Driven by the advice of the team at Tehben.com, who seem to spend their lives in a passion of soft drink and smut – not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ve been hunting for a sample of their recommendation of the best root beer on the planet.
They were unanimous in their advice. Barg’s is the stuff.
Easy to say, hard to put to the test. Root beer isn’t a huge seller in Australia, and imported brands aren’t available in the local milk bar. Costco has A&W root beer in two flavours, but A&W isn’t my cup of tea. Too sweet by far. I like a bit of tart on my tongue.
A bit of research, and I found that Barq’s is available by mail order from various import companies, which apparently sell stuff like Cap’n Crunch and Twizzlers in bulk to homesick Americans. Not keen on buying a slab of the stuff all at once, I cruised specialty grocers and kept my eyes open.
I have to say that the average Asian supermarket here in Melbourne is a distraction and a half. Maybe I recognise one product in three, but for things like pickled squid entrails and plantain flour, I’m not sure where they would fit into my limited culinary repertoire.
The best bets were those with extensive imported candy/sweet/lolly ranges. You know, the ones with salted licorice, Pocky, and Twizzlers. I’d look through the glass-fronted refrigerators, surveying the ranges of weird and wonderful. Doctor Pepper, Cherry Fanta, A&W and, and, yes! Barq’s Root Beer.
Took a while to find, but surely the hunt was worthwhile? It was all I could do to hold off opening the can while I took a photo, but open it I did, and poured myself a frosty glass.
Um. It’s okay, chaps. Not too sweet. Lots of flavour. Good dark colour. But anything listing the main ingredients as water, HFCS, and caramel colour, with a few more before we get down to “artificial and natural flavours” (in that order) is probably not going to send my tastebuds singing and dancing down the street.
To be honest, none of the American root beers I’ve tasted are that spectacular. Mr D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman AZ puts out the best of the bunch. Maybe they brew it fresh, maybe it’s the fact that they top up your takeaway cup “for the road”. Their root beer floats are the stuff of legend, so the myth goes.
My heart still remains with the Australian varieties, known here as sarsaparilla. It’s more of a Queensland thing, with Bundaberg and Wimmers (from Noosa) hitting the high points. These are proper dark, made with cane sugar, and have more of a bite to them. I swoon for the Bundy brand.
Bundaberg Sars is pushing its way out into the world, along with their better-known ginger beer varieties. They relabel the stuff as “Root Beer” for the foreign trade, but it’s the same black beauty. Given that the town of Bundaberg sits like an island in the middle of a sea of sugar cane rather than corn, it’s no surprise that molasses and not HFCS is the basis for the drink.
My online research unearthed a surprisingly detailed taste test of the Australian brands here, including a few regional varieties such as Bickfords and River Port, both of which have remote family connections for yours truly.
Health warning here. Root beer or sarsaparilla, this is your occasional treat. Drink too much, and it’s no good for the figure.
(image courtesy Bundaberg Brewed Drinks)