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.