Root beer


I came upon Bundaberg Root Beer at Fresh Market, and while it’s expensive — $1.99 for a 12.7-ounce (375 milliliter) bottle — of course I could not resist trying a new brand. The company was founded in 1960 in Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, and is still owned and operated by the Fleming family. The company is primarily known for ginger beer, which it sells a ton of in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries. Bundaberg’s motto is the alliterative “Brewed to Be Better,” and I’ll say that this is not just a better but a superior root beer, with a shiny dark color, a mild blond head (you know, the foam) and good body. It’s moderately rich and quite lively, offering a clean but sweet rooty essence and a hit of clove-anise-vanilla spiciness; a touch of light, bright fruitiness seems to come from sarsaparilla root, making this perhaps not a true root beer, but there are, after all, no hard and fast recipes for root beer; the multitude of choices makes it interesting. For some reason, this gets mixed reviews on root beer blogs — talk about fanatics! — but I liked it immensely. The company does a separate bottling of sarsaparilla.

Here’s the ingredients list: Carbonated water, cane sugar, root beer brew (water, sugar, molasses, ginger root, sarsaparilla root, licorice root, vanilla bean and yeast), caramel color, citric acid, preservatives (potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate), antioxidant (asorbic acid), root beer flavor.

While I wish that Bundaberg Root Beer did not contain preservatives, the entry on this list that throws me is “root beer flavors.” What the hell? Don’t the flavors come from the previous constituents? And if not, or at least if not entirely, could we get an explanation of what “root beer flavors” are? Transparency, please, not evasion!

I came across Abita Root Beer at Fresh Market, where a single, 12-ounce bottle is $1.69. Six-packs are also available. It’s a product of the well-known brewery based in Abita Springs, Louisiana, famous for its Turbodog dark brown ale, its Restoration Pale Ale and Purple Haze, a lager with raspberries, as well as a full line of seasonal and specialty brews. I’m an advocate of full disclosure on labels, and on that standard, Abita Root Beer fails. Here’s the list of ingredients: “Carbonated water, cane sugar, caramel color, root beer flavor, phosphoric acid.” Root beer flavor? Come on! Compare that evasive or at least inattentive term to the roster of ingredients found on bottles of Virgil’s Root Beer:

Carbonated water and unbleached cane sugar; anise from Spain, licorice from France, vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar, cinnamon from Ceylon, clove from Indonesia, wintergreen from China, sweet birch from the southern US, molasses from the US, nutmeg from Indonesia, pimento berry oil from Jamaica, balsam oil from Peru, cassia oil from China.

Now you might say that Virgil’s list is a bit fussy and foodist in its details — Madagascar! China! Peru! — but at least consumers know what’s in the bottle, unlike the incomplete transparency of “root beer flavor.” Abita’s website mentions vanilla and yucca, the latter a foaming agent, but those brief citations don’t inform drinkers about the actual derivation of the scents and flavors.

And here’s what I wrote previously about phosphoric acid:

“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.”

I’ve had five or six bottles of Abita Root Beer recently, and I found the product more interesting than appealing. It’s pretty reticent for a sweet soft drink, but with good balance between acidity and sweetness and adequate creaminess. The spicy, rooty aspects — and root beer should by definition be a little rooty, n’est-ce pas? — are subdued to a kind of general cloves-and-vanilla quality, while the finish is bracing and surprisingly austere.

Not my favorite root beer, but definitely offers more character than some of the better-known brands such as Dad’s and Frostie.

Image from abita.com.

Technically speaking, as occasionally I am wont to do, a cola beverage is one that contains an extract of the nut of kola trees — Cola nitida and Cola acuminata — native to African rain forests. Kola nuts are popular in Central and West African countries, where they are chewed for their slightly narcotic effects — the nuts have from 2 to 3.5 percent caffeine — and in fact form part of the social fabric. They were an important ingredient in Coca-Cola, invented in 1886 in Columbus, Ga., by John Pemberton. In fact the world-iconic if not cosmic brand-name Coca-Cola could stand for “cocaine-caffeine,” though cocaine, derived from the leaves of the coca plant, was eliminated from the formula in 1903. Nowadays, however, few cola-type beverages, perforce non-alcoholic, contain actual cola extract, being made primarily from “cola flavorings,” citric acid and a few spices, particularly cloves and vanilla.

The motivation for this brief disquisition lies in my recent exposure to a new product from Virgil’s, whose excellent root beer I extolled in a post last August. The new product (at least in this market) is Virgil’s Real Cola. Here’s the list of ingredients:

Purified carbonated water, unbleached cane sugar, clove bud oil, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cassia oil, orange and lemon oils, lime juice (less than 1%), phosphoric acid. Contains no preservatives and no caffeine. Gluten free.

Virgil’s soft drinks — the brand is owned by Reed’s Inc. — do not use high fructose corn syrup, universally found in soft drinks made around the world because it’s cheaper than sugar, though HFCS is linked to obesity. Anyway, the lack of caffeine in Virgil’s Real Cola would seem to deny its assertion to being “real,” in the sense that Coca-Cola is the “real thing” in its embrace of caffeine-ness. I have never been a fan of either Dr Pepper — the period after “Dr” was eliminated in 1950 as a typographical distraction — or Pepsi-Cola or RC Cola, and Virgil’s Real Cola, which I tried three times, tastes to me like a combination of those soft drinks, so I was not impressed. Virgil’s Root Beer, on the other hand, is terrific, and perhaps once a month, if I’m in Whole Foods or Fresh Market, I’ll indulge in this guilty pleasure.

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.

I’m really bummed that I missed National Root Beer Float Day last week, but that notion does bring up the question of what kind of root beer would you use to make a float. After all, one needn’t cook with the best wine; that would be a waste. (I mean, you can if you want, but still.) To make kir, you use a few drops of cassis in aligoté, an inexpensive acidic white wine, not lush, more expensive chardonnay. And you wouldn’t degrade a fine sparkling wine or champagne to make a mimosa.

Just so, I would not make a root beer float, much as I love them, with Virgil’s Root Beer. It’s too good for that use.

Virgil’s soft drinks are made by Reed’s Inc., which also makes a line of very authentic and gingery ginger ales and other ginger products. The formula for Virgil’s Root Beer was concocted by Ed Crowley, of the Crowley Beverage Corporation in Wayland, Washington, who sold the company in 1999 to Original Beverage Corporation, which changed its name to Reed’s Inc. in 2001. The company was founded by Christopher Reed, a sort of ginger guru, in 1987.

Here are the ingredients of Virgil’s Root Beer:

Carbonated water and unbleached cane sugar; anise from Spain, licorice from France, vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar, cinnamon from Ceylon, clove from Indonesia, wintergreen from China, sweet birch from the southern US, molasses from the US, nutmeg from Indonesia, pimento berry oil from Jamaica, balsam oil from Peru, cassia oil from China.

Virgil’s contains no artificial ingredients and no preservatives; it is, instead, pasteurized after bottling.

The first impression is of a root beer that’s clean and spicy and sweet, but well-balanced. There’s a distinct piney element as well as a powerful and slightly medicinal rooty/herbal character, as if it were a healing concoction brewed by medieval monks. Virgil’s Root Beer is full-bodied and creamy, quite effervescent, with high notes of cool mint and vanilla and barky-tarry hints in the depths. The finish is a little bitter, like an Italian digestivo. Altogether, it’s a great and complex root beer.

Virgil’s products — I also like the black cherry cream soda — are primarily available at gourmet and specialty stores. In Memphis they can be found in single bottles at Fresh Market and at Whole Foods in four-packs for $3.49.

Let’s just get this said right up front: Frostie Root Beer is terrible. Certainly it’s a well-known brand, with its jolly, frosty little elf on every bottle. The brand was created in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1939. It was sold to Monarch Beverage Co. of Atlanta in 1979, purchased by Leading Edge Brands of Temple, Texas, in 2000, and bounced to Intrastate Distributors of Detroit in 2009. Frostie is like the foster-child of root beers.

The ingredients: “Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, sodium benzoate (a preservative), citric acid, natural and artificial flavors.”

As far as the impression goes, the emphasis is on the adjective “artificial,” because Frostie is the most artificial tasting of the root beers I have tried since I began this root beer journal. However one wants to say it, artificial, synthetic, plastic, chemical, take your pick, but such terms as natural, delicious and appealing don’t apply. And it’s pretty damned sweet. A high note of vanilla packs no root beer punch and leads to no real character. There are too many better root beers on the market to bother with this one.

Natural Brew Draft Root Beer is made by Smucker Natural Foods, Inc., of Chico, Ca., a division of The J.M. Smucker Co. The well-known parent company, a producer of jams and jellies, peanut butter and other products, was founded in 1897 by Jerome Monroe Smucker; it is operated by the family’s fourth generation and headquartered in Orrville, Ohio. Until May, 2009, Smucker Natural Foods was known as Smucker Quality Beverages, but the word “natural” conveys the firm’s intent to capitalize on the national trend toward “natural,” “organic” and “healthy” ingredients. According to foodprocessing.com, the Smucker Natural Foods plant was the first LEED-certified building in Butte County, Ca., and is “94% off the grid.”

The Natural Brew segment also makes Outrageous Ginger Ale, Vanilla Creme Soda and Chai Cola. The website touts a commitment, without going into much detail, to traditional methods, small-batch brewing, hand-crafted techniques and such.

The ingredients in Natural Draft Root Beer are listed thus:

“SPARKLING FILTERED WATER, EVAPORATED CANE JUICE, NATURAL FLAVORS, BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT, ANISE, SARSAPARILLA, LICORICE ROOT, BIRCH OIL, WINTERGREEN OIL, CARAMEL COLOR, PHOSPHORIC ACID*”

I really liked this root beer. One smells and tastes a complex layering of spicy, herbal and rooty elements for the savory medicinal quality that’s a prerequisite in well-made root beers. It’s creamy on the palate yet sprightly, with a nicely developed presence. The vanilla and anise high notes dominate a bit more than I would like them to, and I don’t know if this is a result of “evaporated cane juice,” but this is a very sweet root beer, yet altogether it’s a tasty and authentic brew. Very Good+. I paid $4.99 for a four-pack at Whole Foods.

*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. Just so you know.

Image from natural-brew.com.

I have loved root beer since childhood.

Though the national and indeed international realms of soft drinks are dominated by the cola-type sodas manufactured by the conglomerates, root beer holds a place in the hearts of many Americans, not only because of the beverage’s individuality (and its appeal to fans of handcrafted techniques) but because its roots, so to speak, extend centuries into the past. In the early 16th Century, Spanish colonists in Florida discovered that the native inhabitants chewed the roots of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) both for its intriguing flavor and its restorative and digestive powers. Europeans made tea with sassafras root, a bracing, soothing drink that was long popular in the Southern United States. Many cultures have ancient traditions of processing various pungent and flavorful roots and herbs into teas, “small beers” and liqueurs renowned for their supposed healing properties, but sassafras and the Central American plant sarsaparilla were uniquely American contributions to the heritage. The other claim to fame of sassafras is the Creole and Cajun ingredient filé, made from the dried and powdered leaves of the tree. (We have a sassafras tree in our front yard; perhaps I should look into its fiduciary possibilities.)

While 19th Century devotees of root beer in America either brewed their own batches at home or relied on the products of local breweries — many manufacturers of beer also made root beer — it was Charles Hires who established a recipe and began producing root beer in commercial quantities, introducing his product at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. And of course it wasn’t only sassafras that gave root beer its distinctive bouquet and taste; a long list of herbs and spices have been involved in root beer making, chief among them wintergreen, licorice and vanilla. In fact, in 1960, the USDA banned sassafras because the oil extracted from the root and bark, safrole, is a potential carcinogen.

The primary controversy in the present day manufacture of root beer and other soft drinks, as in many processed foods and beverages, is the almost ubiquitous use of high fructose corn syrup. HFCS extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar (thanks to subsidies for agribusiness and tariffs on foreign sugar). While studies have shown (according to mayoclinic.com) that HFCS is not essentially less healthy than other sugars, many processed food products that contains HFCS are high in calories and low in nutritional value. On the other hand, a study published by Princeton in March 2010 indicated that laboratory rats fed HFCS “gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.”

Soft drink fanatics insist that HFCS tastes manufactured, hence the search for Coca-Cola from Mexico, which is still made with sugar. Hence, also, the insistence of artisan root beer makers that their products that contain sugar are purer than root beers made with HFCS. Interestingly, in a post dated June 25, 2008 about root beer on “The Pour,” Eric Asimov’s wine and spirits blog for The New York Times, he and his panel found that there was little difference in taste between roots beers produced with sugar or those made with HFCS.

But enough of this arcana. Let’s get to the heart of today’s post, which is a review of Dad’s Old Fashioned® Root Beer.

Dad’s was founded in 1937 by Ely Klapman and Barney Berns, who concocted the recipe for their root beer in Klapman’s basement in Chicago. They marketed wisely and heavily, for example, becoming the first root beer to be sold in six-pack cartons. In the 1970s, Dad’s was sold to I.C. Industries, which sold the brand to Monarch Beverage Co. in 1986. Since 2007, Dad’s has been owned by Hedinger Brands LLC and headquartered in Jaspar, Indiana.

Ingredients: “Water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, natural and artificial flavor, sodium benzoate* (as a preservative)”

I was disappointed with this venerable brand.

The primary flavoring ingredient in Dad’s, according to the maker’s website, is wintergreen, and you certainly smell and taste the mintiness, along with some cloves and ginger, but this feels like an intrinsically simple, manufactured product, bland and lifeless. Where’s the verve and energy, the complexity of spicy and herbal elements that make great root beers so compelling? Dad’s is very sweet, almost cloying, but other than that basic factor, it falls flat in the mouth. I’ll rate this Good- and happily move on to another root beer. A single 12-ounce bottle was $1.29 at Fresh Market.

*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. I thought you would want to know.

Postcard image from zazzle.co.nz. Hires tray from daymix.com.