Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Iron Horse

The Pooj agrees to meet me halfway.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

Iron Horse Products is named for the Central Pacific Railroad's Jupiter steam locomotive, supposedly nicknamed Iron Horse (I can't find any information corroborating this, which is why I say "supposedly"), which carried rail magnate Leland Stanford (Beat the Farm!) to the Golden Spike ceremony linking the two ends of the transcontinental railroad. Known for its distinctive "balloon stack" smokestack, containing a spark arrester for its wood-burning engine, the Jupiter was not originally intended to take part in the ceremony, but had to fill in for the Antelope, which was damaged en route to Promontory Summit. Long story short, Jupiter was built in New York in 1868, then transported to Central Pacific's headquarters in Sacramento, from where it departed to Utah for the Golden Spike ceremony in 1869. For the life of me, I can't find a connection between all these stats and Iron Horse Products, which was founded in 1993 in Minnesota. Maybe its owners like trains, I don't know.

One thing I do know, though, is that Iron Horse Root Beer is not particularly root-y. It has a very sweet, smoky flavor, again, like turbinado sugar, surprising given that HFCS is the sweetener. There's a caramel-ish flavor, like brûlée sugar, which may account for the aforementioned smokiness, with an aftertaste that's also very sweet. With the exception of a slightly root beer-y smell that's rather generic, without any distinguishing characteristics, there's really not much that would make this qualify as root beer except that the label says so. 

Again, the toasty sugar flavor isn't unpleasant -- and the head is nice, too, though it doesn't last long -- I don't think there's enough going on besides that to make its case for being root beer. Iron Horse Root Beer gets a 2.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Spring Grove

Root beer's happy Norwegian counterpart makes a new friend.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

"Mange tusen takk," which means "many thanks" in Norwegian, is emblazoned on the Spring Grove Root Beer label, honoring the fact that its hometown of Spring Grove, MN was one of the first Norwegian settlements in the Midwest. Spring Grove Bottling Works, which produces the root beer, was established in 1895, and is the oldest business in the city. According to the Spring Grove website, at least 3 sets of Norwegian hands are involved in the production of each and every bottle (which is actually corrected in the FAQs section of the site to 2 1/2 sets of hands, since one set is only half Norwegian...), which is significant because the bottles are still packed for shipment by hand.

First the positive: Spring Grove Root Beer has a nice head, which despite having larger bubbles than would qualify as head per se, does linger a while. Second, well, the rest: there's not much root beer scent and even less root beer flavor. And when I say "root beer flavor," I mean it in a generic sense because there aren't any distinct herbs or spices to speak of. To its credit, it actually tastes like real sugar - as in this is what a spoonful of sugar would taste like were I to eat a spoonful of sugar (in theory, that is, because, you know, I would never have dreamed of doing such a thing when I was a child, or an adolescent, or last week). Perhaps more accurately, given the slightly caramel-ish tones (and I say "slightly" rather generously), it tastes like I'm eating a turbinado sugar packet, and letting it dissolve slowly in my mouth (again, in theory, because I would never dream of grabbing handfuls of said packets for such a purpose every time I'm at the local mermaid-themed coffee shop). Maybe again to its credit, the aftertaste is also rather sweet, so at least it's consistent. 

Whether the hand is Norwegian or otherwise, it suffices to say that Spring Grove Root Beer uses a pretty heavy one whence applying the sugar during production. That in and of itself doesn't make it unpleasant - in fact it's actually kind of nice and smooth if that's what you're looking for. Unfortunately, when it comes to root beer, that's not what I'm looking for. Spring Grove Root Beer gets a 2.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reading Draft

The Pooj hears the train a comin', rolling round the bend.
(Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011)

Way back in 1833, the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad, one of first railroads in US, shipped coal from the Northeast Pennsylvania Coal Region to Philadelphia.  Reading Draft Birch Beer and Universal Carbonics was established nearly a century later (and incidentally, very shortly before Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad changed its name to Reading Company) in Reading, PA near the train station, bearing the image of a Reading Railroad steam engine on its label. The company slow-carbonates its beverages using a process that introduces carbon dioxide into the beverage at low pressure, by way of a stainless carbonation stone. Lower pressure allows the liquid to slowly absorb the carbonation as it cools, resulting in smaller bubbles that supposedly last longer and allegedly smooth out the texture.

Indeed the bubbles are small, but I wouldn't necessarily characterize the texture as smooth. Despite having all those small bubbles, there's no head at all. The scent is odd -- somewhere between paste and a fried corn tortilla. Initially, the taste makes me think I'm licking an envelope, later developing into some sour notes, all the while still smelling like glue. Although my taste buds get more accustomed to the flavor as I drink more, the flavor itself doesn't improve. For the life of me, I can't pick out anything I would typically consider a root beer herb/spice -- no sassafras, no wintergreen, no licorice, not even any birch. Maybe this is somebody's idea of "root" flavor, but unfortunately it's not mine.

There is thankfully a silver lining to the dark cloud that is bad root beer. Reading Draft's website offers some interesting root beer history, which may explain why so many root beer companies are based in Pennsylvania (which may be old news to everyone but me, so bear with me here...). Mennonites and Amish, the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, immigrated to the US from southern and central Germany and settled in what was known at the time as Penns Woods. Since their religious practices forbade the consumption of alcohol, they brewed soft drinks instead: birch beer, root beer, white birch, and sarsaparilla. We thus owe them a debt of gratitude.

And while I do owe Reading Draft a debt of gratitude for that tidbit of root beer trivia, I don't think I'll be feeling particularly gracious for their root beer anytime soon. With that in mind, I give Reading Draft Root Beer a 1.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Simpson Spring

Mmmm, root beer...
 (Rocket Fizz Pasadena, October 2011) 

South Easton, appropriately enough, is located somewhere southeast of Boston. There you will find a bubbling water source known since the 1830s as Simpson's Spring, so named for blacksmith Samuel Simpson, who at that time acquired the land surrounding the spring. Although the spring had been a water source for Native Americans in the area at least since the 16th and 17th Centuries, it wasn't until Simpson's granddaughter's husband Frederick Howard purchased a portion of the land near the spring that the water was sold as fresh spring and soda water. In the time since the Simpson Spring Company was established in 1878, it has had only two owners other than the Simpson/Howard family, and has come to hold the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating US bottling company still located at its original site. Back in the day, RH Macy of the Macy's stores was so fond of the coffee soda prepared by Simpson Spring that he had it especially made and shipped to his Manhattan store for years until sugar and coffee rationing during WWII put a halt to it. Each batch of Simpson Spring soda is still mixed by hand by one of the company's 12 employees with water from that same spring before carbonation and bottling, all totaling 10 flavors and only 4,000 cases produced each year.

As far as their root beer goes, I'm generally pleased. It's got a decent head, but the bubbles are big, so I wouldn't call it foam per se. The head doesn't linger long though, maybe only about as much as Coke's would. Upon opening, it has a root beer candy-type smell and a pretty hard carbonation. Once the carbonation settles and I can taste it better, it's got a fairly root beer candy-ish taste, not too sweet with a nice "organic" taste in that it tastes like it was made with a plant (or a root, more precisely, I suppose...). While the taste borders dangerously on bitter, it's not in a way that I dislike, though the aftertaste is slightly medicinal.

Overall, Simpson Spring is pretty good - it's what some other old fashioned root beers used to taste like before they changed their formulas and/or substituted HFCS (which in and of itself doesn't make them bad - it just usually tends to be a hallmark of companies changing age-old recipes and sacrificing quality in order to cut costs). I'd say that the aftertaste is enough to make it slightly off-putting for some people, though less so for me. The relative lack of smoothness, however, does make me less likely to go back for more. For now, Simpson Spring Root Beer gets a high 3.5.