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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08227/904095-34.stm

LIVING / FOOD

Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?' Thursday, August 14, 2008 By Marlene Parrish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

A root beer float made by pastry chef Barbara Ferguson at Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar in Aspinwall. Chef Ferguson brews the root beer and makes the ice cream.

When Snoopy, in his persona as World War I flying ace, quaffs a root beer, what is his sippage of choice? And how about Dennis the Menace? Does he have a favorite? Maybe you grew up on A&W. I grew up on Hires. Ask a dozen people and you might get a dozen different answers. A few fanatics even make it from scratch. Aspinwall may be an unlikely 'burb to be a source of homemade root beer. But Barbara Ferguson, pastry chef at Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar on Commercial Avenue, makes her own hand-crafted root beer. "I love the flavor, and I wanted to add a root beer float to the summer dessert menu," she says. "None of the commercially made root beers that I tried were a good match for my homemade 1 of 9

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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vanilla bean ice cream. When I tasted IBC root beer, the cool taste of wintergreen was too prominent. Other brands were too sweet or had assertive flavors that weren't quite right, either. I wanted a root beer with a warm, naturally sweet flavor. Finally, I decided to make my own." Chef Ferguson plunged into research mode. She bought barks and herbs online and found the rest at the East End Food Co-op. The tweaking began. "I've never handled any of this before. "First I make sort of a tea from the ingredients, with birch and sassafras the top flavor notes. Then I strain the tea through cheesecloth. Most root beers are carbonated, but I wanted to try using yeast. I add a natural champagne yeast that goes dormant in the cooler so it doesn't produce alcohol. I also add sweeteners, preferring cane sugar, brown sugar and molasses. I let the mixture brew for a couple of hours, then bottle and cap it in 16-ounce portions, which is just enough for two servings. I make only a gallon at a time so that the root beer is always fresh. When one batch is opened, there is always a second gallon brewing." To make her root beer float at Mio, Chef Ferguson slides two scoops of homemade soft vanilla bean ice cream into a stemmed glass and pours in 8 ounces of her homemade root beer. "It's not a huge serving," she says. "I want the guests to wish there was just one more sip, one more spoonful." Delish. This might be the best $6.50 you will spend this summer.

A sampler of local brewers of root beer Natrona Bottling Co., Natrona, 724-224-9224, natronabottling.com. John Harvard's Brew Pub, Wilkins, 412-824-9440, johnharvards.com Church Brew Works, Lawrenceville (birch beer), 412-688-8200, churchbrew.com North Country Brewing, Slippery Rock 724-794-2337, northcountrybrewing.com Red Star Brewery, Greensburg, 724-850-7245, redstarbrewery.com -- Marlene Parrish

Preference is personal Then again, you might not like Chef Ferguson's home brew. Root beer is a complex beverage, as different as the people who make it or drink it. Unlike Pepsi, Coke and other pop icons, there is no fixed recipe. There are hundreds of root beer brands in the United States, produced in every state. The primary ingredient, artificial sassafras flavoring, is complemented with other flavors from a variety of herbs, barks, and roots. Common ones are vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, anise, molasses, cinnamon and clove. Hints of ginger, allspice, birch bark, juniper, hops and coriander might be included, too. If you think you are good at sussing out the 2 of 9

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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nuances of wine, you might test your palate on a root beer tasting. Where to buy Program your GPS for 344 Beaver St., Sewickley. The Village Candy store stocks more than 35 brands of bottled root beer. "Soft drinks weren't part of our original plan," says owner Doug Alpern. "We concentrated on seeking out old-fashioned candy. We carry Mary Janes, Bit-O-Honey, Vanilla Tootsie Rolls, Chocolate Necco Wafers, Zagnut bars and hundreds more old-time candies. But the last tenant in this space was a florist, and since the coolers were already here, we brought in over 150 brands of pop." Look at the shelves! There's Dad's Old-Fashioned Root Beer, Fitz's of St. Louis, Jack Black's Dead Red out of California, Sea Dog of Maine, Sprecher's of Wisconsin, Dr. Brown's Draft Style out of New York. Sometimes Mr. Alpern stocks Gale's made by Gale Gand, the Chicago-area pastry chef. Price per bottle ranges from $1.50 to $2.95. Buy one bottle at a time, or buy a mixed six-pack and get a 10-percent discount. "People around here like Henry Weinhard's," Mr. Alpern says. "I prefer Sparky's because I grew up on it. Your preference says a lot about your sweet tooth. I don't sell A&W, although you can get it at the Giant Eagle. Funny thing, though, I haven't seen Hires root beer for years. And he's the guy who started the modern era of commercial root beers." Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, first sold root beer to the public in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Hires discovered a recipe for what he called an herbal tea while on his honeymoon in New Jersey. While he worked on a liquid version, he sold a dry version of the root tea mixture that had to be mixed with water, sugar and yeast. Mr. Hires' final version of the beverage was a combination of more than 25 herbs, berries and roots all in carbonated soda-water. The Hires family manufactured the root beer and in 1893 first sold and distributed it in bottles. Mr. Hires' choice of a name seemed unfortunate at the time, because the word "beer" didn't go over so well with those in the temperance movement, and the drink quickly fell out of favor. Thinking fast, Mr. Hires had his product tested by a laboratory that concluded that root beer contained less alcohol than bread. That spin turned sales around, and Hires root beer fell back in favor. It was promoted as the "Temperance drink."

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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Root beer was at its most popular in the period during and after Prohibition, helped along by breweries that had to resort to brewing nonalcoholic beverages. But root beer today has only about a 3 percent share of the soft drink market, now dominated, of course, by colas such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Another famous brand of root beer is A&W, now the No. 1-selling root beer in the world. A&W was founded by Roy Allen, who began marketing root beer in 1919. Both Mr. Hires and Mr. Allen were Johnnie-come-latelys in the field of root beer. In its early history, root beer was a herbal medicine used for treating mouth sores and coughs. It was often mixed with ginger and was mildly alcoholic. Nit-picker alert: What's the difference between root beer and its kissin' cousins birch beer and sarsaparilla? To most people they are almost interchangeable, but soft-drink-ophiles insist that their forward flavors are quite different. Root beer, frequently called sarsaparilla, is a carbonated beverage originally made from the bark from the roots of the sassafras tree, and is the primary flavor most people associate with the beverage. Birch beer is said to be made from birch bark. The taste is sweeter than root beer, with a sharp and slightly minty flavor. Sarsaparilla is a drink flavored with sassafras bark. But sassafras bark was banned by the federal government in 1960 because of the carcinogenic properties of its constituent, chemical safrole. A safrole-free variety is now used in beverage making, with some claiming that it has a weaker flavor than the pre-1960 variety. But hey, don't analyze the stuff, just drink it. Nostalgia is more fun. For a real old-time root beer experience, go to Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor on Penn Avenue at 28th Street. Klavon's was opened in 1923 as a pharmacy, and it remains almost intact with its Art Deco fixtures, soda fountain stool seats fashioned after bottle caps and thick root beer float soda glasses. Root beer in the kitchen While scanning the shelves in the supermarket for vanilla extract, I noticed root beer extract. "I think I'll play with that," I thought, and tossed it in the cart. Just because my husband, Bob Wolke, and I love the flavor of root beer that doesn't mean it can be incorporated into very many recipes. A little goes a long, long way. I tried a root beer cake, but it was too much of a muchness. Here are three successes. • Cookie. My latest favorite cookie (when I'm not near the one I love, I love the 4 of 9

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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one I'm near) is a soft and cakey frosted root beer cookie. I like them on a mixed plate with some contrasting flavor cookies such as Mexican wedding and thumbprint cookies and lemon bars. • Topping. For a reconstructed brown cow, aka root beer float, I made a rootytoot-root-beer sundae topping for vanilla ice cream. • Sauce. Cola barbecue sauces are popular in the South. The one I made is good, but I don't think I'd knock myself out making it again. In a pinch, Bob sometimes concocts his own root beer from a syrup manufactured by Damon Shutak's Pittsburgh Soda Pop Co. The directions are right on the bottle: From a chilled one-liter carbonated water bottle, take out one cup of water. Add 2/3 cup syrup back to the bottle, recap bottle and gently mix. Mr. Shutak sells his syrups at the farmers markets on Saturday in Ligonier and Wednesday in Mt. Lebanon. To check out his other 20 syrups, go to pittsburghsodapop.com. We sampled well more than a dozen and a half brands of root beer in the past few weeks. The type of sweetener didn't matter, whether it was cane sugar, honey, molasses or high-fructose corn syrup, since the roots and spices are where the intense flavor of the brew comes from. Some brews got thumbs down for their intense sweetness. Other rejects had one or two dominant flavors (most often licorice and wintergreen), but were thin on the palate and all but disappeared when paired with ice cream. The majority of root beers are in 12-ounce bottles. In our unscientific, uncontrolled and highly personal, uh, field work, Bob and I did find three that we prefer and will buy again. • Virgil's Root Beer is rich and creamy, and stands up to either ice cubes or ice cream. It is stocked at Whole Foods Market and the East-End Co-op. • Sprecher's is an old fave, maybe because my Chicago son, Ted, always has it in his fridge. Balanced, hearty and full-flavored, Sprecher's comes in a 16-ounce bottle, which is just the right size for two servings. • IBC -- the letters, by the way, do not stand for the beginning of the Australian alphabet -- also is balanced with classic root beer flavors. The best and highest use of the soda will always be a root beer float. Pour just a bit of cold root beer into a tall glass. Add a small scoop of vanilla ice cream (although Bob insists on chocolate), then pour on a little more root beer, stir with a

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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long-handle spoon, and top with a second scoop of ice cream and a final pour. Whoosh, a wonderful creamy foam erupts. There's no better summer refresher.

BROWN COW CARAMEL SAUCE PG TESTED Here's another way to get the flavor of a root beer float. Scoop vanilla, cinnamon or chocolate ice cream into a dish and drizzle with this sauce. 2 cups root beer (do not use diet) 1 cup sugar 1/4 cup water 1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter 1/3 cup whipping cream Boil root beer in a heavy, medium-size saucepan until it is reduced to 2/3 cup, 12 to 15 minutes. Pour into a container, and set aside. Now pour the sugar into the same pan. Drizzle water over so that all the sugar is moistened. Cook over high heat, swirling pan often, until mixture turns a rich amber color, 7 to 10 minutes. Watch the pan carefully. Remove from heat and add butter. When it is melted, add the cream and reduced root beer. Return to high heat and heat to a boil. Whisk vigorously. Serve hot or cold. Makes 1 1/2 cups. -- Marlene Parrish ROOT BEER COOKIES PG tested These cookies are wonderful. McCormick's root beer concentrate is stocked at most grocery stores. If these cookies are to be made ahead or frozen, ice them just before using. For the cookies

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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1 cup dark brown sugar 3/4 cup (6 ounces, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 large egg 2 teaspoons root beer concentrate 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 3/4 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt For the icing 2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted 1/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature 2 to 4 tablespoons water 1 teaspoon root beer concentrate For the cookies Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several large baking sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, butter, egg, root beer concentrate and vanilla extracts for several minutes until well blended and fluffy. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until patches of white disappear. The batter will be stiff. Cover and refrigerate for an hour. Drop the dough by teaspoonfuls, spaced about 2 inches apart, onto the prepared sheets. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes. The cookies will spread. Allow to rest for 2 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. For the icing In a medium bowl, combine the confectioners sugar with the butter and mix well. In a measuring cup, combine the water and root beer concentrate; add to the sugarbutter mixture and mix well, adding more water (by droplets) as needed to reach a spreading consistency. Spread on the cooled cookies. Let set up for about 30 minutes before serving.

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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Makes 24 cookies. Variation: Brown Cow Cookies Make the cookies as above, or make half-size cookies. Make a vanilla butter cream frosting, and thickly spread it on the bottom of half the cookies. Sandwich with a plain cookie. Delicious! -- The Washington Post ROOT BEER BARBECUE SAUCE PG TESTED Barbecue sauces flavored with soft drinks are a long-standing tradition in the South. The root beer flavor here is good, but not pronounced. Smoke-flavored liquid seasoning is available at specialty foods stores and many supermarkets. 1 cup root beer 1 cup ketchup 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1/4 cup orange juice 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 1 1/2 tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar 1 tablespoon mild-flavored (light) molasses 1 teaspoon liquid smoke 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon onion powder Combine all ingredients in heavy, medium-sized saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 20 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Cool slightly. Transfer to bowl. Cover and refrigerate. (Can be made 2 weeks ahead; keep refrigerated.) Makes 1 1/2 cups. -- Bon Appetit magazine Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620. If you have a favorite local root beer, let us know.

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?'

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First published on August 14, 2008 at 12:00 am

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Vast variety of root beers raises question: 'How now, brown cow?  

Program your GPS for 344 Beaver St., Sewickley. The Village Candy store stocks more than 35 brands of bottled root beer. "Soft drinks weren'...