Suds and Spices: A Root-Beer Taste Test

Charles Hires introduced the world to a brand-new drink called root beer in 1876 Philadelphia. Hires has since attracted just a few competitors. Root-beer expert Luke Cole and root-beer fan Debbie Thomas help Scott Simon with a taste test.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

In 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia showcased a number of new inventions. There was the typewriter, the telephone, ketchup, and a new drink called root beer. On this anniversary of root beer's debut, we'd like to take a look at how the drink has evolved.

Joining us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco is root beer expert and aficionado Luke Cole.

Mr. Cole, nice to talk to you.

Mr. LUKE COLE (Root Beer Expert): Nice to talk with you, Scott.

SIMON: And we're also joined here in the studio by somebody we recruited just off the street.

Right, Ms. Thomas?

Ms. DEBBIE THOMAS (Root Beer Drinker): Just off the street.

SIMON: Debbie Thomas of Louisville, Kentucky has joined us in the studio for, we must say, an unscientific taste of root beer.

But thank you for joining us, Ms. Thomas.

Ms. THOMAS: You're welcome. I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: Out of curiosity, had you ever heard of NPR before we dragged into the building?

Ms. THOMAS: No, never.

SIMON: Oh, God love you.

Ms. THOMAS: No, never.

SIMON: That's just nice to know. Well, you'll live longer that way. Let's talk to the highly paid expert for just a moment first. Okay?

Ms. THOMAS: Okay. Let's see. Yeah.

SIMON: So what makes root beer root beer, Mr. Cole?

Mr. COLE: Well, sassafras is the eponymous root in root beer, but most of the root beers that you get today are colored sugar water. Many root beers have vanilla, acacia, cinnamon, sugar, and some form of carbonation.

SIMON: Let's try a few of these root beers then, Ms. Thomas. First one we have from a root beer stand in New Mexico, off of Route 66.

(Soundbite of pouring)

Mr. COLE: This is a mom and pop root beer shop right on Route 66 in historic Albuquerque. And my wife calls this the Guinness of root beers. And it's not for every palate, but we really like it.

Ms. THOMAS: Mmm. Hmm. I like it sweeter. I'm a sweet root beer person.

SIMON: Let me put it this way. If you were in Flagstaff, Arizona...

Ms. THOMAS: Mm-hmm?

SIMON: ...and somebody said, we can get in the care right now and drive to Albuquerque for Route 66 root beer, you would say?

Ms. THOMAS: No, let's not do it today.

SIMON: Okay. All right. All right. Let's try - well, you pick - you pick one next. Okay, Ms. Thomas?

Ms. THOMAS: Let's go with - well, you tell me.

SIMON: Okay, Let me see. It's called Sprecher, Mr. Cole?

Mr. COLE: Sprecher Brewery, root beer soda.

SIMON: Where's Sprecher made?

Mr. COLE: Glendale, Wisconsin.

SIMON: Glendale. All right, I'm going to pour it in - these are frosted mugs, by the way...

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...which is a very - that's a nice touch. Isn't it?

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, it is. Very.

(Soundbite of pouring)

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, this is much better.

SIMON: This is sweeter, huh?

Ms. THOMAS: Mm-hmm. This is sweeter.

Mr. COLE: Did you taste the honey, Debbie?

Ms. THOMAS: Uh-huh. It's really good.

Mr. COLE: Did you taste like a honey overtone?

Ms. THOMAS: I really do like this one.

Mr. COLE: Sprecher is another root beer that's been in our top 10 for several years. It's very popular in my family root beer tasting. And that kind of aftertaste, that soft honey aftertaste is actually raw Wisconsin honey that they add to the root beer.

Ms. THOMAS: Now, I would drive to Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Just drive from here, hey, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We've got a couple more to go before you...

Ms. THOMAS: Before I make my final.

SIMON: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, this is Barq's.

Ms. THOMAS: Barq's.

SIMON: This is a famous root beer.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. I like Barq's, but...

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: ...the last one was better.

SIMON: Hmm. That's a...

Ms. THOMAS: Because now, this has like a watery taste to it, actually.

SIMON: Oh, after the Sprecher.

Ms. THOMAS: Ah-ha.

Mr. COLE: Barq's is a very famous brand but it was bought by the Coca-Cola Company about 20 years ago and has become what I call one of those least common denominator root beers, and so it doesn't have the character that it once had.

SIMON: All right. Let's try the next root beer there. This is Gale's root beer. Where is this from, Mr. Cole?

Mr. COLE: Chicago, Illinois.

SIMON: Oh, all right. Gale's root beer, and I've never heard of it.

Mr. COLE: Gale Gand is a chef at a very high-end Chicago restaurant called T-R-U, or TRU.

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

Mr. COLE: And she just loves root beer, so she makes this root beer out of love of it. So I would call that root beer and artisanal brew.

SIMON: Okay, an artisanal root beer for you.

Ms. THOMAS: All righty. I can't figure out what it is.

Mr. COLE: How about cinnamon?

Ms. THOMAS: That's it. Bingo!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: You're the winner. That's good.

SIMON: You like it?

Ms. THOMAS: That is good. Yeah.

SIMON: Mr. Cole, how would you rate them? I really like the Route 66 Malt Shop Root Beer. I think it's a very sophisticated, deep flavor, and it has little wintergreen bubbles that keep bursting on my tongue for minutes after I've done drinking it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLE: ...which I really enjoy.

SIMON: Well, Ms. Thomas, thank you very much for overcoming your shyness to be with us.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, yes.

SIMON: I really value that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Our friend, Debbie Thomas from Louisville, Kentucky.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

SIMON: And Luke Cole, a root beer aficionado, speaking from KQED in San Francisco.

Mr. COLE: Great, thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) I don't want no cereal, no toast and jam, or eggs over easy. no, thank you, Ma'am. I don't want no muesli, no bagels and lard, I get carbonated, ha, at six o'clock. Woo-hoo. Mama told me not to, but am I grown man, zip up the top, foaming up out the can, root beer for breakfast. Root beer for breakfast, yeah. Root beer for breakfast, yeah now.

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