Boozy root beer is the fastest-growing segment of the "craft" suds world. In 2012, a small brewery in suburban Chicago invented a super-boozy 10.7 percent ABV root beer called Not Your Father's Root Beer. The brewery later halved the alcohol, bottled it and soon outsold the entire portfolio of Goose Island.
In 2015, Pabst Brewing Co. bought production rights to the lower-weight version of Not Your Father's Root Beer and took it national, moving $75 million of the stuff, more than even New Belgium's Fat Tire, according to market researchers.
Analysts predict that hard-soda sales will double this year, and brands have responded accordingly. Anheuser-Busch responded with the similarly old-timey Best Damn Root Beer, and the Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, has a hard root beer under its Coney Island imprint. A Portland brewpub, Great Notion, even has one—well, sorta.
Which is the best? It's time to slap a second Blue Ribbon on Pabst.
First place: Not Your Father's Root Beer
The label of this beer shows a man in an 1800s top hat and suit, pushing a barrel with his cane. He's on the way to his home brewery, where he'll make barrels of hard root beer, as if this syrupy stuff existed before the Gold Rush.
Actually, the market king dates only to 2012 and the appropriately named Small Town Brewery in tiny Wauconda, Ill. Pabst owns the rights now. You can see why it sells so well—it's scary drinkable. The first sip actually tastes like creamy root beer. There is one sweet moment before the malt hits and your mouth is suddenly full of an acetone note, prompting you to take another sip.
Second place: Best Damn Root Beer
The advertising copy for Anheuser-Busch's Best Damn Root Beer suggests you "throw back a throwback." By "throwback," the makers mean a brand they just invented, and we'd instead suggest you throw it back in the case. This sour, watery root beer is the equivalent to dusty cans of Dad's.
Third place: Great Notion Root Beard
We've been big fans of the brand-new Great Notion on Northeast Alberta Street, but the crowler we got of this odd concoction was a dud. It smelled on the verge of skunking and poured flat, an unnatural creation that is neither beer nor root beer but a watery combination of the worst traits of both. Finally, we have something bad to say about Great Notion, which had two IPAs place in the top five of our citywide IPA tasting—though the version we had fresh off the tap was a little better.
Fourth place: Coney Island Hard Root Beer
The makers want you to imagine yourself walking down the Coney Island boardwalk, holding a foaming cup of hard root beer with a Ferris wheel in the background. "A new twist on an old favorite" the label copy reads. "The gypsy should have predicted this…. The most dignified beverage of days past, reimagined from your future self." Actually, there's nothing nostalgic, small-town, dignified or gypsy about Coney Island Brewing. This beer loses the losers' bracket with its burning acetone flavor, which is more like drinking the vanilla flavor added to cheap coffee.