Root beer is back.
Across the country, people are talking about "craft" root beer and "premium" root beer.
Artisan root beer is among the "flavor trends" identified for 2010 by Flavor & The Menu magazine, a publication for chefs and restaurateurs.
In 2008, the McCormick spice and flavoring company named root beer as an up-and-coming flavor trend.
But in Utah, where a large segment of the population doesn't drink alcoholic beverages due to their LDS faith, it's not a question of people getting "back into" root beer.
"Have they ever gotten out of it? That's the question," said Mike Brown, marketing manager at Red Rock Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City. The brewpub has been making Red Rock Root Beer for 15 years, he said. The caffeine-free beverage is flavored with birch and cane sugar.
Not only do customers order it off the menu, they also buy half-gallon glass "growlers" to take home.
Root beer carries a touch of nostalgia for an era when the family bought frosty mugs at the local "drive-in," or dating couples shared a root beer float at the local ice cream parlor.
But today's trendy root beers don't come from the malt shop but local brew pubs better known for their beer.
Righteous Root Beer is chugged at Hopper's Seafood & Grill; it's the same award-winning recipes served at Ruby River Steakhouses.
Brigham's Brew, made by the Utah Brewer's Cooperative, is on tap at Squatters in Salt Lake City and Park City, and Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City. The Beehive Grill in Logan has Beehive Brew, the same root beer served by its sister restaurant, Moab Brewery in Moab.
And at Roosters in Ogden and Layton, "Roost beer" accounts for 60 percent of the soda sales.
"And that's a big deal when you're comparing it against Coke products because they're so popular," said Kym Buttschardt, Roosters co-owner.
"We sell about 45 gallons a week of root beer in each location."
It's not just a Utah thing, Buttschardt added. Roosters' brewmaster, Steve Kirkland, came from Sprecher Breweries in Wisconsin, where root beer was a big part of the business, she said.
In Washington, Thomas Kemper Root Beer made a splash in 1990 when two local beermakers came up with an alternative to serve at their local Octoberfest celebration. Now the company's bottled sodas are sold in grocery stores, along with other premium root beers, such as Virgil's and Henry Weinhard's. Their four- and six-packs average from about $1 per 12-ounce bottle.
Customers are often people who loved root beer as kids and want to "trade up" to a more sophisticated version.
But one Utah-made root beer that didn't fare so well was Barrel Brothers, made by Apple Beer Corp. and sold in some local grocery stores.
After seven years, it was recently discontinued, said production manager Frank Christianson.
"There are so many different specialty root beers already on the market that it's hard to make a splash with one more," said Christianson. However, he added, the company's 40-year-old Apple Beer, which also fits the specialty soda trend, has enjoyed double-digit growth for nearly 10 years.
"People have been brewing root beer forever, but there are more and more microbreweries offering it throughout the nation," said John Borkoski, owner of Moab Brewery in Moab, and Beehive Grill, which opened last year in Logan.
With the success of the Moab Brewery, Borkoski wanted to open a sister brewpub in Logan. But Logan's downtown zoning only allows microbreweries within certain blocks of the city. The site that he wanted — the former Blackstone restaurant at 255 S. Main — was outside that area.
So, last year the Beehive Grill opened as a root beer pub instead. It has the same menu as Moab Brewery, and beer from the Moab Brewery is sold there. But root beer and seasonal sodas are the only drinks made on the premises by brewmaster Mike Harrison.
"We now have a following where people will come in and fill their growlers," said Borkoski.
Root beer's current popularity is part of a renaissance and return to past traditions and natural ingredients, according to Jeff Van Horn, the brewmaster for Moab Brewery.
"I'm not sure what spurs that, but it goes hand-in-hand with the craft industry. In historical research, you find that root beer was a home staple and a fun thing for people to do."
Van Horn is now working on formulating natural sodas without extracts, such as a ginger ale using real ginger root, and pomegranate lemonade.
But it's more difficult to do that with root beer, since one of the original ingredients, sassafras root, was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Studies found that a substance in sassafras — safrole — was cancer-causing. Since 1960, root beers have incorporated sassafras flavor via a safrole-free extract.
Root beer started out as a tonic brewed by American colonists with sassafras, sarsaparilla and other roots and tree barks. During Prohibition in the 1930s, a number of breweries switched to brewing root beer. Some, like IBC, or Independent Brewing Co., never returned to beer.
"Root beer" can contain a variety of ingredients, including sarsaparilla, vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree or birch bark, birch, licorice, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, cinnamon, clove and honey.
The lack of a formal recipe invites a lot of tinkering with various extracts and flavorings to come up with a signature beverage.
Ruby River's root beer won a bronze medal for the soda category from the North Amercan Brewer's Association in 2008.
"Anheuser-Busch beat us out for the gold and silver. We were competing against huge breweries and there were a lot of entries," added brewmaster Rob Bunn.
Deseret News taste-testers noted a distinctive licorice flavor in the Ruby River drink.
"Either people really, really like it, or they don't," said Bunn. "But it's one of our hugest sellers in the entire company. Last year we did almost 800 kegs."
The extract comes from Rainbow Flavorings in Missouri, also available in home brew shops, said Bunn. Then Bunn customizes it with other flavors, and licorice is one of them.
Making root beer is much easier than beer, said Bunn. "You don't have to ferment it. It's just a matter of mixing the proper ratios of sugar, water and extract."
And, as with other soft drinks, the fizz is usually pumped in with a carbonation machine.
At Beehive Brewery, Mike Harrison uses 200 pounds of cane sugar to make one batch of root beer. It's dissolved in a 220-gallon tank of hot water. Then the sugar/water mixture is quickly cooled inside the tank to just above freezing.
"Root beer does not like heat," said Harrison. "If the temperature raises too far, that's where you get the flatness."
Carbon dioxide is pumped from a tank to give it fizzy bubbles.
"It's not that complicated, but you're dealing with a lot of pressure, so you have to be very careful," Harrison said.
He then adds a combination of root beer and sarsaparilla extracts that come from the Northwestern Extract Co. in Wisconsin. It's a proprietary formula that Moab's brewmaster, Jeff Van Horn, perfected over the years through staff taste-testing and customer comments.
There's also a "foam stabilizer" — an extract made with yucca plant, that gives the root beer a frothy head of foam.
It used to be more common to add yeast to homemade root beer, which fermented and gave the drink its bubbly fizz. It also was the reason some home-bottled brews would burst the bottles.
It's much easier to add club soda or food-grade dry ice, which is the solid form of carbon dioxide.
The return to root beer is part of today's quest for "comfort food" and value in a tough economy, pointed out Cathy Nash Holley, publisher of "Flavor & The Menu," which named root beer in its 2010 Top Ten Flavor Trends.
"These trends are indicative of how we are living our lives in an uncertain time — seeking small indulgences balanced with large helpings of comfort."
Root beer isn't just for drinking. It can add sweet and spicy flavors to everything from cookies to meat dishes.
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
11/2 teaspoons root beer concentrate or extract
1 liter cold seltzer or club soda
Bring water to boil in medium sauce pan. Stir in sugar until dissolved. Add concentrate; stir until well-mixed.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. Slowly pour soda into root beer mixture until well-blended. Taste and add more sugar or root beer concentrate if desired.
Makes 6 cups.
Option: Instead of using club soda, add 3-4 cups of water and add a 2-3 inch chunk of food-grade dry ice just before serving. Handle the dry ice with gloves, and leave room in the pitcher for more carbonation. Add 4 cups of cold water.
ROOTIN' TOOTIN' COOKIES
1 box of yellow cake mix
½ cup (1 stick) butter, slightly softened
1½ teaspoons root beer extract, or to taste
1 cup pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine cake mix, butter, eggs and extract together with an electric mixer.
Stir in pecans until well-mixed. Scoop teaspoonsful of dough on cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-11 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Makes 2-3 dozen cookies.
Options: For a thicker cookie, add 1 cup oatmeal.
— Valerie Phillips
KENT & GORDON'S ROOT BEER COOKIES
Cookies: 3 cups rolled oats (Quaker preferred)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cubes margarine (1 cup)
1 tablespoon root beer extract
1/2 cup apple juice or water
4 cups powdered sugar
2 cubes margarine (1 cup)
1 tablespoon root beer extract
1/4 cup apple juice or water
For cookies: Mix all ingredients well in a 3-quart mixing bowl. Drop teaspoonsful onto greased 14-by-16-inch cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 10-14 minutes. Allow cookies to cool.
For frosting: Mix all ingredients well. When cookies are cool, ice with frosting.
— Gordon Christensen, Kaysville
SESAME ROOT BEER BRAISED SHORT RIBS AND SWEET POTATOES
Root beer adds both sweet and spicy flavors to this entree.
3 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into serving-size pieces
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons oil, divided
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 ribs celery, cut into 11/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
2 medium onions, cut into 11/2-inch chunks (about 11/2 cups)
2 medium parsnips, cut into 11/2-inch pieces (optional)
1 12-ounce bottle root beer
1/2 cup water
2 beef bouillon cubes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 bay leaves
3 teaspoons toasted sesame seed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 11/2-inch chunks
Coat short ribs with flour. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in 5-quart oven-proof saucepot on medium-high heat. Add the ribs; cook 5-10 minutes or until browned. Remove from Dutch oven.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in Dutch oven on medium heat. Add garlic, celery, onions and parsnips; cook 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Add root beer, water, bouillon cubes, tomato paste, vinegar, bay leaves, 2 teaspoons of the sesame seed, salt and black pepper. Bring to boil, stirring to loosen browned bits in bottom of pan. Return short ribs to pan. Cover.
Braise in preheated 300°F oven 2 hours. Add sweet potatoes; cover and braise 1 hour longer or until short ribs and sweet potatoes are tender. Skim fat from cooking liquid, which is now a sauce. Divide short ribs and vegetables among serving bowls. Top each with the sauce. Sprinkle short ribs evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon sesame seed. Serves 6.