As I write these words, it is one in the morning, and maybe coffee would be a better bet than root beer, But I write for a global audience, and everywhere but Melbourne, soft drink lovers are awake and knocking back sugary beverages.
Spurred on by those wacky Yanks of TehBen.com, who bumble around in a fog of carbonated sugar and erotica, I have raided the local hole-in-the-wall delis and minimarts for quaint pops and sodas. I’ve dealt with Barq’s Root Beer already, a disappointing can of so-so, but Virgil’s out of California caught my eye. California produces Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam, two majestic ales I’ve enjoyed in situ, and Virgil – I assume that the bearded chap with a tray of frosty mugs is Virgil – has managed to avoid the tsunami of High Fructose Corn Shit that swamps good taste in America, and craft a root beer sweetened with actual cane sugar, possibly imported from Australia by jolly tars manning tall ships and drinking Pusser’s rum.
Alongside, I have some dinkum Aussie Sarsaparilla from Bundaberg in Queensland, an island in an ocean of sugar cane, where what Americans call root beer retains its original name, and this family concern is shipping out slabs of soft drink, all brewed on sugar cane and molasses, stopping just short of actually being rum. The bottle is the traditional Aussie beer stubbie, and if you drink it at the wheel, the coppers will take two looks at you to be sure you’re not swigging something a little stronger.
The Bundy brew is dark – so dark I cannot see through it in a tall glass – lightly carbonated, and glorious. It is the root beer they drink in Australian heaven on golden beaches beside foaming blue Pacific rollers, meat pie in one hand, a mug of this stuff in the other. The ingredients list cane sugar, molasses, ginger root, sarsaparilla root, licorice root, vanallia bean and then a bunch of artificials and carcinogens, so you know it is good for you and will get you to heaven fastest.
I don’t have the gourmet nose or tongue to do this stuff justice. The flavours swirl and dance around in your mouth, a little spicey, a little subtle, but delivering a good solid belt of flavour where it counts. It is good, grand, glorious. Get it into you.
Virgils packs itself into a longneck bottle – a rarity in this age of aluminium cans a couple of atoms thick – and must cost a packet to ship across the Pacific. $2.99 if you can find it, an absolute bargain.
The label proclaims the mandate of heaven and a list of ingredients from around the globe: Anise, Licorice, Vanilla in alphabetical order, Cinnamon, Clove, Wintergreen, Sweet Birch, Molasses, Nutmeg, Pimento Berry Oil, Balsam Oil, Oil of Cassia, and Gluten Free. It’s also got two types of cane sugar: unbleached and unrefined.
Goodness! the thing’s a spice rack just sitting there. “So Pure, So Rich and Creamy, You’ll Swear It’s Made In Heaven”, angels proclaim on the multicoloured label. I twist off the top and decant it.
Dark, but light is able to make the passage. Lighter than the Bundy, not so tangy on the tongue, foams up nicely. Definitely a creamier taste, but not near as strong a flavour punch as the Australian product. I can’t really make out any subtle distinctions of flavour; to me it’s one unified hit. Not over-sweet. Not really that sweet at all, which is good in a goffer.
It’s a bloody good root beer, that’s for sure. I’d prefer more flavour and less water, beefing up on the trace elements, but this does the job of refreshing, perhaps a little more elegant than the Aussie brew, where you can certainly pick the ginger and vanilla out of the blend.
Perhaps American heaven isn’t quite the same as the more robust Aussie product. More Disney than Dundee. Smoother and creamier, and no gluten. The Bundy beer doesn’t mention gluten at all; so it may be dripping with glute juice. Be warned.
I’ll have to cross the Pacific when the current unpleasantness is over and sample the range of root beers in situ. Virgil has produced the best bottled root beer I’ve tasted from America.
Australian Sars may not be quite the same thing, but it has my heart. Possibly because I have fond childhood memories of trips to Queensland, where everything is warmer and happier than Melbourne, which does tend to get miserable and melancholy towards the end of winter.
But, you know, if heaven has root beer, I’d be happy to spend eternity swigging on either brand. The endless summer needs some robust thirst quenching, and Virgil and Bundy can tag team me through paradise with no complaints from this quarter.