Friday, March 30, 2012

Ben Shaws Dandelion & Burdock

The Pooj considers the lilies.
(The Continental Shop, February 2012)

Ben Shaw was a textile worker in West Yorkshire before becoming the purveyor of natural mineral water in 1871. From humble beginnings delivering their products on the legs of the family’s four horses, Ben Shaw's company grew to become the first European beverage company to can soft drinks in 1959. Though the company was purchased in 2005 by Cott Beverages, the world’s largest retailer-brand beverage company, it still retains the family name, and presumably the family recipes.

Again, I don’t know exactly what dandelion and burdock is really supposed to taste like, but I would say that Ben Shaws version has the same cherry-like flavor that Fentimans has, albeit a fuller version of it. There’s still an aroma reminiscent of cough-syrup, but I definitely wouldn’t call it unpleasant. I thought I had detected an almost licorice-like flavor when I first took a swig from the can, but once I pour it into a glass it goes away. Repeated tastings from the can do not yield any more wafts of licorice, though there is a definitely plant-y root-like flavor that perhaps I am, in my dandelion and burdock ignorance, simply interpreting as licorice.

While the ingredients list both sugar and a saccharin sweetener, the latter doesn’t seem to decrease the calorie count much, since a 330 ml (roughly 11 oz) can still weighs in at 120 calories, only slightly less than your average 140 calorie 12 oz can of HCFS-laden Coca-Cola (which, for those keeping score, used to only be 120 calories just a few years ago). I suppose if you compare it to a typical sugar sweetened root beer, which usually clocks in at 180 calories, then there is a difference. Either way, since it's the last listed ingredient, I don’t think the sweetener is added for any “health” reasons, so I’m not really sure what it's supposed to accomplish flavor-wise, except that it adds a slight artificial-sweetener point to what is an otherwise fruit-y aftertaste.

So my dandelion and burdock kick has thankfully outlasted the cold that had been impairing my root beer tasting abilities as of late, though I still wouldn’t consider Ben Shaws Dandelion & Burdock root beer in the way that you and I would typically define it. While it’s definitely got more of a root-like flavor than Fentimans and does taste a little bit more like Bundaberg Root Beer, lending at least a small bit of credence to my theory that Bundaberg aims their root beer flavor toward those of root beverages familiar to the British Isles, and while I would still say dandelion and burdock is definitely worth a root beer lover’s sampling, per our previously agreed upon root beer standards I’d still have to only give Ben Shaws Dandelion & Burdock a 2 .

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock

The Pooj seeks divine inspiration.
(Artisan House, February 2012)

Dandelion and burdock is the British Isles' equivalent to what we know as root beer on this side of the pond. Both beverages have similar origins in that they were initially brewed from fermented roots that supposedly imparted heath benefits to the imbiber. As the name suggests, dandelion and burdock is brewed from slightly fermented dandelion and burdock roots, as opposed to sarsaparilla and sassafras roots used for root beer. The fermentation process also gives the brew a natural fizziness, probably in a similar fashion that fermenting yeast gives (root) beer its head. Legend has it that Saint Thomas Aquinas first brewed dandelion and burdock using the first two plants he found while walking outside after having spent all night praying for inspiration, the resulting brew giving him the concentration he needed to complete the philosophical writings that would eventually become his Summa Theologica.

Fentimans on the other hand, maker of today’s subject dandelion and burdock, owes its inception much less to divine intervention and much more to a loan default in 1905, when founder Thomas Fentiman acquired the rights to a recipe for ginger beer from a tradesman who owed him money. It’s probably safe to say that Fentiman himself could have done with some help from the hand of God, seeing as his original company folded in the 1960s. Thankfully the company was revived in 1988 by Fentiman's great-grandson, and from its perch in Hexham, near Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northumberland, has since become quite the successful producer of many varied botanical brews. Such brewing and distributing is supposedly handled by the Lion Brewery here in the US (who we know for their root beer and the Olde Philadelphia label), though the bottle says it's made in British Columbia, Canada.

Unperturbed by such details, we push on.

First off, Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock smells like red vines, which, assuming red vines still retain any licorice qualities, may come from its inclusion of aniseed flavor (if red vines aren't at all intentionally licorice-y, then I have no explanation for the previous statement...). Keeping that red vines image in my head, I’d say that on the whole, dandelion and burdock is somewhat cherry-ish. Not cherry-ish like Cheerwine; perhaps cherry-ish like cough syrup, without the strong medicinal flavor. More so cherry-ish like back in junior high when we drank Pepsi Clear with straws we made by biting both ends off red vines and jamming them into our soda cans, shortly after which the red vines would partially dissolve into the Pepsi, making it less Clear and more pink. That kind of cherry-ish.

I'm not really tasting the ginger from the fermented ginger root that Fentimans has a tendency to apply to so many of their beverages (not that I'm complaining, since that’s basically why/how the company was founded, and it's that ginger-y essence that makes their Curiosity Cola so curious and their Ginger Beer so ... well ... ginger-y), but there is a crisp edge to the scent which may account for it. There's definitely some kind of fruity aftertaste, which may come from pear juice, and which also may explain the candy-like flavor (since pear juice is often used in candy flavoring).

Really, I'm not exactly sure what a traditional dandelion and burdock is supposed to taste like, so maybe it's really supposed to taste somewhere between a red vine and a gummy bear. I was somewhat expecting it to taste more like Bundaberg Root Beer, so that maybe I could say that Bundaberg borrows the root flavors from a British-inspired sensibility of what root beer could and should be, which in turn would explain why Bundaberg was so not like what the American sensibility of what root beer could and should be, but in truth Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock tastes nothing like Bundaberg Root Beer. Given that I didn't think Bundaberg's root beer interpretation fits into my personal root beer interpretation, that's not a bad thing. And given that I don't really know what dandelion and burdock is supposed to taste like, I can't really comment as to whether Fentimans is a good dandelion and burdock. What I did aim to find out today was whether or not Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock tastes like American-sensibility root beer, which is a resounding no.

So while Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock is technically a root beer (and I think every lover of the common definition of root beer should absolutely give dandelion and burdock a try), it's not really what we're looking for here in our search for the perfect (American-sensibilitied) root beer, despite the many characteristics they share. Having said that, I think it's worth checking into other dandelion and burdock drinks to see how close or far away they fall from the American definition of root beer. Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock though, as far as it relates to the aforementioned definition of root beer, gets a 2.