Root beer is one of America’s iconic soft drinks. Many of us share the same childhood memories of ice cream floats or bright orange drive-up stands, and these sweet suds remain a favorite even among people that don’t like soda.
The timeless beverage hasn’t really been around forever, though. Root beer was invented with prohibition in mind. Charles Hines, a pro-temperance pharmacist from Philadelphia, created his own version on a popular boozy root tea. Then, in an effort to make it sound more appealing to Pennsylvania miners, he named it root beer and introduced the world to it at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
Originally, bitter infusions of roots, vines, herbs and spices like sassafras and licorice were used to make root beer. Today’s recipes call for vanilla, wintergreen, anise, and occasionally cloves or mint.
The Table Matters tasting panel convened to sample more than a dozen root beers, which included mass-marketed sodas, as well as brands crafted by small producers. We even included a few of root beer’s close cousin, birch beer, which is made with birch root instead of sassafras root.
Many of them were excessively sweet (“I just want to eat pretzels,” said one panelist mid-tasting), but not all varieties were sugary sips. When sweetness is integrated with just the right amount of carbonation and contrasted with less-sticky flavors like wintergreen, tree bark, or herbal spices, the root beers reminded us of why it’s such a classic.
Here are six brands that taste true to their roots:
“Exactly what I want when I want birch beer,” said one panelist upon first sip. Expect intense aromas of wintergreen and sweet, yet complex flavors of bark and licorice.
Perfumed with vanilla and spice, this root beer’s rich creaminess and carbonation pleases without overwhelming sweetness.
Pleasantly minty and herbal on the nose, this savory and spicy root beer isn’t overly sugary or syrupy like some of the others. It has a somewhat medicinal bitter orange taste, and that’s a good thing.
Following old traditions, this root beer is made using yeast and sugar to produce its natural carbonation. Its savory and spicy aromas lead into flavors of wintergreen, licorice and herbs that are actually thirst quenching. Available at Hilltop Produce stand, Rittenhouse Square farmers’ market.
Pure and clean, this amber colored root beer brings all corners of the world together with robust flavors of nutmeg, tree bark, and wintergreen. It’s made using cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, which gives it a crisp sweet finish.
Inducing nostalgic memories of root beer floats from childhood for a few panelists, Barq’s was the only mass-marketed brand name soda to impress with balanced flavors of vanilla, wintergreen, and licorice, with a bit of lingering spice.