Thursday, December 3, 2015

Damn Fine Root Beer Road Trip, Part 1: Triple XXX Drive-In

Behold: The largest lit Plexiglas sign in the Western United States (for reals).

(Issaquah, September 2015)

So the Missus and I were ostensibly in the Seattle area for a wedding, but as you may have already gathered from my previous 2 posts, I had ulterior motives (well, I did want to go to the wedding, too. ...honest...).  Having missed earlier opportunities to ostensibly visit family in Lafayette, IN, home of one of the last 2 remaining Triple XXX establishments, we made sure to take a drive through the (fantastic, big, majestic) woods (Douglas firs, Diane) to find the other one – which just so happens to be the only one that still has the traditional root beer barrel storefront. 

The first Triple XXX Drive-In in the Pacific Northwest actually opened further southwest in 1930, but was demolished to make way for a car dealership.  Its current home in Issaquah was built in 1968, and had traditional car-hop service until 1996, when the drive-up portion was demolished to make way for an office building.  Thankfully, the restaurant portion still remains, and its current owners – the Jose Enciso family – don’t seem to want to remove anything else to make way for anything else (source).

…and perhaps have a serious case of horror vacui…
Evidently we were seated in the Elvis corner.
A fountain barrel from days gone by – with separate spigots for syrup and soda.
Triple the X, double the root beer, Porta the Pooj.
These days, the Encisos get their root beer syrup from the Coca-Cola Company, but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s Triple XXX syrup or just Barq’s.  I’m inclined to think the former, given that it has a more licorice-heavy flavor than Barq’s typically has.  On the whole, it has a sarsaparilla-like taste, though less vegetal, and not much of an aftertaste (although it’s a little hard to distinguish much past the lingering smell of hot grease – not a bad thing, per se, but it does dull the senses a bit).  Texture is on the thinner side as well, so it’s hard to tell whether its made with sugar or HFCS.

At the end of the day, I have no complaints (just a very full stomach).  I think I still like the bottled Triple XXX better (and I really should still try the IN version at some point for comparison), but I’m nevertheless enjoying the whole experience here.  Triple XXX Drive-In gets a low 4.

...and bonus points for commitment to the theme, even down to the picnic tables

Friday, October 23, 2015


The Porta-Pooj retreats from the herd.
(The Root Beer Store, September 2015)

If you were to throw a Tillamook Baby Loaf in any given direction from any given location in Oregon, you would probably have a reasonably good chance of hitting a craft brewer. Of the glut of breweries that have cropped up during the Pacific Northwest’s micro-brew renaissance, however, you could also probably make a reasonably good argument that Rogue is one of the more successful. From their beginnings in Ashland in 1987, to their fortuitous relocation to Newport – their lease negotiated when one of their co-founders just happened to be stranded in Newport during a snowstorm – Rogue has since grown into a multi-award-winning producer of ales, porters, and stouts. Their vertically-integrated operation includes farming their own barley, hops, and rye, and their production has expanded to include non-beer items such as cheese, tuna (to which I must add ehhhh???), and, of course, root beer (source).

Rogue Root Beer is also award-winning…well, sort of, at least technically-speaking. More accurately, their Root Beer bottle won a packaging design award last year (source). While we can probably all reasonably agree that the bottle is nice-looking on the outside, we wouldn’t want to seem superficial either, so let’s just say that it’s really what’s on the inside that counts, right? Yeah…? OK.

What’s on the inside, when poured outside, has a decent head of soft bubbles; the bigger the pour, the bigger the head (the ingredients list “sparkling foam” as the foaming agent). The scent is heavily licorice, slightly medicinal, and the flavor is crisp, almost fruity, with some clove for good measure. As the fruity flavor fades, the honey flavor builds – light, like blossom honey, not like clover honey – and floats to the top of the mouth. Eventually the fruity flavor comes back in an apple cider-like finish, with a very slight amount of heat in the aftertaste.

The honey – which is also produced at the Rogue farm, by the way – doesn’t really thicken the texture like I’ve come to expect from other honey-sweetened root beers, nor does it make the drink cloying, as I’ve experienced in the past (though don't always expect). Instead, the brown sugar actually adds some depth to the sweetness (and it’s definitely on the sweet side of the scale). Ultimately though, the fruity flavor comes back to dominate, and that imparts an overall tart taste to the whole thing that I’m not really sure I like.

For all that Rogue does right as a company, I just don’t think their Root Beer really hits all the marks of a good, classic root beer. While I’d most certainly welcome trying some of their other sodas (except the Pumpkin Spice, because…why…never…pumpkin spice…eh), I didn’t particularly like the root beer. Rogue Root Beer gets a high 3.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


The Pocket-Pooj is a patent-pending original.

(The Root Beer Store, September 2015)

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you already know some of the history, significance, and unfortunate decline of Hires Root Beer.  Much better-written and more detailed accounts are available here and here, but long story (relatively) short, Pennsylvania pharmacist Charles Hires first brought root beer to the forefront of the American consciousness when he introduced his version of the beverage to fair-goers at the 1876 Philadelphia US Centennial Exposition.  While the origins of the beverage are still up for debate – legend says that Hires discovered a “root tea” years prior, during his honeymoon, while other sources suggest that he created it at the behest of pre-Prohibition temperance movement leaders – its seemingly meteoric rise in popularity can be fairly attributed to Hires himself.  Hires first marketed solid concentrate and powdered versions of root beer – claiming that it could purify the blood and bring color to the cheeks, among other health benefits – before shifting production to kegs and liquid concentrates for soda fountains as well as at-home mixing in your very own Hires Automatic Munimaker (additional source).

By 1890, Hires and his company, appropriately named the Charles E. Hires Company, had started small-bottling operations for commercial sale, and sales of these bottles and home-mix extracts would continue for close to another 100 years.  Sadly, Hires Root Beer’s slow death stretched through the latter half of that century of production.  Hires handed over his company to his sons in 1925, and the company would continue to flourish under the family’s watch until 1960, when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods.  Just two years later, Consolidated Foods sold the company again to Crush International, which was purchased in its entirety by Proctor & Gamble in 1980 and sold again to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989 (source).  By the time Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks branch into the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group in 2008, Hires’ parent company had already decided to slowly phase Hires out of production in order to promote its own A&W line (source).

Lest you feel bad for Charles Hires himself, fret not, since he actually did quite well for himself after leaving the company he started.  He would later become one of the world’s experts on vanilla, writing a book on the subject from knowledge he gleaned in the wholesale vanilla bean business (source).  I’m inclined to believe that this expertise resulted in Hires, however peripherally, continuing to influence the product that he made into a household staple.

Personally, I recall seeing Hires Root Beer around here and there as a kid, and even remember drinking a fair amount of it during summer music camp in elementary school.  With production now scarce, distribution limited to a handful of states of which California is not one, I don’t think I had seen any Hires Root Beer in any form at all for at least a couple decades.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised to find a canned version in Washington during a recent foray into the Pacific Northwest (more on that to come).

Decanted into a glass, Hires has a satisfyingly thick head of foam that stays on top of the pour for a while, then sticks around the edges for the remainder of its time in said glass. Surprisingly, there isn’t much of a scent to speak of.  Also surprisingly, it has a relatively rich and smooth texture for a HFCS-sweetened soda.  The flavor is a good balance of sweetness and herbal, somewhere between A&W and Barqs, with a menthol finish (possibly some wintergreen then) that lasts for a long time in the aftertaste.  While there’s nothing that stands out in particular, there’s a good mix of everything that I would typically refer to as a “generic” root beer flavor.  Ordinarily that “generic” label would relegate a root beer to the realm of mediocrity, but considering that (1) Hires quite probably executes the “generic” root beer flavor better than everyone else, and (2) Hires is quite probably the flavor that every other “generic” root beer flavor aims to emulate to begin with, I tend to view that “generic” label very favorably in this case.  My only gripe is that it doesn’t use real sugar, but I’m OK with that for the most part because it still tastes really good.

Am I perhaps giving the current Hires label the benefit of the doubt because of what the original label has meant to the history of root beer?  Yeah, probably.  But the fact of the matter is that I would easily drink this again whenever the opportunity presents itself, and might even consider having it shipped here so that the opportunity presents itself more often.  So by that rationale, Hires Root Beer warrants a 4.5.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Black Bear

I see a Pooj looking at me.
(Real Soda in Real Bottles, December 2012)

So we know that Bulldog Root Beer is named for its owners’ Bulldogs, III Dachshunds Root Beer is named for its owners’ III Dachshunds, and Freaky Dog Root Beer is named for its owner’s Freaky Dog. Following that trend then, Black Bear Root Beer is named for its owner’s … Black Bear …? 

Really, it is… 

Needless to say, Louis Patmont had to release his baby bear back into the wild when it became less baby, but named his business after it in remembrance of their good times together. Patmont had already been bottling spring water in Town of Lake, WI since 1920, but didn’t make the name change until 1924, and didn’t include flavored sodas in his repertoire until 1932. Thirty years later, in 1961, Peter and Esther Caruso bought the business and their family runs it to this day, moving production to Oak Creek, WI in 2001 where distribution would be easier (source). 

There’s a nice scent coming from the bottle, with some vanilla that doesn't really end up factoring much in the flavor. Bubbles are small, and there’s no head at all – not even any bubbles rising to the top of a glass when poured. I don’t know if this is normal or more due to the fact that I have an old bottle – I’m easing back into this game slowly, evidenced by the smaller serving size for my first real post in oh-so-many months. Unfortunately, that means some of my stock of new-to-me root beers is much older than I’d care to admit. 

Disclaimer aside, the taste is very sweet compared to other flavors present – your standard herbal flavor with some clove around the edges. Although Black Bear uses HFCS instead of real sugar, the texture is much improved over standard HFCS, which is typically thin. Black Bear coats the mouth more than HFCS usually does, which helps to leave a pleasant herbal aftertaste that is, again, pleasant, if not particularly distinctive. I’m going to give Black Bear a low 3.5 for now, but I might be inclined to give it another fair shot should the opportunity present itself, given that the bottle is so old. 

Follow me down another rabbit hole (bear hole…?) for a second here (actually, I should recommend not ever following anybody down any bear hole, should anybody ever ask): III Dachshunds is produced by Black Bear, which was purchased by the Caruso family in 1961, for which Caruso’s Legacy Root Beer is named. All three of those labels are now owned by WIT Brewing Company of Redding, CA, which now also runs Goose Island’s soda operation (though evidently not the beer operation), as well as another label called Oak Creek Barrel Aged, also based in Redding (but named for a town in Wisconsin, with a Chicago phone number…?), that ages two root beer varieties in oak barrels for an entire year. I don’t know if any brewing or bottling occur in Redding, but I’d be interested to see what a side-by-side comparison of these labels would reveal. On paper, Caruso’s and Dachshunds have the exact same ingredients list, though the nutritional information indicates different quantities of sugar and therefore calories. Goose Island differs from both in the order that the natural/artificial flavor and citric acid are added, as well as an additional preservative. Black Bear already differs from everything else in its use of HFCS instead of sugar, so there should already be a noticeable difference in flavor. No ingredients are indicated for Oak Creek, but there are already enough differences in its production to suggest a very different experience (source). 

I have somewhat ready access to all the aforementioned labels except the Oak Creek varietals, so perhaps we can find some SCIENCE(!) down that rabbit hole sometime in the future. Meanwhile I need to sort through my stash to see which bottles have already become science experiments in their own right… …Stay tuned…

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Happy Root Beer Float Day!

Hey Folks, it's been a while...

Parental, educational, and vocational obligations are still relegating the pursuit of root beer (i.e., happiness -- not the sole definition of it, of course, but no small factor in its general definition either) to the back burner for the near future. I'll be back soon, I promise.

Ahhh, cafeteria food. Note the whimsically speckled solid-surface table.

Until then, this is unfortunately the best I can muster for today's festivities -- I am at least fortunate enough to be in a place where Barqs and soft serve are readily available.

Once again, celebrate accordingly and responsibly...!

Friday, February 6, 2015


(Absolution Brewing Company, February 2015)

Absolution Brewing Company opened a little short of a year ago in the South Bay, Los Angeles’s up-and-coming center of craft brewing. Owners Steve Farguson and Nigel Heath, along with head brewer at the time Wes McCann, noticed an underserved market for microbrews in south LA County, observing that many in the region headed even further south to San Diego County for fresh beer. Since the City of Torrance had already been making efforts to attract craft brewers to the region, native-Angeleno Farguson drew on his experience as a brewing consultant to open his own shop closer to home (source). The brewery and tap room are actually located in the back of a nondescript tilt-up office park, buried behind an oil refinery and bordered by train tracks, but that fact does little to hide Absolution from the relatively large group gathered here to drink at noon on a weekday. Maybe the repurposed church pews (previously purposed at Heath’s church, evidently) and religiously-themed brew names (which you might have already figured, given the name of the brewery) are adequate to assuage the guilt of a liquid lunch…. 

Naturally, I chose one of their tea-totaling options…

The Pocket Pooj ponders a pardon.

Current head brewer Bart Bullington – who, it’s worth noting, was actively head brewing and shoveling grain out of a mash tun next to my pew during my visit – developed Absolution’s root beer recipe along with many of the, shall we say, holier brews. It’s heavy on the licorice and herbs, almost bordering on bitter, with a menthol finish. Nevertheless it’s quite refreshing, and the fact that it’s not too sweet actually makes it easier to drink. There’s no head at all and the bubbles are on the small side, the former being a little disappointing but the latter also making it easier to drink. Lest you be worried about the fate of the former head brewer, McCann was manning the bar, and he told me that they use nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide for the carbonation (assuming it’s still called carbonation if it’s not actually carbon…?). Unfortunately, the nitrogen limits Redeemer Root Beer’s availability to the tap house at the moment – it will not travel well in a growler, and will quickly go flat.

Well, in that case...

Inspired by the above exhortation, strategically placed on the restroom wall, I also had a glass of the Confession Cream Soda, which was actually a little spicy, too. Of course, I can't tell for sure whether that's intentional or just the root beer aftertaste talking. Either way, the Cream Soda does have a huge head of soft foam, and was also pleasantly not too sweet, with less vanilla than you'd typically expect in a cream soda.

Back to Absolution’s root beer, though: I like it well enough, but it’s also a little on the bitter side for my every day tastes. On the other hand, that same bitterness would actually make Redeemer a good root beer to cook with – generally the stronger ones make better root beer sherbets and whatnot. As a drinking root beer however, I’ll give Redeemer Root Beer a high 3.5.