It's no surprise that the best part of any brewery tour is the unlimited beer tasting afterward. But it is a surprise when the guy behind the bar is just as staunch about you trying the company's root beer in addition to that wet hopped IPA.
Such was the case on my recent tour of FX Matt Brewery, of Saranac beer fame, in Utica, New York. When I'm offered a taste of root beer—and ginger beer—made proudly in my own state, I'm not one to turn down a glass.
And when the brewery has a whole six-flavor line of sodas, available in much of the East Coast and a few part of the Midwest, I might as well try them all.
The brewery staff is proud of their sodas, a throwback to Prohibition when the company experimented with several new products to survive (among the less successful attempts: chocolate milk). And thanks in part to the sodas, it worked: the 120 year old FX Matt company was the only brewery in Utica to operate continually throughout Prohibition. The current soda recipes and products don't stretch back as far as then, but they're decidedly old timey drinks: a Shirley Temple, and Orange Cream, a really rootsy root beer.
All of them are on the sweeter end of the soft drink spectrum, and purists should look elsewhere—high fructose corn syrup and some artificial flavors abound. But stats themselves do not a bad soda make. How do they measure up? Here's our breakdown.
The best of the soda line: creamy (the head had subsided some by the time of this photo, but it started almost like a Guinness) with a strong hit of licorice to tickle the nose and palate. There's a rootsy molasses vibe to it, more spicy than herbal, with delicate moderate carbonation. The finish is impressively clean and neat despite the sweetness. Though the absence of medicinal bite keeps it from becoming my favorite root beer, I'd gladly drink a few frosty bottles of the stuff.
If you like your ginger beer on the nose-clearingly spicy side, you may not know what to do with this one. It's a curious drink: harder tasting than most ginger ales but almost completely lacking in the pungent spiciness ginger beer can deliver. That said, I really like it. The flavor is all young ginger: crisp, grassy, and full of citrus. It's quite different from the spunky mature ginger flavors we're used to in the U.S., but the subtlety and slight tartness are worthy thinga all on their own. Again, it's on the sweeter end of the spectrum, but also quite clean. This would kill it with vanilla ice cream or Thai food.
My tasters and I were split over this one, but if you're the kind of person to geek out over cream sodas (you know who you are), it may be worth a try. It's certainly creamy—melted creamsicle creamy—but fairly light on the vanilla and heavier on the citrus skin oils. There's an intriguing tartness amidst all the sweet which is amped up by delicate bubbles that tickle the nose. I can't promise you'll love this one, but I enjoyed mine and would classify it as a fine dessert soda.
John gave this the rundown in May, and for the most part I agree with him. It's just way too sweet to enjoy a full bottle: all grenadine, no sass. Not as sweet as some Shirley Temples I've had, and it's more rounded and less syrupy given that sweetness, but unless you're a hardcore grenadine fanatic, this won't have much to offer you.
Black Cherry Cream
If the Shirley Temple is too sweet, this is somehow even sweeter. Are artificial black cherries more syrupy than artificial red ones? I don't know, but I know I didn't dig the melted hard candy/Dimetapp flavor of this soda, which is lacking in interest other than creamy ultra-sweetness.
Diet Root Beer
The only diet soda in the Saranac line, but sadly it doesn't live up to the awesomeness of the original. It's less bubbly (despite the head), less creamy, and less licoricey than the regular root beer. Also less sweet, but at the price of the crisp, clean intensity that makes that soda great. Diet Barq's is a far better diet root beer.
We're always ready for more regional sodas. Have any favorites we should check out? Let us know!