Debbie Matthews: My very scientific Root Beer Challenge

Apr. 16, 2013 @ 03:03 PM

I have a shameful, dirty little secret: I may live in and love the most tolerant city in America, but I am a soda racist.
I only like brown soft drinks.
I’ve always loved Coke (don’t like Pepsi, too sweet and flat), and Dr Pepper. And although I’ve always loved the aroma of root beer, I wasn’t a fan of the flavor. It was a little spicy and odd for me.
When we go to the state fair, we usually eat our way through it. Most of the time we buy only one of each item, and share it so we can all get a taste, but make it home without our hearts exploding.
On one trip, we stopped at the Pappy’s soda stand, and bought a big tin mug full of their root beer.
This time, the amazing scent in the tankard drew me in for a taste.
I was hooked. It is the perfect root beer. Thick, rich, and foamy, it’s not too sweet, and very bubbly.
I became a fan of root beer. And to this day, Pappy’s is my favorite. Every year, right before I pick up my two pounds of fudge at the hobby and craft building, I stop by for some of that yummy soda. You get to keep the mug. (I now have a collection of four or five of them.) If you take your mug back, you get $1 off the next serving. But I’ve never yet remembered to carry one of my mugs from home.
Since the only time I can get Pappy’s is at the fair and the N.C. Ag Fest, I began buying the occasional bottle to drink at home. I assumed that I would enjoy all root beer brands.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Just like colas, every brand is different. After drinking quite a few company’s offerings, I narrowed down my favorite store-bought to two — Dad’s and Frosty’s.
But I decided that I would like to do a semi-scientific taste test, and report back to you the results.
This past Thursday evening, I gathered eight different brands, and The Kid set up a blind taste test for me. The glasses were numbered and only my child knew which I was drinking.
Below are my results:
1. Smells terrific. It’s pleasantly spicy, not too sweet, and the right level of carbonation and after burn from the acid.
2. Very faint aroma, a little flat, and not sweet enough. The carbonation level was ok.
3. Not much aroma, too sweet, too flat, and not enough bubbles.
4. No aroma, and awful flavor. The word that came to mind was “yuck.”
5. Not really a root beer scent, but a whiff of caramel. Barely any spice, too sweet and too carbonated.
6. Very faint aroma, too sweet, with extremely faint root beer flavor, and kind of flat.
7. Literally weak tea. The color was much paler, the aroma was absent, way too much carbonation, but unlike the others, had no bubbles clinging to the glass. Almost no flavor at all.
8. Light aroma, large acid burn, with a funky after taste. Missing the root beer spiciness.
Then The Kid revealed which was which and boy, was I surprised.
1. IBC
2. Stewarts
3. Frosty
4. Virgils
5. Abita – A Louisiana brand made with pure cane sugar.
6. Dad’s
7. Zevia – A zero-calorie drink made with stevia. Not a fan of diet soda before, still not a fan.
8. Dr. Brown
My favorite turned out to be IBC. I was shocked. Dad’s and Frosty’s, when compared side by side, didn’t make the cut.
Virgils, Dr. Brown and Zevia were all from cans. In the spirit of full disclosure, I think all canned sodas have a weird tinny flavor, so that may have skewed the results a bit. But, the Zevia and Virgils were so awful, I don’t think glass or anything else would have rescued them.
I had tried A&W root beer earlier and decided that while the fresh from the barrel in their stores is really creamy and yummy, the bottled stuff lost everything in translation. Not good. Because of this, they were left out of the taste test.
So for the price of eight root beers, I answered some burning questions.
When put to comparison, my faves weren’t so fave.
And I should probably find more productive ways to spend my time.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is