So let’s talk about this alcoholic root beer thing. I guess it was bound to happen. Brewers have been pushing the flavor-profile envelope on small batch beers for some time (dude: oysters? And I’ve spent enough time in the Rogue River Valley to know you should expect a certain kook factor, but didn’t we have enough bacon flavored stuff before The Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale?). Now beer has collided with root beer, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer (which is also Not Your Kid’s Root Beer, so make sure it’s out of reach because they will not be able to tell!) earned a rating of 94 out of 100 on Beer Advocate, putting it comfortably ahead of some hotshots of the craft beer world. It’s selling faster than Small Town Brewery can put it on shelves. And it’s either brilliant or bizarre and I cannot figure out which.
So, this stuff is beer. 5.9% alcohol beer. It doesn’t act like a flavored beer on the palate. It’s root beer with a slightly weird kick.
The history of root beer is long and diverse, just like the history of beer-beer. Beverages made from sassafras existed in pre-colonial North America and were common in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact early root beers were lightly fermented because low-alcohol beverages were often thought to be safer to drink than the local water supply, which could be tainted with stuff you don’t want to think about. Early iterations of root beer were potent tonics (those roots and herbs have a wide range of medicinal properties) though plenty of mass produced root beers have substituted chemical flavorings for the old botanicals. The standout flavor of traditional root beer is generally a combination of sassafras, sarsaparilla, and wintergreen. Recipes vary enormously and can include birch bark, juniper, vanilla, cherry bark, St. John’s wort, molasses, hops, dandelion root and licorice – and that’s far from comprehensive.
So Not Your Father’s Root Beer is kind of “Actually, Your Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s Root Beer.”
The deal with this brew: aromatics are spot-on craft root beer – the wintergreen scent hits the nose hard, followed by vanilla, sarsaparilla and aniseed. It has a silky texture and mild effervescence. It looks like root beer. It tastes like root beer (though there’s something a little different about the finish); spicy, honeyed, sweet, herbaceous.
It doesn’t come across as a beer. And some people will say that it isn’t a beer. I don’t know if I am enough of a beer purist to hold forth on definitions – there are certainly enough people who consider this to be a beer to have given it an aggregate rating of 4.3 on Untapped, which puts it in some rarified company.
It’s really flavorful and good. And fun and different. But I experience a cognitive dissonance when I drink it – my taste buds do not parse this stuff as beer with flavorings. It’s root beer with alcohol and slightly lower effervescence. That’s not an indictment – this is a very nice beverage.
But is it beer? Someone, please, help me out here.
Brewery: Small Town Brewery
City: Wauconda, Illinois
Style: Hard root beer
Availability: Year round, 12 ounce bottles