Root Beer/Sarsparilla

Deadworld: Slow Decay Vanilla Root Beer

History: Comic books have been inspiring movies and video games for decades. Now they’ve conquered soda. The one we’re referring to here is the zombie-centric comic, Deadworld. It’s allegedly the longest-running zombie comic book in the world. Gary Reed, the comics’ main writer, has parlayed the success of Deadworld into t-shirts and trading cards. And now Caprice Brands and Reed have teamed up to bring Deadworld to soda. Launched in February of 2015, Deadworld Sodas out of Livonia, Michigan feature zombie-influenced flavors and characters from the comics on the labels. Caprice Brands Retail Marketing Manager, Janelle Powers, tells us each flavor has four different labels. Blah, blah, blah – collect them all – blah, blah, blah. Listen, I already know what you’re thinking. You think this is a gimmick. You think this is a novelty soda because it’s associated with zombies. We asked Powers about that, warning her that those suspicions will pop up in the minds of craft soda connoisseurs. She responded by saying, “We’re not out to just throw out some cheap soda,” and continued by adding that “If you have a good brand with a crappy product, you’re not going to go far.” Deadworld Soda comes in 12 flavors with names like “Zeek Cocktail” and “Goon Bitters,” among them. The company’s most popular flavor is its “Twilight Shuffler Root Beer,” followed closely by today’s review, “Slow Decay Vanilla Root Beer.” Power describes the flavor profile, saying “You guys will definitely taste the vanilla in it. It just has a nice, creamy texture to it.” She notes the brand gets a great response from kids, but is quick to point out Deadworld Soda is for all age groups. Powers tells us the brand is bringing an onslaught of more creepy sodas to stores. “Voodoo zombies, zombie monkeys; anything you can possibly think of,” she boasts. Zombie monkeys, man – just what the world needs. Get ’em before they’re gone and then… come back again.

Where to get: You can purchase Slow Decay Vanilla Root Beer online at the company’s website or from YummiCo.

Nose: A very sugary candy vanilla scent. Reminds me of Brach’s Vanilla Milk Maid candies that you’d used to see in the grocery store. Also very similar to Vanilla Tootsie Rolls. Vanilla sugar rush. Bath and Body Works is already thinking of ways to make this scent into a soap.

Taste: Sugar; sweet vanilla candy; light mint. You taste frothy carbonation followed by a rapid sugar rush of sweet candied vanilla. This is quickly followed up by a bite that tastes of birch and mild mint. The bite provides a temporary break from the vanilla, but the sweetness comes right back near the end of the sip. This punches you in the mouth with vanilla sugar.

Finish: Sweet vanilla that has some mild creaminess mixed with light wintergreen.

Rating: There’s nothing gradual about Slow Decay Vanilla Root Beer – this soda rapidly crashes into your tongue with a tidal wave of strong, sugary vanilla. It’s not creamy, but it is sweet. It’s powerful. Borderline decadent. It may even overwhelm some people….. sorry, I was having flash backs to an ex-girlfriend with a very similar description. Where Slow Decay shines is its bite – for a sweet soda, it’s got a pretty crisp bite. It really helps reign in some of that sweetness with contrasting birch oil and mint flavors. I think Slow Decay probably needs to add a little bit of spice or perhaps just cut back on the sugar levels to really appeal to craft root beer enthusiasts. But here’s the deal: there’s a zombie on the label. Zombies are hot right now. The soda’s brand is called Deadworld. Translation: kids will want this. And kids will love this. They’ll drink all that sugar up, do fifteen cartwheels, run five laps around the house, and then play video games for two hours. And then they’ll want another. For the rest of us, it’s still fun. It’d be great for a theme party. There’s a reason we reviewed it during the week of Halloween. Root beer enthusiasts will probably want to check it out because it is different than the norm. For everybody else, I’d say it’s a toss up. How much are you willing to challenge your pancreas?

Three Stars

Thunder Beast: Black Label Root Beer

History: We may have just stumbled upon the most sophisticated-looking root beer available for human consumption. Look at this thing. A butler should serve this to you. There are over 600 brands of root beer according to research done by Thunder Beast Founder and Chief Tasting Officer, Stephen Norberg. He says he wanted to “try to give root beer a unique flavor and different packaging.” We can already confirm he’s succeeded with the latter goal. Norberg actually collects wine bottles from local restaurants in Washington, D.C., sterilizes them, and recycles them for use with his black label root beer. “I remember as a kid, I had a pocket knife with the corkscrew on it,” he says, adding that he wanted to give children a reason to whip out this otherwise useless tool. This dude is passionate about root beer. “As a small child, root beer was my favorite drink in the world… and I never grew out of that.” It only escalated from there. Norberg knew eventually he had to try his own hand at America’s most popular craft soda category. And he did try – for three years. In 2013, once he reached a point that he felt confident in, Norberg purchased some soda-making equipment. There was no turning back after that. Certainly childhood nostalgia is a good portion of the fuel that keeps Thunder Beast churning out root beer. But he wanted to offer up something more, something that targeted the craft soda crowd that could still be enjoyed by kids. And so began the creation of Thunder Beast Black Label. I feel like I gotta put on my Gucci’s just to be in the presence of this soda.

Here’s the really cool thing about Thunder Beast Black Label Root Beer: the flavor is constantly evolving. That’s right, black label’s flavor will change every several months. It’s actually never been the same twice. Norbeg says it’s “a way to try crazy, unique flavors.” He notes the current incantation is highlighted by maple and butterscotch. He adds he also uses a little bit of honey to cut down on the amount of sugar used. Thunder Beast Root Beer is made with 9-10 less grams of sugar per bottle, Norberg tells us. Additionally, all Thunder Beast Root Beers contain no caffeine or gluten. Black label is created in small batches with a flavor profile that Norberg describes as “really complex” with “bold highlights” and “botanicals.” The next batch of black label, he tells us, will focus on cinnamon and caramel. With a bottle that fancy, you’d expect some pretty big flavors. I think you’d also expect some pretty good ones. Norberg does too. He put his entire life savings into starting the business.

Where to get: Thunder Beast Black Label is sold online via the company’s online store. It’s also found in about 30 stores and restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area.

Nose: Maple syrup; wintergreen; butterscotch. Very rich in maple.

Taste: Maple syrup; butterscotch; caramel; sugar; subtle mint. Maple and butterscotch define Thunder Beast Black Label Root Beer. The maple is upfront and bold. It’s a taste very similar to maple syrup. The initial taste on the root beer is unique, almost like a quick hit of coffee flavor before the maple comes in. The maple lasts for the first half of each sip until it gives way to a smooth butterscotch taste. You’ll also get a little bit of mint on the second half as well. The carbonation on this is vey light, almost non-existent. This is a sweet root beer. Not much of a bite at all. Big maple on the front end and smooth butterscotch on the back.

Finish: Mild butterscotch with subtle notes of caramel.

Rating: Thunder Beast is a soda company with a hell of a name that makes some seriously unique root beer. In fact, if you find a fancier root beer than the company’s black label, then I know you’re a liar because that’s impossible. From the wine-inspired label and bottle to the ultra premium ingredients and name, Thunder Beast Label exudes sophistication and maybe a little bit of cockiness. It has essentially mastered the traits all men aspire to perfect in their quest for mates. It’s got big flavors, namely maple and butterscotch. To dumb it down, you’ll taste sweet maple syrup up front with smooth butterscotch on the back half of every sip. You’ll also taste subtle notes of caramel and mint. It’s sweet. Probably sweeter than most root beers. Another unique point is that Thunder Beast Black Label doesn’t really have a traditional root beer mouth feel. The carbonation is extremely light. There’s very little bite. And there are hardly any striking spice notes. It’s right on the fringes of what we all know as root beer. But, of course, with something called “Black Label,” I think we all expect something different. The maple flavor works well with the butterscotch. The transition between the two flavors is excellent. The butterscotch taste is nearly perfect. Not too strong and very smooth. One improvement I think that could be made is to the initial taste once the root beer hits your tongue. The flavors combine to create a tart coffee taste. It’s brief, yes, but it’s disjointing and it’s present at the beginning of every sip. I’d prefer to get right into the maple. I also think because this is so sweet, it would benefit from either more spices or more of a bite. But its two main flavors are executed wonderfully. This is something every craft soda fan should try for its uniqueness in flavor and presentation. Buy a bottle of this and impress your friends.

Four Stars

Lakefront Brewery: Golden Maple Root Beer

History: We all remember the intense rivalries with had with our siblings. I mean, to this day, my little brother has to call me king at all family gatherings because of the backlog of blackmail I have against him. But those are the memories you’d never trade. Well, the Klisch brothers did decide to trade their sibling rivalry… for a partnership in craft beer making. They call it Lakefront Brewery. The brewery’s tour administrator and manager of environmental programs, Chris Ranson, tells us the the story. It’s a simple one. Jim Klisch decided he wanted to see what home brewing was all about. Humored by his brother’s interest, Russ Klisch bought him a book on the subject. Jim did his homework. Turns out, Jim could brew a mighty fine ale. And Russ was like aw, hell nah. So Russ, too, made his own beer. After going back and forth on tasting trials with friends and family, the two became convinced they had a talent for beer brewing. In 1987, they founded Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To give you an idea of its success, consider this: in 1988 the brewery turned out 72 barrels of beer; in 2012, that number had grown to 33,368 barrels. After several years in the business, Ranson says the brothers came to the realization that “people need an alternative to alcohol.” Root beer, as is often the case in breweries, was the logical choice to them. But they wanted to make theirs a little different. Ranson tells us how big maple syrup is in Wisconsin. We weren’t aware, but apparently Wisconsin is the fourth-largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S. behind Vermont, New York, and Connecticut. So in 1995 Lakefront Brewery decided to make a maple root beer using locally-sourced maple syrup. The root beer is made with pure cane sugar and does not use artificial coloring. This results in the root beer’s signature “golden” hue. Ranson tells us it’s “very sweet” and “definitely root beer,” but adds the maple flavor gives it a taste “somewhere between a root beer and a cream soda.” We’re not sure what to expect. This is either going to have a flavor identity crisis or it’s going to be something pretty special.

Where to get: In addition to being sold at the brewery, Golden Maple Root Beer is sold sporadically at Wisconsin Whole Foods, and is a big player at Milwaukee state fairs and farmer’s markets. If you aren’t in the area and want to try it, the company does do custom orders. Just know the shipping will be pricey. Contact Lakefront Brewery directly here.

Nose: Sarsaparilla root; mint; vanilla; spice. All in all, it’s a pretty standard root beer smell with maybe a little more emphasis on the spices. You can smell the maple a little bit, but I assume that’ll come through more in the taste.

Taste: Sugar; sweet bite; maple; wintergreen. What you taste immediately is sugar. This is sweet. Despite that, there’s actually a pretty decent bite to this – but again, it’s a sweeter bite than in most root beers. What’s strange about this is the initial flavor you get when sipping. It’s probably just how the maple interacts with the rest of the ingredients, but I swear this tastes kind of like ginger ale when it first hits your lips. The maple flavor comes through more after you drink the root beer. You’ve gotta get through a few sips of sugar-coated spices before you taste what this root beer is all about. Don’t think maple syrup. No, it’s more like a spiced root beer with added maple flavor, yet the spices don’t let the maple completely overtake the flavor profile. What I’m saying is you can taste the maple in this, but it isn’t overpowering. If this didn’t have maple syrup in it, I think this would be a particularly robust-flavored root beer rich in spices, so the maple acts as kind of a mellowing agent. This has decent balance between the maple, spices, and wintergreen mint flavors, but it retains an above average sweetness.

Finish: Slightly creamy vanilla and maple. The best part of the root beer.

Rating: Lakefront Brewery’s Golden Maple Root Beer is an oddball. But being weird isn’t always bad. I’m weird. I’m also still single, but there’s not necessarily a correlation there. Right? Right, guys? This isn’t going to overpower you with traditional root beer spices and extracts. You taste some sarsaparilla. You taste some wintergreen. But this root beer isn’t about being traditional; it’s about showcasing its maple flavor. After wading through a sea of liquid sugar on the first few sips, you’ll taste that maple influence. When mixed with the spices that are in here, it’s noticeable, but not particularly bold. If you go into this wanting a strongly maple syrup-flavored root beer, you’re in for disappointment. This is just a fun soda to try because there really aren’t that many maple root beers out there, and there are even fewer with a pale yellow color like this one. The biggest shortcoming of this root beer is its sugariness. Generally in root beer, sugar isn’t something that is so striking because of all the spices that counter the sweetness. But when the two most noticeable ingredients you taste are sugar and maple syrup, I mean, it’s a lot to handle. This needs more of a traditional root beer bite to balance out all that sugar. I’d suggest more of a mint flavor too. Nothing that would drastically change its identity, just little tweaks to help reign in my impending diabetes. That said, if you like sweet root beers, you might just find a favorite here. Bottom line: Lakefront Brewery’s Golden Maple Root Beer probably isn’t one you’ll drink all the time, but it’s a fun change of pace for the craft soda enthusiast.

Three Stars

Old Dominion Brewing: Root Beer

History: In 2007 a love story began when Fordham Brewing out of Anapolis, Maryland and Old Dominion Brewing from Ashburn, Virgina merged to make beautiful beer together in Dover, Delaware. The brands Fordham and Dominion still maintain separate identities, so you’ll find the more adventurous offerings coming from the Old Dominion side, while the traditional ales and IPAs are made by Fordham. There was no prenup in this marriage, so Old Dominion decided to bring its sodas into the relationship too. Chief among them was the root beer, created during Old Dominion’s first year of existence in 1989. “We love doing it,” Fordham and Dominion CEO, Jim Lutz, says about the brewery’s sodas. There’s an affable charm to Lutz. He tells us he prefers to be called “Head Forklift Driver.” I bet he’s got dad jokes for days. What his brewery also has is soda… and lots of it. In fact, Lutz mentions that about 25% of the brewery’s business comes from its soda. In addition to the root beer, Old Dominion also makes a ginger ale, black cherry, and orange cream soda. But the root beer is the only one that maintains its original recipe, still the same as it was in 1989. Some of the premier ingredients include pure cane sugar, honey, vanilla, and yucca root. The latter is what should stand out to you even though you probably don’t know what it is or how it tastes. Yucca kind of looks like a piece of ginger and a carrot had a baby and it turned out uglier than you expected. The flavor really varies depending on the piece you get, but people often describe it as bitter or tasting like a potato. It’s also occasionally sweet, though. As for the flavor of the root beer, Lutz tells us they wanted it to taste like a sweet treat. “It tastes like the old fashioned root beer when I used to ride my bike up to this old fashioned root beer stand,” he says. Nothing wrong with spoiling yourself with a little nostalgia-inducing root beer.

Where to get: Old Dominion sodas are sold mainly throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Soda drinkers in Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. will have the easiest time finding them. They are also sporadically available in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Surprisingly, Old Dominion also sells lots of its soda in London, England for all you UK folk. The rest of us can purchase it online from Harris Teeter Grocer and Pharmacy or by contacting the brewery directly via email and setting up an order.

Nose: Vanilla; wintergreen. Pretty standard root beer nose with an emphasis on creamy vanilla and mint.

Taste: Honey; herbal; malt; mint; creamy vanilla. This is a sophisticated flavor profile, even for a root beer. A lot going on in the mouth. The flavors are in layers. Up front is a big note of honey on the back of the tongue. This is followed up by equal parts of creamy mint and vanilla. You’re about half way through the sip, and at this point, the root beer is a little sweet. Next come the herbal elements that provide balance. This is also where the carbonation reaches its peak to help provide the root beer’s bite. The wintergreen sticks around longer than the vanilla and is supplemented by yucca. The yucca gives the root beer a botanical element and imparts a little maltiness as well when combined with the mint and honey. It’s a lot for the mouth to process when analyzing, but the flavors work.

Finish: Slightly bitter, herbal mint with undertones of classic root beer.

Rating: Root beers are a dime-a-dozen in the craft soda landscape. The kingpin of the crop; you’ve gotta really make your version stand out to get noticed. Old Dominion Brewing has done a good job putting a different twist on their root beer. It isn’t like anything else. There’s multiple layers of flavor to this beverage, which is what makes it rise above others. Among the highlights include its use of honey, vanilla, mint, and yucca. It’s just a little more herbal than other root beers, while still retaining a crisp sweetness. Usually we take the term “herbal” with root beers to mean mint, but Old Dominion’s Root Beer has a distinct note of sweet malt. It’s likely the way all the ingredients work together, chiefly the yucca and honey. Both the mint and vanilla elements have a creaminess to them and these play well with the root beer’s bite and herbal notes. This root beer is like the opposite of all your break-ups: delicious, fun to process, and you won’t be crying when the pizza guy shows up. I wouldn’t mind seeing the vanilla a little more prominent. I think that would add another enjoyable element to play off the honey and yucca. Old Dominion Brewing has brewed up a really enjoyable root beer that should be savored over time. Sip slowly without ice and up your root beer game.

Four Stars

Bickford’s: Sarsaparilla

History: Bickford’s is a brand rooted in tradition. Since 1874, the South Australian company has been producing its famous cordials. The company makes a whole host of other products too, including its Bickford’s Old Style Soda line of seven different flavors. One of the most popular is sarsaparilla. Says Bickford’s Brand Manager Beverley Reeves, “Sarsaparilla is the fastest growing in some of our overseas markets perhaps because the flavors are different from those that consumers there would normally be familiar with.” According to Reeves, the soda’s recipe is still the same as it was decades ago. Like America, the Australian soda scene continues to evolve. Reeves adds that there is a “shift from mainstream to more differentiated flavours and brands with a story.” In the end, it’ll always come down to taste and Bickford’s Sarsaparilla was designed with a bold licorice flavor in mind. Knowing that, I wouldn’t expect this to be particularly fluffy on the palate. Previously, we reviewed their creamy soda that has a touch of raspberry. So Bickford’s definitely seems to be a company that makes traditional flavors with nontraditional tastes. A fan favorite in its native country, Reeves gave us the inside scoop that Bickford’s is soon coming to America and will debut in October. We’ll keep you posted when and where as soon as details become available. In the mean time, there’s ice cold sarsaparilla waiting for you.

Where to get: In Australia, you can find Bickford’s Sarsaparilla at “most major supermarkets and convenience stores,” according to its website. Now you might pay some hefty shipping outside of Australia, but you can also buy Bickford’s Sarsaparilla online via Sippify.

Nose: Strong black licorice; anise. There’s a mild hint of root beer on the nose, but this smells very, very rich in licorice. Pucker up.

Taste: Licorice; anise; sarsaparilla root. This is definitely more of a botanical sarsaparilla as opposed to a creamy one with lots of vanilla. You’ll really notice the sarsaparilla root flavor in this drink. It’s bold and very herbal. There’s a semisweet sensation encapsulated by frothy bubbles that coats the tongue as the sarsaparilla flavor fades. At brief points in the soda, there’s even a little bit of a cola flavor, but this is a sarsaparilla anchored by strong sarsaparilla root, sassafras, and licorice flavors. The licorice isn’t as pronounced in the flavor profile as it is on the nose, but really shows up in the aftertaste. Definitely black licorice flavor, but not overly strong.

Finish: Tart sarsaparilla root with lingering notes of licorice.

Rating: Bickford’s sarsaparilla is a stark departure from American takes on the flavor, utilizing a strong herbal flavor profile instead of a smooth, creamy one. The tasting notes that stand out most are unmistakably sarsaparilla root and licorice. The sarsaparilla flavor is stronger, but the licorice is particularly noteworthy. Coming in near the end of each sip along with a wave of champagne-like bubbles; it’s a commendable use of a flavor that often overpowers the soda experience. Another aspect that stands out is the tartness on the finish. It’s a crisp herbal reminder that reinforces you’re definitely drinking sarsaparilla and not root beer. I could’ve used a sign like that during my second engagement If you’re not a fan of botanical sodas, you’re not going to enjoy Bickford’s Sarsaparilla. This is a soft drink for the slightly more adventurous soda connoisseur. It isn’t particularly sweet and relies more on its herbals flavors to impress its drinkers. The sugar, while lower in the flavor profile, is noticeably crisp. Bickford’s Sarsaparilla should be a hit with lovers of botanical sodas and die-hard sarsaparilla drinkers. It won’t be for everyone, but this soda knows its niche and leaves an Australian footprint in the sarsaparilla marketplace.

Berghoff: Root Beer

History: Berghoff Root Beer has been around, in one form or another, since 1933 during the era of prohibition. According to Berghoff Director of Sales, Ben Minkoff, back then the company produced a root beer-esque soft drink called “Bergo” to keep the company afloat along with a tonic. The beer dates back even further. It was created in 1887 by Herman Berghoff and his three brothers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The brewery moved three years later to Chicago and was introduced to The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It remains a Chicago craft beer staple, though it does not have its own brewery under the Berghoff name. Berghoff beer and soda are made to order. Now the history behind who makes Berghoff is complicated, so keep sharp.

We’ll spare you with some of the initial details and start in 1960 with the Joseph Huber Brewing Company, where Berghoff soda and beer were then produced. In 2006, Berghoff beer and soda switched their production location again, this time to Minhas Brewing. According to Minkoff, to this day, Minhas produces Berghoff barreled root beer, but not regular beer. K? You still following? You might know Minhas Brewing because they too make their own soda called Blumers. In 2013, Berghoff beer, but not soda, changed locations again, this time to Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin. Stevens Point makes their own soda as well. Alright, to the four of you who read this far, you probably no longer want soda. You need alcohol. I get it. Let’s do shots after this. But first, a few facts about Berghoff Root Beer. Minkoff says it’s “all-natural, gluten-free, and made with pure cane sugar.” It was made to be a compliment to the company’s beer right down to the way you drink it. Minkoff adds, “We wanted it to taste as much as draft soda as possible” and describes its flavor as very “vanilla-like.” Berghoff also produces black cherry and orange sodas in addition to root beer. Lately they’ve been trying to appeal to both the craft beer and soda crowds by introducing their alcoholic “Rowdy Root Beer.” Minkoff ended our conversation making a bold claim about the company’s signature soda. “It’s the best one out there,” he says with a chuckle. We’re about to find out, Mr. Minkoff. We’re about to find out.

Where to get: To find the nearest physical location near you where Berghoff Root Beer is sold, use the company’s online locator. You can also buy it online from Beverages Direct  in 6-packs or Soda Emporium in singles.

Nose: Licorice; anise; sassafras root. Honestly, the smells on this are pretty mild. It’s got a pretty traditional root beer nose.

Taste: Wintergreen; licorice; anise; sassafras; birch oil; mild creaminess. All the flavors just mentioned are traditional root beer tastes. If you’re looking for a comparison, this is kind of a hybrid between Barq’s and A&W, leaning more towards the Barq’s flavor spectrum. The most noticeable element in this root beer is the mint, which is the first thing you taste and the strongest. Traditional wintergreen with maybe a little bit of spearmint too. The birch flavoring in this is strong as well. This was described to us as a vanilla-heavy root beer, but what we’re tasting is more of a bolder, dryer brew than a creamy one. There is a little bit of lingering vanilla near the tail end, but this is more brassy than velvety in mouth feel.

Finish: Mild vanilla with birch oil that rises off the tongue like fog.

Rating: Root beers can be very generally divided into either creamy or not creamy. Berghoff has created one that focuses more on bold flavors than lighter, creamier ones. A root beer like Berghoff would pair well with a velvety texture, aka vanilla ice cream. This is a great liquid pairing for your favorite ice cream in a root beer float. On its own, the flavors are pretty standard for a root beer. You’ll certainly notice the mint and birch elements. If you enjoy birch beer or root beers more mild in vanilla, I’d look into this one. If you prefer a root beer rich in vanilla with a thick creaminess to it, you may be let down. Personally, I think the mint would work better here if Berghoff played up one of the ingredients in the root beer that might compliment it more, like vanilla or perhaps nutmeg (not sure if nutmeg is in this). This root beer doesn’t list cinnamon as an ingredient, but I think it could really benefit from the sweetness of that particular spice too. With so many root beers out there, I’d put this near the upper middle tier. It’s solid and reliable. If you ask me, its best use is in a root beer float. Do it. I wouldn’t let you down.

Northwoods Soda: Espresso Root Beer

History: Nestled away along the Lake Michigan coastline is the small town of Traverse City, Michigan. It’s the home of a small mom and pop soda syrup and bottling company called Northwoods Soda. Opened in 1988 by founder and owner, Bill Fosdick, Northwoods Soda generates most of its business crafting fountain and coffee syrups. “I wanted to be able to do a small family business that I could operate locally,” says Fosdick. This statement is the perfect summation of the business. Indeed, it has stayed in the family. Bill’s wife, daughter, son and stepson all do their part. And if you’ve never heard of Northwoods Soda, that’s because it’s a local brand to northern Michigan. Despite soda syrups accounting for most of the company’s sales, Fosdick knew he needed a bottled line to market to the public. He even named the Wild Bill’s Root Beer after himself. “We wanted to do some things that were more unique,” he adds. Espresso Root Beer, today’s review, certainly fits that category. But the idea wasn’t actually theirs. Northwoods Soda makes all the coffee syrups for a swanky coffee company called Roast and Toast in Petoskey, Michigan. The coffee house sells quite a bit of Wild Bill’s Root Beer there. Well, one day they decided to start putting shots of espresso in it and the beverage quickly became an in-house hit. After trying it, Fosdick said he thought, “Oh my God, this needs to be bottled.” There’s almost a complete shot of espresso in every 11.5 ounce bottle, so buckle up. Northwoods Soda always tries to place an emphasis on sourcing ingredients as locally as possible. They also use pure cane sugar as a sweetener and make their soda in “extremely small batches.” One element that stands out in their root beer? Vanilla. Fosdick wouldn’t go into details, other than to say “it’s special.” So am I, if you ask my wife. But what makes this small bottler truly special is the freshness they ensure to their customers. Fosdick concludes our conversation, saying “We have a very small bottling line that’s operating almost nonstop,” and what is made that morning goes out to be shipped that afternoon.

Where to get: Unless you’re from Michgain, online is your best bet for finding this soda. At the time of this review, you’ll notice the espresso root beer isn’t listed in the online shop. Fear not, it is available. Just call the number listed on the site and Northwoods Soda will hook you up with an order.

Nose: Espresso; chocolate; mild anise and mint. Smells like a coffee shop, a good one.

Taste: Espresso; chocolate; vanilla; mild wintergreen. There’s no disguising this; it’s espresso. The root beer elements are very mild and act in the background, so let’s just discuss the parts you’ll be tasting – the espresso. The carbonation is light and fluffy as to not get in the way of the coffee flavors. And Northwoods Soda managed to really pack some flavor in here. There’s a milky, smooth dark chocolate body that forms the base of the flavor profile. Next comes a cool wave of silky vanilla with a little bit of nuttiness to it. The one-two punch of smooth chocolate and vanilla is incredible. You also get some mild acidity and cinnamon as well. And there’s also juuuuuust a little bit of wintergreen near the end. Very well rounded and drinkable for flavors so deep.

Finish: Velvety chocolate. Richer than the initial sip. Nutty vanilla, mellow mint.

Rating: If you like soda, this is excellent. If you guzzle coffee, this is a bottled miracle. And if you like espresso, you should probably take the day off work for this one. Northwoods Soda and Roast and Toast have combined to create the most exquisite, flavorful and sophisticated coffee soda in the midwest. Milky, dark chocolate notes followed by creamy vanilla, light acidity, mild cinnamon, and mellow wintergreen. It’s dynamite on the palate. A mouth orgasm. It packs a zip, too. 60mg of caffeine per bottle. As someone who doesn’t drink a lot of high-caffeine beverages, I’m amped out of my mind. I just signed up for three marathons and the running of the bulls. If I drank one of these every day, I’m pretty sure I could qualify for the Olympics. Don’t worry, if you drink coffee at all or are not me, you’ll be good with the caffeine. There’s only one dock on this: you wouldn’t know it was an espresso root beer if you didn’t read the label. This would more accurately be called an espresso soda, along the lines of Manhattan Special. But this is better than that. You do get a little bit of anise on the nose and some mild wintergreen notes on the tongue, but there’s not enough root beer flavor in this for me to feel comfortable calling it that. That is the only reason this doesn’t get five stars. The espresso just overpowers the root beer elements, but its flavor is so good, you won’t really care. On flavor alone, this is a home run. I just keep drinking it. Man, does anyone wanna go work out right now??!?? This is a soda that earns the highest of our recommendations. It’s not every day you come across an espresso soda, and it’s even less often that two things that sound like they shouldn’t work, do. You may or may not have heard of Northwoods Soda before today, but if they keep making bottled deliciousness like this, they won’t fly under the radar for long. Be on the look out for new flavors that are always in development with “Saturday Morning Cola” set to roll out in the fall.


Virgil’s: Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer

History: The Berlin Wall had to come down to make this root beer happen. Well, sort of. Virgil’s is one of the most popular soda brands in the world and Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer has quickly become revered in the craft soda community, both for its unique look and flavor. But this new cult classic has origins all the way back in East Germany, home of some of the world’s greatest beer. According to Reeds, Inc. (the company that owns Virgil’s) CEO Chris Reed, after the Berlin Wall came down, the former owner of Virgil’s, Ed Crowley, was able to work with a man in Germany who had very special water. According to Reed, this water “had some kind of strange properties and secret health abilities; it was extraordinary if not weird, like some kind of reverse magnetism.” Sounds familiar. Crowley decided to use this water to create a micro-brewed Bavarian style root beer complete with a swing-top cap. What really differentiates this root beer from others is the all-natural ingredients sourced from around the world, most notably nutmeg from Indonesia. “It’s subtle but, makes a big difference in flavor,” says Reed. Other ingredients include bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, licorice from France, anise from Spain and cinnamon from Ceylon. Like its parent company Reed’s Inc., famous for their ginger brews, Virgil’s sodas are known for their all-natural ingredients and also for not using preservatives, caffeine, gluten, or GMO’s. The company strives to create sodas the way they used to be made 200 years ago with the freshest herbs, spices, fruits, and sometimes even mystical German water. Reed muses, “this root beer came out almost magical.” Let’s taste the magic.

Where to get: Virgil’s is commonly found in health or natural food stores. You can use the company’s store locator to find the closest retailer near you. That said, this particular special edition root beer is a little bit harder to find. Rocketfizz often carries it. Online is another good resource – check out the company’s website, as well as Soda Emporium.

Nose: Strong nutmeg; cinnamon; vanilla.

Taste: Spices; cloves; nutmeg; vanilla; cinnamon. This is extremely smooth and filled with flavors. Spices permeate the mouth every sip. Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer contains a pantheon of various spices. I first get mild cloves and nutmeg, spun in a cocoon of cane sugar. Definitely herbal, but still sweet enough to enjoy even for those who aren’t fans of earthier sodas. It takes a couple sips, but there are rich notes of vanilla throughout the drink, as well as cinnamon, anise and mint. It’s creamy, but not too much to prevent it from being smooth. All the cogs work together to make this machine work. Immaculate.

Finish: Sweet birch that gives this its root beer flavor, followed by light molasses and vanilla. Smooth and doesn’t linger long.

Rating: Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer is quickly building a reputation as one of the most coveted root beers on the market. And for good reason. This is flavor town, USA. The flavors are unique, blend well together and would get a smirk even from the most culinary-inclined audiences. I had some hesitation because of the long list of spices in this, but they really work well together and offer a change of pace in root beer with a full-bodied flavor and just the right amount of smoothness. The vanilla is sweet and creamy. The nutmeg provides a mild earthiness. The cinnamon and cloves pack additional dosages of deliciousness. Everything works here. Kind of like the opposite of the married couple in the apartment next door. Sometimes I tell myself they’re screaming they love each other. But I doubt it. I’ll tell you what I love though; I love this soda. This is root beer of the highest quality and an achievement in craft soda brewing. This is root beer with the flavor profile of a fine-dining experience and the drinkability of a soft cola. Do yourself a favor and shell out the money to try this. Root beer is the king pin of craft soda and Virgil’s Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer wears a crown.