Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting Back to Our Roots

Despite the fact that we cheated and ordered two cases of Barq’s Root Beer from a specialty importer, our hunt for root beer in the UK continues. We’re just now running low from our first order, so I got inspired to hunt around London for some possible replacements. In part I want to satisfy a simple craving for root beer, but mostly I want the thrill of walking into a random corner market and finding 2 dusty cans of Mug or even finding Sarsi in a cooler at a take-away Thai place. I have also heard a rumor that there might be an A&W fast food franchise in Scotland, which, if true, I must find. Coming across an A&W in Scotland would be about as surprising as the time I found a Dairy Queen in Thailand, but at least as welcome.

The DQ in Bangkok. Avoid the Durian Blizzard.

In lieu of actual root beer, I decided it was time to try some British sodas with a similar origin. Just as root beer and birch beer were a direct result of the temperance movement and Prohibition in the US, a counterpart temperance movement in the UK in the latter half of the 1800s resulted in a series of similar nonalcoholic beverages to replace people’s beer cravings. In the UK, “temperance bars” that offered low or nonalcoholic beverages became commonplace particularly in the northern parts of England in the late 1800s, and provided a place for people to socialize much like in a normal pub. There is only one of the original temperance bars left in operation today, Fitzpatrick’s 1890 in Lancashire. Temperance bars served a selection of drinks, some of which, like ginger beer and cream soda, are still popular today. Others sodas, such as dandelion and burdock soda, sarsaparilla, and vimto are quite a bit less popular and can be somewhat hard to find.

Stobbart's Temperance Bar from Gateshead

I felt brave recently and bought a bottle of Fentiman’s Dandelion and Burdock soda. This type of soda makes use of the roots of dandelion and burdock to flavor the soda, so technically it is a type of root beer. But anyone even remotely familiar with the flavors of either dandelion or burdock root knows that nothing resembling American root beer is likely to result from this flavor combination. In fact, in all likelihood, it should taste brown, bitter, and medicinal. However, there are multiple brands of dandelion and burdock soda to be found in London, including generic brands from the big markets like Sainsbury’s (which seems to only come in 2 liter bottles and in Diet only) so there have to be some redeeming traits. Fentiman’s is a somewhat gourmet brand, so there was more of a chance that something decent might come from them. To describe the flavor of the Fentiman’s Dandelion & Burdock soda is tricky. It is definitely a brown flavor. Horehound candy meets licorice, or perhaps Coke with a splash of ouzo. It’s sweet, fragrant, confoundingly unlike anything else I’ve ever tried, and actually rather tasty; it is definitely an acquired taste that I can’t imagine any child liking. And I have to admit that it does belong in the root beer family of flavors, although I have yet to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to see how a float would taste.

Fentiman's Dandelion & Burdock soda

Inspired by the surprising tastiness of the Fentiman’s Dandelion & Burdock, I went on the hunt for some more unusual British sodas. At a little local British specialty foods store (A. Gold near Spitalfields Market) I found another dandelion and burdock variation by a Staffordshire brewing company called Septimus Spyder, as well as a sarsaparilla from the same brand (I see on their website that they also make a root beer, but I have yet to find it). The following day I found another sarsaparilla from a soda company called Free Natural in Sussex (spelled “sarsaperilla” on their bottles) as well as, the original object of our search, root beer. Yes, it is true - we have now verified the existence of an English root beer.

Septimus Spyder's waxed bottles

The Septimus Spyder sodas have great bottles, covered in wax - this may simply be a traditional way of adhering labels to a bottle, but it looks nice too. The Spyder Dandelion & Burdock was somewhat similar to the Fentiman’s in flavor, but was only faintly carbonated and a bit too medicinal for my taste, but still decent. The Spyder Sarsaparilla tasted astoundingly just like their Dandelion & Burdock - almost no flavor difference at all, and certainly didn’t taste like root beer. Both Spyder sodas tasted flat and unpolished, like something an eccentric home-brewing neighbor might force you to try, but not like something you would expect to ever find in a store.

Nice bottles, yum-yum.

A bottle of Free Natural soda has about as much shelf-appeal as a bottle of cod liver oil; it resembles a health food product from the 70s, but it completely lacks any ironic retro sensibility that might make that okay. In fact, these might actually be health food products from the 70s, come to think of it. Despite my glee at finding a true British root beer, I didn’t have much hope for these in terms of flavor, particularly since the sodas were sweetened with pear juice not sugar (plus they made me think of cod liver oil). The Free Natural Root Beer did have a decent root beer smell, but the flavor was medicinal, oddly fruity, and mostly unpleasant. The “Sarsaperilla” was sour, herby, and totally foul. I think the picture sums it up. We poured both bottles down the drain. Perhaps this is where we should end our search, but I still hold out hope.

Mmm, tastes like roots


Jordan said...

i am shaken to the core by the prospect of a durian blizzard. such an abomination should be banned by the geneva convention.

Andy M. said...

Good thing I made it up.

Jordan said...

too late. i'm already having nightmares. remember the durian log in KL?

Andy M. said...

I wish I could forget it. Probably the single foulest thing I've ever eaten. It tasted like a gas leak.

Roy Allen said...

two things here -

I actually tried a durian shake a few weeks back just to see if it still tasted like sauteed onions and cantelope. The answer was yes.

On a more important note, check this out:
don't know if it's available in the UK...

Andy M. said...

Roy - "Sauteed onions and cantelope", that about sums it up. Perhaps toss in some over-ripe brie into the mix to complete the picture.

Hmm, A&W floats in a bottle - probably not so great, but definitely worth a shot. They are owned by a UK corporation, but I doubt they'll release it here (since I can't even find the basic root beer from A&W). I'll keep my eye out for it. Thanks for the info!

Mrs. Fox said...

You are very brave, most of that stuff looks and sounds pretty awful.

Su-Lin said...

I'm a huge fan of root beer as well and I'd just like to point out that some Chinese supermarkets (like the one about to close in Oriental City) sell cans and bottles of A&W. I've also seen both A&W and Barqs at CyberCandy near Covent Garden. So when you're down in London next, that might be a place you could visit.

Andy M. said...

Thanks Su-Lin. I have seen the CyberCandy website, but I haven't been to their store. I always keep an eye out in Asian groceries, but I have yet to strike gold. I heard recently that there was a market in the Barbican centre that had A&W too, so I will have to do some recon.

Anonymous said...

Well I am very lucky because purly by chance it came to my notice that a new shop had opened close to where I live in Poole Dorset and they sell A&W rootbeer in cans plus they also sell Mug rootbeer. So I bought a case of 24cans of A&W and every couple of weeks I get another case. The owner of the shop gets the rootbeer via an importer who brings it in from Singapore where it is made under licence. Apparently it is quite popular in Singapore and Malasia.

Soop said...

Dude, I mailed Fentimans (sp) and asked them about producing a rootbeer. They said they'd look into it, but dude, we need to totally get on this.

I'd love to be involved in the process!