The Pepsi Challenge puts things nicely into perspective for cola drinkers: They prefer Pepsi, or they like Coke better. Some can't tell the difference; a handful even drink house brands. But except for RC die-hards, few make other choices.
For root beer lovers there is no such clarity. Which is best? A&W, Barq's, Dad's, Canfield's, Hires? Or what about Wisconsin's Sprecher, or Stewart's, a favorite in the East? Does IBC actually taste good, or is it just those old-fashioned bottles?
People who would not be caught dead drinking a Coke have no problem downing a Dad's one day and a Barq's another. But is there really no difference worth noting?
Consumed in isolation, most root beers taste fine to most people. But things change in comparison tastings. Tried side by side, root beers reveal themselves to be an unregulated potpourri. A drink's "root beerness" comes into focus, and the differences among brands can be substantial.
Root beer is in fact an elastic concept, with every maker having its own definition of what it should be. The people at Sioux City Sarsaparilla are emphatic that their product is not even root beer -- a claim contradicted by its distinctly root-beer flavor and the fact that sarsaparilla and root beer are traditionally interchangeable.
Of some 50 brands from around the country sampled for this report, some tasted like cola rather than root beer, some like Dr Pepper, and one was so heavy with wintergreen that it was "like drinking a carbonated throat lozenge," as one critic put it.
The diversity of flavors makes the clarity of a Pepsi challenge out of the question for root beer, but over four blind tastings, some patterns did emerge. The two times it was in competition, Sioux City Sarsaparilla proved a clear favorite, followed by Chicago's Canfield's, which finished second both times Sioux City was in competition, prevailed in one session where Sioux City was absent and finished fourth in another. Dark-horse Frostie was the winner in the other test.
The most common problem tasters found with the various root beers was excessive sweetness, while the winners generally rated highly for their deep "root beer flavor." Even the winning brands, however, received few kudos for creaminess, a traditional marker of great root beer. Truly creamy root beer, perhaps, is available only at the tap.
It also should be noted that even a weak test performer, such as Filbert's, brewed in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, still tastes fine when consumed outside the competitive context. It is mostly when compared with a rich, even root beer, such as IBC or Canfield's, that Filbert's and many of the other poor performers seem too fruity or too sweet.
The conclusion: Forget brand loyalty, embrace the embarrassment of riches.Taste test results
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