Thursday, August 19, 2010

Battle of the Root Beer Brands

When I first moved east from Utah, I had to learn to say Soda instead of Pop when I wanted a carbonated/fizzy/sugary-diet drink.  I also bought Hellman's mayonnaise instead of Best Foods, and I learned to speak fast(er).  So it was a little uncanny to take my children to Utah for two weeks for a vacation and get reminded of all the minor (as well as major) differences in my life as a result of moving east. Having said that, I had this weird nostalgia for root beer SodaPop.  So Kate and Dash and I decided to do a Root Beer tasting as part of our vacation. Let me tell you that we were very surprised by all the different flavors, ingredients, and variations of root beer.

When I told my brother, Dave, what we were doing, he said "Oh, one of my neighbors makes the BEST homemade root beer!"  Major flashback to all of the church parties I attended as a kid -- there would always be about 6 or 7 men standing around a big pot with smoke coming out of it. No, it wasn't anything illegal, geez, they were making root beer!  But it was magical to watch them dump five pounds of dry ice into five pounds of water sweetened with five pounds of sugar and a bottle of root beer extract.  Somehow the dry ice percolated and made the water fizzy, and then, Voila!, root beer!!

When I went away to college in Southern Utah, I was introduced to a yeast root beer recipe.  Yuck!  Sorry to all of those who like it -- I personally wouldn't recommend it. 

This summer we started our root beer tasting in the Jet Blue terminal at JFK, and we tasted several brands and variations over the next two weeks.

Hanks Gourmet Root Beer (I didn't know that root beer could be called "gourmet. I guess I learn something new every day!)  For those who care, this one was labeled low sodium and no caffeine, and was sweetened with cane sugar.  We gave it a 7 -- it had a tart flavor, not as sweet as some other brands we tried later, it had lots of fizz, but it was light on actual rootbeer flavor. According to the website, root beer originally came from Philadelphia, who knew?

Parley Street Olde Time Soda (see, it's called SODA, not POP!)  -- is made in Salt Lake City.  It had a nice, sweet taste, and lots of root beer flavor.  We gave it an 9.  We couldn't find a website.

Teddy's Hand Crafted -- similar to Parley Street, we also gave it an 9. On this website we learn that root beer has been an American Classic since the late 1800's and was first used for medicinal purposes. (I'd like to know what it was used for!). The website also tells us that root beer the main ingredient in root beer floats. (Really????)

Virgil's - micro brewed root beer was originally brewed in the north of england.  It is made with nutmeg, anise, and wintergreen, but we found the anise to be very strong.  If you're not a fan of licorice, then you probably won't like this flavor.  We were mixed -- the kids gave it a 6 because they didn't like the anice, but I think it's a 9.5.

Sarsaparilla -- I always thought it was the same as root beer, but then we found a bottle of it at the general store at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City (  Wow, it had a very different flavor than root beer. Very strong flavors, a little wild and sweet. None of us like it. I did some reserach on Wikipedia and Straight Dope and found out that the flavors come from a blend of birch oil and sassafras, the dried root bark of the sassafras tree. And I found out that it was used to induce sweating.  (We just survived some 100+ weather in NY, so I'm not really sure why anyone would want to induce sweating, but who am I to question old wives?)  It was also supposed to help cure headaches and hangovers.

To round out our tasting, we went to A&W and had root beer floats, and we also got talked into trying root beer Icees at 7-11.  Yes to floats, no to Icees.

Our tasting made for some fun conversations with our families. My mom was a big fan of Dee's drive in root beer, where you could refill your gallon jug (made from glass) for about a dollar.  Sadly, other family members have updated their cola tastes -- Dr. Pepper wins that hands down over Pepsi (2nd choice) and Coke (3rd choice).

What did we conclude? There's no accounting for taste!

PS: I just heard that we are way behind the times on our tastings, and if you really want to know all about root beer, check out: