Taste Test: Root Beer

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Taste Test: Root Beer

[Photographs: Robyn Lee, unless otherwise noted]

Not everyone loves root beer. Some people really can't stand it. The medicinal, wintergreen, anise-y punch—it's exactly why others love it so much. Remember ordering it as a kid and thinking, how cool, they didn't even card me!...?

As the story goes, a pharmacist in the 1870s was messing around with some roots, berries, and herbs, and out came a bitter-but-still-sweet fizzy drink. There's no one root beer recipe. They can range anywhere from super sweet and cola-esque to herb-crazy, with notes of juniper, wintergreen, vanilla, bark, and licorice. There are over 2,000 or so brands in America, many of which are from small-batch bottlers.

We set out to find the best root beer in America, starting with 11 widely available national brands. (Here's part two, featuring the smaller regional brands.)

The Criteria

  • Overall root beer flavor: We rated it on a scale of "mild" to "Holy Sarsaparilla!" If you don't like root beer, maybe you want it mild, but the root beer enthusiasts look for that medicinal, herby bite. Back in the day, sarsaparilla was one of the primary ingredients, but today additions like wintergreen and anise render similar flavors.
  • Sweetness: On a scale of "dry" to "sugarush." You don't want cloyingly sweet, but then again, this is soda. It shouldn't be unsweet. What kind of sweet? Vanilla sweet? Fruit snack sweet? Hopefully not so much the latter. And most importantly, there should always be a good sweet-to-bitter balance.
  • Carbonation: Tiny bubbles are good. Flat, not so much. Some got flat after just a few minutes of sitting out; others held onto their fizz. Since bottles can lose up to 15 percent of their carbonation while unopened and sitting around, they definitely suffered a bit in this department, but we tried to get cans whenever possible.

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The Procedure

I wish I could say we all had frosted mugs* and were served by girls on rollerskates, balancing all the samples on trays. Alas, we used small plastic cups and gathered around the big ole' SE table for the blind tasting. There were actually three separate tastings on three separate days: one for national brands (the results shared here), and the regional brands were split into two.

* Props to Matty who actually did bring his frosted mug to the tasting.

The Results

[UPDATED]

11. Virgil's
10. A&W
9. IBC
8. Stewart's
7. Boylan's
6. Dad's Root Beer
5. Mug
4. Trader Joe's
3. Dr. Brown's
2. Hansen's

And the Winner... Barq's

Barq's has bite! How true their slogan is. A nice creamy, caramelized taste balanced with minty, anise-y spices. Many tasters were saying "holy sarsaparilla" after trying this one (a compliment in rootbeerspeak). It's slightly spicy and medicinal, but not in a bad way. "Awesome. Super strong root beer flavors," said another taster, which was a big deal in this tasting—so many others tasted like cola or cream soda, but not true root beer. Even after trying 13 others that day, we wanted more. Good thing we bought a 12-pack!

Also, they use a "q" without a "u," which is downright insane. And would make for a great Scrabble word in rounds where proper nouns are permitted.

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