Friday, December 21, 2012

Dreaming of a Kind-of-Christmas Root Beer, Part 2: Polar Classics

The Pooj feels a chill.
 (Rocket Fizz Camarillo, December 2011)

So… Two posts in one week. What was I saying a couple posts ago about cutting down my sugar intake…?

Er, anyways, continuing our series on marginally seasonally-themed root beer, today we head to the North Pole and sample the resident beverages. Or is it the South Pole that has polar bears? I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since Polar Classics Root Beer doesn’t actually come from either Pole. Rather, JG Bieberbach of Germany first started the company – which he called the JG Bieberbach Company, naturally – in 1882 after moving to New York at the request of the Shafer Brewing Company to help brew the first true pilsner on this side of the Atlantic. After being sold to a liquor distillery in 1901 and acquiring a few more businesses here and there after that, the company, then known as the Bieber Polar Ginger Ale Company, hit Prohibition. Business thereafter was limited to seltzer, ginger ale and mineral water. Post Prohibition, they decided to remain a soft drink company and so remain to this day, operated by the fourth generation of the same family that purchased it back in 1901. Today, at least in its company website’s estimation, Polar Beverages is the largest independent soft drink bottler in US.

Jolly rotund men (and even dour svelte men, I suppose) of either Pole with a sweet tooth should enjoy Polar Classic Root Beer, as its dominant flavor is very sweet and caramel-y. Men (or women) of any predisposition and body type with a root beer tooth, however, might be a little disappointed, since the mild root-y flavor is really only around the edges of the sweetness. While it lacks any distinctive herb notes, it does have a decent amount of vanilla flavor and a pleasantly menthol aftertaste to round out the sweetness, though the sweetness is definitely the defining ingredient in the palette.

On a more positive note, the texture is very smooth. There’s a more-than-satisfying amount of foam that’s soft, with a glossy sheen that suggests the addition of a foaming agent. A quick glance at the ingredients shows quillaia extract, so we are go on the foaming additive.  Said foaming agent also gives a slight acidity to the aftertaste, but not enough of one to bother me.

The Pooj feels an artificial chill.

Wait, how’s that again? Did someone say something about diet sodas?

Yeah, so feel free to throw out everything I wrote a couple posts ago. Except that part about the 30 bottles of root beer. Actually, throw that out, too – there’s closer to 40 now (I’ll explain later). In my defense, I actually couldn’t find the regular version of Polar Classics Root Beer for months, so had purchased the diet version beforehand, just in case. This will be the last time I make that mistake, I promise. Why such a reaction? Because when tasting the Polar Classics Diet Root Beer and the Polar Classic regular Root Beer side-by-side, the diet version really tastes like nothing at all.

First, there’s no smell coming from the bottle. None. Save for the slight smell of glue that wafts up when poured in a glass, there’s nothing to indicate that there’s anything in here at all. Granted, I’m sampling this after having just ingested the better part of a bottle of the super-sweet version, so by comparison, I would have been optimistic at best and deluded at worst (yes, I’m taking my root beer consumption a little too seriously, but hey, I have a blog devoted to it, so I think I’ve more than proven that point already…) to expect otherwise. That said, I would have at least expected the diet version of a beverage to taste something like the regular version (for the record, Diet Dr. Pepper doesn’t taste more like regular Dr. Pepper, unless when considering the statement “tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper than _____,” your “_____” is something unlike Dr. Pepper entirely, like say, gazpacho). Any “root beer” character is limited to the aftertaste, which is the same as that of the root beer chewing gum we spoke about a couple months ago.

Diet Polar does share one thing in common with regular Polar: the quillaia extract – the Diet Polar actually holds its head better than the regular Polar. However, possibly due to the lack of real sugar and the typically ensuing thin texture, the resulting carbonation is much harder and makes the overall beverage feel much less smooth than its sugared counterpart. Interestingly, the use of sucralose instead of aspartame as the artificial sweetener actually reduces the stinging feeling in the back of the throat that most other diet beverages suffer from – Diet Coke also uses sucralose (Splenda), but also has the sting, so I don’t know what’s different here.

But really, do we care? We’re here to talk real root beer, not fake root beer. As a real root beer, Polar Classics Root Beer isn’t bad, but not particularly memorable either. Penguins, polar bears, and red be-decked saints alike, we can probably do better. I give Polar Classics Root Beer a 3.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dreaming of a Kind-of-Christmas Root Beer, Part 1: Tommyknocker

The Pooj can dig it.
(Rocket Fizz Westwood, February 2012)

‘Tis the season for marginally holiday-themed root beer…

While the North Pole should be more than sufficiently staffed with good elves this time of year, we now turn our attention so some of the ambiguously moral characters in the fey realm. Tommyknockers are the US equivalent of the Cornish bucca (also called the Welsh bwca), two-foot tall elfish creatures who live in mines, dress as miners, and are said to steal mining equipment, blow out lamps, tip lunch-pails, and cause general mischief. Called knockers because of the knocking sound that happens prior to a mine cave-in, some say the sound is caused by tommyknockers chipping away at the mine shaft, causing the collapse; others say the sound comes from tommyknockers tapping out warning that a collapse is imminent. Still other stories say the knocking is tommyknockers alerting miners to gold locations. Regardless of what they were, miners wanted the knockers on their side, so they would throw the last bites of their meals into the mines to keep the knockers happy (source).

I didn’t have to propel anything, edible or otherwise, into any sort of shaft to acquire Tommyknocker Root Beer; I just had to hand my money to the nice lady behind the counter at Rocket Fizz – life is somewhat easier these days. Tommyknocker Root Beer comes to Rocket Fizz by way of the Tommyknocker Brewery, which has has a presence in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, CO in one form or another since the town's founding in 1859 . During the Colorado gold rush in late 1800s, it served the local miners, many of whom were Cornish immigrants, hence the name. As far as I can tell, the mines are no longer in use except as tourist attractions, though Tommyknocker Brewery continues to operate as a brewhouse and restaurant.

At first, the bottle gives off a traditionally root-y scent, but that’s quickly followed by another scent that is slightly savory, but that I can’t quite identify. It’s not clove or nutmeg, which aren’t uncommon in root beers, though not really considered savory; nor is it one of the more commonly available savory herbs like thyme or rosemary.  For an extreme lack of better terms, it smells like someone is cooking dinner. Odd, yes, but maybe not so much when you consider the next scent coming off: maple syrup. Maple syrup is indeed listed in the ingredients, and it is, if I had to name one, the dominant scent. What I may be smelling, then, is possibly caramelized maple, which when mixed with the more earthy smells one more commonly associates with root beer, I may be perceiving as savory.

Maple syrup likewise factors heavily into the flavor, and definitely carries the aftertaste. In addition, there’s a moderately strong organic flavor (organic in the plant-based sense, not in the natural foods sense) with a slight edge, probably birch, and a slightly fruit-y finish. The ingredients also list vanilla, but I’m not detecting any, mostly because the maple flavor is so dominant. Halfway through the bottle, it’s a little hard for me to disassociate any other flavor present with the maple aroma, so there may in fact be more nuance than my taste buds can wade through (which, I suppose, wouldn’t then qualify as nuance…). It’s worth noting that Tommyknocker has a much stronger maple flavor than Vintage Soda’s Canadian Cola, which is supposedly sweetened with maple syrup but still only tastes like cola to me.

Like other brewery-sourced root beers, Tommyknocker has a nice head, with a decent amount of foam that holds up well inside the bottle. The head disperses quickly when poured into a glass, but the overall texture is still pretty smooth.

Normally, I prefer root beers to taste more like root beer than its secondary ingredients, a preference that would typically drop a root beer like Tommyknocker down a few notches in my estimation. True, the root/herb flavor is not particularly strong, but I do like maple syrup, so I’ll let it slide this time. Tommyknocker Root Beer gets a 3.5.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

GUS (Grown Up Soda)

The Pooj acts his age.
(Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer, May 2012)

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a fan of diet beverages. There’s something about that empty taste of artificial sweetener and that accompanying sting in the back of the throat that takes the enjoyment out of it. Sugar substitutes haven’t really worked for me either, so in my recent attempt to eat healthier, I’ve simply opted to consume less sugar, which means drinking less soda, root beer included (hence the relative lack of posting lately). As a result, much to the Missus’ dismay, there have been well over 30 bottles of root beer taking up space in the fridge (and on top of the fridge) (and in the pantry) for the past several months.

Jeanette Luoh and Steve Hersh faced a similar dilemma (the too-much-sugar one, not the 30-bottles-of-root-beer one) (well, maybe they have the 30-bottles-of-root-beer one, too…). Per the company website, they wanted a satisfying substitute to over-sweetened soft drinks and juices, but didn’t want to be limited to diet sodas, seltzers, or flavored waters. In 2003, they started Grown-Up Sodas (GUS), catering to palettes like theirs by keeping the ingredients real, but simply reducing the amount of sugar in their beverages.

And GUS Dry Root Beer certainly delivers as advertised in the less-sweet department (the label actually states “Not Too Sweet”), both in good and bad ways. First, the good – using less sugar actually allows the birch flavor to come through more clearly (I’m assuming that it’s birch because birch oil is the only special item listed amongst the ingredients), since there’s nothing really fighting with it for dominance. That also allows for the vanilla finish, as well as the alternately fruity and herb-y aftertaste, to take a more prominent role than an otherwise uber-sugared root beer typically would. While the blurb on the label also boasts the addition of clove (it’s not actually listed under the ingredients though), I can’t pick it out, less sugar or not. In addition to that, there’s a nice herb-y scent that keeps most of its intensity from start to finish of the bottle.

Where GUS definitely suffers for the lack of sugar is in its texture. Although the lower sugar content does make for a slightly crisper, sharper flavor, thereby giving the Dry Root Beer some of its promised dry-ness, it does make for a rather thin, watery feeling over all. It’s not particularly smooth at all, noticeably lacking the fullness and body that real sugar can provide. That has the added effect of making the already-strong carbonation feel even stronger – this is definitely not a chug-able root beer (but then, why waste a root beer by chugging it to begin with, right?) unless you consider a searing pain in the back of your throat integral to your root beer experience. Having said that, the carbonation isn’t all bad; it does create a surprisingly large head that dissipates satisfyingly slowly. Once the carbonation settles down a bit, the dry-ness becomes a little more pronounced.

So while the overall flavor of GUS Dry Root Beer is actually pretty decent, after the first few sips – which give a good hit of herb and root (or birch, as the case may be) – it starts to taste hollow and even a little boring. I don’t find myself particularly excited about finishing off the bottle, which actually doubles the lower-calorie effect when you think about it (i.e., it’s lower calorie to begin with, and I’m drinking less of it to boot). This is not to say that I won’t drink it again – it’ll just be relegated to those times when I really want that root beer taste on my tongue, but I’m too calorie conscious to slurp down 42 grams of sugar (there's only 24 grams per bottle of GUS, by comparison).

Root beer – any kind of soda, for that matter – wasn’t really a kitchen staple when I was a kid. My parents actually did a pretty good job teaching us to eat right, so sugary beverages were regarded more as an occasional treat. As far as my root beer obsession goes, I still believe drinking a root beer should feel like a treat, and to that end, GUS doesn't feel so much treat-like as it feels utilitarian (probably good to accompany a meal, or better yet used in a float, where the extra sugar from the soda is certainly not necessary, but where the ice cream can make up for the lack of smoothness). That in mind then, at least when it comes to root beer, perhaps I’m not ready to grow up just yet. GUS Dry Root Beer gets a low 3.5.