Slideshow: Taste Test: Root Beer, the Regional Brands

Inside our fridge
Inside our fridge
We had to clear out a few shelves for this tasting. Grand total = 22 root beer brands, and two bottles of each so we could have enough for seconds (and thirds). And maybe some floats later.
10. Bulldog
10. Bulldog
Fresno, CA

We like bulldogs in this office. But would we be able to sniff out the root beer with a bulldog mascot in a blind tasting? Apparently yes. (Dumpling even seeps into our subconscious taste buds!) The company started in 1997, and the bulldog part is a nod to the Fresno State University mascot. This one has a very classic root beer taste, but is definitely on the sweet side, in a bubblegummy way. Made us think about Big League Chew or Bazooka Joe. Lots of vanilla, caramel, and honey too, and finishes with a medicinal tinge.

[Flickr: kfarwell]

9. Saranac
9. Saranac
Utica, NY

Like a handful of the the other root beers, this one's made by an actual brewery. The Matt Brewing Company is based at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in central New York where they also produce a popular line of porters and lagers. It has a strong root beer aroma that'll wake your nose up. Toasty burnt sugar flavor with hints of anise and cherry. As far as carbonation goes, it's mild but still tongue-tingly.

7. Henry Weinhardt's
7. Henry Weinhardt's
Portland, OR

If this didn't make the top ten, I'm pretty sure we'd lose a few SE readers. "Henry Weinhard's had better make into a test somewhere, that's the best root beer I've ever had!" said Skythe in the comments section of our national root beer write-up. Those weren't the only pro-Henry Weinhardt's sentiments either.

To be honest, this wasn't our absolute favorite, but we liked it enough. From the Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Company in Oregon—the oldest continuously operating brewery in the western U.S., dating all the way back to 1856—it tasted like it came from an actual tap, not a bottle. Nice homey aftertaste. "Sudsy appearance, more than any of the others...the Guinness of root beers!" Honey, burnt sugar, and slightly medicinal flavors.

[Photograph: popsoda.com]

6. Hank's
6. Hank's
Philadelphia, PA

Despite the old-style typeface on the bottles, Hank's root beer has only been around since 1995. At the time, iced tea and fruit juices were hot, but founder Bill Dunham thought that Philly needed a high-end root beer. It has a nice spice without being too overpowering. For some tasters, it needed more metholiness, but others liked the caramelly sweetness and Cherry Coke qualities. Recommended for the menthol-averse.

5. Fitz's
5. Fitz's
St. Louis, MO

Similar to the A&W genesis story, the Fitz's one is linked to a drive-in burger joint, which started in 1947 and served the stuff in frosted mugs. Tasters liked its medicinal quality. Not very sweet at all, though it had a nice vanilla creaminess and hello, sarsaparilla. If you're not a sweet tooth type and can handle the minty medicinal action, this is your root beer.

3. Capt'n Eli's
3. Capt'n Eli's
Portland, ME

Beer drinkers, you've maybe heard of the Shipyard Brewery based in Maine. Well, they also make fruit sodas (blueberry, strawberry, and orange) and root beer, which is inspired by the Undersea Adventures of Capt'n Eli graphic novel series. "With his companions Jolly Roger, a 200-year-old parrot, and the faithful seadog Barney, Capt'n Eli takes readers into a mesmerizing world of time travel, high-tech ships, flying mini-subs, robots, lost civilizations, and undersea empires in conflict."

Robots! Time travel!

Oh, right. Root beer. It's on the sweet side—a cotton candy sweet that lingers. Shipyard uses natural cane and brown sugars, and spikes it with wintergreen oil, anise, and vanilla. We tasted cloves and ginger too. Good bubble action on the tongue.

2. Ithaca
2. Ithaca
Ithaca, NY

Ithaca Beer/Soda Company started in 1998 when founder Dan Mitchell realized that the Finger Lakes was home to plenty of wineries, not enough breweries. Compared to the other beers in the tasting, it hasn't been around that long. The spring chicken of the tasting! But they sure have it figured out.

It's brewed with Panama Bark extract, hops, star anise, juniper berries and vanilla bean. The flavor's pretty intense. First it hits you with a medicinal aroma, then a dark honey on the swallow, and it finishes with a wintergreen-y crispness. It pours dark brown with a creamy head like a stout. We suspect it'd be real swell in float form. Insert ice cream scoop plop noise here.

1. Faygo
1. Faygo
Detroit, MI

Faygo's history dates back to 1907 when two Russian immigrants opened the Feigenson Brothers Bottle Works. At first their sodas were inspired by frosting recipes, but they eventually developed a total of 50 flavors, including the very popular root beer. Some Detroiters (the ones that were around during the 1950s) still associate the root beer with the fictional cowboy character, The Faygo Kid. "Which way did he go? Which way did he go? He went Faygoooo!" (Watch the commercial if this means nothing to you...we had to too.)

This one has a lot going on, but in a good way: vanilla, bubblegum, birch, licorice. Plus there's a nice fizz that didn't die after sitting out for a while. The most classic root beer we tried. "Smelled real good too," noted one taster.