I’m going to babble on about root beer. I can think of a couple of distant memories from my childhood that somehow make root beer important to me. One is that when I was a little kid, maybe three, I had this plastic cup. I think it was one of those sippy cups, but you could take the top off or maybe put a straw in it. But the cup was brown plastic, and the outside of it was textured like a root beer barrel, with a fake imprint of knotted wooden boards. I probably didn’t drink much root beer – more like Hi C – but it was my favorite cup forever, and I think even twenty years later, that thing was still knocking around my mom’s kitchen cabinets somewhere.
The other thing is that when we lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan, there weren’t many culinary options, except for “drive to Elkhart”. But there was this drive-in restaurant, one of the only places to eat in town. (From what I remember, there was a sit-down dinery type place that we very occasionally hit for a Sunday brunch, and I seem to remember a hole-in-the-wall pizza place, but I don’t think we ever ate there.) Anyway, this drive-in was a local and independent that resembled an A&W, but had its own branding and details. It still had all of the old-school trappings though: carhop service, the menu with a big metal button you pushed to place an order, the trays with the rubber hooks that hung onto your car window. Fries were in plastic baskets; broiled burgers came in foil envelopes. Even thinking about the food now makes me wish I could drive two thousand miles and order ten of everything. But the big thing was the root beer: cold, frosty, sweet, and served in glass mugs. I think the restaurant had some sort of baby bear/mama bear/papa bear sizing theme, although I could be hallucinating that. But I do remember us kids got little tiny root beers, but the adults got a huge mug. That root beer, the taste of that super-cold, super-sweet carbonated soft drink is what always sticks in my head as to what “good” root beer should be.
I should add that in my adult life, I’ve been to two surviving A&W restaurants that weren’t the bastardized mall franchise versions. One was somewhere in Southwest Washington or maybe Northwest Oregon, and was across the street from a putt-putt golf course where I went for an afternoon. It was this strange octagon shape, with an inside restaurant and outside drive-in stalls that were closed. The other was near Cornell, that little town that neighbors Ithaca that Mick Foley is from, and I’m too lazy to look it up. Anyway, this was an honest-to-god A&W and still had drive-up service. I bought the biggest size glass mug, which I still have. I also got a quart of root beer to-go, and they pulled out a plastic milk-type carton and filled it from this big tap that resembled a beer keg’s tap. I drank the whole thing on the way back to my hotel because I had no fridge, and that put me off of root beer for a bit. But now I wish I had one of those taps in my kitchen.
Come to think of it, there was a bastard A&W in College Mall in Bloomington. It was somewhat scary, and I think they didn’t have hamburgers at all. They had a hot dog that was passable, with cheddar cheese and bacon bits on it, but their hotdogs were very nitrite-y and also overpriced, and the place was always very skeevey anyway. The root beer came out of one of those bag-in-box fountains, just like any other soft drink at a fast food joint, and in a wax-coated paper cup, didn’t do much for me. But it still had a faint connection to its drive-in lineage.
I’ve tried a lot of root beers in the past, and I think what I like contradicts what “serious” root beer connoisseurs might enjoy. First of all, any of that vanilla creme shit is off my list; I really don’t like it, especially when it’s a really fakey, artificial vanilla taste. It always tastes like some kind of cough syrup to me. Any of the creme soda versions of root beer are, to me, not root beer and are removed from the discussion. There are also a bunch of sub-categories of root beer that either I don’t like or that should probably not be in the same division, like black cherry or any of the other cherry-oriented root beers out there.
I think one of the other major axes of division is the general taste. Stuff like A&W or Hires are pretty far in one direction, with very little taste and a lot of sweetness to it. To me, that’s where it’s at, although you can go too far in that direction and get a really synthetic taste. (Buy a fountain root beer at a Burger King in an airport, and there you go.) You can go off in the other direction with much more sarsaparilla, birch beer, or anything that tastes slightly more bitter, rich, or has more “root” or “beer” to it. Don’t forget that the “beer” comes from the fact that old timey root beer was actually brewed. Instead of jetting carbon dioxide into giant tanks as big as your house (which is how Coca-Cola does it), people would mix the flavor, some sugar, and a bit of yeast, and let it sit for a while to ferment. (Hey, that’s where the barrel comes from!). This makes a root beer that has much more of that darker flavor. It can also add a percent or two of alcohol to it, but who’s counting.
(And yes, I tried this. In college, I worked with a couple of people who were all about brewing beer, and they got me hooked up with a store that sold the yeast and flavoring. I tried a two-liter test, and it turned into liquid poo. Plus it’s cheaper to go buy a 2-liter of A&W at the corner store than to fuck around with your own brew for weeks. Still, there’s a certain romance to the idea of making your own mix, although I’m too lazy to try again.)
Format is important. A giant icy mug of fresh draft A&W with a tall head: good. A can of A&W from the supermarket: not as good. A fountain-poured A&W from the food court in a paper cup: maybe bad. Glass is important; even if you have a two-liter from Kroger, pouring it in a real glass mug with some ice makes it twice as good. When IBC first came out (or when I first saw it anyway), that was magic, because it was at a point when glass bottling was going away for Coke and Pepsi and others in favor of the 2-liter, and here were these six-packs of amber old-school bottles that made it all better. (I loved drinking those in the halls in my dorm, so the RA would freak out thinking I had a real beer.) So glass is good, maybe for a temperature thing or a taste thing you get from metal cans, but maybe it’s just nostalgia.
(Before I forget, I will mention that Hires root beer has a different meaning if you work around computers a lot, and that always trips me up.)
(Oh, also gotta pay homage to Tom Sample here. From the NecroKonicon:
“Have a rootbeer!” On McKinley road, somewhere before Mishawaka and South Bend and on the way to IUSB, there used to be an ice cream place that had a sign out front in the summer of 1990 that said “Keep cool! Have a root beer!” Somehow derived from this, Tom Sample and Jon Konrath had a ritual of yelling “Have a root beer” at pedestrians to scare the living shit out of them.
I’ll mention two other brands that don’t really fit into this classification. The first is Barq’s; it’s been around forever, as a smaller or regional brand. But it got bought by Coke and pushed nationwide in the late 80s. I remember it really exploding around 1994. This was a weird time for soft drinks; Coke was trying to get OK Cola going (which didn’t), and the Crystal Pepsi mess had just went over. A million boutique brands were flooding the market, and the majors were trying to keep up. One second it was tea, like Snapple. Ten minutes later, it was refined water, like Clearly Canadian. This was a great time for the consumer, except that you might get hooked on a product that went away in six months.
So Barq’s came out of that, and it was different. First, it had caffeine, which is good. It also has less sugar content, which supposedly gives it more “bite”. It doesn’t have less sugar for the sake of any heavy flavoring, though. And it’s less carbonated than other root beers. I like Barq’s in theory, but I find that the carbonation makes it sort of “heavy”, and it just sits in my stomach and makes me sick. I think my fondest memory of Barq’s was when they had those stick-on tattoos included in each box. Right before a second date with someone, I put this giant heart with an arrow through it on my chest just below my shirt line, and did the “hey, I got a tattoo yesterday!” and freaked her the fuck out.
The other root beer that doesn’t fit the model is New York Seltzer. Back in the day, they had these clear or almost-clear sodas that had a flavor to them. My favorite was the grape, but I also enjoyed the root beer, which had just a faint amber color to it. It didn’t taste like a strong root beer, but it also wasn’t like these flavored water drinks that are flooding the market now. They also came in glass bottles, which I loved. I remember first getting turned onto these when I was in upstate New York for a couple of weeks in 1988. So the memory always reminds me of sweating it out in the Catskills, watching Morton Downey Jr. late nights on local TV, driving around the Hudson River valley for hours to see a historic plaque, and that sort of thing. Good times. I heard a rumor this stuff came back, but is horrible, so what can you do.
The reason I got on this trip is that we were at Cost Plus and I bought this party keg of Virgil’s root beer.. I have to admit, my only motivation was that I really thought the idea of root beer in a keg was cool. So I got it home and completely stripped down and reconfigured the fridge so I could get the thing in there upright, and left it for a few hours to cool. This was a real party keg made out of metal with welded joints and the whole nine, not just some plastic hokey deal. To get it rolling, I had to pop open a valve on the top, which released a huge hiss of pressurization built up from being thrown around the back of the Subaru for an afternoon. Then I turned and pulled out a little tap, and root beer magically flowed into my glass mug, at first producing a ratio of head to liquid of about 18:1.
Virgil’s isn’t bad stuff. The carbonation is a little low for me, and it has a very dark taste to it. It’s microbrewed, all natural, and they take great pains to tell you it isn’t like the stuff made in giant vats. You can taste the difference, and it’s not bad, but it reminds me that the stuff that takes me back isn’t this. The novelty of the gravity-pour keg is pretty overwhelming, though – I wish I could get Coke like this, except for the part about the fire department having to cut me out of the house and load me onto a flatbed truck six months from now. The keg has its downsides: you’re supposed to drink it all (just over a gallon) in eight hours, and I’m the only sweetened soft drink drinker in the house, so that didn’t happen. It also takes up half your fridge, and I have no idea what to do with it when it’s done. Also, spending $20 on a gallon of root beer is sort of ludicrous, considering you can get two 2-liters of Dad’s for maybe $2.50. But you gotta try new things, right?
Anyway, that’s my nostalgia trip for today. And now I must go, because I am inexplicably thirsty.