Root for the Home Team

Root Beer was first documented as a beverage in the American Colonies. Believed by many to have been originally derived from the root (or at times bark) of the sassafras plant, there is growing support that a variety of ingredients were used as the key one.

This theory of varied key ingredients is at least supported in the root beers we see today. Like other early soft drinks, they were brewed in smaller batches which gave a distinct taste and texture to them. Some of that is still seen today in regional root beers and those proffered by people still brewing it in their home.

The first root beers were slightly alcoholic as the carbonation process was a result of allowing fermentation to take place. The soft drinks available today use carbonated water as a mixing ingredient thus eliminating the alcohol.

I’ve loved root beer for years and am more familiar with the sassafras based beverage in smaller brews as I grew up in Indiana in relatively close proximity to a large Amish region. We also drank sassafras tea, particularly to settle an upset stomach.

Vienna, VA is home to a new Fresh Market grocery store. They are more common in North Carolina and are known for carrying a variety of specialized brands and items not normally found in larger grocery chains.

In the beverage aisle, after picking up a bottle of Cheerwine that my wife brought to my attention, I noticed four root beers chilled and ready to drink. It seemed like a good time to have a sampling and compare these few (out of hundreds) types of root beer.

Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer

Background: Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer is currently based in Jasper, IN but was originally produced in 1937 in Chicago, IL. Basement born, the root beer was named after one of the founder’s father who (like many dads in his day) brewed his own root beer for the family.

By the 1940’s it had become one of the most consumed root beers in America. I would guess this led to the “America’s Premium Root Beer” being added to the advertising. According to Wikipedia (a sometime useful and sometime dubious research tool of note), Dad’s was the first root beer to utilize six pack technology, half gallon sizing, and to offer sizes based on which member of the family would be drinking it. You can find out more about it online, but that should be enough history. On to the tasting.

Ingredients: The label starts off with Carbonated Water along with High Fructose Corn Syrup and goes down from there. Caramel color, natural and artificial flavors, and Sodium Benzoate (a preservative) finish up the list. It’s underwhelming to say the least. But in fairness, it’s not that different from countless root beers available, and this one as of 1986 was the second highest consumed root beer in the USA in terms of volume. There was a reason Coca-Cola was distributing it.

Nutrition: I’m not going to pretend root beer is healthy. For our purposes, we are finding out how much the damage is going to be so that we can allow for it. I will note that this was the only one of the four whose carbs were higher than the sugars.

Calories: 180
Sodium: 30 mg
Sugar: 43 g
Carbohydrates: 45 g

Taste: Dad’s had the most bite to it, which is remarkable as it has the fewest ingredients. Whatever the “natural and artificial flavors” are, they combine to make me want to chew the root beer rather than drink it. It had significant foam on the pour, but nothing like a true head. This is the kind of root beer you drink when you aren’t drinking real beer and don’t have a taste for Ginger Beer. It’ll still make you feel like your drink is packing a punch, even if you have no idea (or particular appreciation) for what it is.

Score: All scores are on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being the lowest rank possible and 10 being the highest.

Foaminess 6
Bite 8
Overall Taste 6

Stewart’s Original Fountain Classics Root Beer

Background: Stewart’s Original Fountain Classics Root Beer was originally sold as a beverage in 1924 in the Stewart’s chain of root beer stands in Mansfield, Ohio. This is a similar construct to the A&W chains that started up in California in 1922.

Unlike A&W who brought their product to consumers in bottles in 1971, Stewart’s waited until 1990. Once they hit the market though, they became an instant regional success and has grown nationally and is found fairly easily.

In 2000, they were sold as part of Snapple Beverage Group to Cadbury Schweppes, PLC.

Ingredients: Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Color, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Sodium Benzoate, Citric Acid, Quillaia Extract, Gum Acacia, and Yucca Extract.

Quillaia is extracted from the inner bark or branches of the soapbark and is used as a humectant. Humectants help food maintain moisture or can assist main food ingredients with solubility.

Update: Twitter friend @Brassdale shared that when he used to brew his own beer in the ’70s, he would use quillaia to maintain the “head” after pouring.

Gum Acacia is indeed a type of edible gum that is used in many soft drink syrups and can also be used in traditional lithography. I admire ingredients that serve a dual purpose.

Yucca Extract is derived from a plant that is part of the shrub and tree genus. It’s also called the “Ghosts in the Graveyard” and is used as a shampoo in some Native American rituals. Which makes me wonder if I’m using root beer the wrong way.

Nutrition: Not a lot of variance in some of these root beers in terms of nutrition. Root beer is caffeine free.

Calories: 160
Sodium: 51 mg
Sugar: 41 g
Carbohydrates: 41 g

Taste: Stewart’s Root Beer offered almost as much bite as Dad’s. Yet, the bite was a little more discernible. I didn’t look at the ingredients ahead of time, so I don’t think this was psychological in nature. There were definite hints of flavors trying to break through. Unfortunately, the carbonation packed such a punch, my palate couldn’t sort things out. It’s not an exaggeration. Of the four root beers, this one caused excessive burping to the point that it made it difficult drinking from the bottle as the extra air intake from the mouth to bottle seal, just amplified issues.

There was more foam than either Frostie or Virgil’s, but less than Dad’s. It was satisfying to pour, but the carbonation made me want to chug the drink to reduce the number of times I would be burping. It tries to be more of a root beer than your run of the mill mass produced drinks. And it almost succeeds.

Score: All scores are on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being the lowest rank possible and 10 being the highest.

Foaminess 5
Bite 7
Overall Taste 6

Frostie Root Beer

Background: The fact that the website for Frostie Root Beer hasn’t been updated since 2009 is symbolic of this drink’s journey. Originally bottled in 1939 in Catonsville, MD, Frostie was a fairly popular if more local root beer. In 1979 it was sold to Monarch Beverage Company who also owned Dad’s root beer. Frostie never really stood a chance as it was relegated to an “also offered” type of status. Do you spend most of your money on your proven product that already has a foothold across the states, or on a product that is essentially just starting out?

Frostie is now owned and bottled by Intrastate Distributors out of Detroit Michigan. From the looks of things, Frostie still isn’t getting much attention in terms of promotion.

Ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Color, Sodium Benzoate, Citric Acid, and Natural and Artificial Colors make up this list of familiar looking ingredients.

Nutrition: This will look familiar as well.

Calories: 160
Sodium: 51 mg
Sugar: 41 g
Carbohydrates: 41 g

Taste: This root beer was the sweetest of the four. As the sugar content isn’t any higher than the previous root beers, I can only surmise that there is a different enough mix (or lack) of the “natural and artificial” flavors to cause such a difference in sweetness taste.

I was unable to distinguish any flavor at all, mainly because I couldn’t seem to taste any. There was no head and very little bite. It’s almost as if they should tinker with the recipe and push this over into cream soda territory. This is the root beer you grab out of the cooler when all you have left is it and diet sodas.

Score: All scores are on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being the lowest rank possible and 10 being the highest.

Foaminess 2
Bite 3
Overall Taste 4

Virgil’s Root Beer

Background: If websites are an indicator of quality then Virgil’s Root Beer is on the other end of the spectrum than Frostie. Where Frostie almost apologizes for it’s shifting around, Virgil’s informs you that if you care at all about what you drink and what others see you drink, you’d better damn well have a Virgil’s Root Beer in your hand.

They do a good job of selling themselves. From the micro-brewing process to ingredients from around the world, this root beer that touts itself as gluten-free can be bought in bottles or mini kegs. Around since the early 1990’s, Virgil’s can be found in health stores, some chains like Kroger and Wegman’s, as well as smaller chains like Trader Joe’s. It can also be purchased online.

Virgil’s was sold in 1997 to L.A., CA based Reeds, Inc after winning three “Outstanding Beverage” Awards at the International Fancy Food and Confection Show.

Ingredients: The first two ingredients are completely different than the previous root beers and reinforce why Virgil’s believes they have something worth bragging about. Their website also explains where they obtain the various ingredients.

Purified Carbonated Water, Unbleached Cane Sugar, Anise, Licorice, Vanilla (Bourbon), Cinnamon, Clove, Wintergreen, Sweet Birch, Molasses, Nutmeg, Pimento Berry Oil, Balsam Oil, Oil of Casia, and Citric Acid.

Nutrition: You’ll notice that something is missing from this root beer that has been in all the others, sodium.

Calories: 160
Sodium: 0 mg
Sugar: 42 g
Carbohydrates: 42 g

Taste: Virgil’s Root Beer is not on a level playing field with the other three root beers in this review. To find it’s rival, you will probably need to look at other brewed root beers and regional favorites. Old Dominion Root Beer comes to mind as their root beer uses honey as its sweetener and boasts a recipe based on old recipes found in the Library of Congress.

This root beer was the smoothest by far and after the initial taste, you could sense the mild anise and licorice flavors rolling around on your tongue. As someone who does not like black licorice, the fact that I was not overwhelmed from a taste perspective by these two ingredients tells me how hard they worked to achieve a good balance of flavors. There was only a little bit of a bite in this root beer which is surprising as I think some brewers tend to mistake bite for taste.

There was very little foam when I poured the root beer, and while I would have liked more from an aesthetic perspective, the taste more than made up for it.

Score: All scores are on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being the lowest rank possible and 10 being the highest.

Foaminess 3
Bite 6
Overall Taste 9

Summary: Virgil’s clearly won as the overall best tasting root beer. But as mentioned, it wasn’t a fair fight as the micro brew had all the advantages in terms of ingredients and process. However, you often find yourself in a store where this exact scenario plays out as they offer you multiple mainstream beverages and then one or two specialty drinks.

Virgil’s aside, if you are looking to choose between the other three, Dad’s has the edge in terms of bite. Both Dad’s and Stewart’s have interesting histories and if you are hanging out and wanting to impress friends with your burping skills, Stewart’s is the one you want in your hand. And Frostie, well Frostie is the root beer you have because even less than impressive root beer is perfect with a grilled hot dog in your other hand.

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