One of the hottest beers to hit Wisconsin recently isn’t exactly a beer at all.
It’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer, a creation of Small Town Brewery in northern Illinois billed as “ale with the taste of spices.”
It’s billed as a beer flavored like root beer — and it absolutely does smell, taste and more or less drink just like root beer.
A video on Small Town Brewery’s website shows handfuls of malt, proudly touts that it’s “fermented like a beer” and ticks off a bunch of natural ingredients, some of them not unheard of in beer: honey, vanilla, cinnamon, wintergreen, sarsaparilla bark and anise.
And root beer does have its origins in “small beer,” beverages that were drunk like water but fermented just a skosh to ward off water-borne pathogens.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer has been met with nearly breathless praise from beer geeks who could find it. Boozier versions of it debuted on draft in 2013 in the Chicago area, and buzz has built in recent months as Small Town began bottling six-packs of the 5.9 percent ABV version that hit Madison, Milwaukee and other Wisconsin markets this month.
The 12-ounce bottles depict Small Town as hailing from La Crosse, but that’s just where the company produces the six-packs that have also recently debuted in Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio. The address of the Small Town Brewery office in La Crosse matches that of City Brewery, the former G. Heileman plant that is now a major producer of fermented malt beverages for other companies.
Each of the three major beer rating services allow ratings for Not Your Father’s Root Beer, and after more than 14,000 ratings on Untappd, it has a sky-high 4.3 aggregate rating, putting it in the company of world-class IPAs and imperial stouts.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer
Style: Hard root beer or, if you prefer, ale with a taste of spices.
Brewed by: Small Town Brewery, Wauconda, Illinois
What it’s like: I thought Sprecher’s Hard Root Beer almost perfectly replicated a nice “craft” root beer, but Not Your Father’s hit that nail even more squarely.
Where, how much: Six-packs of Not Your Father’s Root Beer in the Madison are running around $11-$12, a pretty penny higher than the Sprecher Hard Root Beer that is its closest competitor. I picked up mine for $11 at Steve’s on University.
The brew: The baseline for all sensory observations of Not Your Father’s Root Beer is root beer, and a pretty good one to boot. It pours that drink’s dark brown — it does contain caramel color — and although the rocky, big-bubbled head typical of root beer does show after a hard pour into a glass, it dissipates in seconds. I’d think carbonation would be one of the big challenges of truly replicating root beer in beer, and Not Your Father’s Root Beer doesn’t entirely meet it: It’s a little stickier than root beer, and not nearly as fizzy. However, both the aroma and flavor are root beer through and through: honey-vanilla sweetness and sassafras-anise spiciness. There is absolutely no hint of the alcohol therein.
Balance is not in this brew’s vocabulary, though, and I found the sweetness cloying by the last third of the glass. And as it warms, the flavor becomes a bit more muddled, with a clove-like sharpness in the finish that’s not entirely out of character for a root beer but isn’t present at fridge temperatures. The body is thin — very thin — for a beer but right on the mark for a root beer.
Booze factor: Normally 5.9 percent wouldn’t be too much to worry about — that’s about the punch of a standard pale ale — but when the alcohol is imperceptible, caution is warranted.
The buzz: I really like soda, and I really like root beer, so I was surprised that I didn’t like Not Your Father’s more. After the shock of the initial pour and first couple sips — “Wow, I can’t believe this is a real beer and not root beer!” — wore off, I labored to get to the bottom of the glass.
That said, I will definitely be on the lookout for the limited, higher-ABV Not Your Father’s versions. If the extra fermentation — they’re 10.7 percent and 19.5 percent, the latter pushing the limits of what yeast can ferment by itself — reduces some of the residual sweetness without reducing all the delicious secondary flavors, that could really be something. These versions are still made at Small Town in Wauconda and are typically draft-only releases in the Chicago area, though they are all occasionally bottled in bombers. There’s no indication that we’ll get anything more than the 5.9 percent version, but if the demand is there perhaps Small Town will find a way to make it happen.
The bottom line is Not Your Father’s Root Beer is a novelty, but if a beer-strength root beer sounds like your bag, it probably won’t disappoint as an occasional evening sipper or the liquid part of a root beer float.
Bottom line: 3 stars (out of five)
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that, according to Small Town Brewery, Not Your Father's Root Beer does contain hops.