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 revoluciĆ³n.

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.