Virgil’s Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 13

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Contains: Purified, Carbonated Water, unbleached cane sugar, herbs, spices, and citric acid.

“Virgil’s is a superb blend of Spices & Herbs gathered from the world over; Anise, Licorice, Vanilla (Bourbon), Cinnamon, Clove, Wintergreen, Sweet Birch, Molasses, Nutmeg, Pimento Berry Oil and Oil of Cassia.”

A great ingredient list makes me really want to like Virgil’s Root Beer, but for some reason I don’t.

There’s nothing wrong with it, and it is plenty tasty, but there’s just something about it I can’t quite put my finger on that keeps it from being a great Root Beer.

3 1/2 out of 5 Barrels, for me. It might be a 5 Barrel Root Beer for you.

Wade’s Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 12

Wade's Root Beer

Wade’s Root Beer.

INGRDIENTS: Carbonated Water, Cane Sugar, Natural Flavors, Caramel Color, Sodium Benzoate, Phosphoric Acid.

The interesting thing about this Root Beer is a strong Caramel-like flavor in the finish. I am not sure if this means Wade’s are using natural caramel color from burned sugar (tastes like it), or if it is one or more of the Herbs/Roots.

“In our Root Beer we use only pure cane sugar and no artificial sweeteners or corn syrup. You’ll taste sassafras (the root in root beer), vanilla, anise, and wintergreen. Customers enjoy our recipe because it is distinctive yet has the familiar taste of root beer they know and love from childhood.”

In any case, this is my favorite “modern” Root Beer so far, and also seems to be the least sweet (no coincidence there!)

Interesting herbs and spices up front and then that crazy Caramel/butterscotch finish.

Just what I want out of a “craft” Root Beer. 5 out of 5 Barrels.

Salt Fish and Ackee

Salt Fish and Ackee with Bakes.

Miss Ollie’s is just about my favorite restaurant right now, and this version of Salt Fish & Ackee with “Bakes” is my favorite dish I’ve had there to date. We were mopping the plate with our Bakes (basically fried biscuits) and defending it furiously from the servers’ attempts to take it away. Mmmm…

Natural Brew Draft Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 11

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Ingredients: Sparkling Filtered Water, Evaporated Cane Juice, Natural Flavors, Bourbon Vanilla Extract, Anise, Sarsaparilla, Licorice Root, Birch Oil, Wintergreen Oil, Caramel Color, Phosphoric Acid.

Really reminds me of the Root Beer I grew up drinking, mostly A&W.

Smooth, but I’d like more complexity and body.

3 1/2 Barrels out of 5.

Shopping List

For a trip to Scarlet Sage:

Wintergreen Leaf
Wild Cherry Bark
Tonka Bean
Sarsaparilla (Jamaican)
Sassafras Bark of Root
Licorice Root
Birch Bark
Burdock Root
Dandelion Root
Cardamom Pods (Green)
Cardamom Pods (Black)
Spruce Oil
Spikenard
Horehound

Huh, when I smelled these individually, I couldn’t quite imagine how they fit in to Root Beer. Now that I smell them together, they kind of make sense.

Caamano Bros High Noon Sarsaparilla

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 10

Caamano Brothers Sarsaparilla

Caamano Brothers Sarsaparilla

Ingredients: Purified Carbonated Water, Cane Sugar, Organic and Natural Flavorings, Caramel Color, Organic Acacia Gum, Citric Acid.

From their website: Caamaño Bros. Soda Pop Co.

“Our sarsaparilla is made the old-fashioned way, with 100% natural traditional ingredients. Many of these ingredients are now hard to find, and almost everyone else uses artificial replacements. We worked long and hard to find sources for de-safrolized sassafrass, imported Jamaican sarsaparilla root, and our other quality ingredients, so that we could deliver you an old-fashioned honest taste that’s been hard to find anywhere for over 50 years.”

Initial flavors remind me more of a Cola than a Root Beer, with a semi-sour flavor. Maybe too much citric acid?

Late flavors include vanilla and wintergreen, but are fairly subtle.

“Bottled under the authority of: Caamano Bros. Soda Pop Co. by: Seven-Up Bottling Company, Modesto, CA”

Who are these Brothers?

“In a few short months, a sidewalk homemade soda pop stand has grown to include farmer’s market booths, distribution in local restaurants, sales throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and now distribution in many other Western States

“The Caamaño brothers, Sebastián and Alejandro, began this business early in 2010 at the ages of 13 and 12 when they witnessed their parents creating their own mineral water and asked them if they could do the same with soda pop. Their father Christopher, a gourmet chef, enthusiastically embraced the idea and thus Caamaño Bros. Soda Pop Co. was born.”

At 15, I was mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, and selling soft-drinks at Badger Football games to make my comic book money. Wow, and these kids have already launched a small business.

Just awesome, that is one very expensive lemonade stand, Mom and Dad.

I like the attitude, but the unusual Cola-like flavor puts this down to 3 out of 5 Barrels for me.

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 9

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Handcrafted Ingredients: Carbonated Pure Water, Fair Trade Certified organic cane syrup, and spices.

From the Maine Root Website:

“A lighter bodied brother to our super popular Root Beer. The flavor profile has less clove, allowing the taste of wintergreen to be showcased. Soda fans agree, it’s the best they have ever had!”

Lighter in color, even! Definitely with the Wintergreen at the fore.

There are three basic kinds of Root Beer-like beverages.

Root Beer, based, more or less on Charles Hires Formula, primarily flavored with Sassafras Root Bark and Wintergreen.

Birch Beer, which is supposed to feature the flavor of Birch Bark or Birch Sap Extract or something.

Sarsaparilla, which is supposed to feature the flavor of the root of the Jamaican Sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii).

The interesting thing about Sarsaparilla is versions of Sarsaparilla flavored beer pre-date the use of Sassafras. Even more interestingly, Sarsaparilla based beverages are used traditionally in Jamaica as an, uh, enhancing tonic for male potency, currently touted by certain DJs under the name “Baba Roots”.

I’m not sure exactly where the Sarsaparilla comes in, as the Maine Root version tastes mostly like Wint-O-Green life savers.

I like that they left the Caramel Color out, but this is just too cloying and sugary.

2 out of 5 Barrels.

Cotogna’s Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 8

I posted a query to one of the social networking sites, asking if any of my friends or acquaintances knew of any local restaurants which were making their own Root Beer.

Jacqueline Lounsbury suggested I stop by and try the Root Beer Kenny Dill has been making at Cotogna Restaurant.

Cotogna's Root Beer.

Cotogna’s Root Beer.

This is my second “from scratch” Root Beer, so it wasn’t quite the shock that Ice Cream Bar provided.

Kenny has been making this for a few months, he started primarily to expand the non-alcoholic choices at the bar.

He buys ingredients, Sassafras and a few spices, at a local herb store. He boils the herbs and spices into a tea, filters, and then adds enough sugar for a 1-1 syrup. Serving is as simple as pouring the syrup over ice, adding chilled soda, and stirring.

I have to admit, I am still kind of wrapping my head around the flavors of fresh Root Beer made with real Sassafras, it’s pretty different from even the most unusual of the commercial versions.

With Kenny’s, however, I think I am starting to get the appeal.

A solid 4 out of 5 Freshly Brewed Barrels.

What is Root Beer?

First let’s tackle the roots of modern, commercial root beer.

I’m still investigating its historic ancestors.

Modern, commericial root beer began with Charles E. Hires.

He was a pharmacist who lived in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area.

He started selling a flavored mix around 1870. He initially called it Hires Herb Tea, but soon changed the name to Hires Root Beer. It was a dry powder which came with instructions to mix it with water, and sugar, to produce a carbonated beverage. Soon after, he switched the product to a liquid concentrate instead of a powder.

He made a big splash with his beverage at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, as a temperance alternative to more alcoholic beers.

Around 1890, he started selling a bottled, carbonated, pre-made version, and the rest, as they say, is history. Even with some Root Beer competition from A&W in California and Barq’s in Louisiana, Hires Root Beer became one of the biggest selling soft drinks in the United States for most of the 20th Century. It remained the king of soft drinks, until Coca-Cola unseated it with its marketing push in the 60s and 70s.

Here’s a lovely pamphlet from around 1892 made available in its entirety thanks to the University of Iowa: Hires Root Beer

Hires Root Beer

Hires Root Beer

And here’s a list of some of the ingredients Charles Hires claims were in his root beer circa 1920:

Birch Bark – United States, New England
Chirreta – India
Dog Grass – Germany
Ginger – Africa
Ginger – China
Ginger – Jamaica
Hires special plant
Hops – United States, Northwest
Juniper Berries – Italy
Licorice – Spain
Licorice – Russia
Sarsaparilla – Honduras
Sugar – Cuba
Vanilla – Mexico
Wintergreen – United States, North Carolina
Yerba Mate, Brazil

Funny, Yerba Mate! And Hops!

Most people assume that the “Hires Special Plant” in this list was Sassafras.

Dog-Grass may be Couch-Grass, (Agropyrum repens), whose, “roots have a sweet taste, somewhat resembling liquorice,” and were used medicinally.

Chiretta (Swertia chirata) appears to be a Gentian-like plant which is, “used a great deal in India as it has two valuable bitter tonic principles.”

The next big change in Root Beer came in the 1960 when it was determined that the safrole in Sassafras could be linked to cancer in rats. Sassafras was banned from food products and all commercial root beers had to be reformulated with a different balance of flavors. Primarily, Wintergreen came much more to the fore in modern Root Beer.

As an afterward, Hires Root Beer ended up in the hands of the people at the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Unfortunately, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group already had a Root Beer, A&W, and have gradually phased Hires out in most markets. It seems, they mostly bought it for the name. It is now very difficult to find Hires Root Beer, except by special order from some Internet marketers and (apparently) those olde tyme, fun loving people at Walmart.

Maine Root Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 7

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Handcrafted Ingredients: Carbonated Pure Water, Fair Trade Certified organic cane syrup, and spices.

From the Maine Root Website:

“Handcrafted soda made with Fair Trade Certified organic evaporated cane juice. Open a bottle and taste the flavor of extracts of wintergreen, clove and anise. Our recipe combines these ingredients with FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED ORGANIC SUGAR to allow the flavor of each of these extracts to come through. This is the one that started it all. Pop a top off and see why. CAFFEINE FREE”

Another very good, but not very complex Root Beer. Flavors are well integrated and it is quite drinkable. Again, doesn’t quite have the complexity to qualify as a 5 Barrel Root Beer.

4 out of 5 Barrels.

Abita Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 6

Abita Root Beer

Abita Root Beer

INGREDIENTS: Carbonated Water, Cane Sugar, Caramel Coloring, Root Beer Flavoring, Phosphoric Acid.

Located Abita Root Beer at Hard Water, here in San Francisco.

However, “Root Beer Flavoring”?

The Abita website is a bit more forthcoming:

“Abita Root Beer is made with a hot mix process using spring water, herbs, vanilla and yucca (which creates foam). Unlike most soft drink manufacturers, Abita sweetens its root beer with pure Louisiana cane sugar.”

It’s a solid effort, with the flavors well integrated, but lacks the complexity of a true 5 barrel Root Beer.

4 out of 5 Barrels.

PS. I’ve heard a rumor that Abita might be making batch of Bourbon Barrel aged Root Beer special for Hard Water. Uh, yum! Now that is something to look forward to!