Wed 15 Dec 2010
Sprecher Brewery was founded in Milwaukee in 1985 by Randal Sprecher, who trained as an oceanographer but had to abandon that career because of an alarming tendency to seasickness. The brewery is now in the nearby town of Glendale. Sprecher makes a full line of permanent, seasonal and specialty beers but sells more root beer than all its alcoholic beers combined. Sprecher “Fire-Brewed” Root Beer is something of an icon in Wisconsin, and a big deal is made about that fact that it’s sweetened with “raw Wisconsin honey,” as if that factor were a signature of pride in The Badger State. According to the ingredients list on the label, Sprecher Root Beer is also sweetened with glucose syrup and malto-dextrin, so the “raw Wisconsin honey” shtick doesn’t carry much weight with me.
Here’s the complete ingredients list for Sprecher Root Beer: “Carbonated water, glucose syrup, malto-dextrin, WI raw honey, natural and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), phosphoric acid, quillaia/yucca extract, sodium chloride, caramel color, and vanilla”.
“Glucose syrup” is corn syrup — as in Karo pecan pie — while maltodextrin is a polysaccharide produced by partial hydrolysis of corn starch, so it looks as if the corn is about as high as an elephant’s eye in Sprecher Root Beer. (Can you say “agricultural subsidies”?) Maltodextrin increases the specific gravity of a beverage — it’s often used in beer — and adds to body and what’s called “mouthfeel.” I’ve written about sodium benzoate and phosphoric acid in previous entries in the Root Beer Journal, so I’ll quote myself here:
“Sodium benzoate (NaC6H5CO2) is the sodium salt of benzoic acid. It is used as a preservative against bacteria and fungus in such acidic foods as salad dressings, carbonated beverages, jams and fruit juices, pickles and other condiments. Oddly enough, sodium benzoate is also used in pyrotechnics as a (highly explosive) fuel in something called ‘whistle mix,’ a powder that emits an eerie whistling sound when compressed into a tube and ignited.”
“Phosphoric acid (H3PO4) is an inorganic mineral acid that lends liveliness and tang to cola-style soft drinks. It’s cheaper and more widely available than citric acid. Phosphoric acid is also used as a rust remover — ‘naval jelly’ — and has been linked to lower bone density in habitual cola drinkers.”
Quillaia extract derives from Quillaja saponaria, the soapbark tree native to central Chile. The familiar yucca plant, an ornament to many homes in the suburban reaches of America west of the Mississippi, is a member of the agave family, which includes Yucca elata, the soaptree yucca.
“All right, already,” you’re saying, “get on with it! What does Sprecher Root Beer taste like?”
Well, o.k., I just want you to know what you’re getting into when you open a bottle of this stuff. The truth shall set you free and all that.
Sprecher Root Beer is actually quite attractive in a balanced, moderately spicy middle-of-the-road style. It’s undeniably full-bodied and creamy, with a lovely almost pillowy texture enlivened by sprightly acidity; in this direct, sensual appeal lies Sprecher Root Beer’s chief virtue. What I miss here is the rooty, herbal medicinal edge, something dark, earthy and paradoxically crystalline, that the greatest root beers embody, though I enjoyed Sprecher Root Beer immensely and would be happy to drink it again. It comes in a 16-ounce bottle.
Thanks to Hamlett Dobbins for passing a bottle along to me.