It took me one sip to realize that I’m not the target market for this syrupy-sweet soda with a hidden boozy kick. While it sounds folksier than Smirnoff Ice and craftier than Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Not Your Father’s Root Beer is brewed in the same giant facility—despite its claims of being a craft beer.
Don’t get me wrong, Not Your Father’s Root Beer tastes great. But it’s a root beer soda that hides its booziness (5.9%) behind a lot of sugar: it’s really sweet (ice is a must) and the alcohol is undetectable. Which is probably part of its popularity. It tastes like soda, but it’s categorized as beer. How’d they do that?
Not Your Father’s Root Beer was created by Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Ill., about 50 miles outside of Chicago—although if you go to the brand’s website, there’s no longer any trace of this. Owner Tim Kovac, who launched the brewery in 2010, has an elaborate origin story that attempts to trace his current work back to a distant relative who apparently made beer in the 17th century; he has even told interviewers that his mother unearthed a 400-year-old leather-bound family brewing recipe book. I don’t care about this. After Templeton Rye and Mast Brothers Chocolate, it’s safer to assume all marketing around a brand’s origins is a myth.
But I do care about how products like Templeton and Not Your Father’s Root Beer are made. With the latter, my initial impression was that the root beer was made in a more or less natural, straightforward process. That it was flavored with real herbs during the brewing. That it used real root beer-making techniques from centuries past. Alas, it does not.
The Kovac describes the product as an “Ale with a taste of spices,” insisting that it’s literally a root beer made from beer. An article in the Buffalo News from last September described the process: “The root beer craft beer is fermented from grains and sugar, stripped of its flavor to bare alcohol, then artificially reflavored to taste like root beer with notes of sarsaparilla, vanilla extract, birch bark, anise, oak, winter green, ginger, licorice, honey, citrus and mint.”
Wouldn’t it be easier to make a root beer and then add neutral grain spirits to it? Perhaps, but then you couldn’t market it as a beer, and sidestepping the controversial “alco-pop” market is part of this product’s success. Either way, Small Town made a deal with Pabst last year to produce the root beer in La Crosse, Wisc.–where it also makes Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and other beverages–and distribute it nationally.
Michael Agnew, writing on the Perfect Pint blog last July, recalled interviewing Kovac in 2012 for a book about craft brewing in the Midwest. “I found Kovac’s process description to be confusing at best, suspect at worst,” he wrote. While Agnew hastened to add that he had no reason to believe Kovac was intentionally deceiving him, he wrote in his book that “It’s obvious to me that his understanding of the brewing process and history are limited at best.”
Don Russell, the beer writer better known as Joe Sixpack, wasn’t as kind. “Something smells about Not Your Father’s Root Beer, and I’m not talking about the heavy dose of vanilla extract that flavors the suddenly popular brew,” he wrote last July. He points out that the label for Not Your Father’s Root Beer was registered with the TTB by Phusion Projects, better known as the owner of the notorious caffeinated fruity malt liquor, Four Loko.
For as detailed a discussion as a craft beer geek could hope for, listen to Strange Brews’ two-part investigative podcast on Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Host Andrew Gill asks whether or not there’s a legal reason Small Town Brewery and Pabst (which now owns a share of the brand) insist that the root beer is a true beer, and not a “flavored malt beverage.” Gill also sends some of the product to a lab for testing.
When you take away the inconsistent origin story, the question of authenticity, and ownership, we’re left with a product that’s difficult to classify, but one that ultimately tastes pretty good. So do I want to drink it? Not really. If I don’t know by taste that I’m drinking something alcoholic, I start to wonder why I’m not drinking an alcohol-free version of it. Unless the goal is to get drunk quickly and by surprise, why bother?
If I need an alcoholic root beer fix, I’ll do just fine with Root, the 80-proof root beer booze from Philadelphia’s Art in the Age (it makes great cocktails and unlike the traditional root beer schnapps, it’s not a low-abv sweet liqueur — it’s a full-strength liquor flavored with root beer botanicals).