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Sunday 13 December 2015

The Great Root Beer Tastathon (Part I)

Ever since my first visit to the USA (Florida, specifically, about 16 years ago) I have been a massive fan of Root Beer. For the uninitiated, it's a dark brown fizzy drink, but most definitely not a Cola. Its flavour is not for everyone - many feel it's too sugary, some describe it as medicinal (in fact, even I think some kinds of Root Beer tastes exactly the way Germoline - an antiseptic cream - smells) - but I appreciate that it has a flavour, rather than being just a sugary, syrupy carbonated beverage.

But while Root Beer is (almost) as ubiquitous as Coke in the States, it's not quite so common in the UK. Some of the larger supermarkets will carry the bigger brands (A&W turns up all over the place), and my local Tesco carried imported Boylan's for a while (still available at the larger branches, just not the Express branches). What really prompted this post was something of a quest for my new Holy Grail of Root Beers: Small Town Brewery's "Not Your Father's Root Beer", the draught variety of which I tasted - in all its 10.7% ABV glory - at Woodie's Flat in Chicago, the evening my girlfriend and I went to see some live improv at Second City. So impressed was I that I had to ask the waitress if it was available to buy anywhere... she had to ask the manager (who had ID'd both my girlfriend and I at the door! I took it as a compliment!), who revealed that there is a bottled kind (5.9% ABV) which is widely available, but the stronger version was, at the time, only available on draught, and only in Illinois. According to their website, Small Town have since started producing "limited runs" of the 10.7% version but, as a UK resident, I'm not sure how I'd get my hands on either version...

Coincidentally, slightly less than 16 years ago, a couple of friends and I would occasionally visit the O2 Centre at Finchley Road and spend the evening drinking in a cocktail bar that has since been replaced. I don't remember the bar's name, but I do remember it had a piano. Their extensive menu included a drink named 'California Root Beer', made with Kahlua, Galliano and Coke. I have tried to mix the cocktail at home many times, but never quite get the mix right... And the point of this digression is that, while 'California Root Beer' tasted almost nothing like yer average Root Beer, I was reminded of that cocktail by my very first mouthful of the rich, almost chocolaty "Not Your Father's".

In common with the difference between Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola (not to mention the myriad supermarket own brands and the Colas produced by smaller beverage companies), each brand of Root Beer is very different and so, urged on by my girlfriend, I'm going to do a comparison of those we've been able to find...

This is basically your bog standard Root Beer. I believe this is the make that's available on tap at the likes of McDonald's in the States, but the canned variety is (naturally) stronger of flavour. It's very sugary, and the 'Germoline' flavour is very strong in this one. Not bad, but certainly not the best soft Root Beer I've tried.

Imported from the States by Empire Bespoke Foods Ltd in Northolt (quite near my neck of the woods) and sold by Tesco, this is an "All Natural" Root Beer, made with cane sugar, several natural ingredients and some 'colors' and 'natural flavourings' that are troublingly unspecific on the labelling (neither the importers' labels nor the original US label deign to elaborate). The flavour is far more subtle than A&W, cleaner and less sugary making it more refreshing to drink, but it lacks the kick and is also substantially less aggressively carbonated. Of the flavours involved, none are more prominent than the others, making it seem a little wishy-washy in comparison.

In recent years, Australia seems to have had the attitude that if it can take over Hollywood, it can do anything. Australian bars would pop up in the most unlikely places, and this Aussie-brewed beverage has even appeared in the chiller cabinet in a slightly poncy café near where I work. Like Boylan's version, it's a more natural approach to the drink, properly brewed and not excessively fizzy. I'd have to say the sarsaparilla is the most prominent note on the flavour - almost fruity - followed by a very subtle touch of licorice, but without a hint of the ginger mentioned in the ingredients list... It's not necessarily a better flavour than Boylan's, but it's certainly very different. It comes in weird, squat bottles that look for all the world like medicine bottles, but definitely doesn't taste medicinal.

Hansen's Natural Cane Soda
Not simply 'Root Beer' but 'Creamy Root Beer', the taste of Germoline is strong with this one - stronger, perhaps, even than A&W's. It's also just as fizzy, but not as shockingly sweet - I actually drank a couple of cans of this which hadn't even been refrigerated (other than having been delivered on a slightly chilly day), and the sweetness didn't overpower the flavour. Curiously, it wasn't exceptionally creamy... at least, compared to the diet variety. Possibly the big selling point of this brand, stated boldly around the bottom of the can, is that it has no caffeine, no preservatives, no sodium and all natural flavour... The big question is whether that particular flavour is what you want out of your Root Beer.

Diet Hansen's Sugar Free
Not simply 'Diet Root Beer' but, following the established Hansen's pattern, 'Diet Creamy Root Beer'. This one is substantially less Germoline-flavoured and substantially more like Cream Soda with a hint of Root Beer. The former is the first flavour that hits and the majority of the aftertaste (with the addition of that slightly nasty tang left by artificial sweeteners - specifically Splenda, in this case), but the typical Root Beer flavour surfaces briefly in between. Were it not for the aftertaste, I think I'd prefer this to the regular kind... but that may be because I also really like Cream Soda...

Hartridges Celebrated
Whereas most of the Root Beers sampled herein are made of a mixture of flavours, Hartridges pins all its hopes on the sarsaparilla, making it taste almost unique. It's somewhat similar to Bundaberg, in that the sarsaparilla is accompanied by hints of licorice (very brief for me, lasting longer for my girlfriend). It is, however, fizzier than Bundaberg... which won't necessarily be to everyone's taste.

There will be more to come in this - as soon as possible in the New Year, basically - because there are quite a few root beers that are only available in 24s or 32s, so we decided to hold off ordering them for a while. I'm aiming to get to 'em all, though... Maybe not in the next round (which may end up being only one or two additional Root Beers), but it is definitely my intention to be as complete as possible in my assessment of fizzy beverages sold as 'Root Beer'. Already on the list are Dad's (possibly the source of the name of Small Town's alcoholic version?), Old Dominion (which I've tried in some restaurants) and Dr. Brown's, amongst others.

And if anyone knows how I can get my mitts on imported "Not Your Father's", please drop me a line!