A few years ago, I helped open a World of Beer location in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. On opening night, we had 49 taps flowing mostly local brews: Revolution, Goose Island, Three Floyd’s. But one local draft, belonging to a mysterious little brewery called Small Town, was getting much more attention than the others. Its popularity surprised us, because A) no one had ever heard of Small Town Brewery, and B) the beer wasn’t beer at all, but root beer. A kick-your-ass 19.5 percent ABV root beer. Though we served the boozy brew in 10-ounce snifters — the standard glass for beers of high alcohol content, meant for sipping — those drinking it were gulping it down as if it were regular old A&W. They ordered second glasses. Then thirds. By the end of the night, these people were going out of their minds. A limit was soon put in place: two glasses per customer, max. Even then, we went through three kegs of the stuff in one weekend.
This isn’t to grant the products of Small Town Brewery any extra credit in terms of quality — customers go for the lowest cost/highest ABV option all the time. But it does show that there’s certainly a market for alcoholic root beer.
Why wouldn’t there be? Root beer — the standard, alcohol-free soda style — has been popular for more than a century. As is the case with many beer styles, the origins of the drink are ambiguous, but most historians believe it was developed in the 1870s by pharmacists. These crackpots, eager to invent a tonic that would cure any ailment, cooked up solutions spiked with juniper, dog grass, birch bark, or whatever roots and berries they could easily dig up. One of these pharmacists, Charles Hires, developed an herbal tea recipe while on his honeymoon (very romantic, Chuck) that he later turned into a prepackaged liquid concentrate customers could just mix with water. Initially, the teetotaling Hires wanted to call his concoction “Hires Root Tea” for the sassafras root that was its main ingredient. His desire to tap into the large market of beer-drinking Pennsylvania coal miners, however, eventually led him to dub the product “root beer.”
Small Town Brewery’s backstory is similarly dubious, with a legend involving head brewer Tim Kovac’s great-great-grandfather, who supposedly won a brewery during a high-stakes game of cards. More certain are the brewery’s current connections, which include Phusion Projects — makers of the diabolic alcoholic energy drink Four Loko — as well as Pabst Brewing Co. owner Eugene Kashper. Small Town brews and sells 10.7 and 19.5 percent ABV versions of Not Your Father’s Root Beer at the brewery’s original location in Wauconda, Illinois. The 5.9 percent stuff is brewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin, at a plant owned by City Brewing, a location best-known for the production of malternatives like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
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It’s this low-ABV variant (if we can call 5.9 percent “low”) that’s currently hitting Arizona shelves en masse. Don’t be fooled by the bottle’s label, which describes the liquid within as “ale with the taste of spices” — this certainly behaves more like soda than beer, buzzing with fizz and bubbles that dissipate within seconds. The cinnamon, wintergreen, anise, sarsaparilla bark, vanilla beans, nutmeg, and honey that flavor the drink also have more in common with Charles Hires’ old root tea than any craft ale on the market. The brew’s aroma — a complex blend that leads with black licorice, vanilla, and ginger root — is enhanced on the palate by anise and floral orange blossom honey. It’s sweet, sure, but not nearly as saccharine as most sodas, and a gentle spice heat astride barely perceptible woodsy hop character tame the sugars before a finish of cinnamon, mint, and woodruff.
According to the Small Town Brewery website, Not Your Father’s Root Beer is brewed like a beer, fermented like a beer, and carbonated like a beer. It even contains, Kovac says, a “very small amount of hops.” But this is only beer in the loosest of terms, and Small Town, in reality, isn’t small at all. The brewery’s concealment of its non-craft connections likely has much to do with attempts to capitalize on the growing beer market. If that irks you, stay away. If, however, you have no issue occasionally buying from the big boys, go ahead and grab some boozy root beer — it’s outstanding in a frosty mug full of vanilla ice cream.