Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Tale of Frank and Roy

Back around 1919 a man named Roy Allen opened a roadside Root Beer stand in Lodi, California for a veterans parade, a common enough thing in those days when folks walked, took a trolley or drove a slow car and went to parades to honour their neighbours service. Apparently, Roy found himself with an instant hit on his hands!

He had purchased his recipe from a pharmacist in Arizona, according to A&W historians and that was the start of an American Root Beer revolution. The following year he opened a second stand in Sacramento and along the way he hired Frank Wright, a man who would very soon become his business partner in an American Dream. At the time Roy opened his Lodi location he charged only 5 cents for mug of his creamy, frosty sensation. Quite a deal considering the size was a solid 10 ounces. Drug store competitors charged a nickel for less soda in most locations around the country.

In 1922 Roy and Frank became partners and the Root Beer changed it’s name from Roy Allen’s Root Beer to the now well known A&W, for Allen and Wright. And there it has remained till this very day. A&W pioneered the drive-in with car hops in 1923, setting the stage for our modern fast food, drive-thru society

A lot has changed in the intervening years since Roy and Frank began their business. When I was a boy I remember going to the A&W in Meridian, Mississippi with my mom and aunts. It was a real drive in, virtually identical to the one pictured here.

On hot Southern days we would sit in the car or at one of the outside tables and enjoy a nice cold mug of A&W Root Beer that had been made on the premises. I can clearly remember walking through the screen door into the place and smelling the fries, burgers and hot dogs of that now long gone place. Surrounded by tall trees that provided shade to all the folks who drove in to sample the fare, the A&W was just across the way from the Matty Hersee Hospital on 8th Street. Around the corner was the Borden’s Ice Cream store, a favourite for any young kid. But, the A&W held, and still holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I got to hang out with my extended family in the form of my Aunt Shirley, more often than not. We’d drive over in her Chevrolet, red with a red interior and indulge in Root Beer, fries, burgers and some of the best chili dogs in Meridian, enjoying sitting under the canopy of the old growth oaks, pecans, sweet gum and other shade giving trees.

Like my now deceased and greatly missed Aunt Shirley the A&W has long since been replaced by something else. A Taco Bell now sits in the spot where generations of kids and families drove up to eat, drink and be merry. Some might call that progress, but I’m not one of those people. I find it strangely comforting, (in a vengeful sort of way) that the section of that town that was once so happy, clean and successful is now run down and anything but successful. There’s something satisfying when you see a venerable institution destroyed to make way for the new and progressive and then see that there are indeed karmic consequences. Physics applies across the universe. For every action there is an opposite and (usually) equal reaction. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Root Beer.

Now, on to the rating of A&W's latest offering. A "vintage" plastic bottle. Vintage to me would have been to offer it in a glass bottle but in this case plastic says it all. This is no freshly brewed Root Beer, such as we used to be offered at the A&W Drive-In's. No sir, this is mass produced Root Beer and gives you exactly what you expect from one. I'd let the kids drink it on a hot picnic kinda day but you'll never see this as a staple in my home.

Carbonation: Soda-like, almost too bubbly for a Root Beer.
Mouth Feel: Just shy of creamy. Almost creamy.
Root Beer Flavour: Modern Root Beer Flavour. It relies on sweetness to do the trick and not the complex Root Beer flavour.
Sweetness: Very sweet bordering on almost too sweet.
Head: No lasting head, no creaminess.
Aftertaste: Vanilla-like aftertaste. Becomes cloying after awhile. A short while.
Aroma: A decent Root Beer smell, easily identifiable as "Root Beer" in the modern world. Not displeasing, but lacking any character or complexity.

Rating (1-10)
A&W Root Beer: 5

Friday, November 18, 2005

Pour Some Sugar On Me

Sodas today use one sweetener more than any other. High Fructose Corn Syrup, otherwise known as HFCS is their horrible sweetener of choice. It’s everywhere, in everything and has, in my humble opinion destroyed most of the Root Beers and Sodas on the market today. And, as with so many things in this day and age, it is the fault of government as much as of is the fault of the soda producers
Root Beers which use pure, natural cane sugar are, more often than not selling as premium beverages at premium prices. Seeing a genuinely good Root Beer for $2 or more is not an oddity. Even a handcrafted Root Beer from your local microbrewery could easily pull in that much without the benefit of a bottle and a snazzy label. Why the priceyness? Other than the bottle, it must be the quality and a significant portion of the quality and taste come from that delightful caramel flavour that can only be found in cane sugar. Sugar prices are kept artificially high via tariffs, restrictions, quotas and unnecessary government protectionist interference. American sugar prices have been kept artificially elevated above the worldwide prices for 45 years or better, to the detriment of the Root Beer and soda manufacturers of this country, as well as their customers.
HFCS is cheaper than sugar, especially cane sugar. Despite the heavy refining necessary to produce HFCS it remains cheaper than the preferred sweetener for carbonated beverages because the government subsidizes it. In other words, they use our tax dollars to keep the production of corn and corn based products low, so we have to pay more for sugar. Unfortunately, HFCS brings nothing to the party other than oft times cloying sweetness. It is, for all intents and purposes flavourless.
I can’t lay sole blame on the Root Beer and soda companies for using this nasty tasting product instead of the more expensive and better tasting sugar, even though they consistently lie to us and tell us there is no difference in taste. These companies have an obligation to their stockholders, owners and employees to maintain a certain level of profit in order to stay in business. Yes, they bear some of the blame for the price of what are now considered “premium beverages” but the ultimate blame must be lain at the feet of generations of politicians who have meddled in the free market.
I long for the day when these draconian rules are removed and Root Beer and soda manufacturers can import cane sugars from a variety of places around the world at a decent price. I cannot help but wonder what the minor taste differences would be if you used cane sugars on a micro-regional basis. I see numerous foods and ingredients from micro-regions that sell at a premium and there are significant taste differences. Look at coffee as a prime example!
What would Queensland sugar bring to a brew? Cuban? South African? Columbian and Guatemalan? Oh, for the day when the government gets out of the way of the invisible hand and lets us get back to the basics of brewing Root Beer the way it was intended to be made.
Who screwed up our Root Beer? Look no farther than the people in Washington, D.C.

This is not to say that all Root Beers and sodas that contain corn syrup or HFCS are horrible. They just aren't on a par with their competitors who use cane sugar. Shoot, quite a few of these are decent, some are even quite good. But, in my not so humble opinion they don't hold a candle to those sweetened with sugar, especially cane sugar. So, all you good folks out there manufacturing corn syrup sweetened Root Beer and soda, don't blow a gasket. There's room for you in this world, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

In The Beginning

As with any good story the only place to start is the beginning. I am certain that I had many Root Beers before I developed my taste for the divine brew. In fact I clearly remember drinking A&W's as a kid at the now sadly gone A&W in Meridian, Mississippi. Those frosty mugs, accompanied by fries and chili dogs are etched in my memory even now, many decades after. I also clearly remember drinking bottles of Frosty Root Beer in my Great Uncle Eugene's store in Collins, Mississippi. He dispensed his beverages from an old, ice filled metal cooler that was a blessing on hot Mississippi summer days.
But those are not the brews that gave me my desire to imbibe. Nope. That belongs to Barq's Root Beer. Not the Barq's Root Beer that so many are used to now, the mass produced crap from the once great Coca-Cola Company. No. The Barq's I drank was the original. Made and bottled in its original home in Biloxi, Mississippi. Filled with delightful acacia bite and beautiful cane sugar sweetness. Nothing compared to that brew.
Some of my fondest memories as a kid revolve around that old Root Beer flavour. I had the distinct honour and joy to be a kid on the Gulf Coast and one of my favourite places as a kid was The Dog House, Jr. in downtown Gulfport, Mississippi.
The Dog House, Jr. was a hot dog joint, stuck across the street from train station and around the corner from J.C. Penny's it was home to the worlds greatest chili dogs. Even after all these years I have never found a better chili dog than the ones which this small hole in the wall served. Great hotdog, yummy chili topped with American cheese and steamed to perfection. And, to top it all off....an ice cold Barq's in a glass bottle, (the only way you could get one in those days). Droplets of ice water and condensation forming on the outside of the bottle brought the beautiful diamond pattern of the bottle to life as we sat back, enjoyed our dogs and drank our wonderful elixir of sugar, acacia and Root Beer flavoured carbonated water. There was and never will be anything quite like that again.
Sadly, the old Dog House, Jr. is long gone, (despite a half-assed attempt by know nothings to bring it back) and so is the Barq's of my youth.
My last taste of one of those glass bottled Barq's came this past summer at the White Cap Restaurant in Gulfport. Over oysters on the half-shell and fried seafood with my wife and kids, I found that most of the joyful taste had gone from the brew. The American mega-corporation had touched something beautiful and ruined it. Sad to say. In the wake of hurricane Katrina my favourite seafood joint is gone, swept away along with my memories of a Root Beer that once ruled them all.
Some of the bite is still there in the glass bottled version but that bite is missing all of the full bodied flavour that was imparted from the sugar they used. Whereas the original brew of my youth would rate a solid 8 out of 10 the new brew, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup gets no more than a 4.
Soda and Root Beer companies should take note. While high fructose corn syrup is cheap and sweet it brings nothing to the party. The original formulae for these venerable drinks were based upon using a specific sweetner. That sweetner was cane sugar in almost every case. You may be enhancing your bottom lines by using this heavily government subsidised sweetner but you are doing your product and your customers a grave disservice. Barq's, a Southern tradition deserves better than you folks accord it.

Barq's Root Beer:
Original: 8
New version: 4

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Getting Frothy

Over the next few days I will be posting reviews of brews, pics of the bottles and just some commentary and frothy talk. Hang tight, hang loose and crack a cold, frothy brew. In the meantime, ask yourself...who is Simon Jester?