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.