Thursday, June 23, 2011

BJ's Brewhouse

The Pooj tries to escape the Phantom Zone.
(BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, June, 2011)

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse first opened as a deep-dish pizza joint in Santa Ana back in 1978. Since then, they’ve become pretty ubiquitous in Southern California, and have expanded to more than a dozen states throughout the nation. I was surprised to learn that they did not start making beer until 1996 because I’ve become so accustomed to seeing their big brew-vat signs outside their restaurants. Now I’ve actually had BJ’s root beer before, but not in recent memory – thanks to a visiting friend’s hankering for ice cream sandwiches from Diddy Riese across the street (in enemy territory, mind you)(Fight On), we stopped here for a bite and a brew.

First off, it’s served in a big frosted mug, so that’s a good start. Second, it smells heavily of vanilla, with just a mild sarsaparilla/sassafras-y twinge – good for vanilla lovers and not necessarily a deal breaker for herb-y lovers. Third, and this is where it starts getting odd, there’s a two-tiered flavor to it, but not in a taste-and-aftertaste kind of way. It’s almost like your different senses pick up different flavors at the same time. Upon hitting your tongue, it’s sweet and almost cola-ish, with a mild herb-y flavor. A split second after the initial taste, you get a second layer on top of the first taste, kind of traveling up your throat and into your nose (yeah, this doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, I know, but stay with me here) – this one is kind of smoky, like burnt marshmallows or toasted bread, as if the barley and hops somehow made it into the root beer vat as well. The thing is, I can taste both at once, but it’s still oddly separated. Weird...

But if my experience with Anacapa has taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t judge a draught root beer by the first glass – maybe just a bad pull or something.

My refill glass is a little better with the flavor blending, at least to the point where I don’t taste two distinctly different flavors at the same time (which begs the question – how what happened the first time…?). The odd part about that is that I don’t really taste either of the flavors from the first glass (I mean, did I get a dirty glass the first time…?), but the flavor is a little more on the root/bark side (that is, sarsaparilla and sassafras), which is OK with me. Otherwise the flavor is rather mild and kind of thin, without much birch or licorice. Since I wasn’t so distracted by the multi-story taste this glass, I got a little more of a root-y aftertaste, too.

I’m actually a little disappointed with BJ’s root beer, but maybe my expectations are set a bit too high. After all, I do like the pizza at BJ’s for the most part, and they do make good lemonade and onion rings, not to mention the only beer I’ve ever not hated (yeah, not a fan of beer…)(and I’m referring to their stout, in case you’re wondering what beer I don’t hate). However, I’m not at all saying the root beer is bad – it’s just OK. I’ll have it next time I’m at BJ’s, but I’m not going to go to BJ’s just for the root beer. With that, I give BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse root beer a 3.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Field Trip!

This past weekend, I learned that “there’s a fine line between hobby and mental illness.” Now I’ll have to admit that I gleaned this sage statement from a souvenir sign in a gift shop in Temecula, possibly while crossing this referenced line… I say this because this past weekend’s excursion marks the farthest I have ever driven specifically to look for root beer. Granted, I was already in the Lake Elsinore area for a wedding, so I didn’t drive that far by comparison – 20 miles farther south than I would have already had to drive for the wedding, so only an additional 40 mile round trip, really. But hey, I live in Pasadena, so driving two and a half hours down to a part of the Southern California desert I’ve been avoiding (more specifically, a part of the I-15 freeway I’ve been avoiding) since I moved out to LA is no small occasion. And while I have acquired root beers in other cities and even in other states, those root beers had just been welcome highlights to trips I had to take anyways. My trip to Temecula, however, was with root beer in mind – thus my first chronicled Root Beer Field Trip!

You may recall that I’ve already written fondly about the Old Town Root Beer Company’s root beer, so you can imagine that I was quite excited to visit the Old Town Root Beer Company itself.

See, I was really there…

I’m not clear as to how long the company has been around, but I do know that owners John and Cory Montgomery make their house label root beers (three varieties so far) from a family recipe they found folded up in John’s grandmother’s family Bible. John and Cory – who are very nice, by the way – still run the shop, along with what appear to be younger generations of their family. Turns out John used to live in Pasadena, too, not too far away from where we live now!

The brew that started it all. With some friends.

According to the local visitor’s guide, John got his start in sodas through a Dr. Pepper bottling plant he owned with his family, later branching into various pursuits including a Coca-Cola bar in the Ukraine. Here’s just a smidgin’ of what has to be a couple hundred different sodas they sell in the store.

The two best things from Mansfield, OH: the Missus and Stewart’s – you probably already know which one I like better…

For vintage soda collectors, they've also got old soda bottles and mugs. I was tempted by the barrel-shaped Dad's mug on the far right...

Bottoms up.

They also sell root beer floats made with one of their signature root beers – poured straight out of the bottle, as opposed to a tap, as I first hoped. I’m not disappointed, though, since the root beer flavor was still quite good, even mixed with melty ice cream. Nice and refreshing on a hot day, so much so that it didn’t survive long enough to be photographed…

On the road again…

Monday, June 13, 2011


The Pooj calls out, "He went that way." *
(BevMo Pasadena, April 2011)

While many a soda has probably been criticized for tasting like carbonated frosting (::cough::Jones::cough::), I think Faygo may be the first I’ve encountered that actually brags of this. Faygo was conceived as the Feigenson Brothers Bottle Works in 1907 by said Feigenson brothers, Detroit Russian-immigrant bakers who developed their soda flavors from cake frosting recipes. Said brothers later shortened their company name to Faygo in the 1920s because their original company name was too long to print on a glass bottle. Interesting historical note – the Faygo website states that sodas were referred to as “pop” because of the popping sound made when bottles were opened. Today, Faygo is available in all canning and bottling mediums (i.e., aluminum, plastic, glass), but the only ones I’ve encountered in Southern California are the “retro” style glass bottles that the company revived in 2007. Back in Michigan, Faygo-flavored cupcakes are also available, harkening back to the company’s frosting roots.

You’ll be glad to hear that Faygo Root Beer does not taste like cake frosting, but instead veers towards the wintergreen and clove end of the herb spectrum. There are also the requisite hints of licorice and vanilla, but the smell and aftertaste are still heavier on the birch and cloves. I would say the herbs also tend towards bark-y, since the aftertaste is almost slightly bitter, but it's just sweet enough to meld well with the heavy dose of herbs. One possible down-side: it seems somewhat acidic, evidenced by a squeaky feel it leaves on my teeth, and it is far from what I’d call smooth. Still, it has a good flavor, with a good scent throughout, similar to something you’d get from a tap (which is good, since they advertise it as draft style).

Faygo Root Beer recently won a taste test of regional root beers over at
Serious Eats, but I’m not certain that I'm as impressed as they were. Perhaps my expectations were set a bit high, since I typically hold the Serious Eats team and their opinions in high regard. While I think Faygo is good, I’m not sure it would even break into my top five (maybe my top ten) – probably means I need to do another test later to see how it stacks up against my favorites. But hey, I’ve never claimed to be anything other than subjective. That in mind, Faygo Root Beer gets a very low 4.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Olde Brooklyn

The Pooj has a bridge for sale.
(TJ Maxx Walnut, May 2011)

Olde Brooklyn may or may not actually be from Brooklyn… White Rock Beverages, which only somewhat recently acquired the Olde Brooklyn line of soft drinks, was actually started in Wisconsin way back in 1871 as a mineral water bottler, and is the same company that makes the Sioux City line of sodas (which would seem promising so far, right?). Each beverage in the Olde Brooklyn brand, however, is named after a neighborhood in Brooklyn, so one would assume that it either originated in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn, or was opened by someone from Brooklyn. In any case, that’s how we end up with Olde Brooklyn Williamsburg Root Beer.

So if you’re from Williamsburg, you may want to write your congressman about getting your city’s name taken off of this root beer. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s just pretty mediocre, and I wouldn’t want its lack of pizazz to reflect poorly on your part of town. Unless of course Williamsburg itself is a pretty mediocre part of town... But since I’m not from Williamsburg, and to my knowledge have never before visited Williamsburg, I’m in no position to judge. Plus I really don’t want to offend anyone who is from Williamsburg, so I’ll just leave it at that. I'd like to think that
good things come from Brooklyn though, since the Dodgers and Spike Lee are from Brooklyn. Well, let's maybe forget about the Spike Lee part and just go with the Dodgers then...

What were we talking about?

Ah yes, Olde Brooklyn Williamsburg Root Beer. On the whole, it’s pretty unremarkable. It has an almost cola-like tangy-ness that covers up any semblance of rooty-ness. There’s a little more of an herb-y flavor in the aftertaste – maybe some sassafras – but it’s too thin to really tell. Stick with Sioux City next time you’re in the mood for root beer from the White Rock camp.

Imagine mixing Coca-Cola with A&W, and you might get Olde Brooklyn Williamsburg Root Beer. Or Barq’s without the bite. That’s good enough to get you a 2.5.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Triple XXX

The Pooj has a few too many.
(BevMo Pasadena, April 2011)

Triple XXX Root Beer is yet another root beer with an exciting life story (well, as exciting as any soft drink history, I suppose…). Anheuser-Busch first opened the Galveston Brewing Company in 1895, selling beer locally under the name of “Hi Grade” in oak barrels marked with three X’s. When the company started producing soda syrups in 1900, they named them after their distinctive branding, and thus XXX was born. During Prohibition, the company changed its name completely, changed its brewing equipment completely to exclusively produce soft drinks, but only slightly changed their soda brand name to Triple XXX. Later in the 1920s, Triple XXX expanded into the Southwest, and opened maybe 100 Triple XXX Thirst Station root beer drive-ins, two of which still stand today in Issaquah, WA and Lafayette, IN.

Personally, I feel that any root beer that spawned its own drive-in should be a pretty good one, but my experience thus far with Stewart’s and Frostop yielded only better-than-average results. Does Triple XXX redeem the drive-in lot?

For the most part, yes! Triple XXX has a very nice root-y flavor that’s equal parts licorice, vanilla, and molasses, with a nice wintergreen finish. It has a very good, rich scent that’s also heavy on the licorice, vanilla, and molasses which notable does not fade at all the entire time I’m drinking it. Everything is well balanced though, so I like it. My reluctance to give it a higher rating comes from what seems a heavy handed application of sugar – while the sweetness works pretty well with the sharp herb-y flavor, if it was any sweeter, it would border on being syrup-y. On the other hand, the sugar seems to smooth out the texture in the same way adding honey usually does (except as far as I can tell, there's no honey here), so maybe it's not so bad.

It’s a little hard for me to make a clear determination right now, so I’ll give Triple XXX a lower rating for the moment – I’ll definitely need to revisit it and see how it stacks up against other root beers of similar rating. That having been said, I still liked it well enough to go back for more, so for now, Triple XXX gets a very low 4.