Pumpkins, peaches, and chocolate. Eventually, beermakers were going to get back to roots.
Hard root beer–think A&W with alcohol–is coming to a head this summer, as craft breweries look for a competitive edge and drinkers develop a taste for sweeter swill.
One brand, in particular, is coveted: Not Your Father’s Root Beer, from Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Ill. The brew earned an enviable rating of 94 out of 100 on Beer Advocate, an online review aggregator. In comparison, New Belgium’s Fat Tire, a darling of craft drinkers, scores only an 84.
"I would venture to say everyone I know who drinks alcohol has had [hard root beer] by this point," says Matt Simpson, an Atlanta-based consultant who does business as the Beer Sommelier. "As far as the popularity goes, it’s pretty simple: It tastes pretty good. It tastes like root beer, only with alcohol that you can’t really taste anyway."
Small Town brewed its first batch of root beer in 2013, sprinkling a vat with sassafras bark, vanilla, anise, wintergreen, and handfuls of additional spices. As popularity grew, it worked out a distribution agreement with Pabst Brewing earlier this year. A few months later the Not Your Father's brand was purchased outright by a group of investors that included Pabst Chief Executive Officer Eugene Kashper.
Despite the flood of resources and a nationwide push, online message boards are filling up with reports of long lines and tips on where to track down Not Your Father's.
"We really made this for ourselves and local consumers more than anything," Small Town founder Tim Kovac said via e-mail. "[I] had no idea it would take off this way. ... It really seems to hit on a sense of nostalgia for people."
Indeed, root beer is hitting taps at an auspicious time, as cocktails trend sweeter. If Don Draper’s Old Fashioned was the toast of 2010, today’s trendy tipple is the rock and rye, a 19th century concoction mixing rye whiskey with citrus, rock candy, or honey. It’s sweet, herby, and strong, with an old timey flavor not far from that of root beer.
Simpson, the Beer Sommelier, says a lot of his friends are mixing bourbon with the new hard root beer. "The flavor profiles are very complementary," he says. "It's almost like an alco-pop."
For an increasingly crowded field of craft brewers, alcoholic root beer represents a bit of a strategic coup. As a product, it’s virtual white space; yet every potential customer is already familiar with the taste. It requires far less of a nudge than 90 percent of the stuff the country’s almost 3,000 craft brewers are tossing in their vats these days. (See: oyster stout and onions). What's more, root beer’s sweeter profile appeals to people who aren’t keen on beer that tastes like, well, beer.
Pabst and Kovac, meanwhile, are hoping to capitalize on its success. They are brewing up two additional root beers that are 11 percent and 20 percent alcohol, respectively. On taps in Chicago, Small Town is selling something called Grandma's Apple Pie Beer.
And if you can’t find Not Your Father’s, relax; your local craft operation is probably fine-tuning a root beer recipe right now. Chicago's Berghoff Brewery announced a new brew called Rowdy Root Beer in June. Meanwhile, Boston Beer, the maker of Sam Adams, is reportedly working on its own version, although the company did not return requests for comment.
If you find some, put some ice cream in it.