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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Peter Falk as Columbo

About 9 months ago I wrote a post on Tumblr recounting how much I enjoyed the Columbo series.

Recently People magazine said farewell to Peter Falk in 4 paragraphs.

I can’t do the man or his career justice, but I feel that it’s worth sharing again my thoughts on Columbo.

When a Mystery Isn’t a Mystery.

I’ve mentioned before on Twitter that I’m a big fan of Peter Falk and specifically the “Columbo” detective series that he starred in.  It was an unusual type of series in that there were gaps between seasons and even shows as it was in a rotation with other shows like “McMillan and Wife” and “McCloud”.  They were also of a longer duration often running 1.5 to 2 hours.

The first “Columbo” hit TV as a movie in 1968 but the series didn’t hit stride until 1971.  I was born in 1972 and the series stopped running regularly in 1978.  The purpose of all the dates is because I do remember catching the regularly running series at the tail end while I was very young.  At the time I wasn’t able to follow all the plot points, but that wasn’t really important.  The series was never really about the plot and sometimes made fun of itself by pushing plot believability just beyond the bursting point.

What I enjoyed early on was the larger than life characters.  Starting with the central character who is rumpled, apologetic, and fiercely focused on his search for the truth, all while keeping a little sparkle in his eye and a slight quirk of a smile as he shared a joke with the suspected killer.  The cast of guest villains were equally big. Jack Cassidy as murdering magician overwhelmed everyone he was onscreen with, except for Columbo.  William Shatner played an actor who starred in a detective series and he was … well he was William Shatner.

As the years went by the movies were spread further apart and my appreciation for the show evolved.  As I mentioned earlier, plot was secondary to character which is why the inverted detective story (showing the crime and the guilty party first) lent itself so well to this creation.  It’s also why I probably identify so much with Rex Stout’s detective series featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  It also relies on character as the primary means of drawing the observer into the story.  It’s not who did it, but how will they be caught.

There’s also a part of me that respects the core part of who Columbo is.  While those committing the crimes are confident in their abilities and intelligence they automatically place Columbo on a level beneath them.  But Columbo is constant.  He doesn’t believe he is smarter than anyone else and will readily admit that which he doesn’t know.  And that is where the writers gave him his most important tool, a willingness to ask a question and learn.  To be fair, he often plays himself as less aware of external factors than he really is, but it’s that relentless search.  Cassidy’s character described him as a “philosopher searching for his truth”.

I’m able to identify with Columbo. Not in the sense that I can go around solving mysteries, but I’m acutely aware of the number of people who know much more than I do about practically any subject.  I also am aware that over the years I have been misjudged as knowing less than I actually do.  Most of us have felt that way at least once, and some of us much more often.

Through the inverted detective story every viewer started on a level playing field with the other viewers and with an advantage over the hero.  We not only get to root for Columbo as he uncovers misstep after misstep, but we get to feel vindication about ourselves when the murderer realizes that the guy they overlooked just discovered how it was done.

I’ve been watching some of the Columbo movies again as Netflix has them in the streaming section.  I can watch them on my phone when I need to unwind or have some downtime.  I watch them because it doesn’t matter that I know who the killer is.  I watch them because I like watching Columbo fuss over a new raincoat he doesn’t like, a dog that snores, an assistant who is too eager.  I watch them because they make me feel better about myself.  I watch them to remind me that I too can fall into the trap of underestimating someone and that would be a crime.

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How Professor Snack Originated

The majority of people that follow me on Twitter have no idea why I use the name @ProfessorSnack and from time to time I’ll get asked about it.  I usually respond, but with the character limitation it’s often a short but not full answer.

A year ago a DC metro radio station flipped formats and became 106.7 The Fan.  But prior to that it was known as 106.7 WJFK and its format was talk radio.  Over the years it had been home to a number of great shows including Howard Stern, The Don and Mike Show, Ron and Fezz, The Mike O’Meara Show, and Big O and Dukes.

Most of these shows are around still. Some of them on terrestrial radio and some in podcast form.  It’s sad to see talk radio fading away, but I have hopes that as the podcasts become more accessible and known, there will be a new growth and resurgence of the talk radio format.  But that’s a different topic.

The Big O and Dukes Show (www.bigoanddukes.com) found its ways to mid-days on the WFJK lineup.  Chad Dukes (@chaddukes) and Oscar Santana (@oscarradio) host the show and it’s produced by Drab T-Shirt (@drabtshirt).  I could describe in detail why I like the show but I recommend instead that you go to their website and click one of the podcast links.

One of the segments that was created by Chad Dukes was called Snacks of the Round Table.  It was designed to spotlight new (or new to the group) snacks.  The premise is that each person brings in a snack that they have not tasted.  Everyone participating tastes the snack and gives it a score of 0-5 with 5 being the highest.

Part of the premise was that they would bring in a couple of listeners who could also participate.  The idea being it was another way that they could interact with the listening audience, have fun eating, and maybe come across snacks that others might not otherwise see or try.

I had just come out of a supermarket when I heard that it was a Snacks of the Round Table segment coming up, but no listeners had been lined up to come in.  The opened it up to any listeners who could get to the radio station in 15 minutes.  I happened to have a new snack and could get there in time.  So I dialed as I drove.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics other than I had a new cracker that I took and someone brought a new seasonal flavor of Pop Tart.  I do remember having a great time, probably being too self-important, but the one thing I did was take it seriously.  A segment like that falls apart if you don’t hold to the “rules” and spirit of the concept.  For whatever reason, there must have been something that I did ok because I was asked to come back the next time they did a Snacks of the Round Table.

Snacks became a recurring segment every few Fridays.  There were always guest participants, friends of the hosts, other radio people, and other listeners.  I was lucky enough to participate in almost all of them.  I only won once, and as happens in radio, I had a following of listeners who enjoyed not liking me.  I’m not positive, but I think there was a segment that enjoyed liking me as well, but the others were certainly more vocal.

One day, one of the producer’s (John Normand – @JormandBigCat), made the comment “That’s why we call him Professor Snack” in reference to me.  Unfortunately, no one actually called me that, but Chad and Oscar latched on to it, mainly to tweak Jormand, because I hadn’t won hardly at all, and also because up to that point I was always “Jeff D Wright”.

When I first joined Twitter, it seemed that a lot of the people I was following were friends, listeners, or affiliated with Big O and Dukes, so it made sense to use Professor Snack so that I would be recognized.  Once I started interacting with more people I thought it might not make as much sense to everyone who didn’t know the back story.  I tried changing the name for a while, but it seems even those who had no idea why I was called that still wanted me to use it.  So it’s back.

I like it.

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