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Rarefied root beers have no alcohol but bottle up lots of nostalgia


Rarefied root beers have no alcohol but bottle up lots of nostalgia Thursday, May 17, 2007 By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's pretty easy to get Doug Alpern to smile. All you have to do is get him talking about candy. Proprietor of Village Candy in Sewickley, the native upstate New Yorker loves it all -- hard candy, creamy artisan chocolates, animal-shaped gummies, rainbow-colored jelly beans. He has a particular penchant for the confections of his childhood, and so along with the regular stuff he fills his shelves with such nostalgic delights as Pop Rocks (sorry folks, Life cereal's Mikey did NOT die after eating this carbonated candy mixed with cola, as urban legend insists), Pixy Stix, root beer barrels, Licorice Pipes and those tiny, liquid-filled wax bottles known as Nik-L-Nip. "It's like a walk down memory lane," Mr. Alpern says with a laugh. "People are always saying, 'I didn't know they still made those!'"

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette

Doug Alpern's store carries 35 varieties of root beer long with many other varieties of hard-to-get soda pop. Click photo for larger image.

If you really want to get his happy juices flowing, though, ask him about his impressive collection of bottled sodas, which hail from Make your own with all across the country. Chief among them are the three dozen or so boutique root beers, some from as far away as Hawaii (Waialua custom syrups Root Beer) and Oregon (Henry Weinhard's Root Beer). They run Soda pop bottlers didn't get from $1.45 to $2.95 a bottle. much smaller than Damon Shutak's American Root Beer Co. The Hempfield man used to bottle tiny batches and sell them at area farmers markets under the name "American Root Beer Co." He took last year off, but this season, he's back, now as the Pittsburgh Soda Pop Co.

Related article Natrona 'pop shop' is last of the glass acts

When he set up shop a year ago in March, the massive cooler at the back of the Beaver Street storefront -- a former flower shop -- practically begged to be filled with something cool and different. So he figured, why not soda? (Or pop, if you're a native Pittsburgher.) In keeping with the rest of the store, he decided to go with bottled varieties that were a little less mainstream. "Sodas are brewed all over the country, but all we ever get is Coke and Pepsi," says Mr. Alpern, who, because there's not enough room in the fridge, keeps even more varieties stored at home, in his basement. "I wanted to offer something that most people have never seen." And that, he says, included some of the country's lesser-known root beers.

But why keep a good secret? Like most disciples of root beer, Mr. Alpern wants to spread the word. So this Saturday, in honor of its 141st anniversary as a drink, he's delving into his collection and hosting a first-ever root beer tasting at the store. Some of the brands he's planning on tasting include AJ Stephans Root Beer, which is brewed in Boston; Boylan's Root Beer from He's no longer bottling soda Philadelphia; Clover Classic Root Beer from Chicago; Thomas Kemper Root Beer from Seattle; and local favorite Red Ribbon Home Brewed Style Root Beer, which is made by the Natrona but sells 20-ounce bottles of Bottling Co. in Natrona. syrup so customers can make their own at home, using seltzer or soda water. He offers 26 flavors (including four root beers, birch beer and sarsaparilla) made with premium soda extracts, plus added herbs, spices and other flavorings. Each makes four 1-liter servings and costs $5.

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(Red Ribbon will actually improve with age, says John Nese, who sells a lot of it at his Galco's Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles.) As with real beer, there is no one recipe for root beer, which was first brewed in America during Colonial times. But generally, it's made with sugar and carbonated water and a variety of herbs, roots and barks such as sarsaparilla, wintergreen, wild cherry, sassafras, molasses, vanilla, dandelion root and ginger. It can be both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. In this age of the colas and uncolas, root beer has never emerged as what you'd call a major player; according to Beverage Digest, an industry newsletter that tracks U.S. beverage sales, root beer accounted for just 3.2 percent of all carbonated beverage sales in 2006 (Coke and Pepsi together

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Rarefied root beers have no alcohol but bottle up lots of nostalgia

make up 90 percent of total sales, which were down .6 percent. Root beer "I'm going back to my roots," sales, of which the boutique brands are just a tiny part, were up 1.4 says Mr. Shutak, who at one percent, however). point wanted to open a store That's not to say root beer doesn't have its aficionados. at the Westmoreland Mall.


This recipe comes from, which From the time it was introduced by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles He plans to be at the Mt. Hires at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition, root beer has had a provides several, Lebanon farmers market on following. (People must have forgotten it was originally sold as medicine including recipes for Wednesdays; Market Square for coughs and cold sores). In fact, as many as 2,000 brands of root beer making root beer. Thursday afternoons and the may have existed at one time or another, according to Tom Morrison, Bloomfield Market Thursday author of "Root Beer Advertising and Collectibles." 1 1/4 cups night; Forest Hills on Fridays, all-purpose flour Today, there are dozens of Web sites and blogs devoted to root beer, and Ligonier on Saturdays. along with books on how to brew your own. Try 1/2 teaspoon baking soda For details, visit Just don't confuse root beer with birch or ginger beer. They may sound Pinch salt similar, but birch beer is flavored with an extract from birch bark, while 1 cup root beer ginger beer, a spicy drink that originated in England in the mid-1700s, is (do not use diet) -- Bob Batz Jr. flavored with lemon and ginger. 3/4 cup packed light brown The goal of the tasting, says Mr. Alpern, is to understand the sometimes sugar subtle, other times palpable, differences among root beers. For example, Molson Golden and I.C. Light hardly resemble one another, even though 1/4 cup ( 1/2 both are beer; the same holds true for root beer. Some may simply adore the hint of honey in Oregon's stick) unsalted Henry Weinhard's Root Beer, while others will prefer the robust licorice tones and strong anise flavors butter, softened of Virgil's, made in California. 2 eggs 1/2 teaspoon "It's like wine," says Mr. Alpern, whose personal favorite is Abita Root Beer from Louisiana. "You pure vanilla have to decide, what do you like?" extract

Village Candy, 344 Beaver St., Sewickley, will host a root beer-tasting event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Tony Knipling from Vecenie Distributing will be serving samples of 1919 Classic American Draft Root Beer made at the Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, Minn., and someone from Hereford & Hops in Cranberry will be serving its house draft root beer, too.

The event is free and open to the public, but tasters must register beforehand by sending an e-mail to Make sure you put "root beer" in the subject line. First published on May 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-761-4670.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch spring-form pan. For cake, sift together flour, baking soda and salt; set aside. Put 1 cup root beer in a small saucepan; boil, uncovered, until it is reduced to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Cool to lukewarm. Beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl of an electric mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stop the mixer and add the

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Rarefied root beers have no alcohol but bottle up lots of nostalgia

reduced root beer and vanilla. Mix just to combine. Fold in the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Poke holes all over top with a toothpick. Brush with about 3 tablespoons of the root beer. Remove the sides from the pan and cool cake completely. For frosting, mix 6 tablespoons root beer, confectioners??? sugar, butter and vanilla in a small bowl to make a thin frosting. Spread over top of cooled cake, letting it drip down the sides. --

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Rarefied root beers have no alcohol but bottle up lots of nostalgia  

It's pretty easy to get Doug Alpern to smile. All you have to do is get him talking about candy. Proprietor of Village Candy in Sewickley, t...