We revisited the idea of taste testing roots more than a dozen years after doing four rounds of tasting in 1995, including one under the auspices of the Chicago Tribune. In general, the variety of root beers available to be tested seemed diminished, even though there are certainly dozens of small-label root beers out there. They're just not making it to store shelves, at least in Chicago. I couldn't find any Sioux City Sarsaparilla, which was a favorite the last time, and I'm pretty certain that Canfield's, the other favorite, is no longer made.
There were a few surprises in the results, especially the improved performance of A&W vs. IBC. This may have to do with variability on the panel -- many, but not all, of the testers were the same -- changes in the sodas themselves, changes in the testers' palates, or the lack of rigor in the testing.
What does seem consistent is the poor performance of natural and health brands. Also consistent is the strong showing of regional brands. Berghoff, a Chicago/Wisconsin root beer not available in bottles the last time we tasted, led the pack, followed by East Coast brew Stewart's, which improved on its middling 1995 performance. (Technically, Stewart's is now owned by Dr Pepper.) Mug, Pepsi's root beer brand, came in third, not far off from its fifth-place finish in a 21-brand test in '95.
It's interesting that the New York Times published results of its own taste test a few weeks after we conducted our own update. The Times panel gave first place to Milwaukee's Sprecher, which fared poorly when we last tested it, which is why it was not included in 2008 update.
The Times also liked the Whole Food house brand 365, which finished in our bottom half, as well as Gale's, which our panel didn't like (even though I personally ranked its cinnamony flavor highly). We did agree with the Times, however, in our low rating of Virgil's and Boylan's. We also agreed with the Times' assessment that the use of cane sugar vs. corn sweetener did not seem decisive in the rankings, even though my sympathy is with cane sugar.
The top pick was Sioux City Sarsaparilla, favored for its "rich, classic" root beer taste and its spiciness. "Root beer that should be," one panelist commented.
Chicago brand Canfield's was close behind in points, however, and it was first in the tasting conducted in the Chicago Tribune test kitchen. The company likes to credit its triple-filtered Lake Michigan water as well as its generosity with vanilla, which lends creaminess. Tasters liked the drink's spiciness and well-balanced flavor, though there was little agreement as to its creaminess -- a difference of opinion that extended to most of the brands tested.
Detroit's Faygo (whose parent, National Beverage Corp., also makes Shasta soft drinks) placed second the two times it was in competition, winning favor with its "smooth," "mainstream" and "balanced" flavor.
(Like several of the brands tested, Faygo can be hard to find. A&W, Barq's, Dad's, Canfield's and IBC grab supermarket shelf space because they are distributed by major bottlers. Other brands are more likely to turn up at smaller groceries, liquor stores, drugstores and convenience stores.)
IBC, owned by Dallas-based Dr Pepper/Seven Up Cos., was another consistent performer, its sharp, spicy flavor and strong fizziness placing it third both times out. "It almost hurts," one taster said.
Among other top brands, Dog n Suds finished twice in the top half. Based in Lafayette, Ind., the brand has a rich vanilla flavor, though some found it light on bite.
A&W, Hires and Dad's turned in mixed performances, as did Barq's. A&W was strong, perhaps too strong, in the wintergreen department, while Hires may have been too sweet for its own good. One fan thought Dad's was "crying out for ice cream," others found its wintergreen or floral aspects pushing it over into the "mediciney" category. One taster said "Nice nose. Smell it, don't drink it." Barq's was colalike, with its heavy carbonation pleasing some tasters while putting off others.
Snapple's root beer turned in a dismal performance, finishing last in one test and in the bottom five in another. In general, health-oriented brands did poorly, while a handful of local root beers performed respectably.
Clover Club, like Canfield's a Chicago label, tied for third in the Tribune test. It's a far smaller brand, however, notable for its tall, deposit quart bottles (a design shared by Filbert's draft product). Tasters found a mild, natural flavor and a pleasing aftertaste. It is made with sugar, not corn syrup.
The regional brands that did well were led by Frostie, which finished first in a field of 21 on the strength of its even root beer taste -- called one-dimensional by a critic, well-balanced by a fan.
Other popular local and regional brands included New York's C&C, Thomas Kemper from Seattle, Dr. McGillicuddy's from New Orleans and Kansas' Lost Trail.Back to main screen
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