Testing and tasting the root beers of Maine
Halfway into my second trip to Kalustyan's, the amazing Curry Hill spice superstore, my wife looked at me and totally nailed it:
"Once you figure out how to make this root beer, you're going to immediately lose interest in it, aren't you?"
She's probably 100 percent correct, although I hope I continue making root beer for years to come. I have a Norman Rockwell-esque fantasy about spending weekends with my children (of which I have none yet) bottling our homemade creation. If not that, I would at least like to stick with this obsession long enough to come up with a recipe that actually tastes like root beer.
With my second batch effort, I managed to achieve a darker color but the root-beeriness still wasn't quite right. And the yeast I used still imparted an impossible-to-ignore bread dough quality that I made it my No. 1 priority to fix in the next batch. I ordered up some ale yeast, stat.
What I really needed, though, was an immersion in the world of small batch root beers. While none of the brews I tried were bottle-fermented (they were all made using carbonated water), the flavors of these sodas would presumably be more complex than the mass-marketed root beers available in the supermarket.
The first root beer I tried was Boylan's. This was the widest available brand I tried and it was pretty good. It had a chocolatey brown color and medium head with good, small bubbles. The smell was what I soon realized was the standard, modern root beer scent: wintergreen. The palate was very simple, but enjoyable. Vanilla bean up front, with major amounts of wintergreen through the middle and only the tiniest hint of sarsaparilla on the finish. Pleasant, if not outstanding.
Then I tried Fitz's, from St. Louis. The color was a lighter, reddish brown, and there was virtually no head, with big, Coca-Cola-sized bubbles. This one smelled even more strongly of wintergreen than the last. The palate was very disappointing, however. The carbonation dissipated quickly, leaving an unbalanced, imitation vanilla extract flavor that wouldn't go away. With a small amount of wintergreen in the middle, there was nothing else to balance out this sticky sweet mess.
Sprecher's was next and it was markedly better. The color was almost that of Guinness stout, and the head had a great foam of frothy, small bubbles that lingered. This was the first root beer I smelled that actually had a discernable scent of sarsaparilla. The flavor profile was also a bit more interesting; molasses flavors gave way to a pleasant bite of sarsaparilla in the middle, and finished with a nice wallop of licorice sweetness and a touch of birch bark tannin. A solid root beer.
The beer maker Saranac also makes root beer, so I tried one of their concoctions. The color was a standard dark amber and the head was decent, though not as classic as Sprecher's. There was more wintergreen and licorice on the nose, and the palate gave up brown sugar and caramel sweetness right up front. The wintergreen in the middle was balanced by a touch of sarsaparilla and licorice, and the whole thing finished with hints of bourbon vanilla.
The real star of the show, however, was the Ithaca Soda Company's root beer. It was the only bottle that didn't have a twist-off cap, which I realized later was foreshadowing of the authenticity I was about to experience. Reddish brown in color with a nice, medium head, the nose on this root beer made me take a seat. Menthol, eucalyptus, wet tree bark?Was this root beer or a wine I was smelling? On the palate I was greeted with flavors of anise and green herb up front. In the middle, I finally tasted sassafras. This was the only root beer with any major amount of that specific flavor component. There was wintergreen, but it served as a background player. The whole thing finished with menthol, cherry and brown sugar notes. The best root beer I've had so far.
My quest continues and as I compile my notes, I reconfigure my recipe for the perfect home-brewed root beer. Onward!
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