Summer of 2015 hard root beer exploded on the scene in the USA, becoming the top selling “craft” beer of the summer. Very simply, its brewed alcoholic root beer that tastes like the soda-pop you drank as a kid. Its been selling out nationwide with many retailers unable to keep it on the shelves. I just recently found it at my nearby liquor store. Hard root beer is a thing now, so I thought I’d share my impression of it.
To begin with, let me just rant a bit about the definition of “craft beer”. That term doesn’t have a precise meaning any longer. Once upon a time craft beer (aka microbrew, aka craft brew) was truly small batch, local breweries, without any meaningful distribution. What happens when a craft brewery becomes large, statewide, nationwide, or bought by a major brewery such as Anheiser Busch — is it still “craft”? They continue to market it as craft, they try to maintain the craft image, but I would argue that at some point a craft beer outgrows that label, or never deserves that label to begin with. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting big and having large distribution. If they can maintain their quality and unique tastes that appeal to their target market, then who cares what it’s called? But a garage band is garage band, and once they sign to Virgin they should drop that adjective.
I mention this because the hard root beer that exploded onto the market this year is called Not Your Father’s Root Beer made by Small Town Brewery. They package it like it’s a garage brew, with words like “tradition” and “family” plastered across their website, and stories about their great-great-grandfather’s recipes. So who is this small-batch brewer who went from nobody to nationwide in one summer? It’s Pabst. You know, the 3rd largest brewery in America, just behind Miller-Coors (Miller and Coors merged in 2007). Just to be very clear, if the product is consistently good, neither you nor I should care who owns the brand — I’m just being a bit nerdy about using the term “craft”.
One more detail worthy of noting: beer distribution in America is nothing short of idiotic. Retailers in any particular region can only buy what the distributors in that region are selling. If a liquor store in Oregon wants to carry a beer from some exciting new brewery in Florida, too bad, its illegal, and there’s not a thing he can do about it. Its literally the opposite of a free-market economy. The reason this matters is because when I decided to review all the hard root beers currently on the market, I was immediately restricted to whatever my local distributor will let me have, which is only four brands. There are more out there, but I can only review these four at present. End of rant, now onto reviewing the brew, from worst to first.
4. Mission Hard Root Beer
A microbrewery in San Diego, Mission was my least favorite of this selection. Unpleasant. A lot of malt liquor, not much root beer.
Aroma: dusty malt liquor and spices. I envision a musty old basement of molded grain.
Taste: Not very sweet, overly malt, minor spice notes, finishes strong of anise or licorice.
3. Sprecher Hard Root Beer
Sprecher is primarily known as a soda-pop maker in Wisconsin. Even though hard root beer only became a big hit this year (2015), Sprecher has been making their hard root beer since 2013. I found this root beer to be similarly unpleasant to Mission; barely drinkable. Its only slightly better than Mission because the aroma wasn’t as bad. Too much malt, not enough root beer.
Aroma: Fermented malt.
Taste: Overly malty, no spice notes, very one-dimensional flavor profile, mostly of fermented malt.
2. Coney Island Hard Root Beer
Coney Island is a front for Boston Beer Co, aka Sam Adams; not a microbrew by any stretch. Marketing shenanigans aside, Coney Island was much more enjoyable to me than the prior two.
Aroma: Shallow hint of spices on the nose.
Taste: Tastes like you poured malt liquor in with a root beer; a balance of the two flavor profiles.
1. Not Your Father’s Hard Root Beer
As I pointed out earlier, owned by Pabst (third-largest American brewery), this one is responsible for hard root beer going mainstream, and rightly so. I couldn’t care less that a big brewery makes this — it’s delicious! Its not just good hard root beer, its good root beer period. Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a frosty mug — heaven! If your kids get into this they won’t know that its alcoholic.
Aroma: Smells just like root beer. Lovely spices, vanilla, molasses and honey. No hint of alcohol.
Taste: Tastes exactly like root beer. Deep flavors that keep coming. No sense that its fermented.
I’ll mention that I rated these on the merits of what they were meant to be, which is root beer. I didn’t judge it as malt liquor or beer. With that in mind there is only one choice and that’s Not Your Father’s. Try it and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
ADULTS ONLY — NOT FOR CHILDREN — DRINK RESPONSIBLY — NEVER DRINK AND DRIVE
This was not a paid review or advertisement.
UPDATE 2/7/2016: A new hard root beer brand popped up in the supermarkets so I decided to try it out and provide my review. Best Damn Root Beer
Best Damn is a front for Anheuser-Busch. This is their attempt to participate in the specialty brewed hard root beer market — they also make an hard apple cider (which I haven’t tried yet). They only just launched this product a few weeks ago and its already in nearly every beer aisle in America. Clearly Budweiser has clout with the beer distributors. Anheuser-Busch claims to have been working on the recipe since 2014, but if I had been one of their test subjects I’d have suggested that they keep trying. This boozy root beer isn’t very good. That’s not to say that its “bad”, but it’s just not very yummy. The flavor is extremely one dimensional. It’s less sweet than some of the other choices on the market (whether that’s good or bad is up to you), but for me that’s a drawback. As I said in my original review above, if I’m going to drink a hard root beer it’s because I want it to taste like root beer, not just some bland beer product that vaguely resembles my favorite soda-pop. It tastes like you had a root beer with ice, then let all the ice melt, thoroughly watering it down. I pick up no spice notes or much flavor at all, just some vague molasses. On the one hand I expected a big brewer like AB to spend the effort to do it right, but on the other hand it fits right in with Budweiser (being a poor excuse for a beer). You have better options to chose from.