By Dave Wischnowsky
I’ve had A&W. I’ve had Mug. I’ve had Dad’s.
And I’ve had Jaenicke’s.
But never before have I had a root beer like the one that I drank – in moderation – in Chicago this week. Because, as of this month, the Windy City is now selling alcoholic root beer (yes, that’s right), and if you thought that Barq’s had bite, well, you haven’t tasted anything yet.
Root beer was invented during the 1870s when Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires discovered a recipe for a delicious herbal tea that he mixed with roots, berries and carbonated water. But it isn’t beer, of course. It’s soda, and always has been – no matter its ingredients – ever since Hires introduced his inaugural version of root beer during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.
But now, the popular soft drink has gone hard.
This past Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye newspaper reported that two new local brews had bubbled up in the city. Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee and Small Town Brewery of Wauconda both have developed alcoholic root beers that are anywhere from 5 to nearly 20 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) which, as RedEye pointed out, “are hefty even by traditional beer standards.”
Kyle Fornek, an assistant beer buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot, told the newspaper that the new brews are “a fermented malt beverage, whereas root beer doesn’t go through fermentation so it doesn’t have yeast or alcohol.”
Sprecher’s Bootlegger’s Bourbon Barrel root beer is expected to be available in April in bottles at Binny’s (binnys.com) for about $5 per six-pack. According to Fornek, the ABV in the Sprecher’s brew is around 5 percent, which is comparable to a bottle of Budweiser.
Small Town Brewing’s two hard root beers, meanwhile, go above Sprecher’s – and well beyond. At 10 percent and 19.5 percent ABV, the brewer advises the two versions of its Not Your Father’s Root Beer be sipped in small doses.
Neither of the hard root beers are currently bottled (Small Town Brewing is reportedly in talks with a bottler), but both versions are now available on tap at bars in Chicago, including Little Italy’s Three Aces (1321 W. Taylor St.), Ukrainian Village’s Lockdown Bar & Grill (1024 N. Western Ave.) and Lakeview’s Cheesie’s Pub & Grub (958 W. Belmont Ave.). Binny’s also sells both brews in kegs.
Intrigued by this adult version of root beer and with Cheesie’s on my way home from work, I decided to stop in. An interesting enough place in itself, Cheesie’s entire menu revolves around grilled cheese sandwiches. I ordered “The Mac,” featuring homemade macaroni and cheese on Texas toast, and then stepped over to the bar, where I asked for Not Your Father’s Root Beer.
“What size is the glass?” I inquired, pulling out $8 to pay my tab. The bartender replied, “It’s little,” and held up a small snifter, before adding somewhat cautiously, “We only have the 19.5 percent today.”
Well, twist my arm.
I sat down at a table, and eyed the dark, lightly carbonated drink. It looked just like root beer. Holding it up to my nose, it smelled just like root beer. But did it actually taste just like root beer? I took a sip, and, yes, except for the tiniest hint of alcohol in the aftertaste, it absolutely did.
But it definitely wasn’t root beer. By the time I was just halfway through the glass, I could already feel its potency. So powerful was the 19.5% ABV, in fact, that when a friend later suggested they sell the root beer at rowdy Wrigley Field, I had to pause.
It might be best to just root, root, root for the Cubbies instead.