Bubbling to the Top: The Rise of Hard Root Beers

The Business of Beer by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105
Illustration by Kaley McKean

A quick inventory of bottleshop shelves across the nation today would suggest that the craft brewing movement is under siege by a new kind of root beer. Potentially confused with traditional soda, these so-called botanical beers are anything but soft drinks, emerging as one of the market’s fastest growing segments. Buoyed by the meteoric rise of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, 2015 has undoubtedly brought us the Summer of Botanical Beer. But where will it all end? Or will it?

The term botanical beer has gained serious traction of late, yet the practice of brewing with spices and herbs in place of malts and hops dates back thousands of years. In North America, such improvisation coincided with the arrival of the first European colonists. “There is always the old story about the Pilgrims, bound for Virginia but forced to land in Massachusetts because they ran out of beer,” explains Jeff Hamilton, president of Sprecher Brewing in Milwaukee. “Since there weren’t fields of barley and wheat awaiting them, the ‘beer’ that they produced would have been more like today’s root beer made from whatever sugars that they could forage and ferment,” he adds. “That would have included berries, leaves and roots. Likely inclusions could have been sassafras root and wintergreen leaves, flavors that are still very prevalent in modern root beers.”

Since then, those familiar flavors have become ingrained in the American palate, particularly in the Midwest, where the botanical beer boom was born. Sprecher has been brewing traditional root beer in Wisconsin since 1986, now producing over 100,000 barrels annually. Responding to local demand, it eventually unveiled an alcoholic version. Aged in bourbon barrels, the 5 percent ABV ale was the first hard root beer to appear in early 2012.

Several months later, Tim Kovac, a homebrewer and graphic designer, bottled a limited release of Not Your Father’s Root Beer at Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Ill. Inspired by Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series, Kovac focused on the history of Gruit brewing. “There’s some lost heritage there,” says the founder. “These are different styles of beers that people haven’t tried in hundreds of years.” Ironically, though, his brand’s cultish appeal grew out of a product that, by design, smells and tastes precisely like a modern drink. “Though we can’t divulge our recipe, our unique flavor comes from ingredients including sarsaparilla, birch bark and Madagascar vanilla, as well as natural botanical extracts like oak, ginger, wintergreen, licorice, honey, citrus and mint. It took us years to get it where it is today, and countless batches.”

Where they are today is smack in the middle of a mainstream explosion, with distribution channels soon to reach all 50 states, helped in no small part by an exclusive distribution agreement with Pabst Brewing Company. The brand’s skyrocketing success was enough to position Small Town Brewery among the top 10 highest-selling craft breweries of the summer. According to Nielsen, $13.1 million in sales of NYFRB were scanned at off premise stores and chains in July alone.

Under this soaring tent pole, several notable producers have set up shop including Chicago’s Berghoff Brewery with Rowdy Root Beer, and more recently Boston Beer Company’s Coney Island brand with Hard Root Beer. Distributors, in turn, are scrambling to incorporate other hard root beer makers into their portfolios.

The trend is not without its detractors, of course. Many craft drinkers are dismissive of the category entirely, deriding it as the second coming of Zima, or an extension of so-called “malternatives” like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. And the fact that Not Your Father’s Root Beer is currently produced at a La Crosse, Wis., facility that makes both of those flavored malt beverages certainly doesn’t ease concerns. Plus, as enchanting as it might be for botanical brewers to channel Gruits and ancient ales, hard root beers are typically developed in a conspicuously less quaint process; a high-alcohol liquid consisting primarily of corn, is watered down and used as a canvas upon which layers of sugar syrup and spices are added. For its part, the TTB, the notoriously finicky government agency in charge of label approval, has been surprisingly nonchalant, allowing these products brewed without much—if any—malted barley or hops to carry “beer” and “ale” on their labels.

Distancing themselves from the aforementioned brands, Forbidden Root opted for an alternative approach when entering the market in 2014. Robert Finkel, owner and “Rootmaster” of the Chicago-based brewery, was emboldened by the farm-to-table food movement and his approach therefore focuses on balance versus palate-wrecking, over-the-top, ultra-hoppy IPAs. “Chefs and mixologists have plowed the soil to cultivate palates, and people seem ready for non-hop bombs that they can session and pair,” Finkel says. “Our version is aromatic, not sweet, all natural, oak-aged and drinks like a beer,” he stresses, highlighting the distinctions of his root-based beer, which took two years and 20 unique botanicals to develop. “Adults who love a sarsaparilla profile, yet don’t want a cloyingly sweet experience, and would like to have three, would prefer our beer.”

Forbidden Root is gaining momentum, but not at nearly the same rate as the less-nuanced hard soda segment from which it deviates. Even as the visibility of that segment widens though, a palpable backlash is mounting. Nevertheless, it won’t be enough to beat back the initial deluge of hard ginger ales and orange sodas coming soon to a package store near you.

In the meantime, pubs from coast to coast have found a compromise certain to please lots of people: the hard root beer float. One noteworthy example is served at Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Calif., where a glass of NYFRB is topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream made from Ballast Point’s Fugu Horchata Vodka. Beer trends may come and go, but our Great National Sweet Tooth is here to stay.