Patrick’s nephew is coming in for a visit, right in the middle of this heat.
“Let’s do a root-beer-float party,” suggested Uncle Pat. “And let’s get some killer root beer — make it interesting for the grown-ups.”
The taste-testing was on. I got my friends Kathy, MaryAnn, and Bill to help. We started with the standards: A&W ($1.59 for two liters at Target) and Mug ($1.69 for two liters at Target).
“There’s no bite to this root beer,” snorted Bill after a sip of A&W. “The vanilla is fairly pronounced.”
His wife MaryAnn added, “But I like it better than the Mug, which is more bubbly but too mild on the vanilla.”
Patrick popped the IBC ($4.19 for a six-pack at Vons). “This is maybe the best bottle — no label, just raised glass letters. A good rooty flavor up front but a flat finish. Sort of like the Trader Joe’s Vintage Root Beer [$3.99 for a four-pack], which smells better than it tastes.”
“I’m not a snob, so I’ll open the canned one,” laughed Kathy as she popped the top on a Hansen’s Creamy Root Beer ($3.49 for a six-pack at BevMo). “It’s sharper, not as sugary as the others. It’s made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup.” In general, the cane-sugar brands bested the corn syrups, though cane sugar was no guarantee of excellence.
We rinsed our mouths and moved on to the more exotic stuff, starting with two from Henry’s: Natural Brew Draft Root Beer ($4.99 for a four-pack) and Virgil’s Micro-Brewed Root Beer ($3.99 for a four-pack).
“The Virgil’s is the wrong root flavor — like a dirty root,” complained MaryAnn. “There’s a lot of anise on the nose,” offered Bill. “But it’s flat on the bubble.” I looked at Patrick, who spit the Virgil’s into an empty cup and said sheepishly, “I couldn’t swallow it.” The Natural Brew didn’t fare much better.
Faygo ($1.39 a bottle at BevMo) quickly changed the mood for the better. “This has tang and tingle and a long finish,” smiled Bill. “Lots of vanilla, but not too much,” added MaryAnn. “And the flavor is the most complicated so far.”
We dug into more BevMo offerings. Kathy said that Stewart’s ($3.99 for a four-pack) had “a strong molasses flavor. But it’s one-note, not complex like the Faygo. And the finish is too corn syrupy.”
“Try the Sparky’s,” I said. “It uses honey as a sweetener.”
“Honey or no honey, the finish tastes artificial,” she replied. “It reminds me of the barrel-shaped root-beer candy I used to suck on as a kid.”
“Is this a seriously buzzing Santa on the label?” asked Bill as he picked up a Frostie ($5.49 a four-pack). “It’s got tang and nothing else. But it’s not painful to drink — nothing objectionable.”
“Well, the Fitz’s [$1.29 a bottle] is objectionable,” scoffed Patrick. “Tastes like Splenda on the finish.”
“Since we’re getting ugly,” I said, “let’s try the Rat Bastard [$1.59 a bottle]. Listen to this ingredient list: jasmine, clove, dong quai, ginseng…the roots go on and on. It should be fantastic — the only problem is that the flavor is gone in two seconds, leaving only a watery finish.”
Next, Kathy took a sip of the Jack Black’s Dead Red Root Beer ($1.29 a bottle).
“The bottle looks like a squat old medicine bottle, and the root beer does have an apothecary aspect. You have to stop and think, Do I like this? Maybe I’m an old soul, but I do.” Kathy was pretty much alone on that one, but we all agreed about the excellence of our final four from BevMo.
“This Capt’n Eli’s [$1.39 a bottle] has a fine fizz, an earthy root taste, and a mild molasses flavor,” offered Patrick.
“I’m crazy about the Filbert’s [$1.29 a bottle],” said MaryAnn. “It’s got a fat bead on the fizz and a lot of complex flavors.”
“It’s a quintessential root beer,” agreed Kathy. “That’s the one I want for my float.”
“Have you seen the near-black color on this A.J. Stephans [$1.39 a bottle]?” asked Bill. “Good bite, and the ginger up front sends me.”
“It’s Route Beer 66 [$1.49 a bottle] for me,” I announced. “It’s got enough bubble but mostly a long, smooth finish and great sarsaparilla taste.”