Here’s the tricky thing about root beer: No two people like it for the same reasons.
The defining flavor of root beer is sassafras root — actually artificial sassafras flavoring, these days. But there are so many other flavors that can and do guest star in various recipes. Common flavors include vanilla, anise or licorice, wintergreen, sarsaparilla root, or molasses. And dozens of others are possible: birch bark, cherry, juniper, clove, dandelion root, burdock root, and more.
When my nine-year-old root-beer-fiend daughter gave me the idea for a tasting panel on root beer, I figured we’d assemble a bunch of fans, taste a bunch of root beers, and declare the best root beer on the market.
I assembled a twelve-person tasting panel, including my kid. We sampled seven root beers — two national big-bottle brands, and several smaller, gourmet root beers that are still fairly easy to find. Each taster gave each root beer a score, and shared tasting notes.
Sacrifices were made: Because it was a blind taste test, and we don’t have a bazillion frosty shotglasses in our office (alas), the root beer was all poured into wax-coated paper cups shortly before the tasting began. It was hard to evaluate the soda’s trademark head, and it’s possible some servings were no longer ice cold.
In the end, we came up with a clear winner, and we identified a clear least favorite root beer. But the five root beers between those extremes were not all that far apart from each other. Even the favorite and least favorite were the equivalent of a B average and a D average. No runaway favorite, and no complete failure.
In fact, at least one person claimed each of the seven root beers as their favorite, and each root beer also received at least one very low score.
After the tasting notes, we’ll dig in to why that’s the case.
Our favorite: A&W Root Beer
- Simple, bubbly, and just the perfect touch of sweetness. This one is a timeless classic and would be great over ice cream.
- “Classic” taste. Refreshing. Good.
- Smells like childhood. Yummy root beer candy. Sweet taste, through and through. Doesn’t taste like there was much carbonation, outside of a slight bubble buzz when it first enters the mouth.
- Smooth, nice vanilla notes and a nice aftertaste. Carbonation a tad much.
- Good and creamy tasting. Classic rooty flavor. Reminds me of root beer I drank as a kid. This is what A&W used to taste like. Is it A&W? If not, they need to buy this company out and start distributing this instead.
- Strong sarsaparilla scent and flavor. A hint of anise in the background. Nicely carbonated.
- Tastes less like root beer, more of a sarsaparilla.
- Heavy carbonation. Mostly fizz. Less sweet.
- Good fizz and strong flavor.
- Over-carbonated. Not enough flavors.
- Bland. Sugary, but weak.
- Smells sweet and slightly medicinal. Thin, caramel color. Looks very bubbly. Whoa — sweet. All I taste is sugar — no spices to speak of other than a generic “root beer” flavor. A tad chemical-ish.
Recommended: IBC Root Beer
- Very nice vanilla; smooth and creamy. Nice, smooth aftertaste and perfect fizz.
- Smooth and creamy. Smells like a root beer barrel candy! Brings me back to the good ol’ days!
- Classic root beer taste, a little of a bitter aftertaste but not bad. Gets better with each sip. Would be perfect with barbecue.
- Creamy flavor with a hint of vanilla. Nice carbonation and foam. Sarsaparilla flavor. Odd aftertaste — Pepto-Bismol-esque.
- Dark, opaque brown. Lots of fizzy bubbles. Really bland. Least spicy one I’ve tried so far. Lots of sugar left in my mouth after swallowing. Wow — so bland!
- Creamy, smooth taste. Not amazing, though.
- Maybe I’ve lost my taste for root beer, but I’m not really picking up much flavor at all. Big bubbles in the cup that roll in the mouth nicely. I wouldn’t buy this, it just seems bland.
- More sugar flavor than root-beer flavor.
- Decent aroma but bland.
- Strong but good.
- True root beer taste, like all the carbonation.
Recommended: Stewart’s Fountain Classics Original Root Beer
- Medium caramel brown. Moderate fizz. Sweet and sarsaparilla-ish.
- Less sweet than the others, which I like. I’m not getting any chemical notes — also good.
- Nice, creamy, thick, even had a tinge of a head on it. Think it would be better ice cold but I definitely enjoyed it.
- Nice big bubbles, looks like a nice vanilla head, almost vanilla smell as well. Creamier taste, the carbonation rolls nicely. Aftertaste lingers a bit.
- A bit of burnt to the flavor and a flat finish. Good aftertaste, though. Fizz factor nice.
- Typical root beer flavor. Smells like a root beer hard candy. Odd aftertaste. Licorice flavor.
- Great draft flavor. Smooth finish.
- A little bit “syrupy.” Weak body. More like maple syrup than root beer.
- Maple syrup taste, but who doesn’t love pancakes?
- This is good but tastes like brown sugar or maple, a little odd.
Recommended: Barq’s Root Beer
- Too much club soda in the taste. A bit harsh.
- Traditional taste but a little syrupy.
- Light brown. Very bubbly. Sweet. Ack! Tastes like an average, mainstream root beer. My teeth feel coated with sugar.
- Zippy, dark, tangy. This would be good with kids and adults. Loved it!
- Flavor is too thin. Too much carbonation.
- Good, but not outstanding. Bright, almost citrusy.
- Not seeing much carbonation left in the small cup, little bubbles. Smells almost medicinal. Overly sweet on first taste, but that fades.
- Flat, kind of bland.
- Good flavor and very good fizz! A++
- Tastes like the root beer I remember as a kid. Sweet with a hint of sarsaparilla flavor. A bit flat, nothing special.
- Tastes kind of flat… Not amazing, just ordinary flavor.
- This one is perfect, with a bit of a bite! Good sweetness, without feeling like it’s drilling a hole in your tooth.
OK in a pinch: Crater Lake Soda Root Beer
- Very dark brown, like social hall coffee that’s been sitting on a hot pot all day. Just a few surface bubbles. Smells decently spicy … Sweet and flat. Nondescript root beer flavors. On a second taste, the aftertaste is sacchariney and chemical-y. No good.
- Dark brown coffee color. Flat, stale flavor. Bland.
- Vanilla is nice. Nose is nice. Aftertaste smooth. A bit too much fizz.
- Best so far. Nice and dark, rich flavor. Very sweet without being sugary.
- Bad smell. Bitter and kind of musty in flavor. Aftertaste like a wet animal. Yuck!
- Syrupy — no carbonation.
- Mild. Kind of flat. Now “pow” taste — needs more sugar.
- Too much carbonation for the amount of flavor.
- Earthy. Smooth. Creamy. Fullest bod.
- Kind of musty. Flat.
- Good but weak.
- You know those white Life Saver mints that spark when you bite down? It has that mint aftertaste — strange description, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Oh, wait … Alka-Seltzer?? Super bubbly.
Meh: Virgil’s Root Beer
- Not bad. Needs more flavor. Something gingery in there, but very subtle. Has a nice, gentle fizz, though.
- Slightly sweeter than expected, with a nice spice finish. Nice light, smaller carbonation bubbles. Good aftertaste, as well.
- Strong black licorice flavor — not pleasant! Dark color. Nasty medicinal flavor.
- Black licorice? Not the best, not the worst.
- I’m a fan of black licorice, but not in my root beer. :(
- Tangy — odd taste.
- I smell mouthwash. Thin, mildly fizzy effervescence. Deep brown color. Sweet! Slightly spicy but not very complex. Disappears very quickly. Kind of full-bodied for a root beer.
- Similar to sarsaparilla in body. Nice carbonation. Aftertaste a bit bitter.
- Spicier. More of a natural “rooty” flavor. Could be more full-bodied.
- Strong and spicy
- Minty overtones. Flat.
- Too herbal. Root beer should not taste like potpourri.
Feeling Adventurous? Bundaberg Root Beer
- Interesting taste. Not “normal” root beer flavor you’d expect. A bit like cough syrup?
- Deep brown. Looks really flat. I like this one! It has sour notes, which I’m enjoying. It’s funky! Not traditionally root-beerish, though.
- Smells almost chemical. Not bad, but different from what I would expect from a root beer. Not much carbonation, light bubbles on taste, but fades quietly. Leaves a heavier “film” well after swallowing. Different, but enjoyable.
- Tastes like flat soda.
- Tastes like a diet soda with an icky aftertaste. Not enough vanilla flavor, and kind of flat.
- OK, what is this? Tastes like someone mixed Diet Coke with Dr. Pepper and tonic water. Not enjoyable.
- Yuck! Very odd flavor — I can’t figure out what it is.
- A little sour. Something is off.
- Unique flavor. Cleaner? Very chemical-y.
- Flavorless. BAD. The Benedict Arnold of root beer.
- It tastes exactly like this: Decarbonated root beer mixed with sour milk.
Our root beer recommendations
If you’re going to a party, and someone says “Bring the root beer!”, pick up A&W. It’s the crowdpleaser.
Some of our tasters didn’t love the A&W, but none of them flat-out hated it.
A&W has the root beer flavor you remember from when you were a kid, because it’s likely the root beer you drank (and spooned ice cream out of) when you were a kid. A&W was also Huffpost Taste’s favorite. (Although Serious Eats preferred Barq’s, and the New York Times says it “doesn’t measure up.”)
If you’re bringing root beer to a party and want to look like you didn’t just grab the most famous root beer brand, pick up IBC or Stewart’s. Neither was loved as wholeheartedly as the A&W, but they both had multiple fans, they’re both classics, and they come in vintage-style bottles. They’re not deep cuts, but they’re more distinct than A&W.
Our real recommendation: Have your own root beer taste test
Look: There are hundreds of root beers out there. If you want all the challenge of craft brewing without the alcohol, root beer is the way to go.
And once you break away from the big national brands — A&W and Barq’s, also Mug — the flavors get crazy.
Take a look back over our tasting notes. Love licorice? Pick up a pack of Virgil’s — people thought that was the most licorice-y. Prefer maple? Stewart’s is your brand. Fond of mint? IBC and Crater Lake had the most noticeable mint overtones.
Even the Bundaberg, which had three people rate it zero (including my daughter, who thought she loved it before the tasting), had one person declare it their favorite root beer of the tasting. Love it or hate it, it’s distinct.
So what we really recommend: Explore. Look for the smaller brands at your local market. Seek out smaller specialty stores for the even smaller craft root beer brands. Order online from a root beer specialty shop. There’s enough complexity in root beer to reward your enthusiasm — there’s plenty out there to explore.
Sur La Table links
- Ready for your own tasting? Don’t forget the frosty mugs.
- If you’ve got root beer syrup, try it in a SodaStream.
- If you really want to brew your own, we’ve got bottles and caps.
- And if you’re scooping ice cream into that root beer, don’t forget the scoop — the Zeroll is The Sweethome’s favorite.
My daughter’s new favorite root beer? Barq’s. Ironically, because it’s caffeinated, we won’t let her have much of it.
We could do a whole new tasting with common root beers we missed — Thomas Kemper and Henry Weinhard’s were both sold out in the three stores I visited. Are we missing your favorite flavor? Want to defend Virgil’s or Bundaberg’s honor? Let us know in the comments.