Coming To Terms With Root Beer Beer

I’ve had trouble dealing with “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” [NYFRB] as a concept.


not your father's root beer craft beer

On the off chance this is the first time you’re seeing it.

First off let’s get this out of the way: I tried and enjoyed it. It tastes like a quality, not too sweet root beer. It is a spiced beer, that is, an actual legitimate ale, not a malt liquor in the style of “Mike’s Hard Lemonade,” or anything like that. And that was my problem at first. I had a strong, nearly visceral reaction against what, it seemed to me, was trying too hard to make beer taste not like beer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a prejudice against mixed drinks as well. The notion of a vodka drink wherein you “can’t taste the vodka” doesn’t jibe well with me, which brings us to the other thing that has to be gotten out of the way: I know history isn’t on my side.

Broadly speaking (very, very broadly speaking), alcohol was a pleasant side effect that came first from trying to make water drinkable and then from trying to make life bearable. Beer was the best of that, but to kill off the alcohol taste they used lots of things for sweetening and bittering including cherries, pumpkin, squashes and roots. Similarly, rum punches were invented to make the mediocre rums palatable and so on down the line.

From my perspective, though, we have done so well with the brewing and distilling process that it is tough to condone additives take away from a well crafted beer or spirit with the intention of making them taste not like themselves.

A new discussion about styles

craft beer writer Tony Ruso

I can’t grow a beard, though. So I only get half stereotype cred.

Many of us (especially overweight white guys who blog about beer), don’t have to have alcohol to reduce the pain attached to working in a field all day. We drink, not to make life bearable so much as to celebrate the fact that we live in a place and time that offers pleasures of the palate as never has before existed on a mass scale.

And that’s where I came down firmly on the side of NYFRB. It is good and well made, so drink it if you like it (not that anyone needed my permission).

Demand for NYFRB is unprecedented in the places it is available and, as a result, as attracted people as much for reasons of quirkiness as gimmick (which I covered in another blog). Recently, I swung by my favorite liquor store (shameless plug) “Tax Free Liquors” in Delmar, Del.

It doesn’t just have the best beer selection in the area, but also the best wine and spirit selections. I was there for gin but one of the owners (who knows me by sight) asked me to give him my opinion on a new concoction he (I’m pretty sure) invented last week: The Root Beer Shandy.

The era of the Root Beer Shandy

root beer craft beer being poured

A root beer beer pioneer at work. Note the steady hand.

Kirtan is a businessman, not a mixologist, but he had a demand that he could not meet for NYFRB and was trying to deal with it. His solution was as mind-boggling as it was novel—he tried a bunch of different beers with root beer until he found one that was acceptable. And, I’m more than a little surprised to say, he was able to get it pretty right.

[WARNING!! In what follows there are some not-unkind references to big beer. I ask that you stay with me until the end, though, before discounting my observations.]

Kirtan had three beers before him, and had tried several before recommending one to me. Fat Tire, which he said clearly was was not improved by the addition of root beer, either a pale ale or IPA (I don’t recall which) that he said also was pretty gross, and a Blue Moon, which was, if not just right, certainly not bad at all.

Kirtan’s theory was that the wheat added what might be called the “transitional” flavor that allowed the beer to flavor the root beer without overpowering it. It made sense to me and, while I never would confuse the two, his root beer shandy was, from a flavor perspective, not appreciably worse than the NYFRB.

The Root Beer Shandy Challenge

I know the Blue Moon reference is sticking in at least a few craws. It certainly wasn’t easy for me to admit, but da facts is da facts. For what it’s worth, I think the craft drinking community can do better. Right off the top of my head, I feel like there are at least a couple Saisons out there that would make the right kind of spice to make an acceptable root beer shandy. I feel like the Wheat beers (I’m particularly confident that Fordham’s Sunseeker will do the job just as well).

If you decide to try this, please consider sharing your discoveries either below or with the #RootBeerShandy hashtag. I’ll respond as best as I can.

Kirtan used A&W which is pretty widely available if anyone wants to compare apples to apples. I wouldn’t recommend artisan root beers or grocery store brand root beers for the experiment because it would throw the quality off too much for others to replicate.

Think spices or yeast flavorings when selecting your beer and maybe go in with a couple of friends as well so too much beer isn’t wasted. Also, you can cover more ground that was.

Feel free to tweet at me @Ossurynot (it’s my name backwards) and let me know your results.

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Tony Russo has been a print and digital journalist for the better part of the 21st century. He writes for as well as several destination websites and has published two beer books for History Press. He also produces "Beer with Strangers" a weekly homebrew and beer culture podcast. Tony lives in Delmar, Maryland, with his wife and the only of his four daughters who hasn't moved out. Together they try and keep their dog and cat comfortable.


  1. West Coast Beer Geek

    August 9, 2015 at 2:23 AM

    Personally thought the stuff was awful,tasted like Barq’s root beer and rum. But hey, clearly there’s a market for it. If I was a Smirnoff Ice account manager I’d be worried.

    • Tony Russo

      August 10, 2015 at 1:38 PM

      I didn’t think it was awful, but couldn’t imagine buying another six-pack (my college-aged daughter drank the other five). The fact that there is a market for it is what intrigues/worries me. I wouldn’t consider myself a strict purist, but I do like a world with the pretense of rules. It looks as if I’m going to have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone shares my opinion and combination anarchy is on the rise. For example, following the idea of alt-shandies, I wonder whether other sodas could come to the fore. Off the top of my head, maybe cream soda and pumpkin ale?
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Red Hunt

    January 16, 2016 at 11:19 PM

    Alcoholic root beer should be viewed as root beer first, beer second. The intentions would be to brew a root beer and “add alcohol to it” to be un-scientific. Try Abita root beer, then try their Bayou Bootlegger alcoholic root beer right after, and it’s easier to understand.
    You can’t brew a beer, then make it taste like a root beer – simply not the right process.
    But ya, unless you like root beer (as I do) probably no alcoholic root beer will change your mind. And if you have a distaste for wintergreen – that medicine-y flavour associated with root beers – then you’ll hate most alcoholic root beers.
    Alcoholic Ginger beers are widespread already as well. That’s a taste I don’t really enjoy though.
    The beauty of proper root beer (without alcohol) is that it really is brewed, in similar fashion to beer. So it’s not an absurd stretch to brew alcoholic variations.

    • Tony Russo

      January 18, 2016 at 4:19 PM

      True. It can be exhausting trying to figure out which is which. I’m working on a new motto: Drink what you like and be happy. I don’t have a philosophical problem with the extract, but when that too-sweetness cuts through it can be tough to take. Thanks for reaching out.

  3. Ross A.

    April 1, 2016 at 10:43 PM

    In the early part of summer 2015, I shared with my 25 year old son, that I discovered a beer to mix with NYFRB, and that was Lefthand Nitro Milk Stout. He likes it more than I do. I found NYFRB to be too sweet for my taste, without adding Vanilla Ice Cream (which is good BTW).
    This particular Milk Stout tones down the sweetness and mellows out the root beer flavor notes without completely covering them up. Why not mix a bottle of each, 50/50 and see what you think. This may require buying 2 single bottles from the bar or package beer store with the caps on. The tricky part is the nitrogen release from the LNMS and which one to pour first. I would recommend pouring the LNMS in a 14-16 oz glass as described on the label, and after the head settles, slowly add the root beer, adding more as you drink.

    • Tony Russo

      April 2, 2016 at 3:10 PM

      That sounds worth a try. Especially as summer comes on. Thanks!

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