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…


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


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.