Tuesday, December 31, 2013

El Camino Root Beer, Part 4: Central Coast Brewing

(October 2013)

Yes indeed, it's probably high time I finish my root beer cataloging from our road trip. I have a legitimate excuse for my delay this time (assuming my day job isn't normally legitimate enough excuse...) since the reason for our road trip decided to make his break for it a little earlier than expected. And while things are probably never going to settle down ever again (for the next 25 years or so, at any rate...), I'm finally at least able to surface a little to enjoy the last of our trip's acquisitions.

Central Coast Brewing first opened in 1998 with a stated goal to not only produce quality beverages, but to do so with the smallest carbon footprint possible. To that end, owner George Peterson has implemented a number of green business practices, including using production gray water to clean fermentation tanks and irrigate landscaping outside the brewery/tasting room, working with local utility companies to convert alcohol waste into bio-fuel, and limiting distribution to within 30 miles where many deliveries can still be made by bicycle. Peterson even runs his operation using recycled equipment collected from far and wide, northward to Washington and southward to Nicaragua (source). Following the same tack, when expanding demand meant replacing his equipment with larger (also second-hand) gear, Peterson sold his old gear to Pismo Brewing, the fruits of which we just covered a couple posts ago (source). Business has been good for Central Coast Brewing, which now produces at least 10 different ales, IPAs, seasonals, and stouts at any given time as well as, of course, the root beer, and operates a mobile kegger converted from an old restored Brazilian refrigerated catering truck that Peterson found on Craigslist (source).

The Pooj is stuck in the middle with brews.

The root beer isn't really one of my favorites, but it's still a pleasant drinking experience. It's dark and opaque, with a full body that's not too thick and not too thin. While it smells pretty sugary and only thinly of root beer, it actually doesn't taste too sweet at all, though the root beer flavor is actually a little thin and not particularly distinctive – maybe a little clove on the back end with a very, very slight menthol aroma. Flavors don't really build further into the ample 22 oz bottle and there's no real aftertaste to speak of, so it tastes relatively uniform throughout. Carbonation bubbles are somewhere north of medium but south of large, building to a rather large head that's all bubble and no foam, which therefore doesn't last long. But again, although unremarkable, Central Coast Brewing’s Root Beer is still a pleasant drinking experience.

Speaking of something to experience, the Central Coast shop is a sight to behold, with a bottle collection of magnitude I can only dream of one day achieving.

Speaking of recycling...

As far as Central Coast Brewing's Root Beer goes, I'll give it a low 3.5.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Gurrnaid: Root Beer's Spazzy Cousin

Yes, the Pooj would even catch this for you.
(Tehran Market, November 2013)

Taking a brief break from the road trip chronicles…

Let’s just get this out of the way now: Gurrnaid isn't actually root beer at all (so it's not going in my root beer count, nor is it getting a rating). In fact, it doesn't even claim to be root beer – only root beer flavored. But since we’ve sworn oath to explore all things root beer (well, speaking for myself at least), why not give it a shot, right? After all, it couldn't be worse than a Fizzy, right...?

Generally, I avoid “energy” drinks because they are rarely more than caffeinated glucose water. I am, however, also generally a sucker for unique packaging (come on, I can’t be the only person who’s been tempted to buy Tea of Kind just to watch that pressurized cap do its thing). Thus, on an afternoon when I can use a caffeine boost anyways and don’t really feel the urge to down coffee, I’m fortunate to encounter something equal parts energizing and root beer (which is to say, not much of either).

As far as ingredients go, Gurrnaid is no different than its peers in the sense that it is predominantly sweetener – a mixture of sugar and Reb A (AKA, stevia) clock in as the second and eighth ingredients, respectively. Caffeine is listed seventh, just before the Reb A, and preceded by a bunch of acids and preservatives. In addition to the requisite B vitamins, it also contains Omega 3, which does seem different than other energy drinks, though it makes for an alarming allergy warning: “Contains Fish (Anchovy and Sardine).” Sounds refreshing…

Oh well – it’s not like I went into this expecting health food. As promised, it is indeed root beer flavored, more like root beer mixed with something sugary and fruity, like root beer mixed with Gatorade or something to that effect (I say Gatorade rather generically, since all sports drinks kind of taste the same regardless of brand or flavor). Thankfully, it doesn’t taste like someone crushed a vitamin into it, like other energy drinks are prone to. While, Gurrnaid isn’t really something I’d make a habit of drinking, it’s not particularly offensive either – just don’t expect a flavor explosion as far as root beer is concerned. 

…and while we’re on that subject, the word “explosion” should never be used to describe any food item…

Thursday, November 21, 2013

El Camino Root Beer, Part 3: Solvang Brewing Company

(October 2013)

The Missus and I know our way around Solvang way more than we have any right to as non-Danish non-residents. If you’ve ever been here, you’d understand why – it’s really more of a stop-in-on-the-way-to-somewhere-else kind of tourist trap than a stay-here-for-a-week kind of tourist trap. But even having firmly established ourselves in the latter camp, we still manage to experience something new every time we visit. Seeing as it might be a while before we get a chance to come back for hakkebof, medisterpolse, and aebleskivers, it seems appropriate to at least make a quick detour during our road trip.

Our annual pilgrimages to the Sunny Fields have allowed us to see how things have changed over the past few years, including the establishment of Solvang Brewing Company in 2010. Proprietors Steve & Cari Renfrow bought the building from the granddaughter of the man who had originally built it in 1963 – including the windmill – and had operated it as the Danish Inn (source). The Danish Inn had long been shuttered before the Renfrows came across the property, but the new owners have legitimate pedigree: Cari Renfrow is a 4th generation Solvang-born Dane. In fact, her grandfather's uncles were amongst the first Danish settlers in Solvang when it was established in 1911 (source). 

Obligatory windmill shot.

As I said earlier, each trip to Solvang manages to reveal something we hadn’t seen before, and this trip is no different. While we have eaten at the Solvang Brewing Company in past visits, they were out of root beer in all of those instances. For the first time, we come away with this: 

The Pooj is perpetually quixotic about root beer.

I’m happy to report that Solvang Brewing Company’s root beer is worth the wait. Although it’s definitely spicy and heavy on the wintergreen, it’s not so strong as to be unpleasant. Since it’s not really that sweet at all, the rich herb flavors can feature prominently. There’s definitely a strong licorice aftertaste, though the aftertaste does start a little watery – it builds as you drink more and lingers on sides of the tongue. Head is virtually non-existent, as the bubbles are roughly medium-sized. Were I to compare it to recently sampled root beers, I’d say it tastes and feels like a slightly sweeter, less bitter/spicy (depending on your herb-strength preferences) version of Steelhead Spicy Draft, with some added body.

Until we meet again, Solvang, we leave on a happy note. …and with a gigantic tub of Danish butter cookies… Solvang Brewing Company’s root beer gets a low 4.

PS: Speaking of hakkebof, we had lunch at Viking Garden, which is kind of tourist-trap-y in a good way, has authentic-enough Danish food as far as the Missus’ Swiss-German sensibilities can ascertain, and has Death Valley Root Beer on tap

Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

El Camino Root Beer, Part 2: Sparky’s Fresh Draft

(Old Monterey Farmers Market, October 2013)

So, apparently it only takes me 3 short years to eat my words (in this particular case, that is; other cases much sooner…). Far from steering clear of Sparky’s Root Beer as I had previously stated I would, I’m actually purposely steering myself towards it, having specifically planned a portion of our road trip around visiting Sparky’s roost at the Old Monterey Farmers Market. Taste is subjective, and legitimately so, therefore I know a lot of respectable folks out in the Root Beer Interwebs (RBI, for short)(which, if not actually a thing, should be) love Sparky’s a lot more than I do – that hasn’t changed. However, what I will always love, respect, and go out of my way to learn, regardless of how I feel about a root beer itself, is a good story about how that root beer came to be.

Knox Brewing, which makes Sparky’s Fresh Draft Root Beer, owes its origins to a home brewing kit from which founder Kevin Knox (who might actually be the guy on the left in the photo above) (and if that is him, I must add that he’s very friendly) first started making beer. From such beginnings, Kevin went on to win several home-brewing awards locally and regionally. Recognizing that neither he nor his family really drank that much beer, Kevin later decided to steer his brewing towards things non-alcoholic, unveiling Sparky’s Fresh Draft Root Beer at the Pacific Grove Good Old Days Festival of 2000 after testing 115 different formulations. Named for the Knox family’s cat, Sparky’s Root Beer was originally only sold in kegs for restaurants and catering, as well as freshly drafted from a booth at the Old Monterey Farmers Market (per the photo above). As popularity grew, Knox Brewing starting bottling Sparky’s and selling it around the Pacific Grove/Monterey Peninsula area. Eventually, a friend and local grocer connected Kevin with Danny from Real Sodas in Real Bottles, who now distributes Sparky’s throughout the state, except in Central California, where, at least in 2009, Kevin still makes deliveries. (source 1, source 2

Not quite replicating the logo...

As for my Farmers-Market-Fresh[ly]-Draft[ed] Sparky’s Fresh Draft Root Beer, it’s a little watery, even before the ice melts. This, however, does not diminish its very strong wintergreen flavor, which I do remember being a little too strong for my tastes last time around. Had I thought through my transaction a little better, I would have ordered a float, which they make with ice cream from a local creamery – the added cream and vanilla would have made for a perfect confection, given that Sparky’s is not too sweet to begin with and herb-y enough to withstand any dairy-fied onslaught. I am pleased to report that fresh Sparky’s does actually come from a small barrel, which you would be able to see in the photo had I thought through my picture-taking a little better and waited until someone wasn’t standing between me and the booth (you can at least see a little of the barrel and tap in the photo, and to Sparky’s credit, the booth is pretty popular, so a customer-free photo would be hard to come by)... The stripey paper straw is also kind of cool, and possibly more environmentally friendly than a plastic one (stripey or otherwise), which I can get always behind.

While I emphatically believe that all root beer aficionados should do their best to get their hands on some Sparky's Fresh Draft Root Beer to decide for themselves, I still have to say that it isn’t one of my favorite brews.  Unfortunately that probably means my recommendation isn't going to be published in their pamphlet anytime soon, as other RBI luminaries’ have. But at least I get to park next to their van in the garage… 

The Spark[l]y steed.

Regardless, I still admire, respect and appreciate Knox Brewing’s effort immensely, and wish them the best as they take their self-proclaimed leadership in the root beer revival. Viva la revolución.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

El Camino Root Beer, Part 1: Pismo Brewing Company

(Pismo Brewing Company – Pismo Beach, September 2013)

As a last hurrah before our nest starts to fill, the Missus and I are taking a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. To prepare our unborn child for having the kind of parents that will drag him/her and his/her siblings on annual educational road trips, we're stopping by all the Spanish Missions and roadside kitsch we can find along the way. We're also reinforcing why we love living in California as we traverse 340 beautiful miles (well, minus the part where we had to go through the San Fernando Valley...) of sun-sparkled ocean during the day and star-sparkled darkness at night (hey, we live in LA; the only thing that sparkles at night there are police helicopters...).

Pismo Beach is one of those gorgeous little beach communities along the Central Coast that seem to have sprung up mostly for the surfing. Its name derives from the Chumash word for tar, pismu – though we’re probably talking more bitumen than actual pine tar in this case (in case you’re curious) and is historically known for its clams (source). At a whopping area of 13 square miles – only 3.5 of which isn’t covered by water – a little south of San Luis Obispo (which is actually a little smaller, but can at least boast a Spanish Mission, several institutions of higher learning, a thriving art scene, and 8 more square miles of solid land), you can probably drive right through it without noticing if you don't already know it's there. Thankfully, we know it's there, and thankfully it's home to Pismo Brewing Company (which is also small enough to drive right past if you don’t know to look for it), who thankfully make their own root beer (along with IPAs and ales). 

The Missus tries to hide Porta-Pooj behind her float.

Despite the boom and bust and re-boom of Central Coast microbreweries in the last decade, Pismo Beach didn’t get its first microbrewery until Pismo Brewing Company opened its doors in 2010. This family-owned affair is the result of an enterprising couple who enjoyed the small beach-town breweries they visited south of the border so much that they decided to start one in their own garage with the help of a couple more enterprising friends (source). Pismo Brewing’s brewpub is a modest, comfortable little storefront with a bar, a couple of booths, and a jukebox that alternates from Merle Haggard, to Kid Rock, to Johnny Cash during our stay.

The root beer has a respectable amount of foam coming from the tap, though as you can see, much of it has dissipated by the time I got my photo set up. Otherwise the bubbles are small and soft, but plentiful. It's easy to drink, with a mild generic herb flavor somewhere between the bite of Barq’s and the smoothness of A&W, for lack of better descriptors. Were I pressed to find a dominant flavor, I'd say it's a little sarsaparilla-y with a very faint amount of anise on the back end. And although it's on the sweet side, it's not at all thick, definitely not cloying, and still very refreshing.

Since Pismo Brewing also bottles their brew (which is significant, given that they otherwise only bottle one of their IPAs and lemonade, neither of which I tried) (you can get any other beer to go in a growler though), I’m picking some up to take home for further investigation (we must, after all, be thorough). This time around, fresh from the tap, Pismo Brewing Company Root Beer is just like its home town and precisely what it needs to be – a nice reason to take a break from the road (and quite good in the float). Until further consideration of the bottled offering, Pismo Brewing Company Root Beer gets a low 3.5.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Steelhead Spicy Draft, Round 2

Pocket Pooj ponders a pint.
(Steelhead Brewing Co. – Irvine, August 2013)

Although I've stopped in at Steelhead several times in the past several months to pick up a sixer of their Honey Vanilla Root Beer (and once just so the pregnant Missus could use the restroom on our way to San Diego...)(...which I took as a cosmic sign that I should also pick up more Honey Vanilla Root Beer...) I had yet to give the Spicy Draft a second chance. Since my gainful employment recently brought me, quite literally, across the street around lunchtime, I figured it was high time for some gainful root beer imbibement.

First off, I'm relieved to report that there is in fact more carbonation than my previous experience. While the bubbles are small, there are a lot of them. There's really no head to speak of, which I am a little disappointed by, given that it comes from the tap. Of course, this could be because they serve it over ice, which I typically don't prefer, but am also not really fussy enough to ask them to do otherwise -- if this is what Steelhead sees as the optimal way to enjoy their product, then who am I to disagree, right? Normally, you'd expect the ice to dilute the flavor down to nothing, but I think I'm able to take down enough before any harm is done. Plus the flavor is so strong on the menthol that I don't think the ice is doing it any real harm. So, as I said of my previous experience, they aren't lying when they call it Spicy Draft because it's pretty strong stuff, and the added carbonation, as you would probably expect, doesn’t change the flavor much from before. It’s still heavily favoring the aforementioned menthol (maybe wintergreen?), along with a healthy kick of licorice thrown in the mix with the other bark-y flavors. Either way, carbonated or not, it's still strong enough to border on bitter, and those bitter leanings linger on the top of the tongue for a long time. The menthol sticks around for a while too, leaving a cool feeling in the back of my throat.

And while being carbonated still doesn’t make this a chugging root beer (but really, who would want to chug a good root beer anyways?), I still think it’s good (definitely better when carbonated) – not too sweet, very complex and bold enough to stand up against anything you pair with it. That makes it a perfect accompaniment to my lunch, and perhaps one day I will test whether mixing it with their Honey Vanilla Root Beer – which is very smooth and much sweeter, though milder on the scale of rooty-ness – would perhaps result in the world’s perfect root beer. But no time soon, since I clearly can’t get a whole gallon home before it goes flat like last time.

This does make me doubt Steelhead's decision to only allow the Spicy Draft to be sold in the gallon cubes when they clearly leak air and thus cannot keep the soda fresh for more than a few minutes. I would gladly pay the start-up cost for a growler and bring it back to get refilled, but they have a strict beer-only policy with their growlers. Until then, I’m more than happy to stick to buying the Honey Vanilla to go, since I think I still like that variety better than the Spicy Draft. Having said that, Steelhead Spicy Draft gets raised to a 3.5.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Get 'Em While They're Hot...!

Yeah, I know, I don't call, I don't write... It's a bit of an understatement to say that it's been busy around here lately -- there have been some root beer adventures, but little time to chronicle them.  However, I can't keep news this good just to myself at the expense of the root beer-loving hoards: 

Fresco Community Market has Virgil's Bavarian Nutmeg on sale for a scant $2.99 a bottle!

If you understand the significance of such news and you happen to be in the Los Angeles/South Pasadena/Highland Park/Hermon area, knock yourself out.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Happy National Root Beer Float Day, everyone!

Please celebrate accordingly and responsibly.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Root Beer Field Trip: Joe Jost's

Pocket Pooj ponders for peanuts.
(July 2013)

For the better part of the last century, Joe Jost's tavern and pool hall has anchored the port city of Long Beach. Joe Jost the man (pronounced "Yost," though Joe himself essentially said in a 1972 interview that even he pronounced it "Jost" for those who don't speak Hungarian) was born in 1890 and immigrated to the US when he was 16. Though he arrived on these shores trained as a barber, he was really a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. After a stint as an Army infantryman in WWI, Jost trekked from New York to Long Beach by way of Chicago, Denver, and Upland, finding work as a barber at each new location before eventually setting up a small ice cream, candy, cigarette, and sundries shop (with a pool and poker hall in the back of the store) in nearby Balboa in 1920. What stands as Joe Jost's today came to be in 1924, combining everything the Balboa location had been with the addition of a barber shop. When Prohibition was repealed, Jost also started serving beer and sandwiches at his shop-of-all-trades until the Lords of Barberdom (i.e., the Barbering Commission) (honestly, I never knew such a thing existed...) took issue with barbering occurring in such proximity to alcoholing, at which point Jost ditched the shears and focused on the beers (and sandwiches) (sources: 1, 2).

Of course we're interested in Joe Jost's primarily because of the large neon-lit root beer mug on the sign:

Can't go wrong with that combination, if you ask me. 

And as the sign advertises, Joe Jost's has long been known in Long Beach as the place to go for a root beer from the tap, as well as pickled eggs and Marmion's Peanuts (another Long Beach institution), amongst other things. I discovered upon arrival that the root beer is not made by or specifically for Joe Jost's, but instead is Death Valley (back in 2009, they were serving Surf City, according to another blogger -- more on Surf City coming soon) -- still, it was on tap, it was frosty, and I like Death Valley Root Beer, so no reason to complain. The Marmion's peanuts are fat Virginia peanuts roasted in this old coffee roaster, just like William Henry Marmion did it back in 1907: 

Giving new meaning to Chock full o'Nuts... 

Current Joe Jost's tavern owner (and past, present, and future Joe-Jost-the-man's grandson) Ken Buck purchased the roaster from the Marmion family in the late 80s after they closed their own shop, and keeps it alive and running here. The peanuts were still warm in the bag when I got them, which made for a nice contrast to my cold Death Valley. And although Joe Jost himself isn't around any more to see what's become of his place (he passed away in 1975), I'm sure that he would be proud to see that it's still what it always was -- no frills, packed full of customers (even at 3 in the afternoon when I was there), and still the neighborhood's favorite bar.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Capt'n Eli's Revisited

So my holiday weekend hasn't really included the requisite amount of blowing-crap-up that this fair nation's birthday typically calls for, but I have partaken of the traditional eat-yourself-silly aspect of just about every holiday.  This, of course, comes down to declaring my independence from keeping track of how much sugar I'm ingesting.  But who are we kidding; I already did that weeks ago...

At any rate, such a turn of events has allowed me to look again at Capt'n Eli's. You'll recall (or not, depending on how much mental energy you personally expend on perusing online root beer pontification...) that my previous meeting with the Capt'n literally left a bad taste in my mouth, which seemed contrary to every other thing I've heard/read about Capt'n Eli's Root Beer as well as all of our other much-earlier meetings (admittedly, it had been a while).  I am happy to report that, upon a more recent encounter, the Capt'n and I have mended our fences and are on much better terms.

Which of course makes me wonder what happened to the last bottle I drank.  Or maybe I shouldn't try to wonder so much because, well, eww...

Yet I only need to revise my previous description of Capt'n Eli's slightly.  Take away the medicinal acridity, and you're left with everything good I had earlier described: still complex, still heavily favoring licorice in scent and flavor, still matching almost word for word my earlier description -- "molasses-y finish, with wintergreen menthol around the edges, [imparting] a rather woodsy, bark-y taste."  And really, all you have to do is take away the acridity and what remains is excellent.  

The U.S. of A. is all about second chances, right?  So happily I give myself a second chance to like Capt'n Eli's Root Beer, and happily the Capt'n obliges me.  Upon further consideration, Capt'n Eli's Root Beer gets a solid 4.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


The Pooj is for lovers.
(Galco's, July 2012)

Happy Independence Day to all! And what beverage is more American than root beer, right? Drinking root beer on the Fourth of July, therefore, is not only a privilege, but my patriotic duty! To that end, Dominion seems the perfect root beer for such an occasion.

Much, of course, has been written, re-written, alleged, and disputed regarding the history of the beverage we now know and love as root beer, but Dominion Root Beer may be the only root beer to have the weight of government behind their historical claims – it’s made according to root beer recipes preserved at the Library of Congress. Company founder Jerry Bailey, a Federal employee (not sure if he actually worked for the Library of Congress though), used to brew beer for his own enjoyment until 1989, when he opened one of the first brewpubs in the DC area and started brewing it for a living. Bailey called his brewpub Old Dominion Brewing Company after the Virginia state nickname, since his establishment was technically in Virginia (source). Though the company was sold to a Maryland tavern owner in 2007, then to Anheuser-Busch 2 years later (who moved production to a larger brewing facility in Delaware), the subsequent owners all still maintained brewpubs in the DC area. Aside from root beer, Old Dominion makes ginger ale and roughly a dozen different beer varieties. Root beer, however, is by far their best selling single item, accounting for a full 20% of their production (source).

For good reason, too, because Dominion Root Beer is pretty good! It has an herbal-rooty scent that fades quickly, but the accompanying herbal-rooty flavor thankfully does not. Although there’s nothing particularly distinguishing about its flavor except for a slight molasses edge, it does hit all of the expected “root beer” marks. There’s a nice amount of sweetness that doesn’t distract from the herbs, so the honey listed in the ingredients doesn’t take over, yet still smoothes out the texture just a bit (not as much as honey typically can though). Pressed to find a word to describe the flavor, I would say that it is “clean,” and the aftertaste has the same crispness, with some herbs that fade away to leave a very slight menthol feeling. Head is decent as well – the bubbles are pretty big, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it foam, but it does stay around for a satisfying amount of time.

So while I haven’t been too keen on some of the things my government has done as of late, as far as root beer is concerned, I’m definitely proud to be an American. God bless root beer and God bless the USA – Dominion Root Beer gets a low 4.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dog n Suds

The Pooj gets ready to catch some suds.
(BevMo Pasadena, June 2012)

What started as a hot dog and root beer stand in 1953, dreamt up by two music teachers at the University of Illinois, spread throughout Midwest to become one of the largest franchised fast food chains in the country by the early 1970s. Dog n Suds Drive In (and the Dog’s name is Rover, for those keeping score) (I don’t know the Suds’ names, however) later merged their company of approximately 850 restaurants with an East Coast company in the mid-1970s, and that East Coast company very promptly and sadly drove it into the ground (source). Of the 17 locations that remain today, only 2 are original, but all still serve what they claim to be the "World's Creamiest Root Beer" (source).

Truth is, I've had creamier, but Dog n Suds is still fairly smooth as far as texture goes. While the carbonation is comfortably soft, the small bubbles build up to a modest amount of foam before wicking to the edges of the glass. Any creaminess that may exist, however, doesn't really translate into the flavor, which is slightly fruit-y, with cola-like tang – nothing close to the tongue-coating richness that I would expect from something claiming a “creamy” flavor (I suppose they never explicitly say that the flavor is supposed to be creamy, so perhaps I’m unfairly reading too much into it). I will say that its sweetness and scent are satisfyingly birch-leaning and pleasantly tempered, and that birch flavor extends to a nice herbal aftertaste with notes of menthol.

A little more of the advertised creaminess in the flavor would go a long way in kicking Dog n Suds up to a higher rating. The additional body and depth that creaminess can often add would be a welcome addition to what's already there. Having said that, I still like Dog n Suds enough to give it a 3.5.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Capone Family Secret

The Pooj teaches a lesson on "the Chicago way."
(Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer, May 2012)

Despite being named after a Chicago mobster and being bottled in the Windy City, Capone Family Secret Root Beer actually has roots in Las Vegas. Capo’s Speakeasies have had a restaurant presence near the Strip since 1964 and sell Italian food items under the Capo’s Foods label. Owner Nico Santucci also helped develop the “Mob Experience” for the Tropicana Casino in 2010, and while doing so met with family members of the infamous boss. According to the company website, Capone’s descendants revealed some of the family’s long-guarded Italian food recipes to Santucci during those meetings, foods which are now produced and packaged for sale by Capo’s Foods. The name of the food and beverage line – Capone Family Secret – comes from tales of Federal liquor-raids at Capone’s warehouses during Prohibition frequently only turning up recipes for “Italian specialties.” It’s not clear, however, if the soda line is made from any actual Capone family recipes.

Somehow, unless Al Capone was more down-home Americana than Brian DePalma presented him to be, I highly doubt the Capone family had a secret Italian root beer recipe. If they did, and this is certifiably it, I'd say the Capones had quite the sweet tooth (sweet teeth…? What’s plural for sweet tooth…?), since the predominant flavor here is sugar. Not in a bad way, mind you, because it's nice and smooth around the edges, though there's very little distinctive root-iness about it. A freshly popped bottle gives off a spicy scent at first, but that doesn't seem to have carried over to the taste much – it’s more of an herby-y essence that floats up to the roof of the mouth, leaving a menthol feeling in the back of the throat. The aftertaste is initially crisp, giving a clean-palette feeling, though it's followed quickly by a somewhat heavy sweetness, mixed with a little vanilla cream.

Carbonation is marginally on the harder end of the spectrum. There's a decent amount of soft foam that hangs around longer than I would have expected, given that there's no foaming agent listed in the ingredients – maybe lingering for a little less than 10 seconds. Aside from that, there's little else to set Capone Family Secret Root Beer apart from the general field of root beers. It's certainly not unpleasant to drink, but not exactly an offer I can't refuse either – that’ll warrant a 2.5.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Blue Sky

The Pooj never saw the sun shining so bright.
(The Milkman at Granville Island, Vancouver – June 2012)

Until recently I had only seen Blue Sky Free, Blue Sky’s sugar-free soda line, available at US stores. Consequently, I hauled this can all the way back from Vancouver, only to discover less than 2 weeks later that a natural foods store within walking distance of work also carried the non-sugar-free line. Oh well…

Blue Sky originally started in 1980 in Santa Fe, NM as a juice company. Founders Robert Black and Marla Becker later moved into the “natural beverage” business, eventually making sodas. After being purchased by Hansen’s in 2000 and moving production to Corona, CA, Blue Sky got into a little trouble for continuing to market as a home-grown New Mexico product (source). Good thing for them that we don’t judge – we just drink root beer (and then judge...), and drink it we will (well, at least I will…).

The Hansen's site says that there are cloves and nutmeg in the mix, which initially makes me think that it might taste like Christmas. I am happy to report, however, that it doesn’t taste like pie; it actually tastes like root beer, with some birch mixed into the smell and aftertaste. Mostly it tastes sweet, so that fights a little with some of the more subtle flavors floating around the brew, though it does finish off the aftertaste nicely. Although everything might be “all natural,” at 42g of sugar per can, it’s still a sugar bomb, so don’t expect this to be any healthier (or less unhealthy, as it were) than any other sugar-sweetened root beer. Perhaps the “natural” sugar is what makes the sweetness slightly caramel-y (though that "caramel-y" flavor also makes it taste a little like that Extra gum I tried a little while back, which I realize doesn't really make this sound very tasty...).

As for head, there’s only a little foam, and a little more that lingers around the edge of the glass. The carbonation remains pretty hard (not too unusual for a canned root beer) and it has fairly large bubbles, though it does flatten faster than I would have expected. Over all it’s better than I expected – not so much that I’ll be drinking nothing but Blue Sky from now on, but there’s a good chance that I’ll drink this again. I’d say that’s enough for a low 3.5.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dang! That's Good

The Pooj is about to wash someone’s mouth with soap. 
(Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer, May 2012)

Despite my numerous previous assertions to a newly-minted healthier diet, I’m going to be posting a flurry of root beers in the next few weeks.  Given the lackluster results described in my previous posting, I’m going to have to blast through some of the older items in my collection in an attempt to stave off any additional potential spoilage.  So here goes…

If you’ll recall from my previous Dang! experience, there wasn’t much information out there about Dang! beyond the Dang! little ditty about Imperial Flavors.  Well, that hasn’t changed at all in the past year, so I still don’t have any more Dang! background to offer.  Consequently, I’ll keep my foray into Dang! That’s Good’s regular root beer Dang! brief: there’s not much scent coming straight out of the bottle, save for a very very slight generic root-y scent.  Pouring it into a glass doesn’t make any difference, though it does demonstrate its lack of head.  There’s nothing remarkable about the taste – it’s generically root-y, just like the scent, and it’s pretty sweet, though the sweetness actually has some depth and richness to it.  Unfortunately, that slightly caramel-y sweetness doesn’t extend to the aftertaste, which is a little watery.

Were I pressed to choose, I think the Dang! Butterscotch variety is better.  While it’s not bad, Dang! That’s Good Root Beer isn’t all that Dang! good – sorry granny.  I’ll give it a 2.5.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Capt'n Eli's

The Pooj, with mournful tread, walks the deck.
(Galco’s, April 2012)

Capt'n Eli's Sodas were, in fact, named after a guy named Eli – Eli Forsley of Gray, ME, whose family had been brewing root beer in their basement since the 1920s. And while it's true that Eli did serve in the Navy during WWII, it's unclear whether he actually attained any captain-ship, though he did attain doctor-ship after his stint in the service. But alas, the soda is called Capt’n Eli's, not Dr. Eli's, so we will perhaps forever be left guessing. Maybe the soda market was already saturated with doctors, so captains seemed the next logical positional aspiration (insert Bones McCoy joke here).

Regardless, we do know that Eli Forsley did not actually start the company for which he is namesake. That credit belongs to Eli's son Fred, who opened Federal Jack's Restaurant and Brewpub in Kennebunkport, ME in 1992 (no word yet as to whether Jack was actually a Federalist) (insert Alexander Hamilton joke here). Fred started serving the family recipe root beer at Federal Jack's in 1996, and it became popular enough that he also decided to bottle it in 2002, selling it under the Capt'n Eli's moniker. Soon after, they developed a graphic novel to promote the Capt'n Eli's brand, which actually ended up gaining a footing of its own in the children's semi-educational graphic novel market (think Voyage of the Mimi-style edu-tainment). Eventually, Capt'n Eli's Root Beer expanded to include several additional soft drink varieties, produced for the Capt'n Eli's label by Shipyard Brewing Company of Portland, ME (which also produces Sea Dog Root Beer, amongst other normal beers), and is occasionally seen at various events around Maine in Capt'n Eli's Draft Van, an ingenious vehicle with soda taps sprouted (spouted?) from its sides (source)

My first impression is that it has a complex smell, heavily favoring licorice. My second impression is that it also smells a little like glue. In following, it does taste very licorice-y, but also tastes a little like glue (or what I would imagine glue to taste like, not having much of a glue-heavy diet myself). Whatever you call it, it’s definitely medicinal, in a medical product sense (i.e., tastes like ointment, though I don’t have much of an ointment-heavy diet either) and in a medical facility sense (i.e., has an antiseptic-like aftertaste, and it should go without saying that I don’t eat many medical facilities). One would assume these are not actually intentional flavors (because if they are, W...T…F...), but they do mix with what I would assume is an intentionally molasses-y finish, with wintergreen menthol around the edges, to impart a rather woodsy, bark-y taste.

The intensity of this tastes-like-how-a-barbershop-smells effect makes me wonder whether my bottle of Capt’n Eli’s hasn’t perhaps gone bad. As you can see from the date of purchase above, I’ve had this one sitting in the pantry for a full year (a combined result of over-zealous root beer collecting and the relatively-recent adoption of a healthier, soda-lighter regimen). In theory, glass is not supposed to allow sodas to lose flavor (or gain other flavors) over time – and I’ve saved several root beers in the past  for special occasions for longer than a year that have certainly been just as good when I did finally crack them open to suggest that this is true – so it’s hard to tell what’s nature and what’s nurture here. Glass bottles do supposedly have a tendency to lose carbonation over time, but that does not appear to be my case, as even the year-old Capt’n Eli’s has a very nice foamy head, which translates to a pretty smooth texture.

In fact, if I can get past that chemical burn, Capt’n Eli’s has a lot of good things to offer. The ingredients list alone indicates that thought and care went into crafting the beverage, and I can certainly appreciate that. And it’s not too sweet to boot, which I generally like. However, that burn – and the raw feeling it leaves on the top of my tongue – is more than a little difficult to get past, so I as much as I would like to love Capt’n Eli’s, this particular sample is hard for me to finish. Given my doubts about the freshness of my bottle though, I’m going to have to put an asterisk next to the 1.5 I’m giving it for now – this requires another look.

Friday, April 5, 2013


The Pooj is vertically challenged.
(Braum’s - Owasso, OK; August 2012)

Ask anyone from the Plains states and they'll know Braum's Ice Cream. My first Braum's experience was a cookies n' cream cone back in college during spring break, and seeing as I still remember it now, it clearly made an impression on me. I learned back then that Braum's does not operate anywhere farther than their trucks can deliver products fresh daily, which sadly means we'll not likely ever see one in California (oh well, we have In-N-Out, so I guess that's fair turnaround). What I did not learn until recently (i.e., doing research for this post...) is that those stores are specifically within a 300 mile radius of Braum's Tuttle, OK processing plant, and despite this geographic limitation, Braum's still operates close to 300 stores in 5 states: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, and their home state of Oklahoma. This is due to the fact that Braum's is almost completely vertically integrated as a company.

Let's back up a bit first. Henry H. Braum started leasing a butter processing plant in 1933 in Emporia, KS, and built his company upward from there. By 1940, Braum had gained his own facilities, and had just added ice cream to the menu of dairy products handled at his plant. This ice cream, which they named Peter Pan Ice Cream for a local park, would go on to make quite a name for the Braums, so much so that when the family sold Peter Pan in 1967, a few years after Henry's son Bill took over, they had to agree not to sell ice cream in the entire state of Kansas for 10 years following the company's sale.

Consequently, the Braums moved their entire post-Pan operation to Oklahoma, dairy farm and all, eventually settling in Tuttle, where they remain headquartered today on a 10,000 acre dairy farm. And as if their 260,000 sf dairy processing center wasn't enough, the Braum's company also operates a 240,000 sf bakery on the property, and also owns several hundreds of thousands of acres of additional farmland elsewhere in OK and TX just to grow alfalfa and hay to feed their cows – quite necessary when you take into account that the Tuttle farm births 40 calves each day. These cows – an entirely private herd, 1,600 milked per hour – combine to produce 150,000 lbs of raw milk every day (not a small feat given that they do not give the cows hormones to promote milk production). Much of this is sold just as milk, but much of it goes to producing Braum's signature ice cream, making Braum's the only major ice cream producer in the US that milks their own cows – how's that for vertical integration (source)?

But as much as we like ice cream, it is beside the point – Braum's makes their own line of sodas, root beer included. Thanks to friends in flat places, I have acquired a significant amount of said root beer. Unfortunately, although the cans were purchased just last August, the date on the cans indicates that they expired this past January, and I did not receive them until recently, well past its stated expiration date. I feel that in the interests of full disclosure, I need to offer this disclaimer, in case this expiration negatively affects its flavor.

I am at least pleased to note that, despite its stated expiration, Braum's Root Beer does not taste like the can it came in. Not taking any chances, however, I'm consuming this from a glass rather than straight from the can, knowing what we do about how that can affect the perception of flavor. And the flavor's not bad at all – it's on the generic/weaker/milder end of the root spectrum, and mostly dominated by sweetness, so there's nothing particularly distinct about it, but nothing offensive either. The scent is also mildly root-y and mostly sweet, somewhat candy-ish, so it's not surprising that the taste can come off a little syrupy. Same goes for the aftertaste, which is decently root-y and lingers for a little while before finishing with a clean sweetness. Either due to the yucca extract foaming agent or the aforementioned syrup-iness, the texture is smoother and fuller than your typical HFCS-sweetened root beer.

While Braum's Root Beer isn't particularly special – not a "treat" root beer by any means, it's certainly good enough to accompany the burger I would get at a Braum's restaurant were I to visit one, which I will need to do at some point just in case my representative sample really did lose something in its expiration. Upon such an occurrence, should I discover that there is no difference between fresh and expired, then I might opt to save my calories for an extra scoop of frozen custard instead. For now, Braum's Root Beer gets a solid 3.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Jack Black's Dead Red

What’s a pirate’s favorite beverage?  Arrr, root beer.
(Galco’s, April 2012)

From what I can tell, Jack Black’s Dead Red Root Beer has nothing to do with Jack Black the actor.  Unfortunately, that means we will not be invited to join him in his quarters later this night for some root beer, or toast, or what have you.  It does appear, however, that Jack Black’s Dead Red Root Beer has everything to do Real Soda in Real Bottles – as in not just bottled by them, but actually made by them.  And since that’s really all the information/history I can offer today, we’ll just get right to the root beer…

The freshly opened bottle smells slightly of an oriental herbalist’s shop, which could mean any number of ingredients goes into this brew.  However, tasting the beverage doesn’t shed much light on the matter, since it doesn’t really taste much like any of our typical root beer ingredients.  It does have a slightly medicinal aftertaste that settles into bitterness on the back of the tongue, which really isn’t all that pleasant.  Were I to stretch for an equivalent flavor, I would say it tastes like grass jelly – this could indicate something in the wintergreen family is the primary flavoring agent, since grass jelly is derived from a mint-like plant. One way or the other, there’s something plant-based in the flavor, even though I can’t quite put a finger on it.

One interesting note – there is both caffeine and guarana (which is basically just another natural form of caffeine) listed in the ingredients, so the producers seem to be aiming to create quite the buzz for anyone drinking this.  I can’t say whether it affects the flavor at all, but I do appear to be typing faster than normal, so maybe that says something…  Aside from that, the only other thing I can say is that it has a medium-hard carbonation that can foam up considerable in the mouth, though there’s little head in the glass.

As much as I like Real Soda in Real Bottles, it seems that my favorite soda stores are consistently batting pretty low when it comes to creating their own root beers.  Granted, root beer is probably one of the most subjectively defined sodas out there, so it’s hard to say who’s wrong, them or me.  So I’ll always appreciate Galco’s and Rocket Fizz even though I’m not a fan of White Rose Root Beer or Rocket Fizz Root Beer Float, and likewise I will forever remain a big fan of Real Sodas, their dedication to the carbonated arts, and especially their people.  However, I’ll probably pass on getting more Jack Black’s Dead Red Root Beer next time I’m in their outlet store – it gets a 2.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wonderful World of Root Beer: Watson’s Sarsae

The Pooj deduces this to be the closest thing to root beer in Hong Kong.
(Somewhere on Rua de S. Paulo, Macau – December 2012)

As I alluded to in an earlier post, the Missus and I were over the ocean and through the jungle over the holidays to visit my grandmother’s house in Hong Kong.  During a short detour to Macau, whilst meandering down a narrow winding street, I spotted a can of root beer from perhaps 15 yards away, tucked in a small refrigerated display deep inside a street-side café.  Before any of my travel companions had even noticed, I was in and out of the café, can in hand.

I should back up – there isn’t really “root beer” per se in this part of the world.  The closest we get is a sarsaparilla-reminiscent beverage called sarsi, or sarsae.  Ordinarily, this would be grounds for catch-and-release when it comes to my root beer cataloging efforts, but given that it is the only fish I caught, I’m going to go ahead and count it.  As it turns out, this is literally the only fish even in the pond (and by the way, stay out of the ponds; having witnessed an all-out turtle brawl, I can, without a doubt, report that the local pond-dwellers are quite vicious) – upon our return to Hong Kong, I discovered that not only is Watson’s Sarsae fairly readily available at most establishments (meaning I didn’t actually need to carry it back from Macau), but that Watson’s Sarsae is the only root beer-type beverage available anywhere.  Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of other soda – most of it either cola or fruity in nature (Blackcurrant Ribena and Honey Lemonade Schweppes were my clear favorites) – just no other root beer, sarsaparilla, sarsi, or sarsae, regardless of how you spell it (I don’t think I saw even a single can of Hey Song).  Now that we’ve officially reached the end of Chinese New Year festivities, it seems a good time to pop open the can I hauled back through US Customs with me.

Watson’s is actually a health and beauty store chain operating throughout Asia that, as a parent company, also operates several supermarket and convenience store chains.  Dr. Thomas Boswell Watson, a Scot, first established his medical practice in Macau in 1845 (so my acquisition of Watson’s Sarsae in Macau is appropriate), but the company known as Watson’s today was neither named after him, nor came about until he moved to Hong Kong in 1856 and became part-owner of the Canton Dispensary – known in the Cantonese vernacular as the Big Medicine Shop (source).  The Canton Dispensary was first established in 1828 with the goal of providing free medical services to the poor populations of south China, and that company would later become AS Watson & Company after Dr. Alexander Skirving Watson joined in 1858 (though the “AS Watson & Company” name was not used until 1872).  In 1903, AS Watson & Company started bottling purified water for distribution into parts the Mainland where clean drinking water was scarce – this later became known as Watson’s Water, and is now ubiquitous in Hong Kong and even available in some places in the US.  Since then, the bottling branch of AS Watson has added juices and soft drinks to the repertoire.  Eventually, Watson’s stores made their way back into Macau in 1988, and in the last decade have also established themselves back in Dr. TB Watson’s native UK (source).

Despite having a pretty neat pull tab, I opted to drink Watson’s Sarsae from a glass, knowing what we do about how aluminum can change the flavor of a beverage.  While there is a slightly metallic scent in the beverage, I can’t tell for sure whether or not any of that has affected the taste.  As you would expect, the can does preserve the carbonation well, and the bubbles, even in a glass are pretty big.  There is some head, but it dissipates somewhat quickly – not too quickly, but it doesn’t stick around for long, just lingering around the edges of the glass.

Given that it’s called Sarsae and not RarBae (er…), it’s understandable that it doesn’t taste altogether like root beer.  Even so, Watson’s Sarsae is like a thinner version of sarsaparilla – not too sweet and a little watery, with a little molasses flavor that’s also evident in the scent.  While it does have a definite plant-based flavor, which is actually more pronounced because it isn’t as sweet, there’s not much depth.  It’s also a little tart, leaving the same squeaky feeling on the teeth that some citrus drinks often can.  The ingredients list both sugar and HFCS, which is interesting considering that it’s not that sweet, and also includes an “acidity regulator,” which is also interesting considering the aforementioned tartness.  “Flavour” is also listed, but it doesn’t go into detail as to what kind(s). 

Overall, I would best describe Watson’s Sarsae as having a “clean” taste, the same way one would describe a clear vegetable broth.  And yes, I know that’s a strange analogy, but that’s what came to mind, so I’m going with it…  Which is not to say it tastes like clear vegetable broth, because, well, ick.  If it did, that would definitely earn a negative rating, but since it does retain at least the watered-down essence of what root beer / sarsaparilla should be, Watson’s Sarsae gets a low 3.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A&W Ten

The Pooj quests for ten.
 (Vons – February 2013)

To celebrate the 49ers' first Super Bowl appearance in 19 years, the Missus and I hosted a small Super Bowl Party this past weekend. Well, to be more accurate, I wanted to celebrate the 49ers' first Super Bowl appearance in 19 years and the Missus just wanted to host(ess) a party this past weekend. As we all know by now, the results of the game were less than desirable for the 49ers (for which I’m still sad, despite the fact that I, the 5’-6” 135 lb Chinese guys who’s never played anything more than a pick-up game of football in his life, can claim no credit, blame, or involvement in, except maybe disturbing my neighbors’ peaceful Sunday afternoon with loud interjections and floor stomping), at least we did have a great as-SF-themed-as-possible comestible spread. Naturally, the root beer of choice for such a theme should have been Pearson Bros, but I searched as far and as wide for it as could be justified to no avail. Thus I settled for a collection of Bay Area and NorCal sodas, including Bulldog Root Beer from Fresno, Camaño Brothers Sarsaparilla from Berkeley, and River City Blueberry Lemonade from Sacramento, as well as the distinctly non-SF-themed bottle pictured above.

As I’ve said before, I don’t make a habit of drinking, much less buying or writing about diet sodas unless there is a compelling reason to do so (e.g., a new natural sugar substitute, I couldn’t find the normal version, etc…). My compelling reason for acquiring A&W Ten was that it came free from my local grocer (um… that’s pretty much it). My compelling reason, then, for writing about it is threefold: (1) I’ve written about A&W a couple times before, so adding A&W Ten feels, if nothing else, consistent; (2) I’ve been cataloging all of my root beer experiences on this blog, liquid, solid, gaseous, or otherwise, so adding A&W Ten feels, again, consistent; (3) I feel a moral obligation to warn the rest of the root beer-drinking masses to stay away from this stuff.

You may recall that the Ten line of semi-diet beverages was first introduced by Dr. Pepper, who marketed it as a diet drink “for men,” meaning that it still contained some calories – 10 to be exact – despite it being a diet drink. Somehow, somebody in the front office reasoned that men want their diet beverages to be slightly less diet than women do…? In my opinion, both men and women who need to reduce the caloric value of their soft drinks are better off just sticking with the no-calorie diet drinks, as the addition of those 10 calories is not worth the corresponding reduction in beverage quality.

First, it smells like burnt marshmallows with a slight generic root-iness, which in and of itself is not necessarily bad. What is bad is the accompanying sinus-stinging acridity. This, in addition to burning my olfactory senses to a temporary oblivion (if such a thing exists…), also leaves a rather bitter aftertaste that settles mostly on the top of my tongue.

Second, it tastes like a rubber balloon. Now this may have something to do with the smell sufficiently frying my sense of taste as well, but hey, that’s all part of the experience of drinking this, so I’m not going to discount it. Otherwise the flavor is a little smoky, without much of the “aged vanilla” that all A&Ws claim to be made with, or much of anything else. On a positive note, the addition of some HFCS seems to have tempered some of the sting in the back of the throat that typically comes with the “diet” territory – not entirely, but enough that I don’t really notice it unless I’m looking for it.

Of the nine ingredients listed, HFCS is still second only to water, a fact that should alone scare me into never drinking soda again – if A&W Ten has barely 1/16th of the calories as the regular version, and HFCS is the second ingredient for both versions, that gives me a new perspective on how much HFCS/sugar there really is in regular soda…! Aspartame, the artificial sweetener, is all the way down the ingredient list at #6, after the preservative and the natural and artificial flavor. Quillaia extract is also included (regular A&W includes it, too), which results in a decent head when first poured, but dissipates very quickly afterwards.

Even in the pantheon of diet beverages this stuff is just plain bad. There are actually several no-calorie diet root beers out there that taste better – at least as “better” as one can expect any diet root beer to taste – than this. Since I’m not in the business of rating diet root beers (well, technically I’m not in the business of anything root beers…), I’ll forgo any formal judgment. And despite not being able to raise a celebratory root beer after the game, there is some small consolation – during my failed search for Pearson Bros, I did manage to find six new root beers instead, so at least one Quest for Six turned out well this weekend.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dreaming of a Kind-Of-Root-Beer Christmas Field Trip: Real Soda in Real Bottles

(December 2012)

Yes, I realize that we are well into the New Year, probably past the expiration date of most New Year’s Resolutions, and certainly well past the Christmas season, but I’ve been out of the country (more on that later), and thus am just getting around to completing the full documentation of my root-beer-related holiday festivities. As a kind-of Christmas present to myself, I finally heeded the exhortation of an anonymous fellow root beer enthusiast to visit Real Soda in Real Bottles in Gardena, CA. If you’ll recall, said anonymous fellow root beer enthusiast pointed out that my go-to soda pop stop, Galco’s, acquires their wares through Real Soda, so going directly to Real Sodas would cut out the middle man (regardless of how much I like this particular middle man).

Thanks – hearty thanks – Mr./Ms. Anonymous Fellow Root Beer Enthusiast, because you are responsible for no fewer than nine new root beer acquisitions!

This is just the fruit-themed soda aisle.

As you can see, there’s a lot of soda packed into the little outlet store at the corner of Real Sodas’ plant. There are at least 5 more aisles that look just like the one above, holding an ever-expanding variety of sodas, teas, energy drinks, and water – all sold at wholesale prices in the outlet store. While root beer only accounts for half of an aisle, that’s still three whole stacks, six shelves per stack, full of root beer! On the afternoon that I showed up, the plant was actually only staffed by a skeleton crew due to the holidays. Despite this, the very nice lady working in the front office, who had already worked through her lunch break, still kindly opened up the outlet store for me to browse and even re-stocked the root beer shelves so I wouldn't miss any (hence no picture of the root beer aisle itself).

Real Sodas in Real Bottles literally grew out of a hobby for founder Danny Ginsburg (who, I might add, has been quite pleasant himself in our email correspondence). Ginsburg had collected bottle-caps since he was a young child, and would therefore go out of his way to get sodas in glass bottles. When he was in high school during the late 70s, aluminum and plastic were just beginning to overtake glass as soda’s predominant packaging, so Ginsburg, who preferred the flavor of glass-bottled beverages, was often observed carrying his own bottles of soda wherever he went (instead of just buying the canned versions when he got there). Eventually other people started requesting that Ginsburg bring back specific glass-bottled sodas for them whenever he went on his soda procurement treks – which oftentimes entailed driving hundreds of miles away from his home in Southern California. Thus, through his high school and college years, Ginsburg became the go-to specialty soda provider for his peers, his acquaintances, local social events, and even local businesses.

When more businesses came a-calling, Ginsburg realized that his now almost-weekly soda runs were starting to get more serious than simply picking up a few bottles here and there for his acquaintances. He got a business license, naming his company rather matter-of-factly after what he was already known for supplying, and started distributing regional glass-bottled sodas out of his garage, delivering the products himself in his VW van. It didn’t take long to outgrow the garage, and Ginsburg continued moving into larger warehouses, driving larger vehicles, as well as adding employees until Real Sodas in Real Bottles set up shop in their current Gardena facility. Now, Real Sodas not only distributes several hundred different varieties of glass-bottled sodas from other parts of the country (and the world), it also bottles products for several regional brands that would have otherwise been forced out of business by larger beverage conglomerates. And if that wasn’t already enough, Real Sodas also produces beverages of their own, probably the most well-known being Leninade (source).

The soda world has come full circle for Ginsburg – whereas he once had to call soda companies to ask where he could buy their products, businesses all over the country are now calling his company asking if they can sell Real Sodas’ products. According to the company website , Real Sodas in Real Bottles is now “perhaps unquestionably the most substantial purveyor of glass-bottled soft drinks in the USA.” Not a bad place for a four-year-old boy’s bottle cap collection to end up!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hey Song Sarsaparilla

For some reason, Blogger un-posted this post from May of 2011, so I'm re-posting it...

The Pooj is not the issue here, Dude.
(99 Ranch Market, March 2011)

First of all, yes, I realize that the can says it’s sarsaparilla, not root beer – I bring this beverage to you because my father described it to me as “Taiwan root beer.” Second of all, there was a second type of Hey Song Sarsaparilla next to this one which is supposedly preserved plum flavor, which somewhat throws into doubt whether this is actually sarsaparilla, or that’s just the name of the company. Third of all, aside from Bundaberg, I have yet to encounter any other foreign root beers – best as I remember, the only thing available in Hong Kong that falls into the root beer category was something called Sarse, which sounds a lot like “sarsaparilla” for people whose native tongue maybe prevents them from saying “sarsaparilla,” and thus may indicate that sarsaparilla is the closest one will get to home grown root beer in Southeast Asia. Fourth of all, assuming you’re not already tired of it all, as best as I can tell (and please correct me on this if you know more than I do) the name Hey Song is basically sounds like a transliteration of the Chinese term for soda, or perhaps a play on words in that regard. I also read somewhere that it actually says “black pine,” but I can’t confirm one way or the other since I don’t read Chinese. Yes, shameful, I know.

Despite all aforementioned factors, however, is this the root beer of my people?

Ermmmm, maybe yes, maybe no. Let’s start with the maybe no. Actually, let’s back it up a little further. Since we’ve established that drinking out of an aluminum can may affect the flavor of a beverage, we begin by first decanting into something less aluminum.
Which also gives opportunity to show off some nifty glasses one of my best buddies recently gave me for my birthday…

Hey, careful Pooj, there's a beverage here.

They’re made by cutting the top off of an old soda bottle – pretty neat reuse of an otherwise trashed bottle, if you ask me. And they hold a remarkable amount of beverage, given their deceptively small appearance.

Anyways, back to the maybe no: my first reaction is that Hey Song Sarsaparilla smells like gummy worms. Turns out that the flavor is pretty similar – it kind of tastes like candy, like gummy soda bottles. It has a thin syrupy flavor, slightly sour, with only a lingering, slightly root-y aftertaste. Calling the slightly root-y aftertaste barky might not be entirely accurate though.

Which brings me to the maybe yes: since this is a foreign beverage, I would venture to guess it is geared towards slightly different sensibilities when it comes to the herb blend. I’ve said in the past that there have been root beers that taste like Chinese preserved plums – while I’m not saying Hey Song Sarsaparilla tastes like preserved plums (which begs the question of what the Hey Song Sarsaparilla Preserved Plum soda tastes like), I am saying that perhaps those typical root beer ingredients that remind me of Chinese herbs may exist in higher proportions in actual Chinese root beer or sarsaparilla.

That being said, my root beer sensibilities are distinctly American. Or perhaps the preferred nomenclature is Asian American, please (hah!*). I’d probably drink it in the homeland when better root beer options are unavailable, but I’ll skip it when I can get my hands on something better. Hey Song Sarsaparilla therefore gets a 2.

* Say, friend - you got any more of that good sarsaparilla?