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.
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.
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.
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.