Milwaukee’s beer culture remains steadfast and vibrant—but what about root beer? Several local firms produce the beverage for sale in bottles and cans.
Beer’s sweetened, carbonated and usually non-alcoholic cousin was popularized in the U.S. by pharmacist Charles Hires at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial celebration. Ingredients used back then, including wintergreen, vanilla, molasses and licorice, are still used in some root beers today. And, just as with beer proper, there’s no one way to make it.
Milwaukee’s John Graf followed a parallel path to Hires in root beer production. Alongside regular beer, he started producing root beer in 1873. Eventually known as Grandpa Graf’s Root Beer, the soda, one among a variety of flavors the company made, was known for its creamy flavor, thick foamy head, and for circus tent-looking cans and bottles. Though the brand was sold numerous times before ceasing production in the 1990s, Grandpa Graf’s legacy lives on in the variety of root beers still calling Wisconsin home.
Black Bear Root Beer harkens to the long-gone era when locally produced soda brands were common. The last Wisconsin location of the brand, begun in 1920, was a facility in Oak Creek. The name and formulas for their line of sodas was purchased by Chicago’s Wit Beverage Company in 2017. Wit continues to market the brand in both regular and diet flavors for its Badger State origin and endeavors to make it competitive as it was when Black Bear was a wholly Milwaukee enterprise.
The flagship soda from Milwaukee’s family-owned Imperial Flavors is Dang! That’s Good Root Beer. The mildly carbonated refresher delivers old fashioned flavor, a point of comparison for drinkers of larger brands might be A&W. Aside from fully sweetened and diet varieties from its original recipe, Dang! has introduced a line of butterscotch root beer.
Random Lake’s Jolly Good is remembered for the jokes it printed at the bottom of cans from the ‘70s through the ‘90s as well as the caramel flavor of its regular and diet root beers. Those flavors were among over 50 made by parent company, Krier Foods, before Jolly Good was retired in 2007, a time when the national beverage companies seemed too big to challenge.
But the example of the burgeoning interest in craft beer—signifying traditionally minded production runs and independent ownership—became the key to Jolly Good’s 2014 comeback. Its current slender, curved bottom cans (looking like miniature tall boys) discontinued the jokes, but contain 12 ounces that will bring back memories for some and become a new favorite for others.
Since opening in 1987, Lakefront Brewery has become a Milwaukee institution for producing an array of locally themed craft beers including the durably popular Riverwest Stein, for its brewery tour and beer hall (1872 N. Commerce St.) and for serving one of the city’s best Friday fish frys. Lakefront is known for its seasonal beers but promises that its Golden Maple Root Beer will be available year-round. As the name suggests, it’s made from sugar cane sweetened with Wisconsin maple syrup and is lighter and crisper than some other richer-bodied competitors—a pilsner among root beers?
Stevens Point seems as far away from Milwaukee as Hogwarts, but the Portage County town merits mention in a local root beer roundup because of its Point Burger Bar restaurants in Milwaukee (10950 W. Good Hope Road), New Berlin (4900 S. Moorland Road) and Pewaukee (W229 N1400 Westwood Drive). Among the menu’s options is Point Premium Root Beer in regular and diet varieties. Both are vanilla-forward in taste with a foamy, lasting head comparable to the brewery’s familiar brand of beer.
If Jolly Good has the longest history among local root beers, Sprecher arguably has the highest profile. Founded in 1985, Milwaukee’s oldest craft brewery was inspired by the beer Randy Sprecher discovered in Germany during his Army service. Sprecher’s commitment to the community is shown by its giveaway of root beer floats at State Fair Park during COVID-19 restrictions as well as the annual Traveling Beer Garden tours, selling Sprecher beverages from vintage firetrucks in Milwaukee County Parks with proceeds given to the park system.
Root beer variations comprise a quarter of Sprecher’s 24 soda offerings and the star among them remains the first non-alcoholic product it offered: the original Root Beer (Fire-Brewed Craft Soda.) Its robust flavor and long-lasting head come courtesy of ingredients including raw honey and real vanilla. Sprecher has also gone in new directions with Lo-Cal Root Beer; Energy Root Beer; Zero Sugar Root Beer; Maple Root Beer and Caffeinated Root Beer.