This week one of my English friends, Graham (pronounced Gray-yum), made the mistake of saying that he hates rootbeer. "It's rubbish," he said, and the others protested loudly. Since you can't buy root beer in England, drinking three or four cans a day during their visits to the U.S. is fairly standard for my other root beer-loving English friends. Needless to say Graham's comment touched a nerve among them and was generally taken as the most basic form of sacrilege. So we determined that during our final days together we would more fully examine his argument. After all, you can't effectively make blanket sweep statements like, "root beer is rubbish" until you're more informed on the subject matter, can you?
Last night we convened our very first root beer taste-testing session. The panel included Jeremy and I as the leading American experts, and our English guest judges Graham, Beth, Karen, and John. Our approach involved taste testing nine different brands of root beer, discussing their merits and shortcomings as a panel, making individual notes on a note pad, and then rating the root beer flavors in order from best to worst. Here is a summary of our findings:
IBC- An extremely sugary, syrupy rootbeer with a strong vanilla component. Some members of the panel felt it has an almost medicinal after taste.
Mug- A mellow, almost bland flavor of root beer. Mug isn't so much sweet as it is fizzy. It's like root beer flavored Perrier!
Route 66- Beth and Graham picked up this brand while cruising Route 66 last week. It has a lingering sweet, almost floral after taste that is kind of to the left of your usual root beer flavor. Some members of our panel felt that it didn't taste like root beer at all, but more like an English drink called Dandelion and Burdock.
Barq's- A pungent smelling root beer that is heavy on the black licorice flavor. It isn't as carbonated as other brands, and has a definite cola taste to it. Karen even argued that Barq's tastes more like Coke than Coke does!
Bundaberg- We bought this Australian root beer in a little chocolate shop and had high hopes for it. It came packaged in a snazzy glass bottle with a metal clasp on top, but unfortunately it looked better than it tasted! I took the first swig and nearly spat it out, quickly skimming the back of the bottle to find out if it contained alcohol. It didn't, but since yeast is one of its central ingredients the panel determined that it smelled and tasted like a close first cousin to beer.
Henry Weinhard- This is the creamiest of all the root beer that we tasted. It isn't as fizzy as some of the others, but the cream gathers into a froth on top. While it contains noticeable hints of caramel, the creaminess mellows the flavor so that it isn't overpowering.
A&W- The entire panel unanimously voted this root beer to be the most middle road, typical root beer taste, like the glazed donut of root beer, if you will. Without any obvious bells or whistles, A&W seems to represent root beer in its purest form, without competing or overbearing flavors. You get the hint of cream, the caramel, and the trace of black licorice but they perform in a dull choir, all the voices melding together.
Stewart's- This root beer has the strongest caramel component of all the brands. It is sweet, but it doesn't savor of straight sugar in the way that IBC does.
All America- This is another unique brand that we found in a specialty shop. And it brought another disappointment. We all agreed that it tastes like a cheap, brand X form of root beer that lacks any distinctive flavor or taste whatsoever.
After smelling, tasting and swishing all nine brands or root beer, clearing our palate in between with salty mircowave popcorn, we averaged our scores. And the winner is....A&W!
Sidenote: I strongly disagree with the outcome of this panel. A&W is simply too plain Jane to take first place, and the fact that it was the winning root beer just goes to show I shouldn't have let English foreigners evaluate a beverage with which they have so little experience. If I had suggested we conduct a Mexican food experiment they probably would have elected Taco Bell as winner. Talk about sacriglege!
If you'd asked me two days ago what my favorite brand of root beer is I would have shrugged unknowingly, but now I can tell you with confidence that Henry Weinhard's root beer is the best, with Stewart's finishing as a close runner up.
And by way of epilogue, Graham left the panel still insisting that he doesn't like root beer. He thinks he's proved his point, but the rest of the panel feels firm in the empirical evidence that the problem resides with Graham, not the root beer.
So I'd love to hear your root beer nomination. Which is your favorite?