When I was a kid, ice-cold root beer was the quintessential summer drink. Root beer was not something to chug on the run. You took it to the front porch steps, where you could sit down and sip at it meditatively, relishing all its depth and complexity. Even the name was full of flavor: "beer" gave it a kind of swanky adultness; "root" spoke of dark secrets, maybe imparted by Indians to especially favored settlers. Besides, root beer was (and still is) the one beverage with which to wash a hot dog down, and best of all for a nine-year-old it always made me burp.
Even after I reached adulthood, I never lost my taste for the brew. Still, it's hard these days, when a famous brand name no longer gives you that famous taste, to get a proper fix. Pop the cap of an artisanal brew (naturally, we're talking bottles here; real root beer doesn't come in cans) and you'll be hit with a potent aroma that shoots right up your nose, vanilla-ish at first but rounded out with notes of clove and mint; a full-bodied taste, slightly vegetative, slightly maple-syrupy, that rolls around the tongue; and a voluptuous, mouth-coating texture. It shouldn't be all that fizzy, either. The carbonation is there to generate a head of foam as thick as fog on a swamp which is why you should drink root beer from a mug.
Obviously, this is dangerous stuff to put on the supermarket shelf: if you want real root beer, you're going to have to seek out those local bottlers who are swimming against the tide. You'll find it the most fun (not to mention much cheaper) to buy root beer straight from the small bottlers' websites, the virtual equivalent of backing up the pickup truck to the warehouse door. This is just the feeling at Hank's Beverage Company, makers of Hank's Original Root Beer, a straight-from-the-shoulder example of the craft. If you're looking for something less mainstream, drop by Virgil's Root Beer. Perhaps because the recipe is British or because the brew has garnered some outside awards, fan sites tend to be rather unkind about it. True, Virgil's isn't for crybabies the wintergreeny aftertaste requires some getting used to but I find it a smooth, punchy beverage with lots to wrap your tongue around. And the ingredient list is a marvel to behold. Other brews worth seeking out include Root 66 Root Beer (currently, you have to phone in your order, but it's worth it); Sioux City Sarsaparilla, softly carbonated, with complex flavors and a heady aroma; Dominion Root Beer, product of a real-beer microbrewery, with the taste to prove it; and Lost Trail Root Beer (click on lost trail), which is a bit on the sweet side but has a lusciously creamy mouth feel.
And if you can't decide, here's the perfect thing: the Root Beer Gift Pack at Pop the Soda Shop one case, 24 different brands, $29.99. Finally, to find other root beer makers, learn more about the brew and read what the fans are rumbling about, drop by rootbeerworld.com it's the next best thing to drinking some.