Near Beer?

Getting to the root of a favorite summer soda.

Tell the bartender at your favorite local pub that there are few refreshments you enjoy more than an ice-cold root beer, and you'll probably be met with a frozen smile, the kind you give your grandmother when she tells you how much she misses Murder, She Wrote. But you can't let the barman bully you. He should know, after all, that root beer is a precisely made beer and thus perfectly worthy of a spot at the tavern. A quick flip through Webster's will tell you that "beer" can mean either "an alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain, flavored with hops" or "a carbonated nonalcoholic beverage with flavoring from roots or other plant parts." Brew is brew, weisenheimer, so lower that eyebrow. Like the booze they hawk during halftime commercials, root beer's family tree includes stuff aimed at the lowest common denominator as well as more refined brews, so let's get one thing out of the way: As far as I'm concerned, Barq's, that Coca-Cola Co. soda now so frustratingly prominent in vending machines and at movie theater concession stands, is not root beer. Aside from the fact that any product doing the cutesy vintage routine by billing itself as "olde tyme" is not likely to charm me, the confection contains caffeine, which is a root-beer no-no and is, I'm fairly certain, what gives the brand its harsh, notorious "bite." And don't attempt to sell me on squeaky-clean root beers too wimpy to get down to the nitty-gritty of being bad for you. An unofficial office taste test of 10 store-bought brands yielded unanimous revulsion for healthy organic swill like Steap, a green-tea soda that, despite its natural root-beer flavoring, tastes like sweetened pond water. Ditto bland, fizzy, all-natural bunk along the lines of Blue Sky. Leave beer making to the experts, nature lovers. MIKE BOURGEOIS KNOWS what he's doing with sassafras. The owner of Orca Beverage Inc., a specialty bottling company in Mukilteo, Bourgeois graces Seattle shelves with both Americana and Bulldog root-beer brands. Taste either one, and you'll want to send him a nice thank-you note. Bulldog, a honeyed, subtly spiced affair, has the kind of peppery aftertaste that Barq's is busy overstating; Americana, which goes down like malted cream, comes misting out of the top of the bottle when you open it and is quite likely the best root beer you'll ever buy in a store. "I can't tell you too much because it's a proprietary recipe," Bourgeois says of the microcrafted (just 600 gallons at a time) achievement, but he's definite about what makes the difference—and it's not the corn syrup found in mass-market brands like A&W. "We make sodas the way they used to be made—with real cane sugar." Bourgeois is a real aficionado—he favors the "dark, rich, full-bodied" brews over the lighter sarsaparilla blends—and says he'd love to get his hands on the bottling rights to the soda pop manna available only at XXX Root Beer Drive-In in Issaquah. To keep the folks at Coke from coming after me, I should note that they've at least reversed their bad Barq's karma here in the Northwest—having purchased the original 1930s XXX recipe, they now produce boxes of the titular brand, a divinely smooth concoction. The burger joint, the last of the XXX chain left in the United States, fills half of its walk-in freezer with tall serving mugs; tantalizing floats come in those frosted mugs, with a large extra dollop of rich vanilla ice cream perched on the rim. The treat is worth the trip—prepare yourself for the ice cream/soda combo mush waiting at the bottom of the mug—but don't go out there spouting a lot of nonsense about watching your waistline. "Nothing that you drink or eat here is good for you," admits jovial, unflappable co-owner Jose Enciso. "Four percent butter in the ice cream—if you were to stick your hand in the mix, you'd have to wash your hands, like, three times to get all the fat off [them]." Unashamed decadence seems to be the key to XXX's success, and that formidable fat has paid off: The old-fashioned joint, a favorite destination of vintage car clubs, was recently named one of the top 10 diners in America by CNN, and the root beer has really been flowing. How much do they dispense each year? "Oh, my gosh, in the thousands of gallons," Enciso says, noting that the stuff comes in tomato case–sized crates. "There was one week this summer that we went through 34 boxes." So take heart, root-beer fans—you're obviously not alone in your carbonated worship. And, hell, maybe a crime-solving Angela Lansbury wasn't such a bad idea, either. XXX Root Beer Drive-In, 98 N.E. Gilman Blvd., 425-392-1266, ISSAQUAH. 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Sun.–Thurs.; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

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