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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The Pooj has loot in the boot.
(BevMo Pasadena, April 2011)

Agave nectar is all the rage right now as an alternative sweetener. Farmed from the agave plant (variations of which are also used to make tequila), the syrup has lower glucose levels than typical sugar as well as fewer calories. Its honey-like consistency also makes it a viable sugar substitute for cooking, mixing into drinks, or simply out of the bottle as pancake syrup. However, the jury is still out on agave nectar’s relative health benefits – the decrease in glucose comes with an overwhelming increase in fructose levels that make it 1-1/2 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) and, ironically, given its marketing as a healthy sugar alternative, may in fact render agave nectar just as (un)healthy as we would typically consider HFCS.

But who are we kidding, right? I’m writing this, and presumably you’re reading this, because we drink lots of root beer with cavalier disregard for its potential health foibles. That in mind, on with the show…

Without harping on the debated health benefits of agave nectar, it’s worth noting that Oogave got its start because a natural food restaurateur from Denver decided that serving processed, commercial, HFCS-filled soda at his establishment would be counter to his purpose in opening it to begin with. But because his patrons repeatedly requested soda with their meals, Stephen Anson did the next best thing and started making his own sodas in a variety of creative flavors like watermelon and grapefruit. Anson began to notice that people were coming into his shop for sodas as much as they were coming in for food, so in 2007 he closed the restaurant, bought some production and bottling equipment, and set out full time as a beverage maker.

It’s a great story, so I really want to like the end product. Upon an initial sniff and a subsequent sip, I am glad to report that it doesn’t taste like it smells, because it kind of smells like a urinal cake… Granted, I don’t know what a urinal cake tastes like, but I’m not really planning on doing any more research into that, so let’s just leave that one where it is. As far as whether I would consider it root beer – not at all, really. Oogave’s website says it has “notes of sarsaparilla, vanilla, and horehound,” which sounds like some nice notes, but those notes are played at an extreme pianissimo. More than anything, it comes off as thin and sweet, with only a slight root-y essence rather than an actual root-y flavor.

Relative lack of root beer credentials aside though, Oogave is actually pleasantly light and refreshing. I’d imagine the watermelon and grapefruit varieties (or the strawberry rhubarb, which I actually want to go find now…) would be better suited for such accolades than bold and rich root beer should be. Oogave Root Beer then, gets only a 1.5.

Monday, July 11, 2011


The Pooj wants to arm wrestle for some reason...
(BevMo Pasadena, April 2011)

A couple months ago, my sister asked if we all wanted to meet her in St. Louis for a weekend (heh, meet me in St. Louis…nevermind…). While I’m sure there’s much more to see in St. Louis than the Arch and the Wainwright Building, which I had already seen before, I couldn’t really think of anything else I really wanted to do there (well, except get some barbecued pork products…). More to the point, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do there that would have appealed to the rest of my travelling contingent, since I doubt anyone else would have wanted to spend the entire weekend on a tour of all of Adler & Sullivan’s buildings… Or eating barbecued pork products... Now if I knew then that one can watch Fitz’s Root Beer being bottled on a refurbished 1940s bottling line whilst enjoying a burger, I may have been more tempted to make the trip after all (and force everyone to go on the architectural tour with me…).

Fitz’s Drive-In first opened in 1947 in the St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights. Car-hops served up burgers and house-made root beer until its owner retired and the restaurant closed its doors in 1970. Enterprising locals started re-bottling Fitz’s secret recipe brew back in 1985, later opening up Fitz’s American Grill & Bottling Works in 1993 inside a renovated art deco bank building near Washington University. To keep Fitz’s rooted in its past tradition, the owners carted down an old bottling line from Wisconsin, fixed it up, and installed it in the restaurant where it operates today. Definitely worth another root beer field trip, if you ask me.

Unfortunately, I would pretty much be going just to see the bottling line and try the burgers, since Fitz’s Root Beer is not particularly spectacular. It’s heavy on the vanilla and pretty sweet, but pretty bland when it comes to the herbs. There’s initially a mild wintergreen birch flavor that fades as you get further down the bottle. One thing that doesn’t fade is the vanilla – it lingers a while in the aftertaste. Since we also had another bottle of Olde Brooklyn open, I tried them side by side, resulting in the Olde Brooklyn tasting even more cola-ish to the point of gummy-cola-bottle-ish. Fitz’s tasted more birch-y afterward by comparison, but as soon as my taste buds forgot about New York, St. Louis lost much of its foliage as well, if you catch my drift.

Hopefully the frosty mugs of root beer and gourmet burgers at Fitz’s American Grill & Bottling Works are worth the trip, because right now Fitz’s Root Beer is nothing to leave home for. That’ll get you a 3.