Any of you happy bastards still clinging to the Sober January charade? Me neither, thank goodness, but I do always try to dial the booze back a bit during the darkest stretch of winter. I figure it’s impossible to truly enjoy life during this accursed half-season, so why sully liquor’s good name by associating it too closely with wearing mittens into the shower on days when the sun sets before the closing credits of General Hospital?
Giving our beloved booze a wider berth in January does more than simply protect its reputation as a guarantor of good, clean fun. Skipping over the alcohol aisle also allows us to focus on some of life’s lesser pleasures, such as soda pop. The soft stuff is going through a protracted rough patch, with sales of full-calorie soda down 25 percent over the past two decades. This is fine from a public health perspective, but it also means that entire generations risk growing up without experiencing the sublime perfection of history’s greatest dessert, the root beer float.
Everyone knows how important it is to choose the right rum (Appleton Estate Reserve Blend) and ice cream (Bart’s Malted Vanilla), but one could argue that the root beer plays just as significant a role in the construction of a root beer float. With that and a half-hearted nod toward sobriety in mind, I drank my way through a dozen different brands in order to determine the very finest root beer in all the land (among the dozen brands that happened to land in my fridge last Saturday). All right, gang, let’s get rankin’.
This is apparently the Safeway brand; it also acts as the house label for mid-level Massachusetts grocery chain Star Market/Shaw’s. Star Market was founded in 1915 by the Mugar family, who have gone on to become prominent in local philanthropy, donating significant sums to, among others, Boston University, the Boston Museum of Science, and Cape Cod Hospital; David Mugar is currently executive producer (that is to say, “main check writer”) of Boston’s Fourth of July celebration. Furthermore—and here’s an interesting tidbit—Refreshe Root Beer is one of the single most vile things I have ever put in my mouth. My tasting notes indicate it was “flat and cheap, harsh and bad,” an utterly putrid fluid that not even the finest rum could hope to rescue.
Damn, Virg, I was expecting better out of you! This stuff wins all sorts of awards and uses all sorts of natural ingredients and artisanal processes, plus it was started by a husband-and-wife team in England, which sounds like tasteful provenance for a high-end root beer, you know? But alas, it tasted medicinal, metallic, and chemically addled, with a weird, bitter cherry edge and an overall flavor profile that suggested a menthol cigarette butt floated in a cup of generic Dr Pepper.
Frank Stewart opened his first root beer stand in Ohio in 1924, and the company didn’t begin bottling the stuff until it was acquired by Cable Car Beverage Corporation in 1990. (Now it’s owned by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which sloughed off of Cadbury Schweppes in 2008.) As currently constructed, Stewart’s uses high-fructose corn syrup and a bunch of artificial flavors—it’s not as classy as the fancy bottle suggests. It tastes decent, though, with strong cinnamon and subtler dark molasses flavors, and none of the harsh bittersweetness that mars the Refreshe and Virgil’s models.
The Dunkin’ Donuts crowd is very, strangely loyal to this Worcester, Mass., outfit’s seltzer, and having a latent Masshole strain myself, I was hoping to like Polar more than I did. It’s too sweet, all HCFC and fake root flavors, plus some low-rent vanilla extract. It’s fairly quiet overall, for a full-calorie soda pop. This is not flawed, per se, but it’s not quite good, either.
8. Maine Root Beer
This was a hard one to rank, because I can see reasonable root beerists really liking it. It’s certainly unique, with a harsh burnt-sugar flavor that might hurt so good on other tongues, but just sorta numbs mine. Maine Root uses Fair Trade organic cane juice and wintergreen, clove, and anise extracts; I taste a lot of vanilla and some mean-spirited licorice.
Very smooth and sugary and not very complicated, with heavy vanilla and light mint. This is fine on its own and might do a nice job tamping down the aggressiveness of a young whiskey.
A bit sweeter than the A&W, and even simpler, with only a faint lemon note getting in the sugar’s way. It tastes very clean, if you care to join me for a quick trip to a universe where that’s a credible thing to say about a mass-market carbonated-corn-syrup drink.
Barq’s is the lone major root beer with the decency to include caffeine (22 milligrams per 12-ounce serving, which is about two-thirds as much as Coca-Cola), and it’s also got a firm ginger bite that could trick a blind taster into mistaking it for a gourmet brand.
This was a pleasant surprise, although I’m disappointed that it gummed up my theory that using real sugar was the key to quality. Adirondack is largely a mishmash of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients (with some unspecified natural flavors thrown in), but I like it. Adirondack’s root beer fabricators have somehow put together a rich, complex soda with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, wintergreen, ginger, and light coffee.
3. Hansen’s Natural Creamy Root Beer
Look, I don’t like the word “natural” in my junk-food descriptors any more than the next dumb glutton does, and “creamy” inspires a certain queasiness as well, but this stuff is legitimately good. Hansen’s uses real sugar, wintergreen, birch, anise, sassafras, and vanilla extract, and it tastes like peppermint and molasses and maybe just an eyedropper’s worth of sambuca.
Here’s another one that blows up the “real is better” idea, as IBC fronts artisanal with the packaging, but is really just some Dr Pepper-owned HFCS bullshit that somehow manages to get the artificial flavors aligned in a manner that tastes like high-end ginger beer spiked with just enough Dr. McGuillicuddy’s to keep things on the up and up.
1. 365 Everyday Value Root Beer
And herein lies the danger of the blind taste-test: Sometimes eliminating bias leads to exposing yourself as the sort of cheap pig who shills for the Whole Foods house brand. But here we are, and I can’t deny that the 365 uses cane sugar and “natural root beer flavor” to produce a smooth and almost subtle root beer with vanilla and sweet spice flavors that will complement, rather than debase or overwhelm, your rum and ice cream.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.