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.