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.