cigarette smoke haze lingering in the air (perhaps this is the real Vegas flair...), but despite that, the scent of the root beer is strong enough to cut through. Given that, I would have expected a bolder flavor; instead there’s a slightly fruity flavor that’s almost sour, but not quite. Still, the overall effect is smooth and the aftertaste is nice and herb-y. A second glass has more foam than the first, but the flavors are not particularly richer.

I probably should have picked up a growler for a more controlled test back at home, but I didn’t think of it at the time. Still, while Chicago Brewing Company’s root beer isn’t on my list of top root beers, it’s still a good one, and definitely worthy of being called the best in Las Vegas since it was the best one I had all week. That gets Chicago Brewing Company’s root beer a solid 3.5.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Root Beer Road Trip: Las Vegas, Part 2

Big Dog’s Bar & Grill (November 2011)

Big Dog’s Bar & Grill in northeast Las Vegas is an offshoot of Big Dog’s Brewing Company, a local brewery that once operated Las Vegas’ first microbrewery, the Holy Cow Casino and Brewery. Though Holy Cow closed in 2002, Big Dog’s founders Tom and George Weisner still produce Holy Cow! Original Pale Ale at the Big Dog’s facilities. Since they founded the Draft House in 1988, the Weisners have expanded the Big Dog’s empire to three locations, at any given time serving up 7 signature microbrews, 2-3 seasonal brews, and, of course, their own root beer.

The Pooj hopes this elixir works better than the last one.

While I’m sure their microbrews are good, I’m somewhat disappointed by Big Dog’s root beer. First, the positives: it's not too sweet and the
menthol-y aftertaste isn’t bad. However, it’s a bit thin and has a medicinal, slightly cough syrup or cherry candy flavor – slightly fruit-ish in any case. There’s also a slightly bitter taste that sometimes indicates root-iness, but not necessarily in a direction I like. And while there’s a slightly better head on my second mug, the flavor hasn’t really improved.

I can appreciate the effort Big Dog’s put into making their root beer, but it’s not really the root beer flavor I prefer. Big Dog’s gets a 2.

Root Beer Road Trip: Las Vegas, Part 1

The Missus was in Las Vegas recently for a convention, so I took a couple days off to tag along for a semi-free vacation. Since she was busy with her seminars and all during daylight hours, I was pretty much on my own most of the time. Naturally, I did what any red-blooded male left to his own devices in Vegas does – I drank lots of root beer.

Simple as this endeavor may sound, there’s a bit of research involved if one intends to drink more than just typical mass market-branded root beers, so I came armed with a root beer scavenger hunt list. Unfortunately, my first two potential root beer destinations both turn out to be busts – one location is purported to carry a certain label’s brew per that label’s website, though a thorough search of all shops inside said location yields no results; the second location is alleged to make its own root beer for floats, though neither root beer nor float appear on said location’s menu, as the menu itself appears absent, and said location no longer appears to serve any desserts in the shop itself (except chocolate samples, which are quite good enough for me to forgive the apparent lack of root beer).

Gathering this fair city’s true hidden treasures is not without peril, however, as I came to realize that the Vegas Strip is kind of like America’s ash tray. Casinos (more like theme parks…) which were once glamorous and much ballyhooed at their openings are quickly forgotten as soon as the next brightly-lit stage production of a resort is opened, neglected, left to gather filth and idle in disrepair until their proprietors, already having long realized the fickle nature of human interest, spectacularly raze the once-noble (false) edifices in favor of shiny new ventures. Where once there was spark, their initial brilliance slowly smolders until their embers are eventually discarded. While much of that statement is another discussion for another time, my first root beer find is case in point. Just one long block east of the Strip, the sidewalk is either crumbling or non-existent and the most brightly lit neon sits above a liquor store. Nestled into these fine environs is the Ellis Island Casino and Brewery.

They store grain for their microbrews in their sign!!! (November 2011)

Contrary to appearance, Ellis Island is not named for the immigration hub in old New York, but for owner Gary Ellis. And while Ellis Island has all the hallmarks of “Old Vegas” – ringing slot machines in dimly-lit cigarette smoke-filled rooms – it was actually first opened as a restaurant in 1968. Today it’s known among locals for its award-winning microbrews, ribs, crazy cheap steak dinner, and karaoke night. Of course, it’s also known for this:

The Pooj wonders if drinking this elixir will make him big again.

On the whole, Ellis Island’s root beer has a good root-y flavor, though it does taste slightly watered down. It’s therefore a little hard to pin down what the dominant flavor is, but if pressed, I’d say it leans very slightly to the licorice side, with a good sassafras finish that results in a nice herb-y aftertaste. There’s little head to speak of and it’s not particularly smooth, but it’s also not too sweet, so that lets some of the herbs come through, a little like an old fashioned root beer candy. While the root-y flavor does build as I drink more, it’s still a little hard to really make any distinction in the flavors since they’re fighting with the cigarette haze infiltrating the whole establishment for dominance. Consequently, any possible scents are also drowned out.

In hindsight, I should have partaken of the crazy cheap steak dinner special (for research purposes, naturally), but I didn’t want my root beer sampling facilities to be impaired in any way. Plus, I had just spent the morning eating everything in our cooler that could potentially spoil, since no usable refrigeration was provided in our hotel room that wouldn’t have entailed disturbing the motion-sensored mini-bar… Next time we’re here, I’ll definitely have to give it a shot, since the dinner special comes with a root beer (or microbrew of your choice), and I do like the root beer enough to have it again – not enough to bring a half gallon of it home, but definitely enough to stop in if we’re nearby. That’ll get Ellis Island a high 3.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Baumeister

The Pooj is feeling light-headed.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

“Baumeister” literally means “master builder” in German, so as an architect, Baumeister Root Beer really should be my root beer above all others. No pressure or anything…


A little research actually reveals that Baumeister isn’t really named for any master builder in particular but for Heine Baumeister, who started the Baumeister Soda Company in 1907 using water from an artesian well in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. While this may get Baumeister Root Beer somewhat off the hook for being my root beer, the fact that it placed 2nd in the Midwest in a recent “Great American Root Beer Showdown” (a panel taste test conducted by the Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi) puts it on another hook entirely. There’s no mention of who took first place in that contest since the web-page for the storied competition (OK, I don’t know how “storied” it actually is, but hey, it’s a root beer tasting, so that should already qualify it as stuff of legend…) shows the last panel occurring in 2003, when Baumeister was absent. It is worth noting that, according to the archives, Baumeister actually finished first in past rounds of the competition.


Initially there’s a slightly licorice scent that may tease at a little bit of clove as well, but the smell fades quickly once the air is let out of the bottle. There’s a decent amount of foam, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call it heady. Both “HFCS and/or sugar” are listed as sweeteners, and I’m guessing there is actually sugar in this one, since it’s much smoother than you’d typically get with just HFCS. Either way, it’s pretty sweet, and sweet is really the dominant flavor. Not that it’s devoid of any herby-flavors – there’s a mild root-iness with a slight licorice leaning. Perhaps there’s also a little clove in the aftertaste, but it’s hard to tell since it doesn’t linger long and is also slightly covered up by a sweet aftertaste.


More than anything, I think I would describe Baumeister Root Beer as “accessible,” meaning that it’s just root-y enough for root beer fans to like it, it’s got a better herb-y quality than mass-market brands, but it’s also not so root-y or herb-y that occasional root beer drinkers would have difficulty with it. Definitely above average, so Baumeister gets a 3.5.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Margo's Bark

The Pooj wags the root beer.
(Galco’s, July 2011)

If the story of Margo’s Bark Root Beer doesn’t make you happy, something’s broken. Young Oscar Youd of Los Angeles wanted to make root beer (more precisely, he wanted to make natural carbonation with yeast and sugar) for his science fair project when he was seven years old, and the results were so successful that his family decided to perfect their recipe, then bottle and sell it. Oscar named his brew after his presumed best friend Margo, a black labrador-pit bull mix whom the Youds adopted from an animal shelter after she was found abandoned in a Long Beach parking lot. All proceeds from sales are donated to animal shelters and other pet-protection programs in honor of Margo’s compatriots.


While I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend drinking every seven year-old boy's science fair project (I think I grew bread mold for the science fair when I was seven...), I’m willing to make an exception here. Initially, the carbonation is very hard, making it really difficult to taste anything. Fortunately this is really the only negative thing I can say about Oscar’s brew because some very good flavors become apparent once the carbonation has dissipated a bit.


The ingredients include molasses, vanilla, cloves, cassia, nutmeg and wintergreen, and are all blended so well that, despite having some potentially overpowering components in the mix, everything comes together quite well to create a very rich, full, root-y flavor. Molasses tends to drown out most other flavors, in my opinion, but is used very well here to add a smooth texture. Adding both cloves and nutmeg might also give you the impression that this would taste like a pumpkin pie, but those spices are also handled very well – I did notice a little more of a clove-leaning scent and potentially a little nutmeg-leaning aftertaste, but I’m not sure if I would have noticed them if I didn’t know they were there and therefore wasn’t looking for them. This, of course, is not an indictment of any sort – as I said earlier, the reason there is no dominant flavor is because everything blends together very well and you taste everything together rather than tasting each individual ingredient separately. Yucca extract is also included and results in a good amount of foam, maybe the lasting legacy of Oscar’s science fair experimentation. Potentially psychologically-induced nutmeg highlights aside, the aftertaste is otherwise bark-y with a menthol-y feel and a sweet finish, perhaps a little too bark-y for some but generally up my alley.


Maybe I’m just getting warm fuzzies from the Margo’s Bark story. Or maybe I’m just biased because this is one of the few Los Angeles-based brews I’ve run across. Perhaps I’ve just had one too many middle-of-the-road root beers as of late. Or perhaps Margo’s Bark Root Beer is just that good. Whatever the case may be, Margo’s Bark gets a 4.5.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Red Ribbon

The Pooj is feeling just a tiny bit terrible.
(Galco’s, July 2011)

Pittsburg, according to a 1992 New York Times article, is the root beer drinking capital of the world – perhaps fitting, as many historians attribute the creation of what we know today as root beer to a pharmacist from Pennsylvania (more on that bit of trivia when I get my hands on a can of it – it’s still out there, but hard to find on the West Coast). Red Ribbon Root Beer owes its existence to the Natrona Bottling Company and is still actually made near Pittsburg, as Natrona only operates out of a single facility in neighboring Harrison Township where it has been since 1904. Though Natrona has changed hands a handful of times during its first several decades, the family that now owns and operates the company has done so since 1939.

Red Ribbon Root Beer has a good blend of flavors, though nothing dominates. There’s a vanilla-ish flavor and smell, with a root-y aftertaste that leaves a menthol-like feel in the mouth. While the flavors are not particularly strong, slightly overpowered by the sweetness, the sweetness also adds a very smooth texture. You’ve got to give the initially hard carbonation a few minutes to dissipate before you get to the smoothness, but it’s nice when you get there. It’s also got a slight bitterness in the aftertaste, not unlike that of a strong tea, but I don’t really mind that, since it’s more of an herb-y bite that I generally like.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Red Ribbon Root Beer an every-day root beer for me (considering my previous posting about shying away from root beer every day…), but if all root beers in Pennsylvania are at least this good, I can understand why people drink so much of it there. Like I said, not really one of my favorites, but I can understand why other people might like it – that’ll get you a 3.5.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Zevia

The Pooj has no naturally-occurring substitutes.
(Whole Foods Market, October 2011)

The herb stevia, also called sweetleaf and sugarleaf, has been used for millennia in South America as a natural sugar substitute. Here in the US, steviol glycosides derived from stevia were approved for use as food additives only back in 2008 but were already available as dietary supplements, and while still dietary supplements became the namesake for Zevia soft drinks. Rebaudioside A, better known under the trade name Reb-A (which Zevia uses), are anywhere from 40 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, yet have no calories and negligible affect on blood sugar. Stevia is actually only Zevia’s secondary sweetener – the primary sweetener is erythritol, a sugar alcohol produced by fermenting glucose with yeast. Erythritol has at most 70% of sugar’s sweetness, but because is barely absorbed by the body, and therefore simply expelled as waste after consumption, also has negligible calories. I’m not ready to jump on any sugar substitute’s bandwagon, naturally occurring or otherwise, but since I’m securely on board root beer’s bandwagon, I figure I’ll give it a fair shot.


Aside from the thin texture and lingering aftertaste you typically get with alternatively-sweetened beverages, Zevia Ginger Root Beer is actually pretty good. Most sugar-free sodas only differ from their sugar-sweetened originals by using artificial sweetener, but Zevia seems to benefit from being sugar free from the start since this basically requires an actual root beer formula. Zevia’s creators certainly put in their time in the lab, evidenced by the inclusion of wintergreen oil, anise oil, lemon oil, and orange oil in the ingredient list, as well as the ginger extract that the “Ginger Root Beer” title implies. Despite that title, and thankfully so, there’s actually very little ginger flavor, save for the subtle lingering heat you get in the back of the throat (not that I have a problem with ginger – I just don’t want it to be the dominant flavor in my root beer). For the most part, it’s wintergreen and licorice in the scent and the taste, with maybe a little tangy-ness from the citrus oils (or at least from the psychological effect of knowing they’re there). I’m actually surprised the root/herb flavors are not more prominent, given the very deep old-fashioned root beer scent – a scent that would normally portend a rich, smooth flavor in other sugar-sweetened brews, reinforcing my theory that real sugar adds as much texture as it does sweetness. Perhaps a root beer’s chosen sweetener can be likened to the vessel on which its root-y, herb-y goodness is delivered, where sugar is the smooth sailing yacht and sugar substitute is really more of a raft that’s just seaworthy enough to get from Point A to Point B. Comfort of travel aside, however, the lack of sugar is not a bad thing here since it allows the root-y flavors to take the main stage.


I typically reason that if I need to start drinking sugar-substitute beverages, then I should probably be cutting sugary beverages from my diet to begin with, and Zevia doesn’t change my mind all that much in that regard. On the off chance I ever get to the point that I’m posting new root beer write-ups daily, any readers would serve me better to just tell me to stop drinking root beer every day… As with most flavor enhancers, sugar is not a bad thing when consumed in moderation – in fact, it is a good thing when it comes to root beers, as my nautical analogy above would suggest. But if I ever had to recommend a sugar-free root beer to anyone (say a diabetic, for instance, assuming that the science about the blood sugar effects of erythritol and stevia stands the test of time), this would be it. Zevia Ginger Root Beer gets a high 3.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dad's (with Sugar)

The Pooj wonders why you don’t call or write more often.
(Galco’s, July 2011)

Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer is one of several Chicago-based root beers I’ve been running into recently, which makes me think I should visit Chicago soon, it being such a big root beer town and all. The fact that it’s where Route 66 begins is no small draw either, so I’ll have to file it away in the road-trips-to-do list. Like many other brew-masters, Barney Berns and Ely Klapman, the latter to which belong both the eponymous father and the basement where the beverage was developed, got things started in the 1930s. In the 1940s, Dad’s became the first beverage to be sold in the now-ubiquitous six-pack. Each bottle in said six-pack was a 7 or 10 oz. “Junior” size, with quart-sized “Mama” and half-gallon “Papa” marketed as the rest of the family tree.


That would make the current 12 oz. packaging an adolescent sibling, I suppose…


As I had mentioned in an earlier post, Dad’s was until recently made with real sugar. While the 1- and 2-liter bottles and most of the glass bottles are now made with HFCS, there still are glass bottles out there with sugar-sweetened contents. These are a little harder to find in California except in some root beer gift boxes/variety packs that have made their way into stores as of late, with single bottles sometimes available in smaller specialty stores. You can usually distinguish the sugar from the HFCS variety by simply looking at the label – the sugar variety has a paper label whereas the HFCS variety has a clear plastic decal label, with slight variations in the graphics of the two.


Either
Dad’s sugar-sweetened formula or my tastes have changed since the last time I had one (probably me), because I am actually quite pleased with this version. It certainly benefits from some added smoothness compared to the HFCS recipe, as well as a deeper, richer flavor. While the scent is very heavily menthol-y, the taste is much more on the licorice and slightly more on the molasses sides of the spectrum. There seems to be some combination of cloves or nutmeg, possibly even cinnamon in there somewhere, but I can’t clearly pinpoint any one in particular – the clove flavor is a little stronger, but again, not so much that I could clearly identify it as such, and thus can only really characterize it as having a slight “harvest spice” taste to it. Overall, it’s root-y, even bark-y in a good way, though the sugary sweetness tends to overpower the herbs. Flavors progress from primarily sweet to primarily herb-y the further I get in the bottle, and the molasses flavor builds a little higher than I would prefer with each successive sip.

Still, I liked Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer. If the sugar didn’t drown out the herbs as much, and if that ever-increasing molasses flavor wasn’t there, I think I would like it even more. Not really an everyday brew for me, but certainly not one I’d avoid as much as I used to either – that’ll make it a 3.5.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pop Shoppe

Eh?
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

The Pop Shoppe was born in 1969 in the Great White North of Ontario, Canada, so this
technically qualifies as foreign root beer. Although Pop Shoppe remained popular in its home country throughout the 70s, bolstering its Canadian cred with several hockey-legend endorsements, 1983 saw the company shutter until an enterprising individual restarted things in 2002. Given my lack of success with root beers sourced outside US borders, how do we fare when we’re at least on the same continent?

Well, Canadian root beer is at least as good as anything you can get from the US mass market. Pop Shoppe starts with a strong root-y smell, heavy on the birch, and has a surprisingly thick head. The flavor is pretty sweet, with a slight molasses and slighter licorice leaning. It's also pleasantly smooth despite being HFCS-based instead of sugar-based. While the flavor is nice enough, it does tend to fade rather quickly, so it’s not particularly memorable.


All in all, it’s just pretty good – that’s a high 3.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Root Beer Road Trip: Mr. D'z Route 66 Diner

Before we begin, I would like to note the appropriate, but coincidental fact that this is my 66th root beer posting. I know the list on the left says this is technically my 67th, but since one of those was only a diet version of another root beer listed, I'm not really counting that one. Onward then...!

Fill 'er up.
(Kingman, AZ, August 2011)

On the drive to the Grand Canyon, you’re bound to find plenty of reminders of America-gone-by. Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, across the street from a power-station-cum-Route-66-museum and still-operating Santa Fe Railroad tracks, is one of those places. The structure was originally a service station, but was converted into a diner and has stayed that way for roughly the past 35 years. It still retains the same road-side charm that draws locals and tourists alike.

Pardon the product placement...

But history buffs though we are, that’s not why we’re here. This is why:


The Pooj looks a little flat.

Current owner Armando Jimenez, a veteran of the Las Vegas restaurant scene, developed the brew along with his brother Nacho. Apparently Oprah liked it so much she had nearly 20 cases shipped to her studio in Chicago to give away to her audience (Big Give indeed…!).


The flavor is a good meld of wintergreen and licorice, sweet, but not too sweet as many HFCS beverages can be. The flavor is actually a little thin for my tastes, like Mug, but not as cloying. Mind you, I’m not saying it tastes like Mug, since those would probably be fighting words in the root beer realm. Mug is cloying and flavorless; Mr. D’z is what Mug wishes it was. Since Mr. D’z also bottles their brew, we can sample again in a controlled environment, away from the train whistle charm and Oprah afterglow…


The Pooj is looking more like himself.

Although the label says that the bottled version is produced for Mr. D’z by the Black Mountain Brewing Company in Cave Creek, somewhere north of Scottsdale, a quick Google search for the company reveals that it neither operates under that name nor is located in Cave Creek. The brewing company is now called Chili Beer (so named either after owner Crazy Ed Chilleen or after Crazy Ed’s propensity to spitefully drop a Serrano chili in any beer whose owner asked for a wedge of lime, instead of the requested lime) and now operates out of Tecate, Mexico. So I really don’t know where this stuff comes from…


Disputed origins aside, I actually slightly prefer the bottled brew to the fountain version. Its scent starts on the licorice side, with a menthol finish. The initial taste is pretty sweet, with a tangy flavor that I can’t really pinpoint – not quite citrus-y, not quite ginger-y, more like the slightly sour taste you get when something sugary starts to molecularly break down in your mouth. A good root-y flavor follows that, slightly smoky with good blend of wintergreen and sassafras, and a licorice essence that travels up into the nose. I wouldn’t call it caramel-y, like the label claims – I don’t think I would have even thought to look for a caramel flavor if it had not already been described as such on the label and on Mr. D’s menu – but it does have a rich texture I don’t normally get in a HFCS-sweetened root beer (as this one is). Perhaps its brewing company origins (as opposed to simply coming from a carbonated soda plant) are responsible for the added smoothness that’s often lacking in thin HFCS beverages, but I can’t say for sure.


I won’t be pulling an Oprah and carting cases of Mr. D’z Root Beer back home with me – that strange sourness is sadly keeping this brew, which otherwise has a really good flavor, from getting a much higher rating. However, I’ll definitely make a point of stopping in Kingman for a brew every time I’m on this stretch of the I-40. Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner Root Beer gets a high 3.5.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Filbert's

The Pooj plays it again, for old time’s sake.
(Galco’s, July 2011)

George Filbert was a turn-of-the-century Chicago delivery driver who carted milk, ice, coal, and people’s belongings around in his horse-drawn wagon, often also carting his son Charlie along with him. It was Charlie who developed Filbert’s root beer in 1926, during Prohibition, which George also delivered in his cart, supplying half barrels to local restaurants. Filbert’s Old Time is still family-owned today, and still supplies over 20 different flavors of soft drinks to local Chicago-area restaurants, where their root beer is often served on draft.


Filbert’s initial menthol scent gives way to a slightly more licorice flavor that blends together quite nicely with the wintergreen. While the flavor is good and rich, it fades quickly, so there’s really no aftertaste to speak of. The flavor is actually a little difficult to discern in smaller sips, leaving an almost watery feeling in the middle of the mouth – I’m not really sure how to describe it. I’m also not really sure how to explain the “sugar and/or corn sweetener” ingredient listed – does this mean they vary using sugar, HFCS, or a combination of the two from batch to batch…? Judging by its smooth texture, I would assume I got at least some real sugar in my bottle, but I’m not really sure how that all works.


Ingredient confusion aside, I’m still somewhat torn as to how to rate Filbert’s Old Time Root Beer. The flavors and texture make me want to rate it higher, but the fact that those flavors don’t really shine out or linger at all makes me want to rate it lower. Filbert’s is a good root beer – one I would have again – but the relatively “brief” flavor takes it out of the regular root beer rotation for me. Hence, I give it a 3.5.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Route 66

The Pooj kicks it up a notch.
(Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Williams AZ, August 2011)

Many root beers lay claim to Route 66 imagery, but if there was ever one that could lay claim to the title “Official Root Beer of Route 66,” this is it. Route 66 Root Beer is everywhere along Route 66 – Route 66 Sodas makes a point of distributing their beverages to all states through which Route 66 used to run, including the company’s home state of Missouri. You’d think that the marriage of drive-in car culture and root beer would produce so many different kinds and labels of root beer, but this is really the only one I saw in all (or any, for that matter) of the little kitsch shops along the Route between the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. This is slightly ironic, seeing as the Route 66 Sodas, the company, didn’t come into existence until 1996, more than a decade after US Route 66 was decommissioned by the US Highway System. But true to their namesake, Route 66 Sodas supports and promotes the various associations in the various states with an address on America’s Main Street.


As far as the brew goes, Route 66 Root Beer is pretty good. There’s a slight licorice leaning to the initial smell, but no dominant leaning in the flavor. It’s got a pretty good blending of licorice and wintergreen, well rounded and not too sweet. While the flavors are good, they are a bit mild – I wouldn’t characterize them as thin per se, but I do wish they were bolder and/or stronger.


On the whole, Route 66 Root Beer is a very accessible beverage, such that it should appeal to most people stopping for a cold drink along their journey down the Mother Road. Hardcore root beer aficionados will want something stronger, but when nothing else is available, this is more than adequate. I’ll give it a low 3.5.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Old Town D-n-A

The Pooj examines the evidence.
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

As we had covered earlier, the Old Town Root Beer Company makes three different varieties of root beer. This particular version is named D-n-A, after Dallas-n-Austin (yes, those are really their names), the youngest generation of the Montgomery clan and hopefully the future of the Old Town Root Beer Empire – I mean, when your pictures are on the bottle label, how can you not go into the family business…?


Just as the label depicts the lesser generation (in the classical use of the term, not to imply the young’uns are of diminished quality), the contents of Old Town D-n-A Root Beer are a lesser, milder version of the flagship brew. Which is not to say it’s of any diminished quality either – in fact, it’s quite good. D-n-A starts with a nice head and a slightly harder carbonation, with a good licorice-heavy scent. The taste is a lighter honey flavor than the original, but not really in a less-honey way, almost like the original uses a richer, darker honey and this one uses an actual lighter honey. I could be mistaken, since there’s also a distinctly cane-like flavor to the sugar which I may be reading as the honey. Either way, the result is a refreshing sweetness, not unlike that of sugar cane tea. As far as herbs go, there’s a slight horehound leaning in addition to the licorice, with a wintergreen finish that leaves a faint menthol-y cool feeling. Perhaps it’s just a matter of perception, but it did seem that the herb flavor grew fainter as I got further down the bottle, resulting in the sweetness getting stronger – I wonder if this is simply my taste buds getting accustomed to the root-y flavors.


Of the three Old Town root beers, I think my favorite is still the original, followed by the Route Beer 66, followed closely by the D-n-A. There’s one more Old Town beverage to try, but that will be the subject of a SCIENCE! posting:


Hey, hey, the gang's all here.

Having said that, though, I like all of the Old Town offerings, so while Old Town D-n-A is down the rankings from its sister brews, I still liked it better than most other root beers out there. I’ll give it a 3.5.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Best Health's

The Pooj gets a check-up.
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

This stuff’s made in New York City…!


OK, now that we’ve got that out of our system, I can at least establish that yes, Best Health’s Root Beer is made in New York City – Brooklyn, to be exact. The Brooklyn Bottling Corporation began as a seltzer company in 1937, founded by a Polish immigrant named Jack Miller who delivered his wares from a horse-drawn wagon. Miller, along with his fellow seltzer purveyors, would mix flavored syrups with their fizzy waters in old Czechoslovakian squirt bottles, now obsolete because the plants that made them were destroyed in World War II. Jack’s grandson Eric now runs the company and still sources water from New York, where he contends soda was invented. Best Health’s Natural Gourmet Sodas did not actually get their start until 1988, but Eric drew on the traditions that had sustained his family’s business since its inception and a Miller family member still oversees the mixing, blending, and production of each batch of beverages they ship out.


Best Health’s flavor is actually a little hard to pin down. On the one hand, it really tastes like cherry cough syrup (a little more “healthy” that I think any of us want our root beer to be…), but not really in an altogether unpleasant way. It’s more like a very strong, bitter Cheerwine that goes down smoothly because of some added sugar (I’ve heard from credible sources that a spoonful of it really does that to medicine). The aftertaste is similar to that watered-down taste you get when you rinse out the cough syrup dosing cap, but with a little bit of vanilla and just an inkling of root-y undertones. Since the sugar also hits a little harder in the aftertaste, you get something less herb-y and more cherry-crème-y, if your cherry crème was heavily medicinal.


I don’t really consider drinking cough syrup a good Friday night activity or anything, but like I said, despite the NyQuil effect here, it’s not altogether unpleasant. There are some “natural flavors” listed with the ingredients, as well as some vanilla, but again, the vanilla really only comes through slightly in the aftertaste – I can’t really speak to the rest of those “natural flavors,” whatever they are.


“Not-altogether-unpleasant” isn’t really one of my rating descriptors, but I’d venture to say it means I’m probably not going to get any more anytime soon. But since it was not altogether unpleasant as opposed to just plain unpleasant, I won’t give Best Health’s Root Beer an abysmal rating. Let’s leave it at a 1.5.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Old Town Root Beer 66

The Pooj plans his route.
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

One thing we learned during a recent road trip along Route 66 is that root beer is as much a part of its imagery as the cars carrying the root beer drinkers. This probably owes to the drive-in car-hop culture that still holds sway in the more touristy stretches of the Mother Road, and of course where we have drive-ins, we have burgers, malts, and root beer floats. I’ll have much more on that in a later posting about said road trip, but I figured a good precursor to that post would be some Route 66 imagery from my first Root Beer Field Trip to the Old Town Root Beer Company. While Old Town did at one point have branches along Route 66, both in Chicago and Barstow, research seems to indicate that their only remaining store is the one in Temecula, far from this home-brew’s namesake. But root beer is root beer, and far be it for me to judge one by its location of origin, current or otherwise. My job, as far as I’m concerned, is just to drink it, and so drink it I did.


Like Old Town’s original brew, Old Town Root Beer 66 has a good blend of root-y flavors and a smooth texture. The latter is probably from honey, similar to the original brew, except there’s no real honey flavor here, and from there the two brews continue diverging slightly. Overall, this version is milder than the original, less sweet, with a less pronounced herb flavor that starts with licorice and ends with wintergreen birch, culminating in a subtle heat from some added cinnamon (not in the original). Whether the licorice or wintergreen birch dominates changes a bit from sip to sip, but the scent is noticeably cinnamon-y and vanilla-y throughout.


All in all, I did like Old Town Root Beer 66 well enough, but not quite as much as I like their flagship beverage. While the original Old Town stands up well even with a big dollop of ice cream dropped in it, I doubt that I would be able to discern much root were they to use Old Town Root Beer 66 in their floats. But like I said, I still liked it well enough, so I’ll give it a solid 3.5.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jackson Hole

The Pooj polishes his lariat skills.
(BevMo Pasadena, June 2011)

Nestled in the Jackson Hole Valley at the gateway to the Grand Teton Mountains, you’ll find the appropriately named Jackson Hole Soda Company. True to its name, Jackson Hole brews their beverages with water from the Rocky Mountains, of which the Grand Tetons are a sub-range. Also in fitting with the whole wild western theme, Jacksom Hole makes old-fashioned soda flavors like huckleberry, strawberry rhubarb, and of course sarsaparilla and root beer, adorning their bottle labels with frontier-era photos. While the company website doesn’t offer any information about their origins (actually, the website doesn’t really offer that much information at all…), it does boast “the Best Buckin’ Root Beer in the country.”

Well, maybe Jackson Hole Buckin’ Root Beer is the best “Buckin’ Root Beer,” but it’s not really that great of a “just normal root beer.” Not for lack of effort though: there’s a strong root-y smell that I think leans way to the wintergreen birch side, with a slightly spicy smell that could be cloves. The flavor leans convincingly to the bark-y side as well, which the sugar rounds out nicely. It doesn’t seem that licorice-y, but I could be labeling my herbs wrong – either way, it’s got a lot of one thing and not a lot of the rest to balance it out, leaving a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

I wanted to like Jackson Hole Buckin’ Root Beer, but I’m kind of ambivalent about it. That would be a textbook 3.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Root Beer Field Trip: Root Beer Joe's

Seriously, how did I not know about place until now???

I first learned of Root Beer Joe’s existence from a Grub Street Los Angeles posting about its possible shuttering. Since there seem to be no further accounts confirming or denying such a claim, I figured the smart move would be to pay it a visit before it shut its doors to offer additional business so that
perhaps it would not need to.

A little bit of background: Root Beer Joe’s was started just this past April by a guy named – you guessed it – Joe from San Francisco who decided to trade in his bean counter (assuming accountants still count beans…) for a sandwich counter. The name came naturally, as Joe is a big root beer fan and regularly stocks his establishment’s refrigerator with a variety of root beers (and other vintage bottled sodas) sourced from Galco’s Soda Pop Stop (more on Galco’s in a later Root Beer Field Trip).


From his storefront way at the end of the very quaint Burlington Arcade – which is just as easy to miss as it is quaint, despite being in the middle of Pasadena’s Lake Ave shopping district, possibly accounting for Root Beer Joe’s potential closing – Joe serves up NorCal style garlicky sandwiches on Dutch crunch bread, as well as frozen yogurt.

Behold: the roast beef garlicky sandwich with everything on it, on Dutch crunch bread. The sandwich is indeed deliciously garlicky owing to a generous slathering of killer garlic pesto, and the bread is satisfyingly crunchy (though I can’t comment on its relative Dutch-ness).

Since we were at Root Beer Joe’s, I was obligated to get a root beer – I went with Faygo (in a can!), while the Missus went with an Americana Honey Cream.

Here’s a close-up of the Faygo (in a can!):

We capped off our visit with some cookies n’ cream yogurt whilst strolling through the rest of the Arcade, which really is rather quaint.

Best of luck to you, Joe – Pasadena is a better place with you in it, carrying the root beer banner. Hopefully you can stick around and carry that banner for a while longer.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cool Mountain

The Pooj can see his house from here.
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

Cool Mountain Root Beer supposedly hails from Chicago, but since I’ve only ever driven through Chicago (stopping in Oak Park for the FLW architectural tour probably doesn’t count as having been in Chicago…) I’m not sure which mountain is the cool one.
Maybe its carbonation fell off the mountain, because it’s as hard and sharp as a rock. The carbonation still doesn’t seem to dissipate much even after sitting for a while, which makes it somewhat difficult to taste anything. It smells nice, but the smell certainly dissipates faster than the carbonation, since it’s gone before I even take my first sip.

As far as that first sip goes, there’s a rather metallic aftertaste that’s pretty unpleasant, but thankfully goes away after a couple more sips. Perhaps it's bottle cap residue, which should have been absent because I usually wipe off the top of the bottle after opening, prior to sipping
. Weird... The carbonation clears a little once it’s in a glass, but it reveals disappointingly little flavor. It has an ever so slight licorice taste with maybe some molasses undertones, which is mild at best. Not that it’s overly sweet – in fact the sugar flavor is actually rather crisp – clean, for lack of better descriptors – giving off a feeling I’d liken to drinking something just pulled out of an ice box or served in a chilled glass. Mayhaps this is why they call it Cool Mountain – the experience is rather … snow-y… Unfortunately, that experience is not quite so root-y.

Cool Mountain was also supposedly featured on the Food Network's Follow That Food according to the company’s press release, but I can’t really see why. There are plenty of bolder, richer, and just more flavorful root beers to profile out there, even in Chicago, and Cool Mountain is average at best and forgettable at worst. …except for the carbonation, which will (uncomfortably) stay in you for a while… As I ponder more about it, I like less about it, so maybe I should just stop thinking about it. I mean, it’s not bad, per se, but not really something I’m going back for. Since I’m feeling generous today, I’ll give it a 2.5.

Monday, July 25, 2011

AJ Stephans

The Pooj knows your name.
(BevMo Pasadena, June 2011)

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: the person that owns and operates AJ Stephans is not named AJ Stephans. Rather, Jeff Rose named the company after a combination of his children’s and his own names. The beverages he creates, on the other hand, have his family name written all over them – 200 recipes handed down from Jeff’s grandfather. Although the bottle says that they’re from Boston, the company actually started in Maine, and presumably still uses unprocessed water from an artesian spring near Providence. While their signature brew is supposedly their Ginger Beer, we are, of course, not the Stark Raving (Ginger Beer) Blog! so we’ll stick to their root beer for now.


That turns out to be a good decision, as AJ Stephans Root Beer is quite good. Initial sips can be a bit biting due to a hard, almost burning carbonation – in fact, that’s pretty much the only thing holding it back from a higher rating. Ordinarily, letting a bottle sit opened for a few minutes can release enough of the carbonation to remove any unpleasantness, which holds true here, except that once the carbonation starts to go, it goes pretty fast. So wait a little bit after opening it to enjoy it, but enjoy it quickly thereafter. Flavor-wise, it leans towards the wintergreen side, and the wintergreen carries through to the slightly menthol-y aftertaste. Wintergreen is also dominant in the scent, so I can confidently say that it tastes pretty much exactly like it smells. Texture-wise, it’s pretty rich and pretty smooth once you get past the shock of the initial carbonation. Sugar-wise, it’s just sweet enough – not too much, but not bitter either. Although wintergreen is dominant, it plays well with some vanilla and sassafras tones.


All in all, a good root beer – I give AJ Stephans a solid 4.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Virgil's Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg

So the Missus and I moved recently, which in and of itself is not newsworthy, but I mention anyways because it seems that I learned during the moving process where the line between hobby and mental illness/obsession is drawn. Amidst all the other things we had to pack and move, I moved no fewer than 27 bottles of root beer, two of which were pint-bottles and therefore larger than your typical bottle of root beer, and one of which was a bottle of sarsaparilla, which we may or may not call root beer for the purposes of this blog (more to come on that, I promise). To save our collective sanity, I decided to forego moving all of the empty bottles I had collected over the course of my blogging adventure (besides, I typically don’t move empty bottles from one place to the next – I like to keep the physical bottle collection as an artifact of the time I lived at a certain place, and the root beer experiences during that time) (plus I didn’t want to piss off the generous volunteer moving crew were they to realize they had to pick up a 50 lb box of empty glass, unlike certain members of my family who have been known to move entire boxes of pine cones from one county to the next). Even so, my associates know me, and therefore one volunteer mover was kind enough to bring a housewarming gift of even more root beer. Thus we begin our new life at our new address with 30 root beers and one sarsaparilla…

I told myself when we were moving that I would celebrate the completion of our move with a special root beer, so now that we’ve thrown away the last moving box, I can finally crack it open.


Virgil’s Bavarian counterpart makes a new friend.
(Old Town Root Beer Company, June 2011)

You’ll note that Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer is not only special because it says so in its title – it also happens to be the first of the spoils of my root beer field trip last month. No less significant is the fact that it is also, per ounce, the most expensive root beer I have purchased to date (somewhere around $10 per pint…). And it comes in a cool looking ceramic swing-top popper bottle, which may not necessarily justify the financial commitment required to drink it, but should not go unmentioned either...


With the exception of added honey and Bohemian spring water from Bavaria and the deletion of pimento berry oil and balsam oil, Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg does not appear to be that different from regular Virgil’s, but the differences are actually pronounced. Previously, I said that Virgil’s Root Beer has a distinctive flavor you have to be looking for to enjoy it, so Virgil’s Bavarian Nutmeg is much more accessible by comparison. There is indeed a distinct nutmeg flavor that carries over into the aftertaste along with some heat from either the cinnamon or cassia oil (which, although both come from the same plant, are probably sourced from different places here), but it balances well with the rest of the herbs – anise, licorice (aren’t those two the same thing?), vanilla, cloves, wintergreen, birch, and as I already mentioned, cinnamon and cassia oil. Add some honey and molasses in there and you end up with a very smooth, rich flavor with a balanced amount of sweetness. Unbleached sugar is the primary sweetener, so it not only keeps the honey and molasses from overpowering the flavor, but also adds a nice caramel-y note to the whole thing. With the entire virtual spice rack thrown in there, you would think the finished product would taste more like a Thanksgiving pie (you can certainly pinpoint every herb and spice’s flavor if you’re looking for it), but all ingredients are used deftly to give a full-bodied flavor to the brew.


All in all, the flavor is full, but subtle and creamy at the same time – not mild, just subtle. The stronger flavors here are definitely the requisite root beer herbs: wintergreen, birch, vanilla, and more so licorice and anise, and the added nutmeg is a good break from the norm. Whether or not the Bavarian water adds anything is unclear, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. Jorge Garcia recently deemed Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg his favorite root beer. I don’t think I would go as far as to say it’s my favorite since I would have preferred a slightly stronger flavor – not a change in the flavor, just more of it – but it’s certainly very good. Maybe I was expecting something transcendent given the hefty price tag. For now, I give it a high 4.