I love root beer. As a non-alcohol drinker, it's the closest thing I get to experiencing the varieties of real beer. And so, for years, I've had a dream of performing a root beer taste test. And now that dream is coming true.
Over the course of several days, I've drank a variety of different root beers -- both commonplace and artisanal. I've given them all a grade and some brief commentary. It's my gift to you, but more than that, it's my gift to me.
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A&W: I bought a bottle of A&W for sake of completion, because I already knew I didn't like it. But its one of the big names in the root beer business, so I figured I had to give it a shot. And to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I always felt like A&W tasted like it had been left out in the sun for too long, but this was sweeter and crisper than I remembered (although a molasses-type sweetness -- the bottle says "aged vanilla" -- which I wasn't a huge fan of). It does depend on it being fully carbonated -- once the carbonation fades, it start to taste like liquified brown sugar -- but again, not terrible. Still not great though. C+.
Barq's: With all this stress on small, artisanal root beers some may be surprised that I fully expected Barq's to do very well in this challenge. Of the "big three" mainstream root beer brands (A&W and Mug being the other two), Barq's is by far my favorite and is the root beer that is always in my fridge. The famous "bite" isn't anything too extreme, but certainly gives it a personality that one wouldn't expect from a Coca-Cola product. The main downside is that there isn't a ton underneath the bite -- once the snap wears off, it goes downhill really quickly -- but as long as you don't linger while drinking it Barq's is very crisp and refreshing. A.
Mug: Good. Generic, but good. Not a lot to say about this. I last got a bottle of Mug when it came with a Dominos Pizza, and that feels entirely appropriate somehow. B+.
Bedford's: Surprisingly watery. I had tried a bunch of "darker" flavors prior to drinking Bedford's, and when I first sipped it I couldn't quite put my finger on what its distinct flavor was. A full bottle later, and I still wasn't sure, and had no recollection about what it was. There's nothing particularly offensive about this drink, but there's nothing remotely memorable about it either. C-.
Dad's: It was difficult for me to place Dad's flavor (mint? No, that's not right), but it was generally quite pleasant. The problem was there was nothing going on underneath it -- in fact, it was pretty watery. I've heard that some people get "Dad's" as a cute Father's Day gift, and I have to say that it's far better than what one would typical expect for a "gimmick-grade" product. B.
Frostie: Frostie has a cartoon Santa on its bottle. And it tastes like Christmas! I can't even describe what that means; hell, I don't even celebrate Christmas. But it tastes exactly like what I imagine Christmas to taste like. It's a very particular sort of sweet that's pleasing and wintery and not too strong. That taste overlays a pretty forgettable base, but overall this is a strong entry. A-.
Henry Weinhard's: This has a flavor that I imagine is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. For me, it tastes a little like cough syrup. Now, I have to say that if cough syrup tasted like this I'd be really happy -- it'd make a darn tasty cough syrup! But in the root beer category, that's a downgrade. It does foam very impressively though. B-.
IBC: Tastes like a darker version of Barq's. It has a bite as well, though not as distinctive. The flavor is a little richer, and I can imagine people going both ways on it. But I'm a big fan. A.
Sioux City: One taste of this and I was like "we've got a contender." Two tastes and I immediately recanted. This has a dreadful aftertaste -- truly foul. I'm not sure where it comes from, because it has a very nice taste when it hits your tongue. This must be what drug addiction feels like -- a momentary great feeling, followed by awfulness. D+.
O-So Butterscotch Root Beer: As the name describes. This has a very strong -- I'd argue overpowering -- butterscotch flavor that feels incongruous. Like, I can see how someone might think it goes with a root beer base, but they turned out to be wrong. Root beer is sweet enough as it is, this turned it positively sickly. Would not recommend unless you're a true butterscotch fan (which I admittedly am not). C-.
Red Arrow: Like A&W without the sweetness. This is what I imagine dark beer to taste like. Unfortunately, it lacks the smoothness of A&W. In fact, the more I think of it, the more this tastes like my bad memories of A&W. Not a fan. C-.