Last evening, as the sun’s rays turned long and golden, I poured out a bottle of the hottest beer on the market right now. It didn’t seem especially promising as it bubbled out, the head fizzing and popping like a soda’s—and disappearing just as quickly. There was an aroma of vanilla in the air as sweet as confectioner’s sugar, an effect that made it look less like a dark ale than a Coca-Cola. About two hours earlier, I had picked up the beer from my local bottle shop, which had a stack of cases next to the cash register. In fact, the cashier told me, “we were just talking about that beer.”
It seems like everyone is. In an era in which it’s nearly impossible for any beer to break through the miasma of so much competition, this is an honest to goodness hit. What are we talking about? It’s called Not Your Father’s Root Beer, originally made by Chicago’s Small Town Brewery. The bottled version is 5.9%, but here’s the trick: it’s designed to be a perfect counterfeit for actual root beer. That’s why it looked and smelled more like a soda than a beer. And tasted like one: when I finally started sipping, I found a drink that tasted exactly nothing like beer and everything like soda. It recently expanded distribution from eight states to 25 and has received tons of press in the process. To meet this massive growth, the (root) beer is being contract-brewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and distributed through Pabst’s channels. Look for it in a store near you.
It is hardly the first alcoholic soda to market. There’s an entire segment of the drinks market that fits into the “beer” slot at the grocery aisle—roughly 5% alcohol, carbonated, bottled—that is pitched at people who don’t like beer. Called things like “malternatives” or “alco-pops,” they tend not to taste very good or last very long; the list of unworthies, which stretches back decades, includes vodka- and rum-based drinks, alcoholic lemonades and teas, fruity concoctions, and quasi-beers, doesn’t contain a ton of culinary winners.
And that’s what’s really weird about Your Father’s: it’s been getting great notices. Online reviews have been positive, and even the beer geeks love it. Ratings qualify it as “world class” on BeerAdvocate (“a thing of pure beauty” and “the first sip was a revelation”) and give it a more-than-respectable 90 on RateBeer (“a very tasty achievement” and “an amazing beverage”)—even while the geeks admit it tastes nothing like actual beer. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a product that so self-consciously tries to appeal to non-beer fans but also wins over beer geeks.
Ah, but while one quirky product may win the hearts of beer and non-beer lovers alike, what happens when the imitators start pouring in? Because you know they will, and—oh wait, they already have. Boston Beer, which knows a thing or two about malternatives (it authored Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea), has already made plans to launch a hard root beer under its Coney Island label. And just last week, Berghoff Beer also announced plans to release Rowdy Root Beer, a 6.6% soda, in the Chicago area. According to recent IRI data, hard root beer has grabbed sizeable share of the craft beer segment, ranging from 3-4%, in cities in the Midwest. Multiply that out, and you start to see some pretty serious growth potential. (Milwaukee’s Sprecher has also been making a hard root beer for a couple years.)
The question that leaps to my mind is this: do people love Not Your Father’s Root Beer because they love it, or because they’re impressed with the sleight-of-hand at play? It’s made by a brewery and called a beer but tastes exactly like a root beer. Also: it tastes exactly like a root beer but, giggle, it’s boozy! Those are elements of novelty that have buoyed every malternative since the 1980s. When they’re no longer novel—when the shelves are packed with boozy colas and root beers and cream sodas—will people discover that they were more impressed with the trick than the actual product?
I’ll leave you with my own impressions. Not Your Father’s Root Beer does taste like root beer, but not one I’d enjoy drinking much of (and I love root beer). It’s really sweet. There is a nice bark-like bitter note, but it’s overwhelmed by the viscous sugar. I was only able to drink about a quarter of the glass before I had to switch to a nice, aggressively bitter IPA to scrub the coating from my teeth. Part of the problem is that I like beer, and much prefer it to soda. But if I did get a hankering for a boozy root beer, I think I’d just buy a good, old-fashioned brand and spike it with rum. If other people get that same idea, will hard root beers survive?