Friday, August 7, 2015

Is “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” beer?

By now you’ve probably heard of the beer sensation that’s sweeping the nation, “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” by Small Town Brewery out of Wauconda, Illinois. If you’ve tried it, you know it delivers as promised: alcoholic root beer. That’s all fine and dandy; and I personally enjoyed this beverage, but…. is it beer?

imageAbout a year ago I wrote a blog called “When is a beer not a beer?” wherein I described what, in my opinion, constitutes real beer. My basic definition is that it must be made with barley, hops, yeast and water, though pretty much everyone agrees on that definition. Where it gets controversial is when you add extra flavoring ingredients like spices, seasonings, fruits, etc., or when the beer is blended with something else.

In this case of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, it’s a brew where the flavorings are the complete and total stars of the palette. All you can taste is the root beer-like flavors of sassafras, ginger, vanilla and wintergreen. I got no distinct malt flavor and no hop bitterness, aroma or taste, either. When I drank it, I assumed there were no hops in it whatsoever, which lead me to consider it to be a flavored malt beverage (aka FMB aka “Alcopop”). However, I recently read this article on the Boston Globe by Gary Dzen in which Tim Kovac, the founder and brewmaster of Small Town Brewery, states that is it in fact brewed with a “small amount” of Crystal and Willamette hops. That would certainly seem to make it a beer, if only on a technicality.

There’s something to be said for the “spirit of the definition” as opposed to the “wording of the definition” per se. Consider this: the bottles in your local beverage center and supermarkets were not brewed by the actual Small Town Brewery; they were made in Lacrosse, Wisconsin by City Brewing Company. This is a contract brewery known for making a lot of alcopops like Mike’s Hard Lemonade (fun fact: Stewart’s brand “Mountain Brew Beer” is also produced at this very facility!). According to this article by Don Russell, it appears that Small Town and Phusion Products (the makers of Four Loko) may be in cahoots:

Kovac, and the names of two other area men are listed on Small Town’s state liquor license. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that the brewery is either controlled by or in a partnership with a much larger company called Phusion Projects LLC.
For example:
* The label for Not Your Father’s Root Beer was registered by Phusion.
* Small Town’s Illinois state business registration lists Phusion’s Chicago offices as its main address.
* Small Town and Phusion shared the same director of strategic marketing.
* And, tellingly, Small Town Brewery’s own website includes a contact address that is the same as Phusion’s. Or, at least it did, until the address was erased from the website sometime this spring.
Why the subterfuge?
Possibly because Phusion is responsible for the most notorious alcoholic beverage to hit the shelves in the past decade: Four Loko.
Phusion did not reply to a request for comment about its relationship, and Small Town declined to answer further questions about its ownership.
However, a source familiar with the companies told me that the brand (but not the brewery) was recently acquired by Eugene Kashper, the new CEO and chairman of Pabst Brewing.
Pabst will distribute the root beer in all 50 states

So we have a product being made at a facility known for making FMBs; a tight connection between the original brewer and Phusion Products, and it’s being distributed nationally by Pabst? That’s three pretty bad strikes right there.

Though I suppose the only real test that matters is the taste test. I’ve tried it, it was good, but it’s not the kind of palette I associate with true beer. In my opinion, Not Your Father’s Root Beer is best considered an alcopop.

What do you think? Is this product beer or something else?