bottles of root beerNothing hits the spot on a hot day like an icy glass of all-American root beer. (Okay, if you want to split hairs: Nothing hits the spot on a hot day like an icy glass of all-American root beer when you must stay sober.) The problem is that when you take your wilting self to the cool respite of the beverage aisle, you discover that nothing in this life is simple.

Perhaps, like me, you go with the simple criterion of avoiding anything produced by Big Soda and loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. Ha! If only it were this straightforward. What started as a handcrafted, medicinal-tasting beverage devolved during the last century into a mass-produced cloying shadow of its former self. The good news is that root beer, like Mickey Rourke, is making a comeback, and the results can be kinda wild.

Today, your beverage aisle might showcase retro, handcrafted “root sodas” with exotic spices, certified organic root beers, a green-tea root beer, and a diet root beer spiked with an eco-sounding plant-based sweetener. You might even be able to find a local root beer with an ostensibly lighter carbon footprint. OK, so what’s a green-minded, confused consumer like you to do, short of licking your cracked lips, throwing up your hands, and heading to the nearest vending machine?

Answer: Let taste be your guide. Because if it tastes awful, it’s not going to matter if it’s eco, healthy, or handcrafted by pygmy monks chanting hymns to Gaia — you aren’t going to buy it. At least not twice.

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So for you, and only you, I assembled a tasting panel consisting of my spouse, a few willing friends, and our gleeful, sticky progeny (see video at bottom) to try some of the root beer alternatives to Big Soda. Herewith, our Highly Unscientific Results:

maine root beerMaine Root
Ingredients: Carbonated pure water, organic fair trade–certified cane juice and spices (according to the website, the company uses extracts of wintergreen, clove, and anise).
Eco-claim: Organic fair trade–certified cane juice (though not USDA organic certified). Also, if you happen to live near Portland, Maine, you can take a small comfort in knowing that this root beer will be delivered via a biodiesel VW Jetta.
Price: $7.16 / four-pack of glass bottles

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This is a fizzy rather than creamy root beer. Aside from the one comment that this root soda has a “nice nose,” all of the adult tasters felt that it was way too sweet, and one went so far as to describe it as a “marshmallow in a glass.” While you’d assume that the overly sweet quality might appeal to kids, it didn’t. One claimed that it “smelled like mushrooms.”

boylan's root beerBoylan’s Root Beer
Ingredients: Carbonated water, cane sugar, pure essential oils of sweet birch, cinnamon, sassafras, and anise, extracts of bourbon vanilla, yucca and licorice, and other natural flavors and spices, caramel color (from cane sugar), citric acid.
Eco-claim: Touts itself as “100% natural,” which means no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives — which is, methinks, a reasonable place to set the bar, considering that soda basically consists of three things: water, sweetener, and flavoring.
Price: $5.96 / four-pack of glass bottles

The online description says this traditional-tasting beer was developed as antidote to the super creamy, vanilla-laden style of root beers that is popular today. Interestingly, more than one taster described it as “traditional” and one described it as thin, perhaps owing to its lack of creaminess. Another said it had a “slightly astringent finish.” One of the kids tasted pepper.

zevia root beerZevia Natural Diet Soda Root Beer
Ingredients: Triple-filtered carbonated water, natural erythritol, natural GMO-free caramel color, stevia, citric acid and natural flavors (citrus peel oil, winter green oil, cassia oil, anise seed oil extract, ginger root extract).
Eco-claim: Touts itself as “100% natural” and “nature’s answer to diet soda,” but the marketing emphasis is on stevia’s superiority to artificial sweeteners, not its environmental impacts. (My take is that stevia, at this point in time, doesn’t seem particularly environmentally destructive. Read more of what I have to say about stevia.)
Price: $5.69 / six-pack of cans

After several expletives and exclamations, it was clear that my panel would rather suffer dehydration headaches than drink this root beer. One of our tasters said it “tastes like the snacks at my diabetic father-in-law’s house.” Another sighed, “That’s definitely a diet drink.” I found it sickly sweet and only vaguely root beer–like. The kids found it “weird” and “bad” but worst of all like “polishing toothpaste.” (Q: Since when do kids use Topol?)

whole foods root beerWhole Foods 365 Everyday Value Root Beer
Ingredients: Filtered carbonated water, cane sugar, natural root beer flavor, citric acid, caramel color (from cane sugar).
Eco-claim: None on the packaging, but Whole Foods has a notoriously green agenda.
Price: $2.49 / six-pack of cans

“A good, solid root beer,” said one taster, and another approved of its “caramel nose.” Another said, with obvious relief, “No funny aftertaste!” I found it to be smooth and straightforward and neither too sweet nor too weird. The kids deemed it spicy, sweet, and root-beery. Our panels (adults and kids) separately ranked it No. 1, with no dissent.

blue sky root beerBlue Sky Certified Organic Root Beer Encore
Ingredients: Filtered carbonated water, organic cane juice, natural root beer flavor, caramel color and citric acid.
Eco-claim: Uses USDA-certified organic cane sugar. Why pony up for organic sugar? Although you don’t have to worry about GMOs yet when it comes to cane sugar (GMO sugar beet crops have been planted in the U.S.), conventionally grown sugar does have enormous impacts on the environment. Read all about it in a World Wildlife Fund report.
Price: $5.69 / six-pack of cans

This was the neither-here-nor-there root beer. Although it had a “nice nose” and was “pleasantly effervescent,” its aftertaste bugged the tasters who described it as sour, flat, or medicinal. The damning comment: “No worse than any other root beer.” One of the kids said it was “more like Coke,” which shocked her parents, who would never let their kids drink Coke.

santa cruz root beerSanta Cruz Organic Root Beer
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, organic evaporated cane juice, natural root beer flavor, organic lemon juice concentrate, organic vanilla extract.
Eco-claim: In addition to using USDA-certified organic ingredients, the company itself makes green efforts. The can also carries a Green-e label that states that this root beer is made with 100 percent certified renewable energy.
Price: $6.99 / six-pack of cans

That fact that this soda is clear may telegraph that it doesn’t use artificial color, but our tasters found its transparency “kinda freaky” and “trippy.” A child commented that it looked like white wine. After sipping, someone blurted out, “That’s root beer?” No one actively disliked this soda, but every taster complained that it was not root-beery enough. Two tasters said it was “like a ginger ale” and one thought it was like a Sarsaparilla (a drink made from the eponymous root rather than the sassafras root that gives real root beer its flavor). Kid zinger: “It tastes like the fluoride I hate the most.”

virgils root beerVirgil’s Microbrewed Root Beer
Ingredients: According to the website: carbonated water and unbleached cane sugar along with these natural herbs and spices (including point of origin): anise from Spain, licorice from France, vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar, cinnamon from Ceylon, clove from Indonesia, wintergreen from China, sweet birch from the southern U.S., molasses from the U.S., nutmeg from Indonesia, pimento berry oil from Jamaica, balsam oil from Peru, cassia oil from China.
Eco-claim: Like Boylan’s, its ingredients are “natural.” Although artisan consumables and green-mindedness often go hand in hand, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t always the case. This product aims to be tasty rather than to save the world. Upside: no greenwashing. Downside: What, no freakin’ biodiesel Jetta?
Price: $6.36 / four-pack of glass bottles

This beer is brewed and flash-pasteurized as opposed to “cold-brewed,” which allegedly produces a sub-standard product. “Nice and dark,” someone cooed as we poured it. Strangest comment: “Dark and bubbly like a good Jacuzzi.” Every taster noted the licorice taste and used the polite-but-damning adjective “different” to describe it. Refreshingly, this entry is not too sweet.

steaz root beerSteaz Organic Sparkling Green Tea Root Beer
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, organic evaporated cane juice, organic caramel color, natural flavors, organic fair trade–certified green tea, citric acid, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), Sodium citrate.
Eco-claim: UDSA organic ingredients plus organic and fair-trade green tea. Triple-bottom-line company.
Price: $3.99 / four-pack of glass bottles

Does green tea really belong in root beer? “Damn hippies,” spat one taster. Most tasters found the dominant taste not to be root beer–like or tea-like but akin to caramel or syrup. Thin, watery texture made one taster lament that it had, like limp hair, “no body.” One kid said it tasted like Sprite.

saranac root beerSaranac Root Beer
Ingredients: Filtered water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, sodium benzoate (preserves freshness), natural and artificial flavors, citric acid.
Eco-claim: None on the bottle, but according to its website, Saranac’s green initiatives include recycling its spent grains into cattle feed (insert boo-hiss from grass-fed beef fans) and recycling the CO2 from its fermentation process. Although people in my neck of New England think of it as a “local” root beer, it’s brewed 144 miles from my house, according to MapQuest.
Price: $6.29 / six-pack of glass bottles

I was so peeved to discover that this beer contained HFCS that I almost didn’t include it in the tasting. (Alas, HFCS is not uncommon in comeback root beers, as Eric Asimov discovered in his taste-test.) I included it because I was curious: Would anyone taste it? Sure enough, the very first comment was, “The sugar is different in this one!” Another taster said, “Overly sweet.” Ultimately, tasters liked its texture, which was so creamy and smooth that one taster said it was “like whipped cream in my mouth.” I thought it had an overly tangy aftertaste. It was the runner-up for the kids, who said it was a “plain-old root beer.”

Root beer with "Grist's pick" sashThe bottom line: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Brand root beer tastes great and doesn’t contain HFCS. It may not be earnestly green, handcrafted, exotic, or zero-cal, but its low price means that you might be able to afford to top if off with a big dollop of really yummy organic vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!


Watch the Junior Tasters at work: