One of the most debated releases in recent memory is up on the review block today: Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father Root Beer.

The beverage — or as the brewery calls it, an “Ale with the Taste of Spices” — is supposedly a beer that is brewed to taste like root beer and includes wintergreen, sassafras bark, oak, vanilla, anise, and “a host of other spices,” and therein lies the problem. The brewery has been tight-lipped about its process and ingredients, and as a result, there are quite a few people who are calling into question whether it is beer at all, or just a “malternative” like Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Zima.

Small Town Brewery Not Your Father's Root Beer bottle

In mid-June, it was announced that Pabst Brewing Co. had signed an agreement with Small Town Brewery to distributed the beverage nationally as well as acquiring a stake in the company, although it was already being sold in 30 states before the agreement was made.

Having said the above, the brewery itself has one of the most unique and dubious origin stories that I can recall reading:

My great-great-grandfather from the 1600s was the captain of a ship in England. He was also a bit of a gambler. As legend has it, he won a brewery during a high-stakes card game, which led him to start crafting his own beers. He began brewing beer on the ships he sailed. This allowed him to travel further than other vessels because beer stayed fresh during long journeys. The story goes that his beer was even consumed on a fleet of ships he commanded that transported some of the earliest settlers to America.

Growing up, I had never heard the complete story about my great-great-grandfather until I expressed an interest in making my own beer. When I told my mom that I planned to open a brewery, she finally revealed my family’s beer making history and why brewing was “in my blood.” Using some of my great-great-grandfather’s recipes as inspiration, I founded Small Town Brewery. At Small Town, our goal is to honor my family’s beer making tradition by creating specialty beers with unique and flavorful ingredients.

Not Your Father’s Root Beer is available in three different versions: the 5.9 percent ABV version packaged in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles1 that is now available nation-wide; a 10.7 percent ABV sold in limited quantities packaged in 22-ounce bottles and a shockingly high 19.5 percent ABV version that is even more limited, also packaged in 22-ounce bottles.

The Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer  pours a midnight black, with a fizzy carbonation resulting in a very thin head that dissipates after only 20 seconds or so, leaving no lacing at all. I have to say, the pour looks suspiciously like a soda, and the aroma coming from the glass is a combination of sweet licorice, cinnamon, vanilla, oak and slight  caramel.

As I am sure it is with most people who drink this for the first time, my initial thought when drinking the Not Your Father’s Root Beer is “holy crap this is sweet” followed almost immediately by “Damn, this really does taste quite a bit like root beer.” Of course, there are some noticeable differences: for one, the aforementioned sweetness on the palate, at times almost to the detriment of the rest of the profile. Secondly, while not overwhelming at all, there is an obvious—albeit not totally unpleasant  medicinal bitter note on the finish that lingers long after you take a drink, a taste that reminds me of sucking on plant roots. The flavors that are present work well together for the most part, including black licorice, vanilla, oak, sweet caramel along with a lower amount of carbonation than I was expecting.

Small Town Brewery Not Your Father's Root Beer

As it warms, the carbonation disappears, and the sweetness begins to take over dominance in the profile. In addition, the medicinal bitterness on the finish continues to get stronger, leading to a mess of a beer that is almost undrinkable.

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Small Town Brewery Not Your Father's Root Beer
BREWERY: Small Town Brewery
LOCATION: Wauconda, Ill.
STYLE: Ale
ABV: 5.9 percent
IBU: n/a
PRICE: $1.60
RELEASE DATE: 2012
AVAILABLE IN: 12-ounce bottles
BEERS POURED: Three
Small Town Brewery was aiming to make a beer that tastes as close to a classic root beer as possible, and assuming what they say is true about it being an actual beer, they nailed it, albeit with some caveats. The sweetness is sickly cloying at points—especially after the beer warms up—and the medicinal bitterness on the finish is a bit disconcerting, both of which pretty much destroy any balance the final product might exhibit. The main problem the beverage has is that it is trying to achieve two different goals, and as a result ends up losing on both counts. Yes, it is tasty in small doses, and I will definitely keep some around for when I want something sweet—or perhaps when I want to get drunk while eating root beer floats—but it tastes nothing like beer, and has none of the creaminess that I enjoy in a well-made root beer.
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