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Rooting Again for Root Beer

August 29, 1996|ALAN J. WAX | NEWSDAY

Dark, frothy, spicy and as old as America itself, root beer is undergoing a revival in popularity, showing up in gourmet shops and alongside craft beers at brew pubs.

Although considered a niche product by soft-drink marketers--it accounts for less than 3% of the $53-billion U.S. soft-drink market--root beer is barreling through the 1990s on the coattails of the growing craft brewing movement.

"There is a lot of action in the root beer market right now," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry publication. A lot of the action is the result of new interest in root beer from the industry's giants. Coca-Cola Co. last year bought Barq's, the No. 2 brand, and is spending millions of dollars promoting it. Pepsico, the producer of No. 3 Mug, and Cadbury Schweppes, whose A&W ranks first, are also spending big bucks. All of this marketing firepower is creating new awareness among consumers.

Names likes Stewart's, Boylan's, Virgil's and Sioux City are riding the boom, though sales of these fizzy newcomers are unlikely to slow those of the mainstream brands.

"The entire category is seeing phenomenal growth," said Adrienne Montgomery, director of marketing at Cadbury for IBC Root Beer, a premium brand. IBC's sales have climbed 100% in the last three years.

"When Coke and Pepsi join the fray . . . it becomes more attractive for everyone," said industry consultant Tom Pirko, president of BevMark LLC, who said the new trend is being driven by the same forces that spurred the microbrewery beer market: consumer interest in handcrafted products, full-flavored products and variety.

Much of the credit for the revival of root beer goes to microbrewers such as Seattle's Thomas Kemper brewery, whose founders also started a soda business of the same name, and Randal Sprecher in Glendale, Wis., who markets his homemade sodas alongside his microbrewery beers. (From beer to root beer isn't such a stretch. During Prohibition, many brewers switched to making soft drinks to survive.) These less-well-known upstart root beers have gone from specialty stores into supermarkets.

Unlike the mass-produced big-name root beers, most of the new root beers are made in small batches and sold in bottles, rather than cans. A typical root beer recipe would use extracts of indigenous American ingredients such as sarsaparilla, sassafras and pipsissewa, possibly together with other flavorings such as licorice and vanilla. Today, sassafras oil--the key ingredient in root beer before 1960, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeled it a carcinogen and banned its use--has been replaced by sassafras that has been treated to remove the offending oil or by synthetic sassafras flavor.

One of the newest entrants, Virgil's, is selling at an annual rate of 135,000 cases just two years after its introduction. Made with 11 flavoring agents and without preservatives, it won the Outstanding Beverage Award at the 1994 International Fancy Food Show.

Originally Virgil's was imported from England by Crowley Beverage Corp., based in Weyland, Mass. Now it is produced in a Cincinnati brewery. Crowley has promoted the brand as a gourmet product and sponsored a recipe competition at the Culinary Institute of America. Recipes from the institute's students included a cheesecake, a rice dish and--the winner--a prawn tempura batter and dipping sauce.

And root beer is again being made at home. Home brewer Jim Moncsko of Brentwood, N.Y., makes 8-gallon batches in his kitchen to dispense at family gatherings, using extract purchased in a home brew shop, sugar and water. He injects carbon dioxide into his soda, which is contained in a keg. "It's easy; you can whip up the whole thing in 10 minutes," he said.

Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, is generally recognized as the man who made root beer a commercial hit. Legend has it that while on his honeymoon at a guest farm in New Jersey, he persuaded his hostess to part with her recipe for the root tea she served.

The recipe called for 26 roots, berries and herbs. Hires packaged the mixture in boxes and sold it to be mixed with water, sugar and yeast to homemakers and soda fountains.

He hit it big when he presented his product at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Four years later, he marketed a liquid concentrate and in 1893 launched a bottled, ready-to-drink product.


Here is Mark Ernst's winning recipe in the 1995 Culinary Institute of America competition. Ernst serves this on a mound of spicy napa cabbage surrounded by a root-beer-based dipping sauce.

16 to 20 medium shrimp

1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon self-rising flour

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons baking powder

2 quarts oil

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) root beer, ice cold

Peel and devein shrimp, leaving tails on. Dry and keep cold.

Sift flour, cornstarch and baking powder together in bowl.

Heat oil to 375 degrees in large heavy-gauge pot.

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