Thursday, January 27, 2011


While my appetite for food might be non-discriminatory, when it comes to drink I get choosier.  It's been decades since I last had a cola.  The last time I did have one, I swore I could feel it course through my veins with forces unholy.  The same goes for most other soft drinks: unless I'm traveling and can't find clean water, I usually stay away.

A year ago, however, I started dabbling with root beer again (and, later on, ginger beer).  There's something about a great root beer that differentiates it from other soda pops...for me, at least.  What is it about root beer?

As with many soft drinks (cola, in particular), root beer was once a medicinal drink, mixed with alcohol to treat dyspepsia, quinsy, or "female complaint" in the 19th century.  The exact mixture of these root beers were often kept secret, and equally often geographically specific, with one recipe from a 1901 cookbook calling for "ten gallons of luke warm filtered Mississippi River water."  In Jane Kramer's excellent article about roots ("Down Under," in the November 22, 2010 issue of the New Yorker), it is said that by the middle of the 1890s root beer was so popular that, in one year alone, a Philadelphia pharmacist sold enough root beer extract to produce 16 million gallons of the drink, "a figure that translated to about four glasses of Hires' for every man, woman and child in the United States."

So what is it that makes a great root beer?  We set out to try as many root beers as we could find to figure it out.  As with plain old alcoholic beer, there's a wide range to sample, with regional microbrews battling it out with larger national - or international - root beers.  (With that said, if you've got a favorite root beer that you don't see here, it's either because: (i) we'll get to it in a future post, or (ii) we probably couldn't find it, as there's definitely more brands of root beer to be had south of the 49th Parallel.)


As with any good taste test, we needed a baseline standard, and could think of no better a root beer than A&W to act as one.  When one thinks of root beer, it's hard not to conjure up that giant bear with the orange turtleneck, strolling down the street to that tuba beat.  If it's been awhile since you last had a frosty mug, A&W's root beer tends to be aggressively carbonated, with just a hint of a vanilla and creaminess, but a flavour that is ultimately flat and a bit too watery in the end.  It's a great median root beer, one that leaves you wanting to try the better ones available, but satiated enough to avoid poorer choices (or other soft drinks).  To start things off, then, we're giving A&W a 5.0 out of 10.0, smack dab in the middle.

How do the others stack up?

Virgil's (Los Angeles)

When we picked up our bottle of Virgil's, the cashier proclaimed that it was the "best" root beer out there, and the customer in front of us nodded in agreement.  Numerous other people said the same thing, despite having more than a few detractors online.  For those looking for a creamy root beer, Virgil's ain't it, though it does have hints of non-vanilla flavours, notably a hint of anise and licorice.  That said, it's got a taste that's somewhat similar to cola, which, on second thought, we weren't really looking for. 

7.5 out of 10.0.

Bulldog (Fresno, CA)

It's difficult to find Bulldog root beer in the GVRD, but presumably easier to find south of the border where the choice of small root beer microbrews is that much greater.  This one's got pep (particularly in its carbonation), with a solid taste of vanilla and honey...but not much else.  Again, it's not too creamy, which may prove a bit disappointing.  (We did want to give them points for their folksy website though.)

7.0 out of 10.0

Simple (Richmond, BC)

On the other hand, creaminess ain't always all that it's cracked up to be.  While Simple Beverages has made an undoubtedly creamy root beer, it hasn't made a great tasting one.  If there's one flavour that Simple's root beer leaves in your mouth, it's one of artificial vanilla extract, and we'd rather have a more complex and un-creamy root beer like Virgil's any day.

5.5 out of 10
Dad's (Jasper, IN)

Drinking Dad's root beer is somewhat akin to when you started drinking the sugary cocktails or wine coolers that seemed perfectly great as a teenager: it has a certain level of sophistication that's a slightly over and above A&W, but not nearly enough to get you through the rest of adulthood. (You might find it interesting to note that the name derives from a sizing scheme similar to A&W's: when Dad's was first brewed, it came in Papa, Mama and Junior sized bottles).  It's creamy, and has a hint of spice and sarsaparilla, but still ultimately dependent on an artificial vanilla taste.  There is that undeniable kick to it though, which puts it well above Simple's.

6.5 to 6.75 out of 10.0  

Old Town (Temecula, CA)

Old Town is brewed by an old school soda shoppe in Temecula, California, and should win over those craving smalltown nostalgia.  This is a soda of conservative restraint, in both carbonation and colour.  It's creamier, slightly sweeter, with strong vanilla, clove and sarsaparilla flavours, but also a bit of a syrupy aftertaste.

6.75 to 7.0 out of 10.0

Real Brew (Chico, CA)

Despite its small-brew appearance, Real Brew is a division of Smucker's.  That said, Real Brew doesn't taste like a large lot beverage (eg. A&W, Fanta, etc), and one can taste vanilla, licorice, sarsaparilla, a hint of anise...there's a lot going on here, which may prove to be a distraction for some.  It's a lot creamier than Virgil's, so if that's not what you're looking for, you should probably avoid it...or learn to embrace it.

7.5 out of 10.0

Boylan's (New Jersey)

There's a lot promised on the label: natural flavours, pure cane sugar, yucca extract.  What you get is a creamy root beer with a lot of vanilla, notes of licorice and a peppier carbonation.  If you're seeking a bit less of a cola-flavored root beer (and thus not into Virgil's) but not looking for a spice cacophony (and thus not into Real Brew), Boylan's will suit you well - this may be a broad crowd pleaser.

7.70 out of 10

Vintage Soda (Latimer Lake, BC)

Fans of Virgil's may also want to check out Vintage Soda's "Rodeo Root Beer," which also has a similar cola-like taste, but with a bit more creaminess involved.  The company touts its usage of both vanilla and chicory root; the former definitely gives their root beer a distinctive taste.  It starts off strong but ends up lacking, however: in the end, the root beer tastes a little flat.

6.0 out of 10.0

Check back for Part 2!

the clutterer Web Developer


  1. I love this! A type I might suggest to review is Blue Sky creamy root beer. Also maybe a couple no name brands just in case...

  2. nice work! check out my 400+ reviews!
    i would love to get a couple of those canadian ones! awesome!

  3. If I'd known you were working on this, I'd have grabbed a bottle of this for last week's trip:

  4. You're such a tough critic! 7.7 out of 10. Why not 8? Don't like rounding things up?

    Great post! My fave is Real Brew.

  5. The root beer with zach galifianakis on the cover is my favourite (Virgils).