Root Beer/Sarsparilla

Empire Bottling: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer

History: In a saturated landscape where root beer is king, craft soda is constantly looking for the next eye-popping thing within the category. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer might just be the one. Ignore the ugly label that looks like it was designed by a seven year-old; the reason to be infatuated by this root beer is in the flavor. Founder and President of Gardena, California’s Real Soda in Real Bottles, Danny Ginsburg, tells us “it’s got a molasses – brown sugar aura about it which makes it stand out from the other brands.” Ginsburg is the self-titled “Soda Sommelier.” If there’s someone who knows more or is more obsessive about soda in the world than him… I don’t want to meet that person. Real Soda in Real Bottles is one of the largest craft soda distributors in the world. They actually produce a lot of flavors as well, but Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is produced specifically for their company by Empire Bottling, an old school Northeastern U.S.-based craft soda company. To be fair, Real Soda came up with the soda’s name and concept, and yes, it is actually made in Rhode Island. Ginsburg gives us his own critique of the root beer, saying it “reminds me of being in an old sweet shop in the Northeast way back when. Not just another foamy sweet brown drink.” If you’re not intrigued by this, you probably don’t enjoy soda. Admittedly, I don’t really put molasses on a lot of things and given a choice I’d opt for honey but as a sweetening agent in soda, sign me up. We’re always down to get weird and you should be too. Between the label and the idea of molasses in my soda, it really hits me right in the nostalgia tinglies.

Buy: Specialty SodasSoda EmporiumSoda4U

Nose: Smells exactly like those old fashioned root beer hard candies.

Taste: Wintergreen; tangy and thick; sugar; mild spices; mild creaminess. This definitely does have an older taste to it. What I mean by that is older root beer recipes often are more savory and less sweet. Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is full of mostly mint and tangy flavors. You get a lot of wintergreen in the body. I think it’s fair to call that the dominant flavor in this soda. But there’s also a semisweet tanginess, which I assume comes from the molasses. If you haven’t tried or don’t remember, molasses is very thick and has a bittersweet tanginess to it. In a more subdued form, that definitely comes through in the root beer’s body. There’s also some decent creaminess, but I think a lot of that comes from the root beer’s frothy carbonation rather than any flavor. Good mouthfeel. Wintergreen and tangy sweetness define the flavor profile of Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer.

Finish: Creamy, yet tangy mint with a more noticeable influence from the molasses. Kind of an awkward flavor.

Rating: Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer is one for fans of mint. This is clearly an older root beer recipe because there isn’t a lot of flavor variation, minimal use of spices, and more savoriness than sweetness. That’s not to say this doesn’t taste like soda. It does. But the strong wintergreen and tangy molasses flavors are much more prominent than sugar and vanilla. The latter two ingredients are popular in more modern root beers. You won’t taste those here. Props to Empire Bottling for getting the molasses flavor to come through. They do a good job of infusing that bittersweet tangy taste that molasses contains. At the same time, I’m left wanting a little more from this. Beyond strong wintergreen, tangy sugar, and frothy carbonation there isn’t much to the flavor profile. Again, if you like minty root beers, I think there’s a good reason for you to seek this out. If you prefer creamier vanilla-heavy root beers or ones rich in spices, this may not be for you. In our opinion, it’s not bad, just not special. The molasses flavor is certainly unique and something you won’t find in more than a handful of root beers, so it does have a major selling point. I’m just not sure everyone will be buying.

Three Stars

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Appalachian Brewing Co.: Root Beer

History: You know you’re doing something right when everyone knows you as a beer place, but you secretly make more money off of your craft soda sales. That’s what happened with Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Brewmaster Artie Tafoya says “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal.” On paper that’s a pretty impressive feat considering the brewery produces around 15 beers at a time depending on the season and just four bottled craft sodas. Like most in the craft soda business, their signature soda is their homemade root beer, something Tafoya experimented with initially as a family-friendly alternative to the hard stuff. When asked what sets Appalachian Brewing’s root beer apart from a plethora of others, Tafoya said he believes several ingredients stick out including: pure Appalachian spring water, cane sugar, mexican vanilla bean extract, and clover honey. The clover honey is a signature ingredient in several of the company’s craft sodas. It’s a recipe designed to taste like “old fashioned root beer,” Tafoya says. The brewery has been around nearly two decades and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017. And while it’s not much of a secret anymore that Appalachian Brewing Company is as much of a player in craft soda as it is in beer, the company’s dedication is what will keep it at the forefront of both industries in the years to come. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” Tafoya says of his products. That’s a formula for good liquid.

Buy: Due to freezing temperatures in the northeast over the winter, your best bet for placing an order is by contacting the company directly.

Nose: Classic root beer with a vanilla-forward scent and a touch of spearmint. When you’ve tried as many sodas as we have, you can tell that this also smells like it’s going to taste creamy.

Taste: Mint; birch bark; sarsaparilla root; vanilla; mild creaminess. When you think of old time root beers that relied heavily on botanical flavors and mint vs. modern root beers that are all vanilla and very creamy, this definitely leans towards those of yesteryear. Right away you taste a big minty influence, more wintergreen than spearmint. Not spicy, but really permeates the nose. Next there’s a 1-2 combo of sarsaparilla root and birch bark that give the root beer a signature throwback flavor, the kind you used to taste at medieval fairs as a kid. What? You didn’t go to any medieval fairs as a kid? That was just me? Man, you missed out. But there’s also a subtle creaminess to this. It’s not as hard-hitting on the vanilla as most modern root beer recipes, but there’s enough of it for you to taste. As far as the honey, that really comes in on the finish. This is a nuanced, full-bodied root beer with a nice old school flavor.

Finish: Tangy sarsaparilla and mild vanilla flavors that fade into noticeable honey. The more you drink this, the more pronounced the honey becomes.

Rating: It’s refreshing to see a modern company creating a root beer that tastes like it was imported from the past. Appalachian Brewing Company’s Root Beer is bold and layered with big notes of wintergreen mint, sarsaparilla root, and birch. It feels like something you should should drink out of a silver chalice in the woods while wearing flannel and blue jeans. Maybe something to quench your thirst with after chopping down a tree. I also appreciate the mild use of vanilla and honey that make this root beer a lot more approachable for soda hounds who aren’t fans of the more earthy flavors. This drinks easily and is very crisp on the tongue, giving it a pleasant mouth feel. I personally like a little bit more vanilla in my root beers, but I think Appalachian Brewing is really catering to a part of the root beer crowd that feels like their favorite recipes have fallen by the wayside. This is a callback to simpler times and bolder soda. I wouldn’t hesitate to try this if you get the chance.

Four Stars

Cariboo Brewing: Root Beer

History: We’ve been gone awhile and we know we’ve left many of you parched for craft soda reviews. Well after accumulating many frequent flyer miles, we’re back baby. One of the places we zoomed through? Canada, eh. And though we didn’t see any moose, we did come across a root beer we felt fit for review from Cariboo Brewing out of Prince George, British Columbia. For perspective for our U.S. readers, Prince George is about a four and a half hour flight north from Seattle. Several things stood out to us about Cariboo’s take on root beer. Most noticeably is the 0.5% alcohol/volume label on the front of the can… yes, it comes in a can and not a glass bottle. But don’t fret, this isn’t a hard root beer. It’s nonalcoholic. Fun fact: even nonalcoholic beers are typically 0.5% alcohol/volume. Some of your favorite root beers from other breweries likely contain trace amounts of alcohol as well. Cariboo Brewing is also known for their environmental efforts, so if you’re a vegan, keep your pants on here for the next sentence. According to the company, “For every case of Cariboo, we will plant a tree to aid in the effort to save B.C. forests from pine beetle devastation and restore areas struck by forest fires.” The brewery “has partnered with the BC Ministry of Forests and Range to Refresh & Reforest BC with over 1 million trees by 2020.” Cariboo Brewing Root Beer is made with pure spring water and cane sugar and the company describes its taste as “smooth and creamy” with “sassafras on the palate.” The brewery’s creation was made with American taste buds in mind, where the drink is most popular. So while our elections are a disaster at the moment, at least our beverages are keeping our neighbors to the north happy. And guys, save some more for us and we’ll let you know in November if we’re moving there.

Where to get: For this one, your best bet is to live near Prince George, British Columbia, Canada or contact the brewery to place an order for a 6-pack.

Nose: Standard root beer smell, similar to A&W. Some nostril hits of birch oil and mint.

Taste: Mild vanilla; subtle wintergreen; birch bark; sugar; light creaminess. There’s a really pleasant synergy of all the flavors in Cariboo’s Root Beer. No ingredient overpowers its companions. In terms of mouth feel, it’s crisp up front, but the back half is creamy. You’ll taste traditional root beer flavors like vanilla, wintergreen mint, and birch bark, along with crisp sugar. Everything is balanced. No weird aftertaste either. If I had to pick a couple elements that stand out most, I’d go with the birch oil and the vanilla – but you’ll probably have your own opinions here. Pairs well with ice too, making this root beer slightly more creamy.

Finish: The finish is short, but slightly more earthy. After the creaminess of the body fades, you’re left with the birch and wintergreen flavors that briefly linger for a couple seconds.

Rating: With a cornucopia of craft root beers on the market, so often we just need one that doesn’t let us down or try to shove as many weird flavors in a bottle as it can. Cariboo Root Beer is here to satisfy your need for a traditional, tasty mug of soda brew. It’s one of the few craft root beers out there that comes in a can instead of a bottle. Purists may scoff at this, but we can attest there’s no metallic or weird aftertaste. The British Columbia, Canada brewing company achieves great balance in its root beer with vanilla, sugar, wintergreen, and birch oil all evident in the flavor profile. It’s crisp, but also creamy – a trait that scores big points with us. It’s consistent, has strong flavor, and doesn’t try to be something it’s not. This is the dad of root beers (no offense to Dad’s Root Beer): you can depend on it to do the right things when others let you down. One element I’d like to see brought out more is the vanilla. You get bits and pieces of it and can taste how Cariboo has done a great job with that flavor, but I think it needs to shine more. Overall, this is delicious. I’d have a hard time seeing any root beer purist or novice not enjoying this. If you’re all aboot (Canada pun? √) root beer, do yourself a favor and get in touch with your Canadian brethren for a tasty north of the border treat.

Four Stars

Capt’n Eli’s: Root Beer [collab with TermiNatetor Kitchen]

History: In the words of company president Ed Crockett, root beer has been “the bedrock” of Capt’n Eli’s since its creation. Hell, if it wasn’t for the Eli Forsley’s thievery of root beer in the 1920’s from his father’s basement, this company might not exist. The butterfly effect, right? P.S. Before we get any further into this review, we’re honored to be doing it in collaboration with Nathan Crawford of TermiNatetor Kitchen, who cooked up a mean pulled pork dish using Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. Nathan’s food recipes will titillate the same taste buds you use for soda. Check out that meat treat here. Back to root beer now. Anyway, we’ll spare you the company’s long backstory (which you can find in our Capt’n Eli’s Orange Pop review), but basically Eli Forsley had a son, Fred, who loved the same root beer recipe his father did. Fred tweaked the formula and began selling it on draft in 1996 at Federal Jack’s in Kennebunk, Maine, which he founded four years earlier. This continued until 2002 when demand became so high that Fred decided to start bottling it. “The local folks raved about it,” Crockett tells us. In fact, here’s where Ed makes his debut. The root beer gained such a following in the northeast that Crockett was brought on by Fred Forsley to help turn Capt’n Eli’s into a full craft soda line. Today Capt’n Eli’s has nine different flavors, none more popular than the root beer. There’s even a comic book designed to help promote the brand: The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli. When you’ve got a publication in the same line of work that created Batman and Superman, that’s when you know you’re baller.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the root beer’s success,” Crockett says gleefully over the phone. He’s eager to speak about what he thinks makes the soda special. “They tried to make it unique and that’s why we go with 100% natural cane sugar, but also brown sugar.” The latter is an ingredient that makes sense when you think about root beers, but it’s surprisingly uncommon for the category. “Everything’s right there on the bottle,” he proudly exclaims before also noting the root beer’s prominent use of vanilla. Crockett also makes mention of the root beer’s accolades, specifically its two-time placement in the top three of the root beer category of the U.S. Open Beer Championships. Its most recent placing was 2013. But for all the hoopla surrounding the product, it’s still just a little company out of Portland, Maine making the stuff. “We still handcraft every product,” Crockett says. And that is what keeps craft soda fans coming back. Capt’n Eli’s knows it, too. “We certainly play off the nostalgia of soda.” And in 2016, it’s still a formula that continues to be the lifeblood of the craft soda movement.

Where to get: Capt’n Eli’s is sold nationally across the U.S., but it’s still most popular in the New England region. You can purchase it online directly from the company, as well as from Amazon. You can even find it for purchase in single bottles online from Straub’s Grocers. For large orders, especially if you’re a retailer hoping to sell soda in your store, contact Homer Soda Company.

Nose: Quite aromatic for a root beer. Big wafts of wintergreen and spices like anise and maybe nutmeg. Lots of vanilla as well. Lovely.

Taste: Wintergreen; cane sugar; creamy; vanilla; anise. There’s a great balance of sweet, savory, and creamy in Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. The carbonation is flush on the tongue from the opening sip, paving the way for waves of wintergreen that provide a bite. Wintergreen and vanilla are the standout flavors. As you taste the mint, that vanilla comes through next in a very creamy fashion. You also get a little bit of spice. Definitely anise and maybe allspice or perhaps mild clove. The latter two have question marks by them, but there’s no doubt about the anise. It imparts a bit of a licorice taste, but not in an overwhelming fashion. This is sweet and creamy and full of vanilla, but with a wintergreen bite that pulls back on the sugar. Balanced. Flavorful. Excellent.

Finish: Creamy mint and vanilla swirl in your mouth and slowly fade in tandem as notes of anise seep through the cracks.

Rating: Capt’n Eli’s has no doubt created one of the best root beers on the open market. It caters to both root beer aficionados and novices. Purists will be thrilled with its old school emphasis on wintergreen and spices while more casual root beer drinkers will embrace its vanilla notes and sweet creaminess. The balance of give and take is near perfect. You get a mouthful of wintergreen that harkens back to vintage root beer recipes. There’s definitely a bite that comes with it. Yet there’s also a robust creaminess anchored by vanilla and cane sugar, a flavor combination more commonly seen in newer root beers. All of this is tied together by a handful of spices, most notably anise. It starts aggressive with mint and ends smoothy with vanilla and mild spices. It’s essentially the blueprint for how I wish all my Tinder dates went. This is highly drinkable, packed with flavor, and most importantly, enjoyable. Capt’n Eli’s has done a splendid job here. I could see how it might be just a pinch sweet for some, but I don’t mind a little sugar in my women or my root beers. Put this one on your short-list to try. It’s a root beer with a flavor stuck somewhere between the 1940’s and 2010’s, and based on our analysis, that might just be the sweet spot.

Five Stars

Sparky’s Root Beer

History: This is a root beer 10 years in the making. This is a root beer as much about approach as it is ingredients. This is a root beer named after a cat. Yup, this is Sparky’s Root Beer. If you just clicked on that link, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, that website was bitch slapped with comic sans and yes, it looks like it was made in the year 2000. Considering the root beer found its final form in 1999, that’s probably a pretty good bet. But it was 10 years earlier when Kevin Knox started his root beer journey in Pacific Grove, California. Initially, it wasn’t even the goal. Knox was a veteran of the restaurant business and wanted to start his own, but admits he was hesitant because “it’s so risky.” This was right around the time when home brewing started to take off. Knox followed the trend and began brewing his own beer, hoping to eventually open a brewpub. The problem? It’s a $1 million venture and California ain’t a cheap place to run a business. Money wasn’t the only issue. Knox says beer was too limiting. “It didn’t take long to figure out I needed to make something for the kids and my non-alcohol drinking friends.” He experimented with fruit sodas to begin with, including a cranberry-apple soda he affectionately called “Crapple.” It didn’t work out. Root beer was the most logical choice for Knox, he says, because “it was always one of my childhood favorites.” After 10 years and “well over 100 batches” he found his desired recipe. But first, he had to name it. And this perhaps the strangest part. “Sparky is the name of my cat and he used to hang around me and watch me make it,” Knox tells us. I think we can almost all agree cats are at best a B- on the pet grading scale. And this one just paddywagoned its way around the kitchen enough to get root beer named after it? I can’t even get one of the local bars to name a cocktail after me, and Lord knows I spend enough time there. As for the flavor, he says it’s designed to be “kind of spicy, but still kind of sweet and creamy.” There’s over a dozen ingredients, with the most prominent ones being birch, local California honey, and pure cane sugar. Knox calls the rest of the herbs and spices in the soda “threshold flavors,” meaning he wants the drinker to be able to taste them, but not necessarily be strong enough to cross a threshold where they’re easily identifiable. Oh, and there is still one connection between Knox’s past homebrewing days and his root beer: Sparky’s is kettle-brewed in the same style of many craft beers. He claims this is what truly makes Sparky’s Root Beer unique. This is a soda as much about process as it is flavor.

Where to get: Sparky’s is available for purchase online in both 12 oz. and 22 oz. bottles. It’s also available from BevMO. You’re more likely to physically find it in the western half of the U.S. with California easily being your best bet.

Nose: Sarsaparilla root; vanilla; birch; spearmint. The sarsaparilla root is most noticeable with a little bit of mint. Really gets up in the nostrils.

Taste: Wintergreen; birch oil; vanilla; spices. This is definitely a root beer with a bite, and it’s up front. There’s a strong mint influence too. We taste wintergreen most, but wouldn’t be shocked if there’s some spearmint too. The birch bark flavor in this is also bold and right up front with the mint. What makes the flavor of Sparky’s Root Beer different from the rest of the pack are the spices. Tastes like there’s a few of them, perhaps some clove and anise. The initial flavors are the most potent part of the root beer and contain a spicy bite. After the mint and spices, you’ll taste a brief creaminess that gives the body of the root beer some variety. Vanilla and honey highlight this section. The creamy wave is gone as soon as it appears though and you’re left with a mildly spicy end of the sip.

Finish: Spicy mint that lingers before fading and leaving mild notes of vanilla.

Rating: Sparky’s Root Beer is a brew with lots of character. It’s highly varied in flavor. You could simultaneously classify it as botanical and spicy, yet creamy and sweet. Wintergreen and birch play a starring role in the flavor profile. They’re upfront and loud. Bold on the palate. And they’re enhanced by all of the spices in this root beer. We aren’t quite sure which ones are used, but whatever they are, they give the root beer a serious punch to the tongue. This is definitely a spicier root beer than what’s typically available; in my opinion those spices are the most critical ingredients in this soda. They provide contrast to the later tasting notes of vanilla and honey, enhance the mouth feel, and help Sparky’s separate itself from a crowded craft root beer field. In short, they’re a tremendous addition. Sparky’s Root Beer is like the foxy next door neighbor whose mature ways you long to experience from afar. Fortunately for you, this is just root beer, so you can. We mentioned above that on the second half of each sip you get a creamier vanilla flavor with big notes of honey. It’s an excellent flavor, but it’s a little too brief for me. The vanilla and honey fade quickly in favor of the strong influence of spices and wintergreen. If the two “halves” of the root beer had a more even stage presence in the mouth, this root beer would get a standing o’. I’d make the vanilla a little bit stronger for balance. But overall, I enjoy the contrast of sweet and savory here. Sparky’s might not have the most inspired label, but it’s flavor is sure to motivate repeat samplings.

Four Stars

Red Hare Brewing: Root Beer

History: You don’t see a ton of craft soda coming out of Georgia, aside from the Red Rock brand, so we dug deeper and discovered Red Hare Brewing. Fun fact: it’s Georgia’s first craft brewery to make its beers available in cans. According to Elyse Moore, Red Hare’s Graphic Designer and Marketing Coordinator, the brewery was the idea of buddies Roger Davis and Bobby Thomas. Every Saturday these two “would home brew in Roger’s basement,” according to Moore. Eventually the two got enough positive feedback from friends and family that they decided to open Red Hare Brewing in Marietta, Georgia in 2011. If you like beer and are in the area, they recommend you stop in for a Gangway IPA or Long-Day Lager. But most of you aren’t reading this review for beer… in the traditional sense. You’re here the crown prince of craft soda, the spiciest of soda ales: root beer. What an opulent introduction. Moore tells us that Red Hare Brewing first introduced its root beer on draft in the brewery in 2013. It wasn’t until two years later that they started canning it. And that’s something that admittedly might turn craft soda purists off; you won’t find Red Hare Root Beer in bottles. Just cans. Evercans, actually. Oh yeah… according to Moore, Red Hare was “the world’s first beer in an Evercan.” An Evercan is a can made of 90% recycled aluminum. It just so happened that Novelis, a rolled aluminum company that sells its products for beverage receptacles and automotive usage, was located nearby in Atlanta. So the two teamed up and created the Evercan for Red Hare’s beer and root beer to be sold in. But you want to know how it tastes. Moore admits “it’s a pretty standard root beer recipe.” I applaud your honesty. Bold move. That’s like telling a potential lover, “yeah, I have a pretty basic situation going on. Still interested?” It’s supposed to taste nostalgic, the root beer… that is. She goes a little more in depth, adding that “a bit spicy and herbal is what they were going for” in terms of a flavor profile. Currently root beer is the only soda Red Hare Brewing produces, but the brewery does have plans to unveil a grapefruit soda that will also be available in cans by this summer.

Where to get: Red Hare Brewing’s Root Beer is available throughout Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and in the panhandle of Florida. The company is currently looking into selling it online. If you’re outside of those states, you’ll have to make a trip to the ol’ brewery and have a glass on draft. Or you could just contact the company directly by going here.

Nose: Big vanilla and sarsaparilla scents. Very reminiscent of the smell of A&W Root Beer, though not as sweet.

Taste: Creamy; birch; sarsaparilla; vanilla; crisp carbonation. Much more of a creamy vanilla-based root beer than one with deep spice notes. It makes Red Hare’s Root Beer very drinkable. There’s also definitely a crispness to the flavor, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying this root beer has a bite. That sharpness comes from the birch and sarsaparilla flavor. So it has a little bit of the modern creamy vanilla thing going on with the classic sarsaparilla and birch oil flavors to supplement. The carbonation is big and really pops in the mouth, enhancing the the more herbal flavors in the soda. It has a very creamy mouth feel. Goes down smooth with big notes of velvety vanilla. Really nice.

Finish: Mild mint and birch with lingering vanilla and crisp carbonation.

Rating: Red Hare Brewing makes a damn good root beer. It’s not too complicated, has enough flavor to be still be nuanced, and drinks incredibly smooth. It has a great balance of creamy and crispness on the palate. Probably safe to say it tastes a little more creamy than crisp because vanilla is the primary flavor in the root beer. Tastes like it’d go great with some french vanilla ice cream in a root beer float. I’d say our standards for root beer at five star are a little higher than other categories because it’s the most pervasive flavor in craft soda, and this is still absolutely tops. This root beer is the cute, hip girl who graduated with a 4.0: down-to-earth and attainable. There’s honestly nothing wrong with this root beer. It’s creamy. It has a good blend of vanilla and traditional root beer flavors. And it drinks light and easy with just the most subtle of bites. The only change I wish the company would make is to bottle this in addition to putting it in cans. There’s no metallic taste from the can; that’s just the craft soda purist in me – I like a cold bottle. If you enjoy particularly spicy or minty root beers, Red Hare’s may not be for you. It’s definitely on the sweeter, more vanilla-forward side. It plays to its niche impeccably well. Just put this in glass and I’d order a case.

Five Stars

Cicero Beverage: Salted Caramel Root Beer

History: As children, walking into a candy store was like finally finding the right key to a door that unlocked our wildest imaginations. It was a wave of sensory overload. The vibrant colors, the endless options; it was a fantasy. Desiree Alonzo is drawing inspiration from those dreams. At the Chicago-based craft soda business, Cicero Beverage Co., Alonzo and her team try to create sodas based on the same types of things we found in candy stores as kids and today oogle at on food blogs as adults. Alonzo tells us that Cicero is trying to put dessert in a bottle while keeping it refreshing and flavorful. “I try not to get ideas from beverages because they’re probably already out there,” she explains. Cicero makes a full range of flavors, but they’re known for their nontraditional ones, most notably their salted caramel root beer.

Alonzo started her soda business in 2008, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the salted caramel root beer in late 2013 that it took off. It’s still the company’s most popular flavor today, earning a variety of accolades from competitions and bloggers. In an increasingly competitive craft soda market, Alonzo acknowledges that the company’s flavors “100% needed to make us unique.” And while the salted caramel root beer has seemingly done the job well, she confesses more importantly it gave the company confidence. Alonzo describes her prized specialty root beer as smooth with a unique caramel flavor. The secret ingredient? Salt. And while this won’t surprise most of you based on the name, it is very, very rare for a company to actually add salt to its soda. Sweet and salty still continues to be a hot trend on the gourmet dessert scene. It’s still in its infancy in craft soda. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Where to get: You can find Cicero Beverage’s Candied Bacon Cream Soda at Cost Plus World Market locations around the U.S. If you’re not near a physical retailer, you can also find it online at Summit City Soda or Amazon.

Nose: Vanilla; subtle caramel; sassafras; brown sugar. Smells very creamy, more like a root beer float than root beer itself.

Taste: Vanilla; mild caramel; creaminess; mild maple. You’ll taste the creamy vanilla first and foremost. 7/10 on the creamy scale. The caramel follows next, quickly after the vanilla. The faster you drink this, the more the caramel replaces vanilla as the root beer’s dominant flavor. It also absorbs the vanilla’s creaminess. If you take your time in between sips, you’ll probably notice the vanilla slightly more. Interesting. What you won’t taste are two traditional root beer flavors: birch and wintergreen mint. This does not have a bite and the carbonation is mild. However, it’s also not overly sweet. Vanilla and caramel dominate the body of the soda, while a mild maple flavor permeates in the background.

Finish: Sugar and salt that transitions into bold maple.

Rating: For a sweet root beer, Cicero Beverage Co.’s Salted Caramel Root Beer is a very smooth soda. It pours beautifully with a nice head and has an optimum amount of creaminess. Creamy vanilla and caramel highlight this root beer’s flavor profile. What’s interesting is depending on how long it takes you to drink it, one flavor will stand out more than the other. The longer you wait in between sips, the more you’ll taste creamy vanilla. If you’re excitable and buzz saw through it like my uncle on a pint of Jack Daniels, the more the caramel stands out. It’s subtleties like that a craft soda drinker can appreciate. A couple other flavors also stand out, though much lower in the flavor profile: salt and maple. You taste both on the finish. The salt is barely there. If you really search for it, you can find it. The maple is more noticeable, again, notably on the finish. It’s probably a little too strong in my opinion. It has great flavor, but after a rush of vanilla, sugar, and caramel, another sweet flavor will be pushing it for some drinkers. This is where I think the root beer would really benefit from a flavor that pushes back, like mint or birch or sassafras. Cicero’s Salted Caramel Root Beer will always have its detractors for this reason, a lack of traditional root beer flavors… even though it’s not a traditional root beer. But I gotta hand it to Cicero; despite the trendy flavor choice, this is not a novelty root beer. When looking at the label and thinking, “salted caramel root beer?” many will be hesitant to try this because it is such an odd flavor choice in a root beer. But this is an enjoyable root beer I’d happily drink again and I’d encourage others to twist the cap off one. Cicero takes vanilla and caramel, two flavors more common in cream soda, and successfully incorporates them into root beer in an elegant fashion. This won’t be a root beer you drink every day, but as a drinkable dessert, it does its job well.

Four Stars

Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla

History: It seems appropriate to name a sarsaparilla after a wild west saloon keeper, gambler, and gunslinger. Wyatt Earp was famous for his involvement in the 1891 shootout at the O.K. Corral. But did you know he has a living, breathing relative in Mukilteo, Washington? Mike Earp is the owner of Earp’s Western Foods, known for its steak sauce. He’s also a descendant of the legendary Wyatt Earp himself. Here’s an even bigger coincidence – Mukilteo, Washington is also the home to Orca Beverage, one of the biggest craft soda producers and distributors in the nation. Orca Beverage owner, Mike Bourgeois, and his team were actually developing a new sarsaparilla and they wanted a western name for it. He kept thinking of the imagery on the label of Earp’s Western Steak Sauce, which is a photo of Mike Earp resembling his famous relative. Because what goes better together than craft soda and steak sauce? Not literally. Although, that probably is some terrible variation of a Lester’s Fixins soda. “What better name for a great Western sarsaparilla than Earp’s Sarsaparilla?” asks Bourgeois. Earp agreed, humorously conceding, “Well, jeez, why didn’t I think of that?” The two companies formed a partnership and released the first batch of Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla in May of 2011. Aside from using pure cane sugar, Bourgeois notes that there’s a “slight smoky component” to the sarsaparilla flavor. We’ve got our boots on and ready to sample.

Where to get: Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is a nationally distributed soda. You can purchase it online from Summit City Soda.

Nose: Kind of a funky smell. A little bit of mint and a lot of licorice.

Taste: Sarsaparilla; mint; mild bite. You’ll taste the mint first. The mint flavor seems to be different in Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla than it tastes in say, birch beer or root beer. It’s kind of has a mint tea flavor to it. Odd. The sarsaparilla taste here is pretty mild actually. It’s right up front with the mint as well. You’ll taste a noticeably sweet wintergreen bite near the end of the sip. These are your mint flavors. Herbal mint, traditional, yet mild sarsaparilla root, and sweet wintergreen with a bit of zip.

Finish: Wintergreen breath mints that linger along the sides of the tongue.

Rating: Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is something someone could hand you if you requested a sarsaparilla and you wouldn’t blink an eye. It’s not bad, but it’s not elite. It has enough flavor to satisfy most casual soda drinkers, but the craft soda audience may long for a deeper gustation experience. The mint steals the show in this sarsaparilla, while the sarsaparilla root flavor itself is pretty light. There’s a little bit of a bite to this, like a root beer, but not quite to the level of most sarsaparillas. If you’re a big root beer or sarsaparilla fan, then this is probably one you’ll want to try if for no other reason than to check it off your list. Personally, this is probably my last endeavor with this particular brand. I think the signature sarsaparilla taste needs to be much bolder. The sweet wintergreen bite on the finish is nice, but it’s the second mint flavor you taste in the course of a few seconds. I’d just like to see more flavor variance. Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is the nice, nerdy girl in the back of physics class without a homecoming date. You’ll ask her if you can’t find anyone else, but you’re probably trying to play in a different league before you go there.

Three Stars