I love root beer. I really do. But it's not a love I readily express or, for that matter, publicly display. In fact, a friend of mine refuses to believe me, exclaiming, "I've never even seen you drink a root beer!" But I believe root beer--rich, sweet and highly caloric--is a drink best poured in private. It's not a gregarious sort of soda, the kind that improves with a crowd, like Coke. I can't, for example, imagine a root-beer maker mounting a campaign to "give the world" a root beer or touting its drinkers as "the root-beer generation." Root beer and its fans are too private and, well, too quirky for that. (Root-beer ad campaigns, when staged at all, tend to be more idiosyncratic than inclusive. Remember the old Barq's "Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale" ad campaign?) Even my disbelieving friend admits she is a loner sort of root-beer lover: "I'll usually have a root beer by myself when I get home from work, the way other people might make themselves a martini."
There are people I've known for years before finding out they too have strong feelings for root beer. (The moment of discovery has invariably played out like a blind date on which two people realize they share a passion for Erté or polka dance music, with a conspiratorial whisper, "You love root beer, too?") Offbeat, a bit dorky, perhaps, but something that seems as if it could bond you for life. And root-beer drinkers really do need to stick together. After all, we're only a measly 2 to 4 percent of the soft-drink market.
I think the reasons root beer lacks group appeal are the same reasons it has groupies--namely, its assertive flavors and oddball ingredients. The latter have historically included such stuff as would make a naturalist's heart soar--birch bark, dandelion, dog grass and, above all, sassafras root. As any true fan can tell you, the first nationally advertised commercial root beer, Hires, was originally marketed as an herb tea. It became a beer only after a friend of Charles Hires's pointed out that no manly man of the time (1876) would be caught drinking something called a hesalth-giving tea. Sassafras remained root beer's central ingredient until federal regulators in the 1960s determined that safrole, a component of oil of sassafras, was toxic. Brewers scrambled for substitutions, and although many small companies sought natural alternatives, like honey and vanilla, most of the large manufacturers resorted to flavorings and colorings similar to those in Pepsi and Coke. A&W Root Beer, for example, lists these as its primary ingredients: carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup and/or sugar and caramel color. Yet, somehow, even in commercial concoctions, root beer is transformed into something foamy and rich, piquant, distinctive.
The same can be said of root-beer packaging. Although big root-beer brands now pretty much resemble commercial colas--in both label design and the cans they are sold in--boutique root beers are still bottled in brown glass and adorned with highly personal, even artisanal labels, albeit often artisanal with an attitude. A few of my favorites in this category include Rat Bastard Root Beer (whose slogan claims it "tastes like a son of a bitch") and Dog n Suds, which comes in bottles of several different sizes, some shaped like old-time root-beer barrels, others wrapped in what look to be hot-dog papers. Jones Soda Co. Root Beer illustrates its labels with a series of photos of babies and flowers and the like taken by none-too-gifted Jones fans. A back label explains, "These labels are kinda like our minds--always changing." And, finally, the old-fashioned IBC Root Beer bottle eschews a label in favor of raised lettering on the bottle, making it the rare root beer that can be correctly identified in the dark.
Root-beer lovers even have their own vocabulary. Take, for example, the word frosty. When was the last time you called something frosty and weren't referring to root beer? Has anyone, for example, ever offered you a frosty glass of white wine or flute of Champagne? (Be sure to say no if they do.) Then there are the words carbonation and foam. Although I'm sure that these two words have found their way into non-root-beer discussions, true devotees of the drink invoke them with the sort of intensity and passion that only a chemistry teacher could admire or appreciate. Every root-beer drinker, it seems, has a different but decided opinion about how much there should be of one of these relative to the other.
And then there's the whole business with mugs. Root beer is the only soft drink I know of that gets its own glass. And what a glass. Big and heavy, usually ugly and cheaply made, most of these mugs give root beer a bad name, not to mention a bad look. And while a few people may insist on drinking from them, I say they long ago ceased to be a credible glass when they ceased to be...glass, and became plastic instead. What would you say to a root beer poured into a frosty plastic mug? I'd say, "Not in my hand, thanks."
You may have noticed by now that I still haven't mentioned the name of my favorite root beer. One reason is that there are so many different root beers to choose from (there are about 200 brands in America), it's hard to single out just one, and the other reason is, I suppose, a root-beer lover's penchant for privacy. After all, when the police caught George Harrison's stalker breaking into his house in Hawaii, they released her name, but not, it should be noted, the name of the root beer she was drinking at the time.