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.