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Say those two words and you conjure up an image of a dark, cold, frothy, fizzy, sweet soft drink that is uniquely American.
But if you stop and think about those two words together – “root” as something that grows underground and “beer” as the fermented beverage – it somehow doesn’t seem particularly inviting.
“Root beer (noun) a carbonated beverage flavored with syrup made from the extracted juices of roots, barks and herbs,” says Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.
Described in those terms, I can’t think of too many 10-year-old boys who would request a root beer.
However, 10-year-old boys don’t stop to think about the meaning of words all that often, and, thankfully, when you say “root beer,”they think of the dark, cool, fizzy drink.
So, who better to call on to critique a selection of root beers than a panel of experts made up of two 10-year-olds and an 11-year-old?
I chose six root beers for a blind taste test, however I blew it on one of the selections – details to come.
I also asked the judges to name their favorite root beer before the tasting began. Two were named and both had been included in the lineup.
I planned to start things off by giving the boys a brief history of root beer, but I could see their nostrils flaring in anticipation of the root beers that awaited them. Plus, I’ve found it’s just best to get to the point right away with 10-year-olds. They brook no nonsense.
Instead of wasting the minutes of research I did on the history of root beer, I’ll share it here. If you are 10, just skip ahead.
Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires is often credited with being the inventor of root beer, but it’s probably more precise to call him the first commercial populizer of the drink, which began as a tea of various roots and herbs well known to colonial Americans.
The British equivalent, ginger beer, had been around long before root beer, and the new country settlers adapted ginger beer recipes to the roots and herbs they had at hand.
But Hires certainly did turn it into the beverage we know today.
Hires was a Temperance man who in the early 1870s came up with an extract to be mixed by the buyer with water, sugar and yeast. He wanted to call it Root Tea, but it was decided Root Beer would appeal more to the hard-drinking working classes.
It was marketed as “The Temperance Drink” and the Hires company claimed in pre-Food and Drug Act times that the drink could cleanse the blood of impurities, give strength and vitality, and increase the vigor of the brain and nerves.
By 1893 Hires was bottling its root beer.
Today there are almost as many root beers on the market as there are craft beers.
The six I chose for the tasting included two national brews (A&W and IBC), three from Wisconsin brewers and the local Little Adler Root Beer from the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton, Wis., where they generously allowed us to hold the tasting.
I wanted to do this as a blind tasting, but I failed to hide the table-tapper pitcher of Little Adler Root Beer from the judges, who noted it’s much lighter color than a typical root beer.
Caramel color is used by most root beer makers to darken the brew, but Stone Cellar and many other microbreweries who produce root beers prefer not to color their root beers.
My failure to conceal Little Adler from them may have tainted the results, but the judges told me to “tell the truth,”so here is the unexpurgated truth from the panel.
(in the order served
and order of response)
CORY:”I think it tastes like root beer. It’s pretty good.”
ALEX: “I hate it. It smells like Pepto Bismol. It tastes dry and not very flavorful. I’d drink it, but it’s not one of my favorites.”
JAKE: “I thought it was kind of plain, like there really wasn’t a big taste to it.”
POINT PREMIUM ROOT BEER
ALEX: “I liked it. It was like the first, but it had more of a different tone of flavor. Pretty good. Very strong aftertaste.”
JAKE:”It had more of a root beer taste. It had a vanilla taste to it, kind of.”
CORY: “I didn’t really like the taste. It just didn’t taste good. I would drink it if I had to.”
SPRECHER ROOT BEER
ALEX: “That was horrible. It tasted like honey, and I hate honey. That’s not my kind of root beer.”
JAKE: “I don’t like it. It tastes really dry and it doesn’t taste good. Yeah, it did taste like honey.”
CORY: “I agree. It does taste like honey. I do like honey, but not in root beer.”
BLUMER’S ROOT BEER
ALEX: “Are you sure this isn’t diet? It is exactly like the last one, but tastes a lot more like honey. I think the color is lighter.”
CORY: “It pretty much tasted like the last. It was OK.”
JAKE: “It had a cherry taste to it and I don’t like cherry.”
IBC ROOT BEER
JAKE: “It has way too strong of a taste to it. I don’t like stuff that has a really strong taste to it.”
CORY:”I think it’s pretty good. I do like it because it has a lot of fizz and I love fizz. It kinda tastes like A&W.”
ALEX: “I like it,but it has no aftertaste. I like a good aftertaste. But it had a good not-honey taste to it. I give it an A-minus for effort.”
STONE CELLAR’S ADLER ROOT BEER
JAKE: “It tastes like apple juice. I don’t like apple juice. It failed. Do I have to finish it?”
ALEX: “It did taste like apple juice. It was tart, really tart.”
CORY:”I didn’t like it at all. It tasted like apple juice, really sour. It didn’t really taste like root beer.”
(Remember, the judge’s had already noticed the much lighter, golden color of this one, which may have affected their perceptions).
ALEX LUNDSTROM: 10, entering 6th grade at Shattuck Middle School, Neenah, Wis.
FAVORITE ROOT BEER:”A&W, because it has a rich taste and is fizzy.”
CORY PARRILL, 11, entering 6th grade at Shattuck Middle School, Neenah.
FAVORITE ROOT BEER: “I like A&W because of the taste.”
JAKE WALBURN: 10, entering 5th grade at Lincoln Elementary School, Appleton.
FAVORITE ROOT BEER: “Sprecher. I like the taste of it.”
This story first ran in The Scene, August 2006. It is reprinted here in memory of my dear son, Alex, who left this world suddenly last month at the age of 26.