Friday, December 21, 2012

Dreaming of a Kind-of-Christmas Root Beer, Part 2: Polar Classics

The Pooj feels a chill.
 (Rocket Fizz Camarillo, December 2011)

So… Two posts in one week. What was I saying a couple posts ago about cutting down my sugar intake…?

Er, anyways, continuing our series on marginally seasonally-themed root beer, today we head to the North Pole and sample the resident beverages. Or is it the South Pole that has polar bears? I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since Polar Classics Root Beer doesn’t actually come from either Pole. Rather, JG Bieberbach of Germany first started the company – which he called the JG Bieberbach Company, naturally – in 1882 after moving to New York at the request of the Shafer Brewing Company to help brew the first true pilsner on this side of the Atlantic. After being sold to a liquor distillery in 1901 and acquiring a few more businesses here and there after that, the company, then known as the Bieber Polar Ginger Ale Company, hit Prohibition. Business thereafter was limited to seltzer, ginger ale and mineral water. Post Prohibition, they decided to remain a soft drink company and so remain to this day, operated by the fourth generation of the same family that purchased it back in 1901. Today, at least in its company website’s estimation, Polar Beverages is the largest independent soft drink bottler in US.

Jolly rotund men (and even dour svelte men, I suppose) of either Pole with a sweet tooth should enjoy Polar Classic Root Beer, as its dominant flavor is very sweet and caramel-y. Men (or women) of any predisposition and body type with a root beer tooth, however, might be a little disappointed, since the mild root-y flavor is really only around the edges of the sweetness. While it lacks any distinctive herb notes, it does have a decent amount of vanilla flavor and a pleasantly menthol aftertaste to round out the sweetness, though the sweetness is definitely the defining ingredient in the palette.

On a more positive note, the texture is very smooth. There’s a more-than-satisfying amount of foam that’s soft, with a glossy sheen that suggests the addition of a foaming agent. A quick glance at the ingredients shows quillaia extract, so we are go on the foaming additive.  Said foaming agent also gives a slight acidity to the aftertaste, but not enough of one to bother me.

  
The Pooj feels an artificial chill.

Wait, how’s that again? Did someone say something about diet sodas?

Yeah, so feel free to throw out everything I wrote a couple posts ago. Except that part about the 30 bottles of root beer. Actually, throw that out, too – there’s closer to 40 now (I’ll explain later). In my defense, I actually couldn’t find the regular version of Polar Classics Root Beer for months, so had purchased the diet version beforehand, just in case. This will be the last time I make that mistake, I promise. Why such a reaction? Because when tasting the Polar Classics Diet Root Beer and the Polar Classic regular Root Beer side-by-side, the diet version really tastes like nothing at all.

First, there’s no smell coming from the bottle. None. Save for the slight smell of glue that wafts up when poured in a glass, there’s nothing to indicate that there’s anything in here at all. Granted, I’m sampling this after having just ingested the better part of a bottle of the super-sweet version, so by comparison, I would have been optimistic at best and deluded at worst (yes, I’m taking my root beer consumption a little too seriously, but hey, I have a blog devoted to it, so I think I’ve more than proven that point already…) to expect otherwise. That said, I would have at least expected the diet version of a beverage to taste something like the regular version (for the record, Diet Dr. Pepper doesn’t taste more like regular Dr. Pepper, unless when considering the statement “tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper than _____,” your “_____” is something unlike Dr. Pepper entirely, like say, gazpacho). Any “root beer” character is limited to the aftertaste, which is the same as that of the root beer chewing gum we spoke about a couple months ago.

Diet Polar does share one thing in common with regular Polar: the quillaia extract – the Diet Polar actually holds its head better than the regular Polar. However, possibly due to the lack of real sugar and the typically ensuing thin texture, the resulting carbonation is much harder and makes the overall beverage feel much less smooth than its sugared counterpart. Interestingly, the use of sucralose instead of aspartame as the artificial sweetener actually reduces the stinging feeling in the back of the throat that most other diet beverages suffer from – Diet Coke also uses sucralose (Splenda), but also has the sting, so I don’t know what’s different here.

But really, do we care? We’re here to talk real root beer, not fake root beer. As a real root beer, Polar Classics Root Beer isn’t bad, but not particularly memorable either. Penguins, polar bears, and red be-decked saints alike, we can probably do better. I give Polar Classics Root Beer a 3.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dreaming of a Kind-of-Christmas Root Beer, Part 1: Tommyknocker

The Pooj can dig it.
(Rocket Fizz Westwood, February 2012)

‘Tis the season for marginally holiday-themed root beer…

While the North Pole should be more than sufficiently staffed with good elves this time of year, we now turn our attention so some of the ambiguously moral characters in the fey realm. Tommyknockers are the US equivalent of the Cornish bucca (also called the Welsh bwca), two-foot tall elfish creatures who live in mines, dress as miners, and are said to steal mining equipment, blow out lamps, tip lunch-pails, and cause general mischief. Called knockers because of the knocking sound that happens prior to a mine cave-in, some say the sound is caused by tommyknockers chipping away at the mine shaft, causing the collapse; others say the sound comes from tommyknockers tapping out warning that a collapse is imminent. Still other stories say the knocking is tommyknockers alerting miners to gold locations. Regardless of what they were, miners wanted the knockers on their side, so they would throw the last bites of their meals into the mines to keep the knockers happy (source).

I didn’t have to propel anything, edible or otherwise, into any sort of shaft to acquire Tommyknocker Root Beer; I just had to hand my money to the nice lady behind the counter at Rocket Fizz – life is somewhat easier these days. Tommyknocker Root Beer comes to Rocket Fizz by way of the Tommyknocker Brewery, which has has a presence in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, CO in one form or another since the town's founding in 1859 . During the Colorado gold rush in late 1800s, it served the local miners, many of whom were Cornish immigrants, hence the name. As far as I can tell, the mines are no longer in use except as tourist attractions, though Tommyknocker Brewery continues to operate as a brewhouse and restaurant.

At first, the bottle gives off a traditionally root-y scent, but that’s quickly followed by another scent that is slightly savory, but that I can’t quite identify. It’s not clove or nutmeg, which aren’t uncommon in root beers, though not really considered savory; nor is it one of the more commonly available savory herbs like thyme or rosemary.  For an extreme lack of better terms, it smells like someone is cooking dinner. Odd, yes, but maybe not so much when you consider the next scent coming off: maple syrup. Maple syrup is indeed listed in the ingredients, and it is, if I had to name one, the dominant scent. What I may be smelling, then, is possibly caramelized maple, which when mixed with the more earthy smells one more commonly associates with root beer, I may be perceiving as savory.

Maple syrup likewise factors heavily into the flavor, and definitely carries the aftertaste. In addition, there’s a moderately strong organic flavor (organic in the plant-based sense, not in the natural foods sense) with a slight edge, probably birch, and a slightly fruit-y finish. The ingredients also list vanilla, but I’m not detecting any, mostly because the maple flavor is so dominant. Halfway through the bottle, it’s a little hard for me to disassociate any other flavor present with the maple aroma, so there may in fact be more nuance than my taste buds can wade through (which, I suppose, wouldn’t then qualify as nuance…). It’s worth noting that Tommyknocker has a much stronger maple flavor than Vintage Soda’s Canadian Cola, which is supposedly sweetened with maple syrup but still only tastes like cola to me.

Like other brewery-sourced root beers, Tommyknocker has a nice head, with a decent amount of foam that holds up well inside the bottle. The head disperses quickly when poured into a glass, but the overall texture is still pretty smooth.

Normally, I prefer root beers to taste more like root beer than its secondary ingredients, a preference that would typically drop a root beer like Tommyknocker down a few notches in my estimation. True, the root/herb flavor is not particularly strong, but I do like maple syrup, so I’ll let it slide this time. Tommyknocker Root Beer gets a 3.5.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

GUS (Grown Up Soda)

The Pooj acts his age.
(Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer, May 2012)

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a fan of diet beverages. There’s something about that empty taste of artificial sweetener and that accompanying sting in the back of the throat that takes the enjoyment out of it. Sugar substitutes haven’t really worked for me either, so in my recent attempt to eat healthier, I’ve simply opted to consume less sugar, which means drinking less soda, root beer included (hence the relative lack of posting lately). As a result, much to the Missus’ dismay, there have been well over 30 bottles of root beer taking up space in the fridge (and on top of the fridge) (and in the pantry) for the past several months.

Jeanette Luoh and Steve Hersh faced a similar dilemma (the too-much-sugar one, not the 30-bottles-of-root-beer one) (well, maybe they have the 30-bottles-of-root-beer one, too…). Per the company website, they wanted a satisfying substitute to over-sweetened soft drinks and juices, but didn’t want to be limited to diet sodas, seltzers, or flavored waters. In 2003, they started Grown-Up Sodas (GUS), catering to palettes like theirs by keeping the ingredients real, but simply reducing the amount of sugar in their beverages.

And GUS Dry Root Beer certainly delivers as advertised in the less-sweet department (the label actually states “Not Too Sweet”), both in good and bad ways. First, the good – using less sugar actually allows the birch flavor to come through more clearly (I’m assuming that it’s birch because birch oil is the only special item listed amongst the ingredients), since there’s nothing really fighting with it for dominance. That also allows for the vanilla finish, as well as the alternately fruity and herb-y aftertaste, to take a more prominent role than an otherwise uber-sugared root beer typically would. While the blurb on the label also boasts the addition of clove (it’s not actually listed under the ingredients though), I can’t pick it out, less sugar or not. In addition to that, there’s a nice herb-y scent that keeps most of its intensity from start to finish of the bottle.

Where GUS definitely suffers for the lack of sugar is in its texture. Although the lower sugar content does make for a slightly crisper, sharper flavor, thereby giving the Dry Root Beer some of its promised dry-ness, it does make for a rather thin, watery feeling over all. It’s not particularly smooth at all, noticeably lacking the fullness and body that real sugar can provide. That has the added effect of making the already-strong carbonation feel even stronger – this is definitely not a chug-able root beer (but then, why waste a root beer by chugging it to begin with, right?) unless you consider a searing pain in the back of your throat integral to your root beer experience. Having said that, the carbonation isn’t all bad; it does create a surprisingly large head that dissipates satisfyingly slowly. Once the carbonation settles down a bit, the dry-ness becomes a little more pronounced.

So while the overall flavor of GUS Dry Root Beer is actually pretty decent, after the first few sips – which give a good hit of herb and root (or birch, as the case may be) – it starts to taste hollow and even a little boring. I don’t find myself particularly excited about finishing off the bottle, which actually doubles the lower-calorie effect when you think about it (i.e., it’s lower calorie to begin with, and I’m drinking less of it to boot). This is not to say that I won’t drink it again – it’ll just be relegated to those times when I really want that root beer taste on my tongue, but I’m too calorie conscious to slurp down 42 grams of sugar (there's only 24 grams per bottle of GUS, by comparison).

Root beer – any kind of soda, for that matter – wasn’t really a kitchen staple when I was a kid. My parents actually did a pretty good job teaching us to eat right, so sugary beverages were regarded more as an occasional treat. As far as my root beer obsession goes, I still believe drinking a root beer should feel like a treat, and to that end, GUS doesn't feel so much treat-like as it feels utilitarian (probably good to accompany a meal, or better yet used in a float, where the extra sugar from the soda is certainly not necessary, but where the ice cream can make up for the lack of smoothness). That in mind then, at least when it comes to root beer, perhaps I’m not ready to grow up just yet. GUS Dry Root Beer gets a low 3.5.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Pseudo-SCIENCE: Root Beer Substitute for the Non-Soda Inclined, Halloween Edition

(October 2012)

Ah, Halloween, the gateway holiday to the fall overeating season. While we did not expect to have any trick-or-treaters this year, hence no need to purchase copious amounts of candy, hence no copious amounts of leftover candy, I’m getting my fair share of excessive cavity fuel at the office. Of course, we all know my preferred cavity fuel is generally in liquid form, the All Hallows rigmarole does offer more opportunity to discover solid interpretations than do other times of the year.

Well, maybe not. Root beer flavored treats aren’t exactly going to overtake Snickers bars or M&Ms anytime soon as door-to-door must-haves, so I’ll take them whenever I can get them.

Except for Root Beer Dum-Dums…

The Pooj is speechless – speechless.

The wrapper says root beer, and the sucker itself is even relatively root beer colored, but that’s essentially where any comparability ends.

See.

It smells slightly cinnamon-y and slightly cherry-ish, and tastes generically sweet, like one of those spherical hard candies you get at some restaurants in lieu of mints. Any supposedly root beer flavoring simply comes off as medicinal.

No big loss though – there are still plenty of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the office candy bowl…

Friday, October 19, 2012

Root Beer Road Trip: Rocket Fizz

 
Rocket Fizz’s flagship Camarillo Store. 
(December 2011)

In honor of the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s epic 2-day commute through the streets of my fair city, as well as Felix Baumgartner’s epic stratospheric skydive, today we drink some hopefully-epic root beer! By its very nature, root beer is a land-based affair (in case you didn’t already know that…), and the closest we’ve come thus far to even self-appointed space-age root beer has been the Fizzies tablets (and we all know how well that turned out…), so as much as I’d like to say we are sampling root beer from space, or that has at least travelled to space and back, alas, we are not. We are, however, getting the next best thing – root beer from a store with space-themed name…! Yes, I realize consuming even celestially-themed-name fizzy drinks is not near as impressive as either space shuttling or stratosphere diving, but I will say that today’s root beer comes with a rather epic road trip.

And this post has been a long time coming, so please excuse the potentially outdated photos…

Since we had a couple days off after Christmas last year, the Missus and I decided to pack our bags pre-New Year and head north for some much needed R & R. Little did the Missus know that at zero hour, 1 pm, she had also been roped into doing some not-as-much needed root beer reconnaissance, to be performed by hitting up every Rocket Fizz location on the Ventura Freeway-CA134/101 corridor…

Whatever fine line exists between hobby and obsession has officially been crossed.
 (Clockwise from the top left: Westlake Village, Burbank, Thousand Oaks, 
Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks, and Glendale. Not pictured: Pasadena and Ventura.)

Rocket Fizz is one of my go-to soda and candy shops (second only to Galco’s). The original store opened in Camarillo, CA in 2009, and the company has since grown to 26 locations (both franchised and company-owned) in 7 states – by November there will be 28 total stores, with 11 more still planned in 2 more states. I’ve personally visited 12 shops in 2 states (amassing a full third of my collection from their stores) and the root beer selection appears to be mostly the same at all stores (an article on their site claims to have over 70 different root beers between their stores, but I doubt that claim since I have already exhausted their root beer options), probably because co-owners Rob Powells and Ryan Morgan approve every product and vendor themselves. The company also produces several lines of sodas: Lester’s Fixins and Melba’s Fixins, named for Morgan’s grandparents; Judge Wapner, named for Powells’ uncle; Martian Soda, named for Powells’ 4th grade teacher; and Snooki Wild Cherry, named for, well, Snooki… (source) Since May of 2011, Rocket Fizz has also bottled another line of sodas under their company name – 19 different varieties including the one you see before you now.

The Pooj misses the Earth so much.

As you would expect from something called “Root Beer Float” as opposed to just “root beer,” there’s a very heavy dose of vanilla in both the scent and the flavor. However, that vanilla is overwhelming in a scented-candle or hand-soap kind of way – in other words, not particularly in a real-vanilla kind of way. The same idea applies to the Root Beer part of the Float – not particularly distinctive to any root or herb, but just generically “root beer.” I think the best way to describe this is as something that’s supposed to taste like root beer rather than actually be root beer (not unlike the chewing gum from the previous post). While it is sweetened with real sugar instead of HFCS, I still get an empty taste overall. Other than being really sweet (both in taste and aftertaste), there’s not much else to it.

Unfortunately then, Rocket Fizz Root Beer Float is far from stellar. This is not to say that Rocket Fizz is not a good store. Stores like Rocket Fizz sell an experience – that fun, carefree, and nostalgic experience of drinking soda and eating candy – and Rocket Fizz does a fabulous job providing that experience. I simply can’t expect them to apply the same attention to detail to producing good root beer, which is still better left to those who are exclusively in the business of making soda (and beer). Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because for Rocket Fizz to fully provide that experience necessitates selling the products of those who make good root beer, and as long as they continue to focus their efforts on selling soda and candy, I will continue to be a customer (particularly since they are they are the exclusive merchant of Fireman’s Brew Root Beer).

… I just think it's going to be a long, long time 'til I'll be buying their own label of root beer again. Rocket Fizz Root Beer Float gets a 2.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pseudo-SCIENCE: Root Beer Substitute for the Non-Soda Inclined?

A real post is coming soon – I promise. This has been a very busy month, with little time for root beer-related prose, and even less time for recreationally-imbibed fizzy beverages. In the meanwhile, I’m at least still maintaining my self-appointed position as guinea pig of all things root beer related, and in following, felt compelled to plunk down my $1.50 when I came across this at the store today. 

The Pooj is simultaneously fascinated and appalled.

Extra Dessert Delights has several different kinds of dessert-themed sugar-free chewing gums. Now I’m typically averse to stated sugar-free items, since, well, what’s the point? Having said that, I have tried several different kinds of Extra Dessert Delights in the past (hey, I needed cash, it was the cheapest thing in the store, and at the moment of purchase, I smelled like pastrami every time I spoke) with varying degrees of success. I knew there was a root beer version out there, but had not seen it until recently, and in theory, what’s to not like about having breath that smells like root beer? Granted, my preferred method of attaining breath-that-smells-like-root-beer is by drinking root beer, but these will at least fit in my pocket a lot easier.

Surprisingly, it does smell like root beer – very heavily weighted in the vanilla direction of things, and otherwise a little empty smelling, but like root beer nonetheless. That is, however, where the similarity ends. If I don’t already know it’s supposed to be root beer flavored, I don’t think I would guess it is root beer flavored. Were I to focus very hard on the flavor (and mind you, I am focusing much harder on the flavor of this gum than any gum-flavor should typically warrant focus), and can pick out some spicy notes, but again, it’s mostly generically sugary without any particularly distinctive root-y flavors.

This is not to say that Extra Dessert Delights Root Beer Float chewing gum is not successful on any level. While the suspect root beer flavor does wear off rather quickly (seemingly contrary to Extra Chewing Gum’s intended goal), it does leave a root beer-ish aftertaste not unlike the menthol feeling leftover from drinking a real root beer. Now this could be from actual menthol, to which gum is no stranger, but there is also a distinct additional “otherness” to the aftertaste that can very much fall into the herb-y category – certainly moreso than some of the lesser root beers I’ve written about in the past. And when you think about it, chewing gum is probably more in the business of aftertastes than …er… foretastes … so in that regard, Extra Dessert Delights Root Beer Float does actually fulfill its intended purpose.

Of course it will never replace the satisfaction (not to mention the flavor) of actually drinking a root beer, but I can certainly do worse when it comes to chewing gum. … Like, for instance, the Orange Creamsicle variety of Dessert Delights, which tastes like how citrus-scented dish soap smells. And that’s probably much better than the Apple Pie version – I’m not touching that one…

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SCIENCE! Root Beer vs. Sarsaparilla



 
Separated at birth?
(Cost Plus World Market, February 2011) 

In the interests of SCIENCE! and refining my root beer tasting palette, I’m embarking on a series of side-by-side comparisons between root beer and the beverages that the root-uninitiated (i.e., people who have better use for brain cells than comparing marginally different carbonated beverages) commonly view as interchangeable with root beer: sarsaparilla and birch beer. Since root beer is typically made with some kind of birch-type oil and some kind of sarsaparilla-type root, my goal is to train my taste buds to isolate those flavors in the various root beers I sample so as to have a more accurate perception of their true proportion in the herb and spice mix. Eventually, when I build up the nerve, spare time, and kitchen space, these observations will serve as the basis for developing my own brew – until that day comes, all I can do is dream.

Well, that and drink already-made-and-bottled root beer…

Sarsaparilla is the common name for smilax regelii, a trailing vine native to Central America. The term sarsaparilla comes from the Spanish zarza, roughly translated as “bramble,” likely for the plant’s thorny stem, and parrilla, meaning small (-illa) vine (parra). Native Americans first used the shrub for supposed medicinal benefits, as did later Europeans who used it to treat all sorts of maladies including syphilis, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, and leprosy, amongst others. Whether it actually did anything to remedy such ailments is unproven, and all we do know is that it is a potentially good source of antioxidants (which is interesting when you consider that back in the 80s, everyone – maybe not actually everyone, but at least my mother, who made it sound like it was or should have been everyone – considered root beer a carcinogen because it contained caramel color). Here in the US, the term sarsaparilla is synonymous with the soft drink made from its roots, though the latter is also called looga in other cultures (source).

One person’s looga, however, really can be another person’s root beer since there are enough similarities between the two and more than enough variations of both to make any true comparison difficult. To account for such variables, I will only compare root beers and sarsaparillas produced by the same company in each individual test. We will thus either discover that the two brews are in fact different, or that it’s all a sham wherein the companies involved simply slap different labels on the same product in an evil ploy to trick us into buying more stuff (you know, like iPhones). For the purposes of today’s test then (which I presume you already know from the photo preceding this post), we are using Old Town Root Beer Company’s Root Beer and Sarsaparilla.

From the freshly-opened bottles, the root beer smells sharper and spicier than the sarsaparilla, perhaps indicating, if nothing else, that there’s more stuff going into the former than the latter. This would make sense so far if we start with the assumption that root beer at least contains sarsaparilla root. Visually, both have the same approximate coloring and apparent density, though the carbonation does appear a little stronger in the root beer. Old Town’s sarsaparilla has a slightly smokier, molasses-ier flavor than their root beer, possibly indicating that sarsaparilla root is the flavor I actually taste when I think a particular root beer has molasses in it (or that Old Town adds molasses to their sarsaparilla formulation). In either case, it does have a more definite plant-based flavor than the root beer, which is generally sweeter. As far as Old Town’s root beer goes, the honey is more evident when compared to the sarsaparilla. Both beverages are different enough that at least I perceive a contrast between the two, even if it is only psychological. 

But this would not be a true SCIENCE! post if we did not at least consider removing such psychological barriers. Onward to the blind taste test... 

Take appropriate measures to avoid contamination.

The first round of testing shall be administered by yours truly to Test Subject 1, the Missus. My opening pitch is a curveball – I give her two glasses of sarsaparilla, the first of which she calls root beer and the second sarsaparilla – psychology throws a strike. I vary things up for the second test – root beer first, then sarsaparilla. Without a control sip immediately before each test, Subject 1 does not perceive any difference between the two and thinks both are the same, but she can’t really say whether they are root beer or sarsaparilla. Final test for Subject 1: sarsaparilla first, then root beer. Subject 1 flips the order and calls each one the other. Preliminary conclusion after one round of testing is that there are not enough perceptible differences to differentiate one beverage from the other.

Round two of testing is administered by the Missus on me, Test Subject 2. She starts with a 1-2 punch of root beer and sarsaparilla, and I identify both incorrectly as the other. Test 2 is the same as the first, but this time, I think they are both sarsaparilla. Last chance: both samples are root beer, the first of which I identify correctly, but somehow think that the same beverage the second time around is sarsaparilla, which kind of means that I really didn’t identify the first correctly either.

Do consider that by the time you've had several glasses of either the root beer or the sarsaparilla, you get pretty numb to the subtleties of both. Still, that’s no excuse – today’s conclusion has to either be that there are not enough perceivable differences between the two beverages or that our taste buds are not well enough attuned to said differences. Perhaps the true conclusion is that we need to do more “research.”

And that we will, rest assured, that we will…

Friday, September 7, 2012

Root Beer Field Trip: Galco's & White Rose Root Beer


 
(July 2012)

Welcome to my 100th root beer posting!

First off, disclaimer: I’ve actually had over 100 root beer varieties, so this is not quite as monumental as actually being my 100th root beer sampled. Reading Draft (or sometime thereabouts) would have probably more accurately been my 100th root beer variety, not counting the random microbrews and generic labels that I’ve had in the past, so this is really just the 100th root beer I’m writing about. And there are certainly others out in the great www, who have sampled many more root beers than I (here and here, for instance – I admire your tenacity and metabolism), so even a mere 100 is really no big whoopdedoo in the grand scheme of things. But sticking with something this long is pretty significant for me, particularly since I don’t think I’ve ever written this much about any single topic (that I was not employed to do, that is).

Being that this is, then, a momentous occasion after all, I can’t waste it on just any root beer. Thus for my 100th root beer posting, I’m paying my respects to everyone’s favorite Soda Pop Stop (certainly my favorite), Highland Park’s very own Galco’s Old World Grocery. We’ll get to Galco’s soda label in a minute, but let’s begin with some history, shall we?

This is just the international soda aisle...

Galco’s was still an Italian grocery store when owner John Nese’s family took over, having been one since it opened in 1897. It stayed just that for a long while, holding steady even during its relocation from Downtown LA to Highland Park in 1955. After a fateful exchange with a large cola conglomerate wherein the company insisted on charging him more to stock their products than they charged the chain grocer down the road, Nese decided to exclusively stock sodas from companies of similar size to his own company. He discovered smaller independent bottlers who were unable to compete with the likes of Coca-Cola or Pepsi for shelf space in larger grocers, and who would often otherwise be bought out by those larger companies and closed down simply to eliminate competition (source). Nese (who is a native Angeleno, hailing from pre-Dodger Stadium Chavez Ravine, and a fellow Trojan – Fight On!) found that giving these small businesses a place to ply their wares also gave his customers a better selection of products because he was not limited to selling the product lines of the larger companies with which he held contracts, nor was he required to sell the products in the pre-packaged quantities provided by those larger companies. By the time Nese took the store’s helm from his father in 1995, he had already established enough relationships with small bottlers and enough reputation for carrying their unique products that he transitioned the store to primarily sell soda, beer, and old fashioned candy (vestiges of the Italian market still remain in the form of the fully functioning sandwich counter at the back of the store). Today, Galco’s stocks over 550 different types of soda and nearly as many types of beer, as well as wine, spirits, and lots of the aforementioned candy (source).

Freedom of choice indeed ... by the case-load ...

A little over a year ago, Galco’s launched their own soda line under the old White Rose label. White Rose Soda was originally introduced in the 1930s by the Rose Springs Water Company, which operated out of Highland Park from around 1900 to around 1960 selling water drawn from the White Rose Spring. The White Rose Spring itself was located just off of Figueroa Street, and was sourced from the North Branch Creek which once ran behind Galco’s current location on its way to the Arroyo Seco (source). Just as it presumably did in the past, the White Rose label proudly boasts that it is “Highland Park’s own,” though the soda is actually made by Natrona, which you may recall is actually based in Pennsylvania and also produces the Red Ribbon line. But we’ll let that one slide for now because they make root beer!

The Pooj is the very picture of purity and innocence.

White Rose Root Beer is only the second soda released under the resurrected White Rose label, and was only just unveiled this past July 22nd at Galco’s 2nd Summer Soda Tasting. The event was organized in part by John Nese to raise funds to permanently reopen Highland Park’s Southwest Museum, which literally stands right up the hill from where White Rose Spring once sprung (source). A portion of the proceeds from each and every White Rose Soda sold will go towards the museum effort as well. I could fill several posts with information about the Southwest Museum, but Hector Tobar at the LA Times has already done a much better job than I ever could: READ! For our purposes here, I’ll summarize what I’ve gleaned from Mr. Tobar’s article: the Southwest Museum, founded by Highland Park dignitary Charles Lummis in 1914, is the oldest museum in Los Angeles and houses the country’s largest collection of Native American artifacts (a collection Lummis started himself) this side of the Smithsonian Institute. Over time, the Museum has fallen into disrepair and is therefore only partially open these days, hence the effort to raise funds to repair it so it can be permanently reopened. So today we’re drinking root beer for a good cause (and a local cause, too, since I live in the Highland Park area and drive past the Southwest Museum almost every day)!

The scent released from the freshly-opened bottle is herb-y and slightly licorice-y. Once in a glass, the scent steers more towards the cola side of things with some roots around the edges and some vanilla towards the back. Initially, the taste is almost cherry-ish, like a less-sweet Cheerwine with a slight medicinal bite, not unlike horehound candy, that hangs on the sides of the tongue. As the carbonation (on the larger end of the bubble-size spectrum) dies down, more vanilla comes out in the flavor. Later, there’s a sweet finish with an herb-y aftertaste that’s herb-y in the sense that it tastes like some kind of plant material (not sure what, since the ingredients only list “natural and artificial flavors”), reminiscent of loquat syrup. Finally, in tune with that plant-like elixir flavor, it leaves a menthol feeling in my mouth that stays long after the other flavors have faded, seemingly indicating some wintergreen in there somewhere.

Red Ribbon, from my recollection, did not taste like this – I would still like to do a side-by-side comparison of the two Natrona root beers to see where they differ. I’m more than a little torn as far as it comes to this particular Natrona product, however. On the one hand, I really want to like it because I really like Galco’s and I really like that sales help to re-open the Southwest Museum, not to mention the fact that White Rose is literally from my neighborhood. But on the other hand, I don’t like White Rose Root Beer enough for it to be an every-day root beer for me.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high and White Rose was therefore bound to disappoint, doomed from the start by no fault of its own. I may need to revisit White Rose at a later date to give it another shot, and will also need to try their Cream Soda. Either way, I will certainly revisit Galco’s (probably on more frequent dates than I should) and support them in that way. At the very least, I should find other ways of supporting the Southwest Museum that don’t necessarily involve drinking soda. That all having been said, White Rose Root Beer gets a high 3.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Root Beer Field Trip: Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer

 
(May 2012)

Spanish soldiers first colonized San Diego around 1769 and thus became the first Europeans to settle in what would become California. San Diego came under Mexican control after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves life as it would have been in the period after that, as San Diego was transitioning from Mexican control to American control after the Mexican-American War (source). Buildings of the period still standing, including the first public schoolhouse in California, have been restored and converted mostly into museums, though some are now home to your typical tourist trap shops. 

But we all know that shops specializing in exotic jerky and root beer beverages are far from typical.

Horseless wagons driven by barrels of root beer are also atypical.

Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer actually started at another old town: Old Town Temecula. I did not recall seeing it at all while we were in Temecula visiting the Old Town Root Beer Company, but I’ll chalk that up to being distracted by the heat and the fact that I had already just purchased a dozen bottles of root beer – I’ll have to pay more attention next time we’re down there. Regardless, Old Town House of Jerky and Root Beer has the advantage of a versatile name, and since most cities in California have some portion referred to as “Old Town” (officially or otherwise), they can practically set up shop wherever they so please.

The San Diego shop is not actually in one of the historic buildings of Old Town, unless former Mexican restaurants and/or kitsch shops are somehow historic. I’m not certain exactly how long this particular outpost has been in operation, but I do know that House of Jerky & Root Beer has been around for maybe a decade and a half, originally opened by roadside jerky purveyors Ron and Jani (yes, we’re on a first name basis already). Current owner Evelyn Honea took over around 3 years ago and now operates the House(s) along with her daughter (source).

We did not try any of the jerky, but we did leave with a modest root beer haul, which you’ll see soon enough. The store is stocked with over a dozen root beer varieties and a couple dozen more non-root beer beverages. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture while we were inside (it was pretty crowded), so instead I’ll have to leave you with a picture from inside La Casa de Estudillo, of where you would have ended up back in 1821 if you had too much root beer… 

History.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Root Beer Field Trip: Bruxie

 (Old Towne Orange, August 2012)

Ninety-nine bottles of root beer on the wall…

Just north of the Orange Plaza in Old Towne Orange, the largest historic district in all of California, sits Bruxie. Co-owner Dean Simon, inspired by the waffle vendors he encountered a little over a decade ago on the streets of Belgium, developed a recipe for “Brux Waffles” which he sold to restaurants and cruise ships. With the help of chef Kelly Mullarney, Brux Waffles expanded beyond the narrow confines of breakfast to become vehicles on which all manners of sandwich items could be devoured. Thus a mini Belgie empire was born, having since expanded to include 2 locations in addition to its original Old Towne presence (source). At peak production, according to a recent OC Register write-up, the three Bruxie restaurants combine to produce up to 560 waffles per hour – 160 alone at the 400 square foot Old Towne stand – which by any estimation is a lot of waffling around (source).

While the weekend-special Carolina pulled-pork waffle sandwich is probably in and of itself worth the trek to Old Towne (particularly if antiquing is your thing…), we need more compelling reasons to stand out in the 100 degree heat today. And compulsion is delivered in the form of Bruxie’s Old Fashioned Cane Sugar Root Beer. 

The Pooj wonders if this root beer is – what – Belgian??

Bruxie’s root beer is not produced in-house, but rather produced specifically for Bruxie by local soda makers (who apparently remain nameless). Cane sugar appears to be Bruxie’s selling point for their soda offerings, and cane sugar is the dominant flavor that hits first. The sugar lingers for a little while before it’s followed by a birch-y root-y flavor that’s good, lightly sharp around the edges, but isn’t especially strong nor especially long-lasting. It finishes with a cola-ish tang that resolves back into the cane sugar.

That cola-ish tang makes me wish I had also sampled Bruxie’s cola for contrast. All in all, the root beer is good, but still tastes more like a strong root beer mixed with a pure-sugar cola to maybe a respective 60/40 ratio. Either way, it’s still pleasant refreshment on a hot day. Bruxie’s Cane Sugar Root Beer gets a 3.5.

Friday, August 3, 2012

SCIENCE! Flat Steelhead Spicy Draft

Given my lackluster response to the Steelhead Spicy Draft (which, again, still requires a re-taste at the source to eliminate possibility of flattening during transport), I still have a not-insignificant amount of it languishing in the fridge. Also, given that it was somewhat flat-feeling to begin with, you can imagine that the extended stay in the fridge didn’t exactly improve that situation. So I did what any responsible root beer swilling adult would have done under those circumstances.

I dropped a Fizzie in it.

The Pooj is pretty sure this is a bad idea.

Before we go any further, I should amend the post title since this isn’t strictly SCIENCE! with a capital SCIENCE! It’s more pseudo-SCIENCE, much like alchemy or marine biology. Semantics aside though, here’s the Fizzie in action:

Plop plop, fizz fizz.

You can see the Fizzie mid-fizz(ie) on the left, and the finished product at right – clearly it succeeds in adding some carbonated life to the flat Steelhead Spicy Draft. Curiously enough, it also seems to alter the color of the original beverage, which is fairly dark on its own. The fizzing process itself seems less smooth than last I activated the bubbling beast, with carbonation fizzing forth from the tablet in relatively regular but distinct spurts. Perhaps this is a normal tablet reaction upon contact with an already saturated solution, but that’s hard to prove one way or the other. It also leaves an oil-slick-type sheen on the top of the beverage, which I don’t recall happening in simple water-based Fizzie. Maybe the sheen was there before, too, but there just wasn’t enough contrast in the clearer fluid than there is now in the darker base – who knows?

Regardless, it’s bad. Very bad. It still smells like root beer, but given how strong the Steelhead Spicy Draft was before, that’s not altogether surprising. The scent is diluted slightly compared to that of the base material, but not nearly as dramatically as the taste is overpowered by the Fizzie. As sharp as the Spicy Draft once was, the Fizzie flavor completely takes over, and I get a thick, tart, and cloying result. Drawing comparisons is difficult, since I’ve never tasted anything like this before (and hopefully won’t ever again…).

Needless to reiterate, this stuff is pretty gross. It leaves a heavy, sour taste in my mouth and makes my teeth feel squeaky. Don’t say I never took one for the team, and definitely don’t try this at home.

Carry on then, carry on.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cruisin' for Root Beer, Part 3: Barq's, Canadian

The Pooj wonders why everything sucks at American airports.
(Some Sandwich Stand in the US Terminal of YVR Airport, June 2012)

We had disembarked in Vancouver not 3 hours before finding our first root beers. Granted, they were all the same brands as the ones we have back in the US - A&W, Barq's, and Mug - but then again, they weren't. Not only were the package labels different, but so were the ingredients. Instead of HFCS, Canadian mass-market sodas appear to use a combination of sugar and glucose-fructose. Before we run and grab our pitchforks thinking there's some great conspiracy to market HFCS only in the US, I should point out that glucose-fructose is simply what HFCS is called in Canada, and should therefore be chemically identical to what we have in the US. Theoretically that would make for a gustatorily identical beverage to the Barq's back in the US, except for the addition of the actual sugar. Logically, the best course of action would have been to acquire a can or bottle in the Great White North, and bring it back to the Great Brown South (seriously, that was pretty much the color of sky greeting us at LAX...) for further study, but I'll say more on that later.

My first encounter with Barq's Canadian sibling was actually at a falafel joint at the Public Market, sort of a farmers' market type place on Granville Island, sort of an artsy retail type place under a bridge in Vancouver (it's actually much cooler than I just made it sound...). Since I had falafel in one hand, a salad roll (the biggest dang Vietnamese spring roll I'd ever seen) in the other, and salmon candy (...) in the other (...), I was unable to perform a true analysis, and therefore simply enjoyed the experience of drinking the root beer with my hodgepodge lunch. Again, I figured the best course of action would be to bring one home for a side-by-side comparison with the US Barq's crowding my refrigerator door, and thus also figured I’d just pick up another can later at the supermarket or something. Unfortunately, only 2 liter bottles were available at the supermarket and the neighboring drug store only stocked A&W (more in that in a later post), despite the label on the shelf saying it was supposed to have been Barq's sitting before me. Given that our primary purpose for visiting Vancouver was shockingly not simply to drink root beer, I forgot about it for a little while and went on my merry way doing all those amusing little things one generally does whilst visiting friends abroad.

Upon arrival at YVR Airport (which was actually for the purposes of departure), I saw a vending machine outside the door selling Coke products, including Barq's. Confident that I would have another opportunity to grab a bottle once through security (instead of, say, hastily shoving the bottle into my checked suitcase, which was already quite full), I strolled past. Now YVR is a really nice airport (as far as airports go), with nice little shops and nice little restaurants.  On top of that, they've got this convenient set-up where US-bound flights have their own little cordoned-off area in the International Terminal that is apparently considered American soil, wherein you can go through US Customs before even getting on your plane. The problem is, once you step through the portal into the American portion of the airport, YVR starts to suck the same way every other American airport does (and don't even try to argue that American airports don't suck, because they do – I mean, do you voluntarily go to American airports when you don’t have to, just for kicks and giggles...?). Here we were, surrounded by the same sucky newspaper and snack shops (seriously, how many Hudson News stores do you really need within a 20 yd radius?), mermaid-themed coffee bars, crappy food court booths and kitsch stands we have back at LAX, while the rest of the International Terminal mocked us from the other side of the glass with its wide variety of retail and dining establishments. Worse yet, none of the shops or vending machines on the American side had transportable root beer of any kind.

I finally located root beer at one (and only one) dinky little sandwich booth in the forgotten corner of the already banal food court. There I bought an airport-food-quality sandwich simply for the opportunity to get the diluted root beer from their fountain, which was broken and otherwise only served Diet Coke, resulting in that lovely photo you first saw a quarter mile up the page at the beginning of this post. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

You'll understand that this is not Canadian Barq's best outing, and will have to believe me when I say that my first can at Granville Island was actually a better version of Barq's than I usually get back at home. Sure, it may all be psychological – we're on vacation after all, so I'm in a better disposition than normal, everything tastes more exotic, everyday experiences seem more exciting, etcetera, etcetera – but I do think that the Canadian formula is better. Whether or not it's due to the real sugar content, I can't say for sure, since I don't know what other ingredients differ from the US version, but for now I’m willing to believe that that is the root of the improvements. I can say that whatever the difference is, the texture is smoother and the flavor is richer. The sugar seems to better bring out the sarsaparilla notes in the brew, which balance nicely with the rest of the herb-y hit one typically associates with Barq's.

The only sure conclusion I can make is that I'll need to revisit Canadian Barq's again in the future. All the more reason to revisit Vancouver, I suppose. We never got Nanaimo bars either, so we'll need to return for those anyways… …Of course, we should probably go more often just to visit our friends there, and not just for the pastries and soda, but you get my point… In the meanwhile, I'll give Canadian Barq's a tentative low 3.5.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cruisin' for Root Beer, Part 2: Gold Rush Brewery

The Pooj rolls out the barrel.
 (The Flying Squirrel – Skagway, June 2012)

Although the warm aroma of fresh popcorn wafting onto the blustery boardwalk lured us into The Flying Squirrel, the promise of draft root beer quickly waylaid me. The barrel-shaped tap stuck out more than a little on the coffee bar (which, for the record, is not actually the popcorn producer - they appear to only share the storefront), but it took little persuasion by the barista for me to get a nice large glass of its content. Said content is the product of the Gold Rush Brewery, also called the Sluice Box Brewery, a brew house located on the Skagway River, just north of Squirrel's landing in the main drag of Skagway. We actually drove right past the brewery en route to visit the sled dogs mentioned in passing in the last posting, but since we were on a bus, it probably would have been bad form to grind the entire tour to a halt because I wanted a root beer. No matter though, seeing as we ended up getting root beer anyways (which technically we did already, since Glacier Brewhouse actually made our acquaintance less than an hour before this...)!

Gold Rush Brewery opened in 2008 at the Klondike Gold Fields, one of those touristy places where you can pay $20 for the opportunity to dredge-mine yourself a $10 fortune in gold. Though Klondike Gold Fields has been around since 1999, I'm not certain as to their formal relationship with Gold Rush Brewery, nor if the brewery was opened at the behest of the gold panning extravaganza or simply moved in from elsewhere. Klondike certainly advertises Gold Rush heavily on its website, so there's certainly, if nothing else, a beneficial working relationship between the two.

While I wouldn't say Gold Rush Brewery makes the mother lode of root beers, it's certainly showing me a little flake. It produces a thick layer of bubbles from the tap – not really head, mind you, just bubbles – that dissipates before the glass reaches my hand. There's a slightly molasses-y, slightly licorice-y flavor that gives way to a slightly birch-y sweetness. Overall, it's got a somewhat root-beer-candy flavor, except not as sweet and with a licorice-y aftertaste, though everything on the whole is rather mild. My glass had quite a bit of ice in it, which may have diluted the flavors, so it's hard to say for sure.

I paid $5 for a 20 oz. glass of Gold Rush Brewery Root Beer, which kind of works out same as paying $20 to get $10 of gold when I consider that this may have only been a $2.50-worthy root beer. Perhaps the equivalent proportions do tell of a greater connection between Gold Rush/Sluice Box and Klondike Gold Fields... But perhaps I'm being too harsh - I would say the root beer is probably worth closer to $3 by those standards, which is exactly the rating I would give it. Gold Rush Brewery Root Beer therefore gets a high 3.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cruisin' for Root Beer, Part 1: Glacier Brewhouse

The Pooj ponders if it's wrong or if it's right.
(The Red Onion Saloon – Skagway, June 2012)

The Missus and I recently took a cruise from Alaska to Vancouver, which sadly did not yield a single moose sighting. However, we were lucky enough to see lots of humpback whales, porpoises, seals, bald eagles, and even one dark moving speck and several light stationary specks in the distance that the ship naturalist assured us were a big brown bear and mountain goats, respectively. We also had much of the fam in tow, who are plenty enough wildlife viewing on their own, so no really complaints in that department.

After a quick couple of days exploring Anchorage and Whittier (and a reeeeally long day for me in open sea...), we dropped anchor in Skagway, AK, home to, amongst other things (sled dogs!), the famed Red Onion Saloon. The Red Onion was once a premiere "gentlemen's club," shall we call it, during the Alaskan Gold Rush days, home to infamous ladies of the night like Klondike Kate, and watering hole to legendary scalawags like Soapy Smith. It's certainly got more of a Cy Tolliver vibe than an Al Swearengen one, though I'm sure plenty of Gem-like places operated nearby back in the day, none of which, at least to my knowledge, still operate in the same capacity today. Provided that my previous statement is entirely the case here, the Red Onion is now a bar and restaurant, with a museum to its heyday upstairs. We missed the museum tour, but we did score some pretty good pizza and nachos, as well as some draft root beer.

Said draft root beer comes from Glacier Brewhouse, a brewpub in downtown Anchorage. According to the company website, the root beer is “rich and full-bodied, with sarsaparilla, sassafras and just a hint of vanilla… [sweetened with] natural cane sugar.” Former lawyer Kevin Burton helms the Brewhouse, which produces all of its brews on site, some of which are aged in oak barrels that once held wine and whiskey, imparting distinct flavors into their beers. While I'm fairly certain their root beer and cream soda do not get the same treatment, they do only offer their non-alcoholic beverages in kegs, which are also dangerously available for individual purchase.

Well, maybe not that dangerous, because I am not particularly enamored of Glacier Brewhouse's root beer. Although it does have a pleasant root-y flavor that stays faintly in its aftertaste (that would be the sarsaparilla and sassafras promised in the website statement), the overall intensity of that flavor is fairly weak – certainly not as rich and full-bodied as the website advertises. It's not too sweet, which is nice, but it's not very much of anything else either, which is unfortunately kind of boring. The scent follows suit – mildly herb-y, but nothing distinctive. On the other hand, it has a very good foamy head that holds true throughout and makes for a smooth texture. In fact, I would say the head – which certainly is rich and full-bodied – is the best thing about Glacier Brewhouse's root beer.

But alas, foam in and of itself does not a good root beer make. As I said before, Glacier Brewhouse's root beer does have a nice flavor; it just has way too little of it. Consequently, Glacier Brewhouse Root Beer gets a high 2.5.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Steelhead Brewing Co. Spicy Draft

It comes in gallons??!!??!!??
(Steelhead Brewing Co. – Irvine, May 2012)

Deep within the recesses of a nondescript white cardboard box, on the wrong side of the fine line between hobby and obsession, an ungodly amount of root beer lies in wait…

Actually, the even more nondescript plastic jug inside the white cardboard box looked like it was going to start leaking air soon, so I had to decant its contents into every usable bottle I could find in the house in an effort to keep said contents fresh. Consequently, there are a lot of randomly-sized bottles of root beer floating around the fridge. This is, of course, in addition to the non-random normal-sized bottles of root beer and other assorted specialty sodas already camping out on the bottom shelf…

Not that I’m complaining…

In any event, as promised a long time back, I finally returned to Steelhead Brewing Company to sample their second root beer offering, their so-called Spicy Draft Root Beer (as opposed to their bottled Honey-Vanilla variety), which comes straight from the tap. Since my schedule as of late hasn’t allowed much leftover time for recreational root beer drinking/rhetoric (that, and I’ve been trying to shed a few pounds, a goal to which recreational root beer drinking would seem contrary) (the rhetoric should still be fine though), I figured my first post-hiatus root beer should be worthy of the long wait, and thus the sheer volume of Steelhead’s Spicy Draft should at least make for a monumental return. While they do have growlers for their beers, Steelhead apparently will only sell Spicy Draft Root Beer to-go in the gallon box (which would qualify as the largest single container of root beer I have purchased to date) that you see before you.

Before we get too far down the road, and because I neglected to do so last time, here’s a little background on the Steelhead Brewing Company: Steelhead is the brainchild of five individuals with overlapping backgrounds in real estate, shoe imports, hotels, lumber, banking, accounting, and restaurants. While I’m not sure when root beer first showed up on the company radar, Steelhead’s beer brewery started development in 1988, eventually opening its Eugene, OR doors to the public in early 1991. Since then, they’ve added branches in Burlingame, CA and Irvine, CA, where I acquired this particular gallon box of Spicy Draft Root Beer. The Steelhead Root Beer website says that their root beer was developed through nine test runs during the course of two years, but they do not delineate which of those batches became the Honey Vanilla variety and which became the Spicy Draft we are talking about today.

They certainly aren’t lying when they call it spicy. It has that old-fashioned root beer flavor, but with a very heavy licorice taste and scent, the latter of which permeates the entire kitchen simply from the empty gallon jug sitting in the sink, making the entire place smell like root beer (best air freshener ever). Other flavors are very strong as well – wintergreen menthol that carries into the aftertaste, a more than slightly bitter herb kick that also resolves into a bark-y aftertaste. For lack of better terms, it’s thick – the flavors are firmly on the other side of too strong, as if it's still too concentrated, which, given that it comes straight from the tap, may have been a possibility for this particular batch. Even though I generally like my root beers on the bolder end of the spectrum, it's hard to drink it without wanting to cut it with something.

Perhaps cutting it with some additional carbonated water would improve it since it almost tastes flat. The Steelhead website says that it is intentionally “softly carbonated,” but I don’t know if it’s supposed to be as soft as I’m experiencing it right now. I suspect that the gallon box did leak air, but the only way to know for sure is to have a glass in the restaurant where presumably there would be no opportunity to lose carbonation before drinking. So far I think I like Steelhead’s Honey-Vanilla version better, which again is slightly unusual since that’s much sweeter and milder in comparison to the Spicy Draft, and I have tended to gravitate towards stronger and less sweet brews in the past. But again, it's hard to say whether or not my perception is clouded by the possibility that it may have lost its carbonation.

Steelhead Spicy Draft is definitely not a chugging root beer, and is actually much more pleasant when it’s sipped. In smaller doses, it still has a bitter taste, but with a sweeter finish that smoothes over some of the sharper edges. That having been said, it’s hard to recommend a beverage that requires such effort just to enjoy drinking it, so all I’ll say is that if you like Barq’s, you might like this, but if you like A&W, you definitely will not.

My conclusion then is that I might like this once in a while, pending a second taste at the source. Or maybe I’m more of a root beer weakling than I’d care to admit... Either way, at least for now, I only like Steelhead Brewing Co. Spicy Draft Root Beer well enough to give it a low 3.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Shine Classic

The Pooj sheds some light on the subject matter.
(Fresh & Easy, May 2012)

Shine Classic Root Beer appears to be the store brand root beer for Fresh & Easy, but it’s actually made by Cott Beverages, which if you recall, has been the producer and distributor of Ben Shaws sodas since 2005. Cott was already a known brand of soda in New England since early mid-Century, but it did not become the company we know now as Cott Beverages Ltd until it moved to Quebec in 1952. They are today, at least by their company website’s estimation, the world’s largest retailer-brand beverage company. What that basically means is that Cott develops soft drinks, amongst other beverages, for grocery stores’ and retailers’ private labels (read: generic store brands). For trivia’s sake, it’s worth noting that Cott was also the first company to develop a diet soda, done so in the late 1950s at the request of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal for its diabetic patients.

Withstanding a few of digressions, I’ve typically stayed away from store brands for my purposes here for the simple reason that they have not been particularly impressive in my past experiences (specialty store private labels being the exception, but those are usually a different story). However, the Cott name drew my attention because of its aforementioned connection with Ben Shaws, and because Fresh & Easy’s store brands have treated me reasonably well in the past, so I figured, why not? Plus, knowing that Fresh & Easy’s parent company is Tesco, one of the UK’s biggest grocery chains, I thought that there might be a slight possibility that Shine is geared more towards those sensibilities, even though the particular branch of Cott that produces Shine hails from Tampa, FL. It might actually be a more interesting experiment to track down all of the store brands that Cott produces and see whether there are any differences at all from one private label to the other, or whether Cott just makes the same root beer for everyone and then simply puts different stickers on them.

Perhaps my expectations are set too low, but I actually think Shine is moderately good. The initial scent is herb-y, slightly licorice-y, with hints of vanilla (probably vanillin, actually…). It’s pretty sweet, as store brands tend to be, but there is actually a root-y statement in there somewhere. As far as distinct flavors go, there are none to really speak of, but it does have an herb-y aftertaste. Make no mistake - it does tastes more than slightly artificial, but no worse that some glass-bottled root beers that cost easily 5 or 6 times more per ounce than the mere $0.88 I paid for a 2-liter tankard. After a while, I do get pretty numb to the flavor, so it’s not that strong, but for a store brand I can definitely do worse. Fresh & Easy – you have not done me wrong yet, and I will be sad to see you shutter when Tesco pulls out of the US in the next few months. With tempered expectations, I give Shine Classic Root Beer a 3.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Twohey's, Part Two(hey)

The Missus is still a better date than the Pooj. Sorry again, Pooj...
(Twohey's, May 2012)

A couple Fridays ago I had a hankering for a chocolate malt at 11:00 pm, which was problematic because I live in a part of town where all of the establishments from which a person might obtain a good chocolate malt shut down well before 11:00 pm (well, and problematic because I probably shouldn't be having chocolate malts at 11:00 pm...). Failing to shake my craving for a shake, I got in the car and headed towards the nearest In-N-Out, where I could at least settle for a non-malted frozen dessert. Lucky for me, my nearest In-N-Out shares a (relatively small) parking lot with Twohey's, which we visited in the early days of my root beer documentations, and is just the kind of place that can provide a chocolate malt at 11:00 pm with nary more than a negligible detour from my original path. Believing that my previous root beer experience was perhaps a fluke, I wanted to give Twohey's Root Beer another chance, but given that I could barely justify having a chocolate malt at such an hour, I reeeally couldn't justify tacking a second sugary beverage on top of it. Thus I left with just my malt (which, by the way, was very very good), which I enjoyed whilst taking a drive through the local neighborhoods that I would never be able to afford to live in, and that would certainly not be the parts of town that would yield malted desserts at 11:00 at night.

Fast forward to present day, when the Missus insists (yes, practically twisting my arm) that I take her to Twohey's for a malt. ... seeing as I left her asleep on the couch during my last foray... Anyways, I am somehow able to justify both the malt and the root beer this time (which, by the way, still isn't really justifiable), and therefore Twohey's Root Beer gets another shot.

Indeed, I’m calling last time a fluke, since Twohey's Root Beer is much better the second time around. The root beer is actually not made in-house as I had previously thought, but made especially for Twohey's by Brewbakers, a brewing house in Huntington Beach that also has brewing facilities available for amateur brewers’ use, which incidentally is also where the firemen of Firemans Brew first developed their beers, one keg at a time. Most everything else at Twohey's does appear to be made on the premises, possibly even including the ice cream in the aforementioned malt. Regardless, the root beer has a strong vanilla scent and flavor, a decent amount of foam, and a slightly herb-y kick that extends into an ever-so-slightly bitter aftertaste. Said bitterness is tempered by a faint honey aftertaste - the honey listed with the ingredients seems to add more texture (i.e., smoothing it out) than flavor. Otherwise, there are no particular distinguishing flavors present; just a general root-y flavor that, although better than my previous sampling, is still somewhat watered-down and/or bland.

But as I said, I did find it to be better upon reconsideration. I'm not sure if Twohey's uses their own root beer to make the floats also offered on their menu, but I do think that a root beer this subtle would easily get overpowered by any ice cream (homemade or otherwise). Still, it warrants an improved rating, albeit a small one – today I’ll give Twohey's Root Beer a 3.