I like root beer. Let me clarify that, I think I like root beer. The traditional recipe for root beer comes from sassafras, which has been banned by the FDA as a carcinogen since 1960. So it’s fair to say that I’ve never tasted root beer in its original form. What I know of this classic soda pop is a mix of flavoring agents and colors. Or, in the case of the newer, hipster brands, retrofitted natural ingredients meant to imitate a different natural ingredient that’s been out of circulation and replaced by fake ingredients since most of us have been alive.
Here’s another wrinkle in my quest for the best grocery store root beer: We are, apparently, in the throes of the great root beer shortage of 2021. Multiple brands I searched for were sold out at the various stores I visited, which led me down Reddit rabbit holes, forced late-night store runs, and ended in a strenuous dissagreement with a Kmart manager about why he wouldn’t sell me the remaining loose bottles from a four pack that someone else clandestinely split up. Seriously, it was a whole thing.
In the end, I had to go to Kmart (2x), Walmart, Target, Vons (2x), Albertsons (3x), Ralphs, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods to gather the complete lineup for this blind tasting. Yes, I realize that this is officially the most any human has cared about root beer for quite some time. I did it for you, the reader, and because every time one of our Uproxx LIFE team members does a blind test, I Slack them incessantly about the need to be absolutely, undeniably complete. So I had to walk the walk on this go around, even though that took 12 store visits and cost me $60 in root beers, most of which I didn’t enjoy all that much.
Therein lies my final caveat. In a lifetime of tasting foods and drinks for a living, I’ve never felt so controlled by my palate and sense memory as I did with root beer. I realized through this tasting that what I want from a good root beer is heavily influenced by my favorite soda on earth, which I’ll reveal a little later. Of course, the root beers I tested aren’t trying to imitate my favorite soda, nor should they. But as I said before, none of us know what traditional root beer even tastes like so it’s all kind of murky — a real Plato’s cave situation.
Below you can see the lineup of brands that I tried blind. I didn’t test any diet iterations because all diet soda is all trash. If you’re drinking sugar water, just drink it unapologetically.
- Henry Weinhard’s
- Sioux City
- Route 66
- Maine Root
Check the blind taste test and ranking below. You might disagree with my picks based on our differening palates, but at least you’ll know a few root beers to steer clear of as we near the 4th.
PART I — THE BLIND TASTE TEST
Nose is very classic. This has a real “root beer” taste – like earthy and rooty. Since it’s taste 1, I wonder if I’m right that this is some real authentic, organic, classic root beer or if I’m being fooled by chemicals. I don’t have much context yet, so it could be either. Nice pop or “bite” – but lots of sugar.
I wrote the following in my notes: ROOT nose, POP palate, SUGAR finish. Tiny hint of licorice. Great start.
Good root beer nose and palate and tastes like cane sugar on the finish. Kinddddda mellow overall. For the moment, I’m afraid I won’t be able to differentiate these enough. Okay, this is softer and not as bitey as #1 and the root flavor was mellower, too. Maybe that means #1 is more natural—maybe it means it was pure fake.
I know that Sioux City always disappoints me with how un-bitey it is — it’s always trying to dunk but just can’t get up high enough. This has that same quality.
This is classic. Dads? A&W? Some rare brand that’s actually been around for ages? Less root here on the nose and palate than 1, which is the winner thus far. This is just… thinner.
Ultimately, it feels like it could be called “generic brand soda pop” and no one would balk and correct it as root beer.
Huge departure. This tastes like licorice beer. Not a lot of pop and a ton of “root” – does real root beer taste like licorice? Is that what sassafras tastes like? Am I comparing a bunch of super authentic brands to the A&W floats my mom made when I was a kid? Is there some artisan rootbeer maker out there rolling their eyes because I compared them to my sense memories of corn syrup and caramel coloring?
For the record, I actually think that’s exactly what is happening. Regardles, this might be the most authentic, but it’s too smooth and too heavy on the licorice. No bite at all.
Another classic – but more like soda fountain classic. There’s a licorice-anise-root taste upfront, mellow midpalate with slight astringency, and a cane sugar finish. Not bad. In fact, I could see this having a lot of fans, but I’m slanted toward more pop-bite.
Ugh. I knew there were a few out there that I would hate because they’re overmellow. I remember that from wasted purchases over the years. This one of those. No pop at all – it’s all flat soda vibes. But no root either. Also, and I’m quite sure that this is cane sugar, you can still OVERUSE cane sugar.
This is too sweet. It tastes like the syrup pre-carbonation.
Syrupy upfront. Flat. Mellow. This has a great nose but the palate, midpalate, and finish are mostly just flat cane sugar syrup.
Again, this isn’t terrible, but you have to know that you want a mellow, rooty drink and not any sort of “soda pop” experience in line with how mainstream colas and fizzy drinks have tasted since the 1980s or so.
On the nose, this is clearly an outlier. It tastes like… rootbeer taffy. Which is somehow a LOT different than just root beer. I can’t tell if this is a hipster entry or not. It’s a lot darker and there’s a much different flavor. I can’t quite place it… but I’m also not crazy about it.
On second sip, it does remind me of the coast, though. Briny sea shores. Vintage soda fountains (which were never actually around in my life time but were already a thing people imitated). If this is one of the New England brands, I expect a parade for my incredible palate.
Finally one with fizz and bite. A nice head. Not much on the nose and palate but after a whole lot with no fizz, this is a respite. This really opens your mouth up with its fizzyness but once your palate is primed, it doesn’t have much to say.
Not a ton of flavor, but god, I was thirsty for fizz.
This is a departure. Like rootbeer toothpaste, more medicinal, wintergreeny, and sorta… herbaceous. This is probably some purist shit that I’m not sophisticated (or too ingrained in my root beer sense memory) to “get.” Whatever, it’s my tasting and I’m not crazy for it.
That said, it tastes like the old west. This is rootbeer they’d order in The Sisters Brothers. If I hadn’t wasted a lot of money being disappointed by Sioux City root beer in college (their sarsaparilla is amazing), I would have predicted that this was Sioux City, just because I know their old west branding and this tastes “old west.”
This is the fizziest one yet. Rooty on the nose but mellowish on the palate. I like all the fizz a lot, but man, can you combine it with some root bite? So close to perfect. In fact, I would/ will go back to this happily and if it’s in the top 3, I won’t be surprised.
Another where the “root” is really unique. This feels full hipster but there is a little soda. DEF cane sugar. DEF designer brand. Good soda balance. But just not a ton of taste. Even if the root is more authentic in some way, it’s not as potent.
It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last time I admit that my palate for these flavors has probably been defined by corn syrup and chemicals, but that doesn’t feel like something I can undo mid-test.
This is my pick for classic root beer. Again, it’s very sweet. The nose is mellow. But it does have the fizz… If this was a midpoint, I’d be stoked, but I worry it’s gonna land more like the top half because so many are flat and sugary.
I will bet my hat that this is a super mainstream brand that makes no attempt to be artisinal or craft driven.
Bad note to end on. Flat and sugary. No real root taste. Sugar on the nose, palate, and finish. Candyish sugar – like melted-down fruit candy. I like fruit notes, Cherry Dang! is my second favorite cola ever, but this just isn’t working.
PART II — THE RANKING
Here’s how the 14 bottles I tasted shook out. You’ll note that we’re starting the ranking with #16, for reasons soon to be revealed.
16. SPRECHER (Taste 6)
Price: $24.20 / 12
This is how Sprecher’s describes themselves: This legendary Award-Winning Root Beer has the rich, creamy flavor that only comes from using Wisconsin honey direct from the combs. Our brew master skillfully combines a host of flavors in our gas-fired brew kettle. Then ages it just long enough to achieve peak flavor, super creamy mouthfeel and a frothy head.
Sounds super hispter and organic and rootsy, right? Now here’s the label on the bottle:
That seems like a pretty big departure. Glucose syrup is before the honey, so we can assume that literal sugar water is much more in evidence than the honey that is so hyped up. (Also, is WI a honey haven? If so, I’ve never heard that. I think honey is one of those food products where you shout out its origins, regardless of where it comes from — Oregon honey! California honey! New York honey! They all sound about the same.)
Also, 51 grams of sugar? A 12oz bottle of Coke — which is so sugary that states make laws about it — has 39 grams.
Here’s what I wrote in the blind test: “This is too sweet. It tastes like the syrup pre-carbonation.” Well, bingo. 51 grams is so much freaking sugar. It can come from WI honey or “pure cane” or anywhere else — it’s still excessive.
15. HENRY WEINHARD’S (Taste 14)
Price: $6.89/ 4 pack of bottles
From the website: Henry Weinhard’s Root Beer; A substantial, traditional root beer with a hint of honey, vanilla and sassafras.
This is my chance for a homer pick (Weinhard’s is a Portland brand) and I’m not taking it. I’ve had a ton of Henry’s and it’s always, always dissapointing in how mellow it is. Tastes flat and low on flavor. It is creamy, but that’s not a huge selling point for me.
14. FROSTIE (Taste 3)
Price: $2.49/ bottle
From the website: A classic root beer that delivers a smooth vanilla taste, and subtle wintergreen and anise flavor. Enjoy this one over vanilla ice cream for an amazing float.
I didn’t get any of those notes — though I got all of them at one point or another with other entries. In this case, all I got was the thinness. It’s too bad, because I had high hopes for Frostie, which was actually making root beer back when sasafrass was legal.
Unfortunately, their current recipe just doesn’t have much of anything to it.
13. SHASTA (Taste 13)
Price: $3.99 / 12 pack of cans
Info: Like A&W, Shasta really posits itself as the “root beer float” root beer with classic but artificial flavors, medium fizz, and lots of creamines.
Since the product is fully artificial and there’s not much to be said about its ingredients, I’d like to mention that when I was a freshman in college, the school hired a comic for our incoming student orientation to do a 45-minute show. Mid-set he sipped a Shasta and someone in he crowd yelled, “How’s the Shasta?!”
I have never seen a more perfect heckle in my life than teasing a random soda brand and therefore the entire chain of life choices of the comic drinking it. It literally shut the whole show down and the comedian couldn’t bounce back. He left early and the person who yelled it was famous across campus for years.
I nailed this in the tasting: classic with no attempt to be artisinal or authentic. Trouble is, there still wasn’t much punch. In a blind taste test with A&W, which is mediocre, this still loses every time.
12. TEDDY’S (Taste 12)
Price: $32.99/ 12 pack
From the website: Root Beer has been a classic amongst American’s since the late 1800’s. First used for medicinal purposes, Root Beer is now enjoyed as a soft drink or as the main ingredient in Root Beer floats. Teddy’s is rich and creamy and goes well with any meal.
Even though it comes in a weird plastic bottle, Teddy’s seems to have a strong case for being a “classic pick” — I just didn’t love the mintier notes and found the flavor to be too mellow. Interesting that “creaminess” is being shouted out as a positive attribute by brands, because I guess I didn’t really have that as a parameter.
11. SIOUX CITY (Taste 2)
Price: $3/ bottle
It’s very hard to get a bead on what’s in any of these. The website reads: “pure cane sugar, natural ingredients, crafted with care” — which is pretty generic copy. I think that’s because none of these brands really cares about presenting themselves as natural since there’s no real natural root beer in the first place.
I picked this one out of a lineup cold and could do it again. That’s not a great testament to Sioux City. Its defining characteristics are exactly the same as other “classic” brands, it’s just weaker in every way. That said, this did have the best nose — so if you want to just sniff your frosty beverage, have at it.
10. DAD’S (Taste 10)
Price: $1.79/ bottle
From the website: “Although new flavors have been introduced into the root beer category over the past 100 years, the essential ingredients are still wintergreen, licorice, and vanilla.”
Wait, Dad’s. If we’re going back 100 years, wasn’t sasafras the main root? I can’t imagine 100 years ago people were importing vanilla to put it in root beer, but… maybe?
I’m proud of myself for calling out the wintergreen, but it’s not that impressive — they lay it on pretty thick. There was a medicinal-astringent quality that I don’t love. Maybe Dad’s used to be a tooth numbing prouct before transitioning to soda?
9. A&W (Taste 7)
Price: $4.78/ 12 pack of cans
A few things: A&W is the only root beer with a fast food restaurant. For what it’s worth, I don’t hate the joint. They serve corndog nuggs and Coney dogs with cheese. They also make rootbeer in-house — which realistically means “in-line,” as in the carbonation and syrup are combined fresh in tubes on their way to the taps. That said, is is better there and their floats are one of the most underrated treats in all of fest food.
All that said, I don’t need to give you an ingredients list here. A&W makes no attempt to be “authentic” — it’s all caramel and coloring and carbonation and corn syrup.
I confused the mellowness here for a more stylized brand. My bad. That said, I thought this would rank much higher. It just came off as flat. It was the only two liter I bought, so maybe it was stale, but I opened it just for this tasting and you can see the lack of bubbles. Ultimately, if you want A&W, get it from the drive-thru.
8. VIRGIL’S (Taste 4)
Price: $39.99/ 12 pack of bottles (Currently out of stock)
From the webite: Brewed in small batches by hand to include the flavor of fifteen different roots and spices. A rich, creamy, full-flavor soda that is deliciously complex and never bitter.
I dont disagree with anything about how Virgil’s describes themselves. I certainly got “roots and spices” — particularly licorice root. And it wasn’t bitter — though none of these were. It was creamy, too. It’s just that none of those things really seem to be my personal parameters for liking a root beer. If it was “smooth spice mix licorice” beer, that’s fine.
I guess the real problem here is that some brands seem to read the root in root beer as “any root” and others take it as “flavors selected to imitate sasafrass root.” That said, Virgil’s is one of the brands eperiencing serious shortages, so they must be doing something right. It also gets some uniqueness points.
7. MAINE ROOT (Taste 8)
Price: $35/ 24 pack bottles
From the website: Handcrafted soda made with extracts of wintergreen, clove and anise. All our recipes are sweetened with Fair Trade Certified Organic sugar, so you can feel good about it!
I predicted that this was a New England artisinal brand and found this to be a nice diverson from the others in the tasting. There was this great saltwater taffy note that I… maybe “loved” is too strong a word but certainly “found myself interested by.”
If you’re looking for something complex and distinct while still conjuring “root beer flavors,” this is a very solid pick.
6. IBC (Taste 5)
Price: $2.99 for a 4-pack of bottles.
IBC was my college pick. I loved it back then. It was also the second hardest root beer to find, with multiple stores being completely sold out. It’s ingredients are all the usual suspects — caramel color and cane sugar. No real surprises.
Going into the tasting, I predicted this as the winner. Clearly, my preference for this has fallen off since college, but this was definitely solid. It just wasn’t bitey in the way I wanted. Not as bad as two other brands I drank a lot in college — Henry’s and Sioux City — but still, this didn’t punch me with flavor in the way I hoped.
5. BOYLAN (Taste 11)
Price: $31.50 for 12 bottles.
From the webite: A rich sassafras flavor derived from cinnamon, sweet birch, vanilla, and wintergreen.
With the ingredient list above, I would have expected this to be one of the more medicinal entries. It wasn’t and I’m dubious about some of those claims (vanilla and birch make sense, but I didn’t pick up the wintergreen). That said, I loved the fizz on this.
4. ROUTE 66 (Taste 9)
Price: $12.99 / 6 pack of bottles
No real info — though I do deeply appreciate the company’s commitment to Route 66. It’s cool branding, for starters, but they also really lean into selling their products along the route. So if you travel those areas, you’re likely to see them — which is cool.
I liked this a lot. I could have used a stronger flavor but the fizz was present and the nose was classic. This is what I percieve as a 1950s soda fountain root beer and I’d happily reach for it on a hot day.
3. JONES ROOT BEER (Taste 1)
Price: 29.99 for a 12 pack. Individual bottles sold in specialty stores.
Not much information availible online. “Inverted cane sugar” is listed as an ingredient. That insufferable because inverted sugar is just sugar melted down in water — which is necessary for any beverage, so… don’t be so dorky with your ingredient naming, Jones! I’m trying to rank you highly.
This was classic, potent, and nice with the fizz. It was actually disorienting to have this be my first taste. It was the winner of the blind test but it’s not ranked #1 or even #2, which leads me to…
PART III — THE RINGERS
So this is where I name my favorite soda of all time — Coke. Its cola bite and the carbonation overpower the sweetness until you get three or four gulps in, which I love. Seriously, it’s one of my favorite sensory experiences on earth. Definitely top 10. So leaving Barq’s off the list felt like sacriledge (it was purchased by Coca-Cola in 1995). But Barq’s is seriously hard to find right now and has been since early in the pandemic. It wasn’t in any of those 12 stores I mentioned visiting and getting it online only wasn’t going to work for me.
So if you want the winner of the blind taste, that’s Jones. But the same day as the blind test, I flew to Portland for the summer and found Barq’s at a specialty shop. I also grabbed a second bottle because I liked the label and had never seen it before. Turns out they were both spectacular.
Here are my top two grocery store root beers, if you can find them:
2. TRIPLE XXX
Price: $6.40/ four pack. Individual bottles sold in specialty stores.
The website has a whole novel on this root beer’s orgins, but basically it can be summed up as: was made a long time ago, changed hands a few times, and crafted to taste like the original recipe. That’ belied by the label, which is the same as all the others: sugar, water, natural and artificial flavors. No real surprises.
What did surprise me was the taste.
This was like amped up IBC — better in a million tiny ways. It was the only brand that seemed to use wintergreen right — there was a little pepperiness late that I enjoyed. Moreoever, it had bite and kick, which is really all my Coke-loving palate had wanted out of this tasting.
If you don’t want to go mainstream, this is absolutely my #1 pick from everything I tasted.
Price: $5.99/ 12 pack cans.
I’m not even searching for info here. This is Coke with rootbeer flavors. It has bite (that’s the slogan) and I crave that bite because I like Coke.
Listen, this is really about palates. I think you could ignore Barq’s as an outlier, because my palate is so perfectly calibrated to Coke, and have a very solid root beer list. That said, if you, like me, just want “Coke but with root beer flavor” — almost like a rootbeer + Coke graveyard from the soda machine — well, this is your brand.
Still, I do feel vey basic for ranking this #1.