Root beer is weird soda. It lacks an easily definable flavor like cherry, grape or orange.
Thus, root beer descriptions often include words like creamy, rich and old-fashioned. None of those are flavors.
Sassafras, the original root in root beer, was banned as a food flavoring by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960.
Many of today's small soda crafters tout their root beer is made with real sugar, honey and vanilla. Those ingredients get us a little bit closer to a flavor profile. I guess.
In a way, root beer is to soda what supper clubs are to restaurants. You can point to a few identifiers but you just know it when you see it or, in root beer's case, taste it.
Creamy works for texture, but it also has a blend of sweetness balanced by a bite of spice.
That's the challenge I set forth to six co-workers when I asked them to rate five Wisconsin-made root beers. Did it fail, meet or exceed your expectations for root beer in terms of creaminess, sweetness and spiciness? Also, would they drink it again?
I put them to the test before I attempted to do a blind taste test myself.
Having done all that, here's a very subjective ranking and insight into Wisconsin-made root beers that are widely distributed across the Badger State. Take it with a grain of sugar. Or a drop of honey if you prefer.
Potosi Root Beer
This root beer is made by Potosi Brewing Company, which also is home to the National Brewery Museum. If you need to take root beer photos with big creamy heads, this is your root beer. The foamy head sticks around plenty long for multiple shots. When it comes to the ingredients, Potosi does what you'd expect of a craft soda by using pure cane sugar and honey. Unfortunately, it doesn't drink as good as it photographs.
To my taste: An overpowering medicine-mint flavor stood out in the blind taste test. Whether it was a bad batch or if this is the intended flavor, it's not something I imagine would appeal to a wide range of tastes.
Panel of testers said: By far the lowest scoring of the root beers tasted. In fact, the feedback from the group made it super easy for me to identify during my blind taste test. None of the tasters said they would drink it again.
Baumeister Root Beer
Tracing its roots back to the turn of the 20th century, Baumeister should crush the competition when it comes to "old-fashioned" flavor. This root beer did have its own doo-wop jingle to tie to the popularity of the 1950s-era drive-ins. Jingle, or no, Baumeister root beer was named No. 2 in the Midwest by "The Great American Root Beer Showdown" held in Minnesota.
To my taste: Good creamy mouthfeel with a good balance of spice and sweet plus a decent hit of vanilla.
Panel of testers said: The second biggest surprise to me was Baumeister garnering the second lowest score with a mixed mug of scores. One tester would drink it again, rating it as meeting root beer expectations of creaminess and sweetness, but missed on the spice. Another taster didn't like either of those aspects but liked the sassafrass-y spice notes.
Point Premium Root Beer
Made by Stevens Point Brewery, which made sodas during Prohibition as part of its efforts to remain in business, this version of the brewery's root beer debuted in 2002. Point released diet root beer, vanilla cream and black cherry cream the following year and now makes seven flavors. The root beer uses all-natural vanilla and real honey to offset the sassafras-y nature of this award-winning (2020 U.S. Open Beverage Championship silver medal) root beer.
To my taste: Creaminess is good. Definitely stronger on the “sassafras” end of the flavor spectrum.
Panel of testers said: Creaminess and sweetness earned above-average marks but was a little strong on sassafras spice. Still, it earned two "I'd drink it again" votes.
Sprecher Root Beer
Randy Sprecher established the craft brewery in 1985. It has since been sold to a group of investors. Sprecher root beer debuted in 1989 as a soft drink alternative during brewery tours for kids. The root beer's popularity grew far beyond the taproom, leading Sprecher to make more than a dozen sodas, plus lo-cal versions, sold in 42 states.
Root beer is still the top seller, earning national recognition as the "No. 1 root beer" by the New York Times and landing a couple of cameos on Netflix's "The Bear" streaming series. Sprecher CEO and President Sharad Chadha said using gas-fired kettles to brew the root beer (and all Sprecher soda) "caramelizes" the honey that adds a depth of flavor.
To my taste: Creamy. Balanced. Deeper richness to the sweetness.
Panel of testers said: Creaminess scored as its best feature though the balance of sweet and spice also stood out over most other brands tasted. It tied for the most votes as a root beer panelists would drink again.
Root beer isn't the first flavor that comes to mind when it comes to Jolly Good. Cream, cherry and grape are Jolly Good's bestsellers.
Started in 1966 by Krier Foods, the good times ended for this Wisconsin soda brand in 2007. Competition and rising costs for shelf space, not lack of demand, burst this soda's bubble.
Jolly Good popped back onto the soda scene in 2015 and hasn't left the shelves since.
To my taste: Edges closer to the root beer candy flavor. That’s not a bad thing. More spike of a spice flavor on the front but balanced with enough sweet and good creaminess.
Panel of testers said: Across the board, Jolly Good met or beat our panelists' expectations for creamy, sweet and spice. It tied with Sprecher as the most likely root beer our drinkers would drink again.
Twig's Root Beer*
Family-owned Twig's Beverage in Shawano is best known for bottling Sundrop. Though you can attend Sundrop Dayz and Sundrop memorabilia dominates Twig's soda museum, the "golden cola" with more caffeine than Mountain Dew is a national brand that originated in Missouri. In addition to bottling Sundrop and other beverages, Twig's makes its own line of 16 sodas, including a butterscotch root beer and traditional root beer.
To my taste: Definite bite on the front. Not as sweet as others tasted, but it works. Good creaminess.
Panel of testers said: Only a few taste testers tried this root beer and knew it was Twig's. There isn't a score to report but those who tried it noted the bite of spice.
(* NOTE: I broke the "bring enough to share with everyone" rule with Twig's for the taste test, thus the asterisk.)
As with all food and drink, taste is largely subjective. One person's sweet is another person's cloying. What's too spicy for one person is too bland for another.
When you do a blind taste test, it's interesting to note how perceptions of flavors change minus knowledge of the brand's marketing or preconceived notions of a product. Taste testers who were sure they could pick out Sprecher's root beer missed. Just one taster got it right.
One last note about ingredients. Though many brands we tasted proudly tout they use real sugar and honey in their root beers, it is interesting that one of the highest-rated sodas was Jolly Good, which relies on high fructose corn syrup for its sweetener. It's also the most modestly priced soda of the bunch.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Wisconsin root beer rankings yields expected and surprising results