Root beer grows up
Root beer is having a moment.American foodie culture advances like a swarm of locusts, embracing one sort of food, devouring it, and moving on. What it did to bacon, it now seems to be doing to root beer. You know a food’s time has come when Raley’s devotes a shelf to it, the price soars, and the labels sprout essays on Our Philosophy.
To enter the contemporary root beer culture is to enter a world morphing from one form to another—from face-hugger Alien to chest burster Alien as it were. For old-school RBs (Dog n Suds, Dang!, Route 66), the iconography is basically Gabby Hayes—spurs, words like “doggone” and “Howdy, partner!” In this world, the magic words are “old-fashioned” and “original” (as in, this is the original RB that the Pilgrims drank at the first Thanksgiving). For new-school RBs (Bundaberg, Virgil’s, Maine Root), the iconography is pure foodie: fair trade certification, voluble disquisitions about how passionate the brewers are, and long lists of ingredients like bourbon vanilla, birch oil, yucca extract and quillaia. The new-age brews tend to be heavily spiced, with complex effects. The originals tend more to “so-dee pop.”
I won’t tell you which RBs to drink. You don’t go into a brewpub and ask which beer is “the good one.” Root beer, like beer, is easy to make and so lends itself to the small-batch, under-the-radar label. Chico’s now-defunct Old Town Rootbeer Co. bar on Second Street, which I tried to keep in business single-handedly, stocked 150 varieties. So much of the fun is in trying a previously unheard-of RB with a foreign and intriguing terroir.
Today, the widest selection is at BevMo, though Raley’s and S&S can keep you busy for a while. BevMo has educational placards describing the RBs’ distinctive features (very nice), and they stock hard-to-find labels like Rat Bastard and Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg. They even have a sampler kit, though the brands in it don’t interest me.
As with all things artisanal, the corporations are quick to move in and either buy and adulterate the microbrew labels or produce their own knock-offs. The bigger the advertising campaign, the less trustworthy the product. Thus Henry Weinhard’s, the most heavily marketed “craft” RB, is made by Anheuser-Busch and uses high fructose corn syrup, which is cheap poison. Read the label, and insist on A) a noncorporate origin and B) sugar.
Chico has three RB sources that can be considered “local.” The first is Natural Brew, bottled by the J.M. Smucker Co. The second is Shubert’s, served in the ice cream shop. They don’t brew it—they mix it up from purchased syrup and water. But the syrup has an unbeatable pedigree, coming from J. Hungerford Smith, a company started in 1890 by the eponymous and legendary Smith, the Thomas Edison of fruit syrups. The flavor is fine, but they don’t have glass, so you have to drink it in a styrofoam cup, and it’s about 5 degrees too warm, so ask for ice. The third is down the road in Sacramento: the excellent River City Root Beer.
The pinnacle of root beer culture is the small-batch, artisanal work of art brewed by a microbrewery and sold on draft. Chico has no such thing yet. My fondest RB memory is of cycling into a tiny town in the Methow Valley in Oregon, finding a microbrewery, and trying their RB. Elixir of the gods! When I asked for some to go, they laughed at me—they only had enough to supply their bar customers. Such is the price of greatness. Someday I’m going back.