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…