Root Beer ‘Rama: A Root Beer-Off

Summer has a lot going for it–temperatures above 40 degrees, the proliferation of cute sundresses in your favorite boutique, and floats. While it’s fun to get innovative with these simple, refreshing desserts — after all, who doesn’t love a caramel espresso float or white peach, cassis, and champagne float — fun fancy schmancy recipes aside, the grandaddy of all floats is still Root Beer.

The root beer float is a pretty standard concoction–your favorite vanilla bean ice cream drenched in icy cold, frothy, sparky root beer, served with a straw and a tall spoon. Simple it may be, but like anything, a root beer float is only as good as the sum of its parts. So last night, myself, Mette, and Michelle set out to find  the perfect root beer with which to prepare our traditional Monday night Bachelorette-viewing dessert.

For the tasting, I purchased 11 root beers: A&W, Barq’s, Boylan’s, Bulldog, Crater Lake, Dad’s, Henry Weinhard’s, Maine Root, Steelhead, Thomas Kemper, and Virgil’s. I found most of the vintage-y ones at Kenny & Zuke’s Sandwich Works on NW Thurman, and picked up the rest at nearby Food Front Co-op, and New Seasons Market.


A tasting station was set up, with a Ball jar spittoon for the sugar-sensitive, a plate of Saltines for palate-cleansing in between tastes, a bowl of cherries because we have way too many cherries in the house, and a dish of root beer barrels in case someone just couldn’t get enough root beer. We used clear, tall shot glasses to taste, so as to better view the color, clarity and froth of the root beer and save the lives of 44 Dixie Cups.
Guests/judges were met at the door with a tally sheet bearing this message:


Tonight, at 8pm, as Ali the Bachelorette delves deeper into her hunt for the perfect husband, we continue our exhaustive search for the perfect root beer. The winning pop gets to mate with vanilla bean ice cream, producing the ultimate love child—a frothy root beer float. We can only hope that Ali’s search is as satisfying as ours.

Root beers are to be judged on the following four criteria:

1. FLAVOR: How deep, dark, delicious and rich is the root beer? Hopefully very, just like a great husband. What does the root beer taste like? Sarsaparilla, vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, cinnamon, clove and/or honey? Or disappointment, disillusion, and ultimately, betrayal? Discuss.

2. FIZZ: The famous “bite” of root beer lore. Does the root beer force its way into your mouth with cluelessly wild abandon (bad sign), nip playfully at your tongue and lips (good sign), or does it just lie there, flat and lifeless (bad sign). Is it a bit spicy (good sign), or is it dull (bad sign)?

3. FROTH: Does the root beer have a good head on it? A nice full round frothy creamy head? It should.

4. FINISH: After the root beer has left you for the evening, probably to go home and play with its Wii, what are the lingering notes—pleasant or foul? Did it leave an impression in your mouth or was it easily forgotten? Would you want to spend the rest of your life with this one root beer?

Let the judging begin.


Each commercial break (there is one approximately every four minutes during the Bachelorette), our tasting assistant Brian opened and poured a different brew. We evaluated it on froth and fizz, then carefully contemplated the flavor and finish. Four of the root beers led the pack by a safe margin, so we declared them the winners.

boylans21. Boylan’s: Boylan’s had the highest overall score, with a pleasing sarsaparilla flavor, strong fizz, a nice frothy head, and a round, sweet finish. Tasters detected notes of “cotton candy,” “graham crackers,” and inexplicably, “Robitussin.” It was deemed to have “tasted like a root beer barrel,” with a “finish like a Reed’s hard candy.” “It’s good ‘n fizzy,” and has a “very distinctive flavor,” panelists said. It was agreed that Boylan’s would be excellent in a root beer float, as it would hold its own flavor-wise, and at the same time complement the vanilla bean notes of the ice cream.


aw22. A & W: The root beer of our childhood had a strong showing, coming in second place. “Yummy!” squealed Michelle with such enthusiasm that tasting assistant Brian ran out of the kitchen to see what was wrong. “Number 5! Once it hits your lips it’s so good!” she cried, thrashing around on the couch. “I’ve got to try this Number 5,” Brian replied as he hurried back into the kitchen, sweat on his brow. “Classic flavor,” one taster intoned, while another’s tasting comments consisted of “nice!” “Mmmmm, I love the fizz on that one!” was heard. “Can we have a float yet?” someone whined.


thomas13. Thomas Kemper: Thomas Kemper did well with the panel, praised for its feisty fizz, smoothness, high froth factor, and strong sweet sarsaparilla flavor. It was also deemed “spicy,” “peppery,” “fruity,” “watery” and “a jerk.” Oh wait, that last comment was intended for Frank, Ali’s treacherous third pick for next week’s Fantasy Dates in Tahiti. The entire panel agreed on this: Fickle Frank and his droopy t-shirt do not deserve to go to Tahiti. The panel also wondered why on earth Kirk ever let his dad show Ali around his super creepy taxidermy shrine/basement, because if a mounted caribou foot with red google eyes and storing roadkill offal in the freezer next to your frozen waffles and popsicles isn’t a budding relationship-killer, we don’t know what is.


henry24. Henry Weinhard’s: Henry’s did not get high marks for fizz, it was flatter than the first two winners, but it did have a lofty creamy froth and scored high for flavor. “Tastes like Necco wafers,” someone said, while the others praised its “caramel,” “vanilla,” and “pine needle” notes. At this point, Brian brought all the bottles into the dining room and had a little tasting of his own. The judging panel was asked if they’d like a root beer float using the winning root beer, but all that was heard in reply were groans, huge burps, and feeble calls for insulin.


I won’t lie, I had weird dreams last night. It’s possible that I overdosed on root beer. But as a true blue root beer float enthusiast, that didn’t stop me from having this for lunch: