A rule of thumb when you’re gathering information, as a journalist or as a consumer, is to assemble as much as you can. So when someone in the comments of our fantasy food draft of non-alcoholic beverages demanded why to know why none of us chose root beer, I volunteered to do the taste test and decided to be as completist as possible. I went to a big suburban supermarket and my smaller neighborhood grocery which, for some reason, stocks a wide range of pop, and I assembled 13 different brands of root beer. I was pretty pleased with myself. (This, it turns out, is just a tiny fraction of all the root beers out there. The Root Beer Store in Sandpoint, Idaho, stocks 114 varieties.)
The tasters were myself, my partner Jeff, and our neighbor Emily; we were supervised by my dog Abby. It was pleasant to sit out on the porch on one of the last hot nights of the year, and all of us except Abby liked root beer. We had our numbered paper cups for a blind tasting. We had water to clean our palates. We were ready.
And then we started tasting and discovered something: It’s really hard to drink a lot of different root beers at once. They all have the same underlying sassafras flavor (though not actual sassafras since it was discovered to cause cancer), but there are infinite variations: wintergreen, molasses, honey, licorice, and cinnamon, maybe as individual notes, maybe as blends. Your palate gets confused. You lose track of what you think root beer ought to taste like. When the test was over and the identities of the test subjects were revealed, I discovered that I had given low ratings to root beers I had previously consumed and thought I liked.
“Maybe,” Jeff said, “When you’re doing a blind taste test, you revert to what tastes like root beer to you, whereas when you try it from the bottle, you know what you’re getting and can appreciate the quirkiness.” So, take our rankings with a small grain of salt.
A note on our method: Jeff poured all the root beer into numbered cups in the kitchen and brought them out to Emily and me to taste. Then I passed the cups onto him in random order so he could taste, too.
Another note: Yes, I know Barq’s is missing here. I couldn’t find it. It’s also caffeinated, which may be disqualifying anyway.
This root beer comes from Australia. We are not Australians. Maybe this explains why we all hated it so much. “The worst ever,” Emily said, making a face. “It’s a new, improved mouthwash!” proclaimed Jeff in his TV announcer voice. I thought it was worse, bitter like a medicine. (Then again, the first commercial root beer was intended to be medicinal, so maybe Bundaberg is a throwback.)
“Wow, that was bad,” Emily said, after she rinsed out her mouth. “It tastes like an off-brand cola,” I said. Jeff thought he could detect a wintergreen aftertaste. But this was one of the root beers that I had previously tried and enjoyed. Later, I took a swig from the bottle that was sitting on our kitchen counter and I didn’t mind it. So, a grain of salt.
This one also had a minty aftertaste. I thought it was okay, though I wouldn’t be tempted to drink a lot. Emily thought it tasted like mouthwash. Jeff just shook his head. “Yeah, I’m not a fan of this one.”
I also found this one medicinal, though Jeff was more inclined toward toothpaste. “It’s not the worst,” said Emily, “but it’s down there.”
This is a “blond” root beer and notably lighter than the others, so we all knew which one it was. Since none of us had ever heard of it before, I don’t think it influenced our tasting. “It’s very mild,” Emily said. I found it bitter. Jeff disagreed. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “It’s a nice departure.”
This had a definite spearmint flavor that reminded me of gum. “It’s a little sweet,” said Jeff, “But not too sweet.”
“This one isn’t offensive,” Jeff said. “It went flat very fast,” Emily observed. “I didn’t taste much.” At this point in the tasting, my tastebuds must have given up because I thought it tasted just like the root beer that had preceded it, which turned out to be Sprecher.
WBC calls itself Chicago-style root beer, so maybe we were supposed to love it based on geography. I didn’t mind it; I liked the wintergreen flavor. Jeff also deemed it “not offensive.” But Emily didn’t like it at all. “It has a funny aftertaste,” she said.
To me, this tasted like a grown-up root beer, not as sugary-sweet and a bit more complex. No one else had any other feelings about it. To be fair, it was the very last one we tried.
“It’s colored sugar,” said Emily. I agreed. “It’s okay,” said Jeff without much enthusiasm. This was another one we thought we loved.
I liked this one because it was fizzy and had a nice head like root beer is supposed to. “It’s not a bad aftertaste,” said Emily. “It’s on the upper end.” Jeff was noncommittal: “It’s all right.”
“Ah!” I said, “This is what a root beer is supposed to taste like!” It was sweet and creamy with a nice foam. “It’s pleasant,” Emily said. “There’s no gum or medicine taste.” Jeff was not as impressed. “It’s a little strong,” he said, “but not in a good way.” Later he brought out some that had gone flat to prove that we only liked it because of the foam, but we were so busy demanding to know what it was that we didn’t taste very carefully.
Jeff claims this is his favorite under normal circumstances. “It’s good,” he said during the tasting. Emily liked it, too. “I like this one better because it has a stronger flavor. It doesn’t have that weird aftertaste.” To me, it had a strong sassafras and molasses flavor, and I liked it a lot.