Monday, June 27, 2011

Not All Root Beer is Created Equal

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?


  1. I'm glad to see that you are testing something that is really important, especially during the summer months! We prefer to make our own rootbeer, plus the kids absolutely love the "rootbeer slush" that the dry ice makes. But, if we don't have time for that we usually end up at Whole Foods trying out something new. We haven't found a favorite yet. I hope you're having a great summer!

  2. Henry winehards is easily our favorite in the Gillespie home...we have preferred it for years. I'm glad you agree with my sophisticated palate;). Side note: surprised Thomas Kemper was not included in the challenge...I would put that #2 behind HW.

    Oh and next time...we want to be judges. (Greg & Sara)

  3. I could have told you the Aussie one would be awful. Australian root beers are unequivocally revolting. Without a doubt you are correct in selecting Henry Weinhard's as the best label you had on the panel. If you want a few nice ones to add to future trials I would suggest Virgil's and Saranac. Both are a bit hard to find, but I've had Virgil's in Utah and here in PA. Nice deep blend of spices. Saranac is a pretty serious Utica microbrewry, so they don't put their name on sodas carelessly. Good head on that one.

  4. The Scots have a unique drink called IRN-BRU. It too is an acquired taste. I fell in love with it when I visited Edinburgh. That was in my sugar eating days. Sadly I don't think they have a sugar free version. But We should all go to Scotland and be a panel of American IRN-BRU tasters! I am up for it are you?

  5. I loved reading this Lauren!! So jealous right now!! Barqs and Taco Bell all the way lol

    Next time you visit we are so having an English chocolate tasting contest :)

  6. I actually love A&W, but find Barq's more available. Root beer is always my beverage of choice. Never could find it in Virginia. But here in UT, it's almost everywhere. Great story. Loved your panel.

  7. How fun to do a root beer taste test! I've done the cola test (I prefer Coke. . . not that I drink any of it, because I don't really like carbonated beverages) and also conducted a blind peanut butter taste test, which was fabulous fun. Like the root beer, you'd never guess that they can be so incredibly different from each other. It was so nice to meet Karen, Beth, and co. if you're reading this, I send my love!


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