BY RYAN SPELTS
In my opinion, there is nothing like a tall glass of cold root beer.
I have distinct memories of going to an A&W Restaurant as a boy with my dad. He would order root beers in frozen mugs. Yum! I recently sat down with Lance Peterson of Two Brothers Homes and Loans; he opened a small fridge under his desk and pulled out a couple of ice cold brews. They were Henry Weinhard’s brand of root beer. With one taste of its strong, yeasty, delicious root beer flavor, I was hooked. Over the next couple of months, I started buying craft root beers any time I saw them at stores. Surprisingly, there are many to choose from, even some local Utah brands.
History and Ingredients
Root beer originated right here in North America. In fact, it is sometimes unpopular in other countries, with people stating it tastes like medicine to them. Many people back in the 1800s had recipes for root beer. (Think chili cook-offs, but for root beer.) Historically, root beer was sold in candy shops as a syrup that people could mix on their own, and it was enjoyed non-carbonated. In the 1850s, it was combined with soda water and started becoming the family favorite it is today. The first major commercial root beer was Hires, which was sold in small packets of powder that would make five gallons of root beer. A&W, arguably the most recognized root beer company, was started in 1919 when Roy Allen partnered with Frank Wright. Barq’s is the largest seller due to its current ownership by Coca-Cola Company and its distribution in restaurants nationwide. It was originally created by the Barq’s brothers and an employee.
Root beer was traditionally brewed with sassafras root as the primary ingredient. Today, it is almost always made with imitation flavoring, because cancer-causing agents were found in sassafras. Other flavors, like vanilla, licorice, ginger, butterscotch, birch bark, and many more are often added. There is not a set recipe for root beer, so you will find many variations. The traditional dark brown color came from the brew, which is water boiled down with the roots and other ingredients to create what is called a wort, and from the sweetener, molasses.
Made and Sold in Utah
In doing research for this article, we came across The Root Beer Store in Sandy, Utah. A local family started the root beer-focused store and has plans to expand to Boise and other locations. We stopped in, talked with the owner, and bought 18 different craft root beers. The owner said most people don’t know the difference between sarsaparilla and root beer because they start with the same root. The major difference is that root beer includes other flavors, like I mentioned before.
The Root Beer Store brings in a new flavor each month, and when popular, they keep it in stock. They showed us the local brews. If you have been in a restaurant that offers Apple Beer by SodaBeers, you are drinking soda made by a Utah company out of American Fork. We also tasted one in a can by Taproot, another Utah company. This particular option is unique because they use the original roots, not “natural” or “artificial flavors,” which is common in the ingredients of sodas nowadays. Brigham’s Brew is made by Wasatch Brewery, a popular beer and root beer brewer in Utah. It fared well with our testers, as you will see, although Koby didn’t like it and claimed it “tastes like polygamy” – whatever that means.
The store owner told us that there are two basic types of root beers: dark and light. The darker flavors are stronger, and you will taste the ingredients more strongly. Light versions are more subtle.
The Taste Test
We did a taste test, and all of us were surprised at how varied the flavors were. We had a great time, though most got a little overloaded after tasting 22 different flavors. We kept the serving sizes small, but it still added up. We had to start eating crackers in between to clear our palettes. I have included the ages of the tasters so you can see some perspective in their opinions.
CAMRYN SPELTS (19)
Favorite: Brigham’s Brew
This test, sadly, may have ruined root beer for me. When I originally was asked to join in on the testing, I thought that root beer would all taste the same. I was so wrong. Root beer has so many flavors, and most of them I did not like in the slightest. Some tasted yeasty, which was nasty, and some tasted like vanilla or licorice. I personally loved the OG brands (Barq’s and A&W), because they were the very few that tasted like root beer and were super simple without being too sweet.
KOBY SPELTS (21)
Favorite: Margo’s Bark
It was cool to experience all the different kinds of root beers. I didn’t expect there to be so many different flavors. There were some good ones that I had never tried before. My favorite was Margo’s Bark because it had a unique flavor and I liked the taste.
LUCY SPELTS (14)
I think most of them were a little gross, but there were a few that I really liked. I picked Frostie brand as my favorite because it was really good, but I wouldn’t use it in a root beer float, because it already tastes like one, and it would be too sweet. My second choice would be Brigham’s Brew.
GREY SPELTS (11)
There were a lot of pops, and they all had different flavors. I really didn’t like Bundaberg, but many of the others were really good. I really liked the Labrador brand root beer, it had the best flavor, and it tasted like actual root beer.
ELLY SPELTS (17)
I don’t particularly like root beer, so this was not my favorite activity.
ANN PARK (46)
Favorite: Brigham’s Brew
For the record, 22 cups of root beer in a row was TOO MUCH. Still, it was interesting to sample all the different flavors. My favorite was Brigham’s Brew, which had a classic root beer flavor but was less sweet than Barq’s. Some of the dark, highly flavored drinks were good, but some of them taste a little like licorice, which isn’t my favorite. Frostie was yummy, with a tang of vanilla.
JULIE PARK (13)
My favorite was Frostie. It had a unique flavor, and it wasn’t overpowering; it was just sweet enough. The one that tasted the most interesting was the Hippo Size. I put it in my mouth and thought, “This tastes like cherry chapstick, which is not normal for root beer.” After trying 22 kinds of root beer, it might be two to eight business years before I drink it again.
HAILEY MINTON (29)
Favorite: Rocket Fizz
I found myself noticing the ones where sweetness was the shining factor. There were others where the flavor of the spices was the shining factor. Rocket Fizz was my number one. It had a bold spice flavor that was stronger than the sweetness of it. I would also go back to Capt’n Eli’s if given the chance. It would be a fun group date to get one different kind of root beer for each person, and taste test each of them. Our person-to-root beer ratio was pretty off, so we were all pretty sugared out by the end of the tasting.
RYAN SPELTS (46)
I like full-flavored, dark root beers. I also enjoy sarsaparilla, ginger, licorice, and many of the unique ingredients often used to make root beer, so it’s no wonder that I enjoyed most of the drinks. Some had funky flavors or aftertastes that I didn’t really enjoy as much, but I could honestly drink most of them. I was also one of the only tasters who wasn’t totally overwhelmed by root beer. I could have kept going, and I did keep drinking many of them after the test was done. My overall favorite was Labrador, but there were many flavors that were close in the running, like Capt’n Eli’s, Ozark Mountain, Rocket Fizz, and Henry Weinhard’s. If I were you, I’d try them all.