Putting the Beer in Root Beer

Bob Barnes - Taste testing root beer beer.

When I think of root beer, two things come to mind. One is a happy recollection of my favorite soft drink I enjoyed as a kid in my pre-beer days; the other is my adult imbibing of hard root beer that I created decades ago when I would homebrew a wheat beer and dose it with sarsaparilla extract to mimic the aforementioned favored flavors of my youth. What I loved about my homebrewed root beer beer was that it still tasted like beer while having a true root beer character. I homebrewed this concoction because at the time I knew of no commercial versions. Until now, that is.

A few months back I was sent a sample of Rowdy Root Beer from Berghoff Brewery. The Chicago-based Berghoff has a rich brewing history, dating back to 1887. It is well qualified to attempt creating an adult version of root beer, as it first produced a soda similar to root beer called Bergo 75 years ago. The soda was created during the advent of Prohibition and sold well enough to keep the brewery in business through those dark days, and Berghoff still produces a version of Bergo to this day. In July it decided to up the ante and roll out a hard version of its root beer soda.

Describing it as a malt beverage with artificial flavor added and 6.6% ABV, the brewery says it’s made from a flavorless porter mixed with all natural sugar cane root. The brewery worked with Northwestern Extract to achieve the iconic root beer flavor, testing out 15 different prototypes before determining the final recipe. I found it to be refreshing and a drink that tasted just like a root beer with an alcohol kick added. Enjoyable it was, with an intense root beer flavor and quite a bit of sweetness, but it didn’t remind me of beer; and in all fairness, the makers don’t proclaim it as a beer, but a malt beverage. And that’s the problem for me personally. Malt beverages do not taste like beer, nor are they intended to.

Also released in July, Coney Island Brewing Company, located on Surf Ave. in Brooklyn, New York on the same street as the iconic amusement park it’s named for, came out with its aptly named Hard Root Beer. 

This version uses two row malt, caramel malt and European hops and logs in at 5.8% ABV. During a secondary fermentation additional sugars and ale yeast are added as well as Madagascar vanilla. The first thing I encountered upon pouring was a huge root beer aroma and a tan head that dissipated quickly, although the carbonation held up. As for the flavor, it was an extension of its bouquet, with root beer coming to the forefront, mixed with vanilla and hints of licorice and birch. A bit more beer-like than Rowdy, it isn’t overly sweet and has a slight hop flavor in the aftertaste, which is more pronounced after it’s warmed up a bit.

Although I preferred one slightly more than the other, both of these hard root beers took me back to both my childhood and homebrew days.

For more info on Rowdy Root Beer, visit http://berghoffbeer.com/blog/introducing-berghoffs-rowdy-root-beer.

For more info on Coney Island Hard Root Beer, visit http://coneyislandbeer.com/hard-root-beer.

The Author:

Bob Barnes is editorial director of The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional, regional correspondent for Celebrator Beer News and writes the Top 10 Beer lists for Gayot.com. He welcomes your inquiries and can be reached via e-mail at bob@lvfnb.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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