Root beer—A&W, Barq's, Mug, etc.—is really a misnomer. It's soda, made with carbonated water and sweeteners, and, as everyone knows, is totally appropriate to serve at a kid's birthday party.
Not so with two new local brews.
Milwaukee's Sprecher Brewing Company and Wauconda, Ill.'s Small Town Brewery both have developed alcoholic root beers that, at anywhere from 5 to 20 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), are hefty even by traditional beer standards.
"It’s a fermented malt beverage, whereas root beer doesn’t go through fermentation so it doesn’t have yeast or alcohol," said Kyle Fornek, assistant beer buyer for Binny's.
Sprecher's Bootlegger's Bourbon Barrel root beer is a hard version of the company's popular root beer soda, and should be available in April in bottles for about $5 per six-pack at Binny's. Fornek says the ABV is around 5 percent, which is comparable to a Budweiser or Goose Island Summertime.
Small Town Brewing's two hard root beers are real heavyweights. At 10 percent and 19.5 percent, the two versions of Not Your Father's Root Beer are best sipped in small doses.
Neither currently are bottled—Small Town Brewing is in talks with a gypsy bottler (a contract bottling line on a truck) to package them. But both versions are available on tap at bars in Chicago, including Little Italy's Three Aces, Ukrainian Village's Lockdown Bar & Grill and Lakeview's Cheesie's Pub & Grub, as well as in kegs from Binny's.
"We’ve been getting tons of emails about Small Town Brewery," Fornek said. "We’re getting as many emails about that as about [New Glarus's] Spotted Cow or Yuengling."
Customers' curiosity is piqued, but do these hard root beers really taste like the soda?
I pulled up a barstool at Lockdown Bar & Grill to find out. Unfazed by the menu's words of caution—"EXTREMELY POTENT: please enjoy in moderation"—I ordered a snifter of Small Town Brewing's 19.5 percent ABV root beer ($8).
Obsidian black and not very carbonated, the brew looked intimidating, but tasted just like soda. It's sweet and spiced, with a slightly syrupy taste and virtually no beer flavor at all. Yes, this could be very dangerous.
While I haven't yet tried Sprecher's version, Fornek reports a similarly soda-like taste.
"It's super drinkable, with a little bit of malt on the finish," he said. "It definitely tastes more like root beer than beer."
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