Whose Root Beer Is It?

Happy Friday! Seems like it's about time to clock out of work, doesn't it? Are you comfy? Do you have a cold beverage in your hand? If not, you may want to grab a seat and a beer, as today's topic may be a bit of a long one. 

When you hear someone say, "Man, I love that beer. It' tastes just like ____!" does that seem odd to you? I'm talking about when people say a beer tastes just like something that is not beer - cream soda or root beer, for example. Does it seem a bit odd? 

The neat thing about craft beer is that it allows brewers to express their creativity by creating a variety of different and unique flavors in their beer. Hops can lend dank, piney, and resinous flavors, or even tropical fruity melon flavors. Malted, roasted, and kilned grains can convince you there is chocolate or coffee in your beer, and yeast can provide everything from the flavors of bananas and clove to peppercorn and flowers. And of course, brewers like to experiment with added ingredients such as fruit, spices, coffee, chocolate...bacon, maple syrup, peanut butter, moon dust...

However, in all of these instances, the core product is still a beer. They're brewed using traditional processes, with some fun ingredients added to give it some pizazz. Now, maybe Rocky Mountain Oyster Stouts aren't your thing, but all of these examples are brewed by craft breweries using traditional brewing techniques, without hiding how the beer is created.

Which brings us to "Small Town Brewery" Not Your Father's Root Beer.  This beer has been taking the craft beer scene by storm. It even has a 98 rating on BeerAdvocate (though it is dropping by the day, as more people realize what they're drinking...funny how knowledge impacts your perception of flavor).

They literally went from startup to having national distribution in under five years, with one sales survey calling it the fastest-selling new craft-beer product of 2015. It's on every craft beer store shelf, and even finding it's way into grocery stores and Walmarts by the pallet. And, full disclosure, it was the #1 selling product at The Glass Jug last month (outselling NoDa Hop Drop 'n Roll), and is the top seller this month, despite going a week without it on the shelves due to a temporary shortage at the local distributor (because it's selling so quickly).

However, there is much debate about whether or not this is actually beer at all.

According to a recent article on philly.com, the brewhouse at Small Town Brewery is capable of making fewer than 15 kegs a day, which is the equivalent of about 2,500 bottles - or would be if the brewery owned any bottling equipment.

The truth is that almost all of the beer that is showing up on our shelves is packaged over 200 miles away at a plant owned by City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The same plant that produces other "alcopops" or "malternatives" such as Mike's Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice.

If you didn't already know, Mike's Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice are not traditionally brewed craft beers. They're engineered in a plant where alcohol is created through fermented grains (and mostly simple sugars), then stripped down to basically tasteless alcohol, where it is then combined with artificial flavors.

The assumption, then, based on this knowledge, and the fact that *it tastes just like root beer* is that it's made using the same process. While I cannot prove this as fact, because, according to the high-price New York City PR firm that represents the owner of Small Town Brewery, "Parts of the recipe are proprietary."

OK, so we've covered that it's possible that this stuff isn't even really beer at all. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it is beer, brewed traditionally, by a brewer who has stumbled upon an amazing recipe that can make beer taste just like root beer. The next issue I have is that it is promoted and sold as "craft" beer.

Even if it is beer, it would be a stretch to call it craft. Especially if we use the Brewer's Association's guidelines as to what defines craft beer: 

"Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). 
Independent:Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers."

Well, again, the "traditional" part is highly suspect, but let's look at the other two.

While I don't have exact production numbers, 6 million barrels is a crap-tun of beer. Not Your Father's Root Beer is now being distributed by the Pabst (you know, the guys who make PBR) national distribution network, so it is (or soon will be) in all 50 states. Think of it this way - Yuengling isn't even in all 50 states, nor is New Belgium (Fat Tire). So I imagine if it continues along this track, they will likely pass this benchmark soon enough.

This is where some other big questions lie. According to the packaging and the website, this beer is brewed and owned by Small Town Brewery, however, there are some signs that point to this not actually being the case.

The philly.com article points out that:

  • The label for Not Your Father's Root Beer was registered by Phusion Projects LLC.

  • 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.

You may not know the name Phusion, but I bet you have heard of Four Loko. Yep, the alcoholic energy drink that was banned a few years ago, later to return without the added caffeine. Four Loko was linked to dozens of hospitalizations and at least one death from excessive consumption before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled it from shelves in 2010. Phusion is the company that owns the Four Loko brand.

The other oddity here is that they are using the Pabst distribution network. While I cannot find any substantiated claims, there are rumors that the brand (but not the brewery) was recently acquired by Eugene Kashper, the CEO and chairman of Pabst Brewing Co.

So, again, independent? Probably not.

Of the criteria to be considered a craft beer by the Brewer's Association, it would appear that Not Your Father's Root beer falls short in all three categories: Small, Independent, & Traditional.

But why am I telling you all of this? Remember, this beer is my #1 seller. Well, thankfully they're aren't very many people on this newsletter list just yet, so it shouldn't impact sales. ;)

Seriously though, I'm all for selling something that people want to buy because they enjoy drinking it, and it's getting other non-beer drinkers into our store, which is awesome. Hopefully it will be a gateway to get more people turned on to craft beer.

However, I want people to know and understand the product they are buying. When I stock a beer that says it is a German Altbier, I can tell you a lot about it, even before trying it. But with this Root Beer, the true story is hidden under a lot of marketing talk. I don't want my customers to be fooled into buying something they thought was craft beer, only to later find out that it's not. If you want to buy it, great, I'll happily sell it to you. No complaints here. I just want you to know what it is you're buying so you don't think your money is going to support a small local brewery, when it actually is not.

Now, my last email didn't get very many responses. I'm curious to hear opinions on this one. Am I being too much of a purist? Does it matter who makes the beer? Or maybe you think we should stop selling it? Happy to entertain any opinions.

Oh, and as always, be sure to forward along to any friends who might find this interesting.