Soda Review: Which is the Best Root Beer?

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 13, 2008 · 146 comments

in Soda Reviews

In celebration of the Art of Manliness’ love for the finely crafted, independently made soda, today we begin a series of soda reviews . We’ll help you on your way to becoming a soda connoisseur by placing all of your favorite flavors in head to head competitions to see which soda rises to the top. Let the best fizzy beverage win.

All the sodas we will review are made with pure cane sugar or another natural sweetener, since as you know, sodas made with high fructose corn syrup constitute soda sacrilege and aren’t worth the flimsy can they come in. Most of the sodas will also be from independent bottlers.

Today we are having a showdown between various varieties of our favorite brew, root beer.

The history of root beer goes all the way back to colonial times. America’s early settlers would create brews from various herbs, roots, and barks including wintergreen, birch bark, vanilla beans, and ginger. The boiling and fermentation of these concoctions helped kill any floaters in the water that might have made the colonists sick and imbued these “beers” with a 2-10% alcohol content. But it was Charles Hires who brought the deliciousness of root beer to the masses. Mixing up an irresistible concoction of various herbs, roots, berries, and spices, Hires introduced root beer to the public at the 1876 Centennial Convention. Calling it the “The Temperance Drink,” he touted it as “the greatest health giving beverage in the world.” Despite these claims, the temperance advocates were suspicious of a beverage named “root beer.” Hires had to perform a laboratory test to prove his new drink had no more alcohol than a loaf of bread. Root beer then really caught on during Prohibition as an alternative to imbibing booze.
While root beer has forever been the red-headed stepchild to big brother cola, it’s always been at the top of my list. There’s nothing like a hot pizza and a cold root beer in a frosty mug.

Berghoff

Made in: Chicago

The bottle says: “Famous Root Beer” and “Draft Style”

OG? Since 1891

Our review: Our least favorite brew. Rather bland and limp in flavor. A little too sweet, a little too fizzy. Blah.

The AoM Verdict:

(out of four bottle caps)

Mason’s

Made in: Atlanta, GA

The bottle says: “Keg Brewed Flavor”

OG? Nope

Our review: Mason’s had a nice fizz level. But the root beer flavor was too mild and not distinct. A little too sweet. An interesting nutmeg-y accent. Goes down pretty smooth.

The AoM verdict:

Journey’s John Barleycorn

Made in: Putney, VT

The bottle says: “A diverse collection of root bark tea and root brew recipes is the source for Journey’s Historic Brews. Native Americans shared intense aromatic root tea with conquistadores in the 1500′s. Since then, the Anglos, Germans, Scandinavians and Americans have blended and brewed an estimated 60 root beer types over the last five centuries. John Barleycorn brings back Scottish and Irish American root beer traditions. Heady malted barley creates a smooth taste and sweet aroma.”

OG? Started in the 1970s.

Our review: Journey’s John Barleycorn soda bills itself as “Nutty Malty Foamy,” and it is certainly all three. Unfortunately, although the bottle and concept are quite interesting, and though we were prepared to love anything coming from the state of Vermont, the flavor just didn’t deliver. The brew is very dark and the flavor is unique, but it’s simply not very root beery or pleasant. Strange herbal accents doomed this brew.

The AoM verdict:

Capt’n Eli’s

Made in: Portland, ME

The bottle says: Nada

OG? Nope

Our review: Just the right sweetness and a really smooth flavor. Strong wintergreen flavor, almost medicinal really, but not to the point of being unpleasant.

The AoM verdict:

Boylan’s

Made in: Moonachie, NJ

The bottle says: Nada

OG? Since 1891

Our review: A fruity tasting brew with strong hints of sassafras. Not too sweet. Has a very pleasant aftertaste.

The AoM verdict:

Americana Microcrafted Root Beer

Made in: Redmond Washington

OG? Nope.

The bottle says:

“The era of soda poppery began in the early 1900s. Early soft drinks, or tonics as they were called, were available in a wide variety of flavors. Sassafras root bark created the classic American flavor we have come to know as Root Beer. Americana Cream Style is produced in true micro fashion, only 600 gallons at a time. Our extracts are carefully blended with pure cane sugar to produce a rich creamy flavor made in the tradition of those old times sodas.”

Our review:

Our hands down favorite and not just because of the vintagey-looking label. Americana has the traditional root beer taste you’re looking for in a brew. The flavor is full and robust. It labels itself as “cream style” and there’s definitely a cream soda undertone. Wintergreen flavor invigorates the tongue; hints of sassafras and licorice are subtle and add to a nice, complex flavor.

The AoM Verdict:

Editor’s note: While not available at the time of this testing, we later got a hold of Virgil’s root beer, and it easily beat every entry in this test. It’s the best root beer out there, hands down.

Got a beef with our ratings? Did we forget a root beer that you think deserves being reviewed? Drop a line in the comment box.

{ 146 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Steven November 16, 2009 at 2:54 pm

IBC wasn’t included because it is HFCS, as is Henry Weinhard’s, Stewarts, and the like.

But it is also “soda sacrilege” to not include Virgil’s on this list. I ordered Virgil’s in ponykegs in the past.

Also, one might find Sprecher very appetizing if they like their root beer on the creamy side – alongside cane syrup it uses honey as a sweetener adding a unique flavor.

102 Kurt November 19, 2009 at 9:47 am

How about Saranac? Not sure if it was excluded for HFCS (I don’t think it has it) but I prefer it to Virgil’s, which would be my second favorite.

103 Brian November 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I’m going with the top two for me as I sometimes have trouble deciding which is THE BEST–perhaps it has to do with Uranus being in the Big Dipper or something. (Sorry, a moment of 12-year-old-boy spiking up there….)

Weinhardt’s (I get an undertone of butterscotch?) and Virgil’s–just yummy good!

I’d like to give a shout out to the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, TX–not specifically a root beer museum, but they do have extensive collections and history of some of the bigger root beers. Also, they are the only major soft drink that houses it’s museum collections in an original bottling building.

104 Sean Lopez December 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm

1919 is hands down the best root beer around. Only available on tap

105 Bob Mcfly January 1, 2010 at 5:55 pm

SARANAC

106 Jay January 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm

As far as no HFCS rootbeers that I have had..Bulldog is my favorite, only sold at Cost Plus World Market. If you add HFCS then Henry Weinhard rivals Bulldog. Americana is good but not as good. VIrgil’s, which everyone raves about, was very disappointing…the licorice flavor was overpowering. Thomas Kemper is sub par. Frostie: so-so, and so on. Anyone that thinks Barq’s is good has seriously no taste for root beer. Currently have an australian brew in the fridge that I haven’t tried yet: Bundaberg. Also got a new local Denver brew called Oogave which is sweetened with organic agave nectar. Haven’t seen many of the sorts listed in the review article.

107 James January 20, 2010 at 9:40 pm

I’ve tried Virgil’s- it’s too strong for me, I don’t enjoy it. My favorites are A&W and IBC (yeah, I know- icky HFCS). Hansen’s is okay. Here in PA, I also like gingerbeer (kind of Root beerish, I’d say in between Root beer and sarsaparilla) and sarsaparilla when I can get it. I believe that Whole Foods carries Virgils, if you’re looking for it.

108 James January 20, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Oops: edit on my last post- it’s not ginger beer I’m thinking of, its Birch beer. Tasty soda that looks like Root beer, but with a slightly red tinge to the color and a great flavor that I already described.

109 Mike January 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm

You really should have “Sprecher” root beer on your list. If you haven’t tried it, it’s one of the most popular root beers in Wisconsin. It has a very smooth rich taste, not too sweet with a vanilla like aftertaste. Each sip is lip-smackingly delicious. It is brewed and bottled in Glendale Wisconsin. http://www.sprecherbrewery.com. This is what root beer tastes like.

110 Gwiz February 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm

The best place I have found to get Virgil’s is Trader Joes. They usually have it for a couple dollars less than anywhere. Also Hansen’s Root Beer is good and also available at Trader Joes. It only comes in a can though. But it has real cane sugar and wintergreen. I haven’t had Bulldog or Henry Wienhard’s but I’ll get right on that.

111 Paul Osborne February 9, 2010 at 1:47 am

Made with cane sugar and honey. There is a constant fight among everyone I know of which is the best root beer here in the PNW and Tomas Kemper is always at the top of the list.
http://www.tksoda.com/our-sodas/root-beer
Most store out here in Washington carry it.

112 Seth B February 9, 2010 at 10:55 am

Virgils is easily the best that’s around. Super complex, lots of flavors make for one of the most enjoyable drinking experiences I’ve ever had as far as taste. Easily beats everything I’ve ever tasted

113 Bill in TX March 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Henry Weinhards is the King of rootbeer. I have tried almost everyone on the list. I can’t believe people would list IBC and A&W with these gourmet rootbeers. They must not have tasted the real thing before. And I have not seen Hanks on this list. It is a close 2nd after HW. Here is my order:
1) Henry Weinhards
2) Hanks
These two are way ahead of the following:
3) Sprecher
4) Virgils
5) Fitz’s

114 Mitch March 22, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Hello Gentlemen!
I am a specialty beverage distributor based out of Portland Oregon. We have our main warehouse down in Gardena California. There are many root beers you did not review. Many, better than the ones you did. We carry over 72 different root beers. As well as over 1400 different products all in glass bottles. Check us out at
http://www.realsoda.com

Now, in my professional opinion, Virgil’s Bavarian Nutmeg is the best root beer there is! It is terribly expensive, as it is the only root beer not made in the U.S.but it is amazing. Sparky’s is also a favorite of mine, and don’t forget Jackson Hole Buck’n root beer!

115 Eric J April 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

Great burgers abd fresh cut fries in Tulsa and their Root Beer is home made and is fantastic! http://www.webersoftulsa.com/

WEBER’S!!!

116 Brendan McGinley April 30, 2010 at 11:34 am

Virgil’s is magnificent. I’ll echo the praise for Saranac, too: marvelously creamy.

117 Pete Prodoehl May 2, 2010 at 9:51 am

I’ll continue to boycott Sprecher’s (due to the HFCS) but will try to check out some of these other root beers…

118 Kevin Richard May 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm

If we’re talking cane sugar only, Fitz’s (my hometown brew) is simply amazing, but I have to admit that, if we include cane sugar sweeteners, Sprecher’s is the best by far.

119 matthew June 8, 2010 at 1:12 am

Sprecker….from Milwaukee…had an ex who got them sent from her parent…one of few fond memories

120 Davep July 5, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Henry’s is my personal choice as well. It seems though Root Beer is like wine, there are just so many to chose from. Also each person’s taste likes some ingredients. So what one person says is the best, you may not care for.

121 Jeremy August 3, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Mitch great site. There is another root beer not made in the US. I bought it at Galcos Soda Pop Stop in LA, CA. It is called Bundaberg Australian Root Beer. It is made in Australia according to yhe bottle and the gentleman who owns the soda pop stop. I have about 20 new root beers in my fridge I am waiting to try. If you have not fisted the soda pop stop n LA you should. They ship all ver the country as well. The best part is you can buy just 1 bottle at a time.

122 Connor August 3, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Hey, are we including sasparilla in this debate, because I have to recommend Snake River as being one of my favorites. It has an amazing flavor with a lot of cloves. Pretty good in my opinion.

123 Joel October 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

If you have not tried Abita Root Beer you should. I have to hide it from my wife.

124 Joel October 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Also try the Homemade Root Beer at Ellis Island Casino in Vegas. Sooooo good.

125 Jack December 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

Buck’n Rootbeer out of Jackson Hole Wyoming.

I had it 8 years ago and I have yet to find anything the comes close. Amazing stuff, I still have the first bottle somewhere around here.

126 Glen December 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I have to say that Virgil’s is the favorite of my son and I. We do root beer tasting on a regular basis and Virgil’s keeps coming up tops. It’s interesting how many root beers sites give Virgil’s a bad review. I don’t get it.

127 Tim January 14, 2013 at 1:23 am

If anyone here has heard of the Frostop brand, you gotta try their root beer. If you like not-so-strong flavored drinks, it’s for you. Great vanilla flavor and just the right amount of root that doesn’t get over the top with bitterness or spiciness. But the creaminess is what makes it for me. Reminds me of drinking a float with the ice cream half melted in it. If you’re craving a root beer float, just get some Frostop and save buying the ice cream. Good carbonation and aftertaste too.

128 Kenton Phipps March 8, 2013 at 8:39 am

Don’t know if it’s been mentioned, but you need to try Saranac Root Beer!

129 Ken March 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm

You guys have to try “Maine Root” root beer… it is by far my favorite, and I’ve tried every root I can find. All organic/fair trade sweeteners etc. So smooth, so tasty. Virgil’s is a very, very distant second place in my opinion. Whole Foods sells it around the Boston area… they claim to be nation wide but I wonder if anyone else has seen this before? Tan/green bottle. Check it out: http://www.maineroot.com

130 Nate March 20, 2013 at 2:03 am

Americana is the way to go. It tastes similar to the XXX brand brewed right down the street, but Americana has it down to a science.

There is one that was not mentioned that I like the most. Jackson Hole’s Buckin’ Root Beer is edges out my favorite. There is a a little sweet but a strong root favor that makes it my favorite way to go. If you guys can find it then I suggest you try it out. http://jacksonholesoda.com/

I also agree with Connor, their Sasparilla is amazing!!!!

131 Smeg April 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Surprised to see only one mention of 1919. If you can find it, it’s in a class unto itself.

132 Omar April 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm

This article is special to me, because a quick google search on root beers led me to this listing, and ultimately to AOM!
Anyways, I would say my top fave is Virgil’s, and am dying to try the Virgil’s Bavarian as well as Bundaberg, in addition to the countless honorable mentions in the comments. Thank you all. And thanks a lot to Mitch for mentioning the warehouse in Gardena, CA. It’s an hour away, but I’ll be sure to stop by!
For now, Virgil’s it is. However, I will have to be hard on the folks who settle for Barq’s, A&W, Stewart’s…and other high fructose laden crap. C’mon now, that’s not manly!

133 Jack Coulomb May 14, 2013 at 8:58 pm

High Fructose Corn Syrup it might contain, but I really do love my Henry Weinhard’s Root Beer. Virgil’s does, however, definitely end up in close second or tie with it, though.

134 Michael June 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I once got a bottle of Dang! Butterscotch Root Beer from my local Rural King. It has to be hands down the best root beer I’ve ever tasted.

135 mario June 4, 2013 at 11:23 am

Virgil’s Root Beer. Hands down, best root beer I ever had. Great customer service too. Had a question and the president of the company responded back directly. Wow. I wish I could by them by the case, but I won’t complain…the shop here sells them for $1 a bottle…worth every penny.

136 Tyler June 5, 2013 at 10:05 pm

The two decent root beers I can consistently find here in Michigan are Vrigil’s and Jones. I love both, but Virgil’s taste can be a bit too complicated sometimes, so I prefer the Jones over it.

137 Derek June 18, 2013 at 7:54 pm

abita root beer it a micro brew out of new Orleans,la it is amazing

138 Josh D. June 19, 2013 at 1:09 pm

My favorite is “Goose Island” out of Chicago. Americana is my 2nd. Luckily we have a “pop store” out here and always get to try new stuff.
http://www.rocketfizz.com

139 Eric July 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm

I keep wanting to like Sprecher’s, since it is so readily available in Wisconsin, but even aside from their sweetener issues, the taste just isn’t that great. On the other end of the availability spectrum, I will heartily concur with those who have recommended 1919.

140 Dan August 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Sioux City Root Beer (from White Rock Products Corporation of Whitestone, NY) seems worthy of a test. I like it and the Sioux City Birch Beer.

141 David August 29, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Sprechers Root Beer is by far my favorite. The reason for this is that it is a bit creamier than other Root Beers. I also love that you can taste the wood that it was cooked over.

142 Aaron Manahan August 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Bulldog is probably my favorite if I had to pair it with ice cream, but if I’m going to drink this with a meal I’m going Virgil’s all the way.

143 Sjon October 1, 2013 at 4:13 am

Henry Weinhard’s was my favorite for many years. It’s by far the best root beer you can find at the local grocery store. But then I discovered The Root Beer Store in Lynnwood, WA, which stocks dozens of varieties of root beer. My taste buds were thus opened, and I saw (tasted) the light.

To cut to the chase, my two favorites are Steelhead and Bull Dog. They’re quite similar, really. OK, if I had to choose just one (don’t make me!), I think I’d give Steelhead the nod…but it would be close. Both contain pure Cane sugar, vanilla and honey. Both are very smooth and well balanced. Steelhead is $0.40 more per bottle than Bull Dog, though, so you can save some coin if you want by going with Bull Dog.

Just to comment on some of the favorites other have mentioned above…

Sprecher is quite good and an honorable mention. Not listed by anyone else, but also worthy of note, are Route Beer 66 and Dr. McGillicuddy’s Old-fashioned Root Beer. Can’t go wrong with any of those.

I’ve had one Abita and found it was nothing special. It reminded me of the non-gourmet stuff you find in a grocery store.

Jackson Hole’s Buckin’ Root Beer was good but not as good as the two best I listed above.

Sparky’s has a stronger sassafras flavor that some might like but others not so much. It has honey but no vanilla.

Henry Weinhard’s, as I mentioned, was my favorite for years. I sang its praises to friends and family. But Steelhead and Bull Dog are just flat out better. Weinhard’s, by comparison, is a touch weak in the sassafras flavor (tastes slightly watered down in that respect), and I think it’s made with HFCS (it doesn’t say on the bottle). With HFCS, the sweet aftertaste turns a tad sour 30 seconds or so after you swallow. With pure cane sugar, it doesn’t, and the sweetness lingers on the tongue. If you like Weinhard’s, you’ll love Steelhead and Bull Dog.

I haven’t tried Virgil’s or Saranac yet but will now that I’ve read so many good comments about them here. And since it’s local, I’ll have to give Americana a whirl.

Enjoy!

144 Bryan October 8, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I have loved root beer for MANY years and have tried around 100 different brews, I would give heavy support for both of the top ratings in this article…with one caveat. Virgil’s makes a microbrew from Bavaria which is easily the best root beer I’ve ever had. It is a Bavarian nutmeg root beer (brewed locally in Bavaria if I’m not mistaken) bottled in a large dark glass bottle topped with a ceramic spring bottle stopper, and has the most complex and aromatic flavor profile of any root beer I’ve ever tasted. The only place I’ve been able to find it is at Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, CA (on the way to Vegas if you’re coming from the west), and even at $8 a bottle, I buy one every time I’m in town!

145 Michael Cox March 6, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Virgils is great, but I’d give a slight edge to goose island.

Virgils taste is kind of a spicy nutmeg. The first few mouthfuls from a frozen mug are heaven on earth, but it tends to be a lot less satisfying at the bottom of the mug.

Goose Island has a bergemont/carmel taste with a pleasant sweet aftertaste and maintains it’s flavor to the bottom of the mug. Try comparing the two in a taste test and see what you think.

146 Bilg March 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Rollie’s, from Holyoke, MA.

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