I wrote this blog about a year ago in anticipation that one day we'd need a black & white list of the best root beers. Well guess what folks. That day is today with Frank The Tank joining Barstool Chicago for a Monday Snake Draft on the Dog Walk. Absolute fucking mouthful of a time there but if you know what's at stake, you know this is one of the biggest drafts in human history. You can listen later today at like 12:30pm Central.
For now, I want to heavily reflect on my analysis from yesteryear:
Stewart's is kind of like a regionalized version of the A&W brand with restaurant locations across the Rust Belt. You might also be familiar with a Midwestern version - Dog n Suds. Either way, the bedrock of the restaurant chain is the root beer going back to its founding in 1924. The restaurants have certainly grown, but it's the root beer that put Stewart's on the shelf of your grocery store.
The bottling is upscale and I'm partial to the history, but fact remains that if I go Stewart's, I'm also going to entertain some of the other names on this list. It's not the #1 in the glass bottle category. It's not #1 in the restaurant category. You can't get a 2 liter thus making Root Beef Float parties a little more pricey. And quite honestly I'd probably be buying this at some craft sandwich shop that isn't JP Graziano's so you tell me if that's a good spot.
But it's a name and we respect names in the root beer business. That's what makes us root beer people.
Popular by name and internationally distributed, don't be surprised when your Mug goes flat out of the gate. Part of that is design though - Mug is by far the least carbonated of the bunch but some interpret that to be a smoother experience. And surprise surprise, there's no caffeine because that's industry standard.
Mug benefits though from being readily available at Pepsi-based fountains and also being very popular in the 2 liter game. Good places to get it are Walmart in bulk. Just don't freak out if you see a room temperature display going for 99 cents a bottle.
You're in line at Potbelly and you're wrestling with yourself on what to drink. Water cup is your normal but it's been a long week in the cube. Maybe you add a 12 oz can of diet coke to your order as you pass the cooler and step up to order your 6,000th normal sized wreck on wheat since you graduated high school. Congratulations on the milestone btw.
As you go to reach for the DC though, you have a moment. If you're gonna break rules, why not go the extra mile and spend the extra $1.19 on a premium bottle of Sprecher's root beer. Throw in a bag of sea salt and vinegars while you're at it. Maybe make it a Big Wreck. Who knows.
Point is this is a splurge root beer. It's not your everyday based on availability and cost, largely driven by their branding.
Is it good?
But don't be surprised if someone says I could use a Sprecher's and your natural reaction is to ask What The Fuck Is That?
Lot of people are going to be made with this ranking but that's okay. I'm not here to please you I'm here to drop root beer knowledge bombs and this one says A&W is pretty average. It's a noted step above Mug but don't think you're gonna get this one to compete with the big uglies.
And listen, I get it. I really do. The fact A&W has stand alone restaurants is big and it's even bigger that you only went to them as a kid on travel baseball trips or while your dad was furiously driving you through rural Ohio for a week on some beach in some coastal town that - in hindsight - was so wildly expensive it's almost impossible not to stop and pay some respects to all the parents out there that have paid for family vacations. I can't imagine dragging 3 juvenile opinions around with me everywhere I go much less in the confined space of a late 90's Dodge Caravan.
Big name, little bite. It's weird out of a 20oz bottle and honestly I'm uncomfortable with how much shelf space A&W gets compared to the other names on this list. It's not fair and it's not good enough to warrant such dominant market share.
Founded in Chicago in 1937, Dad's would be a lot more popular nationally if it had better distribution channels. Oh well. That's the cost of staying local and not selling out like some of the other root beers on this list.
Even so, there's no denying that Dad's is the premium PLASTIC BOTTLED root beer. Maybe it's the thicker bottle. Maybe it's the hideous white cap that doesn't match the branding but definitely registers a few cents cheaper per hundred bottles. Or something like that. Either way I fucking love it.
I also want to give credit to Dad's for having the longest shelf life of any bottle over 1L. For all you casual root beer drinkers out there I know that matters. Sometimes you don't want 12+ ounces. Sometimes you just need a little taste and that's where Dad's really shines. Treat it like church wine - Little splash here. Little splash there. - and thank me later.
4. Goose Island
We're starting to get to the big boys and I hope you're ready for it.
Goose Island is an outstanding global brewery based in Chicago. You should probably know that by now. It's the real mccoy and that's because they make great fucking beer. I'm not here to argue the merits of their alcohol.
I will however spend a quick second to say their Root Beer is on another level. The bold, rich flavors. The sweet, natural cane sugar. The branding is intense but respectful. The glass bottle makes you feel like you accomplished something earlier in the day and I think we can all agree anything that requires a bottle opener is naturally more delicious.
My problem and the reason it's not higher is because it already has an advantage as being the Beer Company on the list. People are naturally going to think Oh well then it must be awesome root beer.
I won't fault you for that logic. I get where you're coming from 100%. I just can't help but disagree though.
I want root beer to be your passion. Your life. Your love. And while Goose Island puts out an awesome product, I know where their allegiance lies in the brewery and for those reasons I can't slot their root beer any higher.
3. Jewel Brand
Before you guys kill me on this one please know it's more about the circumstance you're drinking the root beer. So allow me to paint a picture. You're 10 years old at your favorite block party. All the coolers are filled to the brim which means mommy and daddy are going to be very fucked up by about 4pm.
But it's not all domestic light pilsners on ice. There's gotta be a Pop Cooler for the kids and that's where Jewel branded soda comes in.
Any time there's a big party - graduation, first holy communion, block party, etc. - that requires buying more than a few cases of pop, you know your parents are going to Jewel. You know they're loading up on Lemon Lime and Strawberry and Black Cherry and all these faceless cans whose flavors are denoted nearly by color alone. Of course root beer is brown. And of course regular cola is red. That's how it works.
Quality aside, Jewel pop works because you're not just drinking them. You're slamming them on the sidewalk and seeing how much damage you can inflict on one carbonated 12 ounce can of aluminum. The results?
Is that a bottle of sasparilla or are you just happy to see me?
Actually that's a trick question.
A concession: you're not drinking a mid-19th century beverage at some saloon in some remote part of the Western Continental United States. Although you'd certainly think so based on that perfect bottle devoid of any stupid label or anything. Just hard nosed raised lettering ON FUCKING GLASS.
You know how much of a premium you're paying to put your root beer in the IBC bottle?
A fuck ton and that's what gets it so high for me. The IBC people are CRAZY about root beer. They want it to be an experience you remember for life.
For me, that goes back to being a little kid and seeing my older brother SLAMMING an IBC in my face. I was irate. WHERE DID YOU GET A FUCKING BEER. I was 7.
Dad gave it to me jagoff
Insert my dad laughing at me. JOKES ON YOU CARL YOU CAN DRINK SOME IBC WITH THE BIG BOYS TOO
Ever since then I've held IBC in a very special spot in my heart. And if your childhood is as remotely normal/weird as mine, you respect it too.
Now we go. The granddaddy of them all. Best slogan (Barqs Has Bite). Best can design and logo. Most storied history and the #1 Root Beer world wide as recognized by anyone with a semi-functioning palette. Bottled by the Coca-Cola Company, this brand is still owned by the original Barq family and is noted for being one of the few caffeine based root beers in the world.
Resume aside though, it really just comes down to expectations and when you reach for a Barq's, you know what you're getting. The bar is set extremely high. It would be like sirloin vs. filet mignon. You could conceivably go sober tomorrow and freak out all your friends in the process… Why is Gary going sober NOW? LOL? …. but if you said it was to focus more of your consumption on Barq's, no one would fault you. It's that fucking good.
In other words, you could run Barq's as the only carbonated beverage in your life and I think that's totally normal. Nothing wrong with loyalty and certainly nothing wrong with valuing quality.