Seven root beer tasters assembled for an afternoon taste-test on January 15th, 2001.
We limited our first round of tasting to ten root beers. Even this number was found to be a bit overwhelming for the taste testers, who attempted to save small amounts of the first samples to compare to that later samples. Was that Sample A that was better compared to Sample F, or was that Sample E?
The Root Beers Tasted:
In order to hide the true identities of the beverages, a non-tasting official prepared the bottles in another room. Each root beer was poured into seven cups, each labelled with the same letter as the random assigned order of the bottles. This method allowed the leisurely sipping of each sample, as well as comparisons of Sample A to Sample D or Sample G, but had a few major drawbacks. Most importanly, the small sizes of the samples allowed the root beers to lose their carbonation and chill too quickly, tainting all tasting of the samples other than the initial sip. Secondly, the sheer number of paper cups created a confusing and wasteful pile by the end of the test.
The taste-testers were given worksheets to rate the root beers from 1-5 in the categories of Flavor, Creaminess, Subtlety, Bite, Nose, and Overall Taste, with space for additional comments and a long-shot space to guess the brand of root beer (no one guessed correctly). The non-tasting official poured each round of samples, brought them out to the tasters, the tasters pondered, and then it was time for another round of new samples. Very quickly the cups piled up and the comparisons became quite a challenge.
After all root beers were sampled and scored, we talked about our reactions to each one, which ones were our favorites or least-favorites. And then all the bottles were brought from the kitchen and the order of root beers was revealed. It was quite a surprise which brands each sample turned out to be. Several root beers that I'd assumed I wouldn't enjoy actually turned out to be high on my list.
Round One could be considered as also a test of our testing methods. Round Two will hopefully be improved by sampling fewer root beers at a time, and having better crackers on hand to provide a break between tastes.
Round One Results
Each of the ten root beers were sampled by seven judges and given scores from 1 to 5 in six categories: Flavor, Creaminess, Subtlety, Bite, Nose, and Overall Taste.
After an overwhelming number of samples were sipped and pondered, many of the judges felt great difficulty in determining differences among the flavors. Going back to sip a previous sample for comparison often meant comparing a fresh root beer to one that had quickly lost its carbonation. By the end of the testing many of the judges were probably sick of root beer altogether.
Before the identity of the beverages were revealed, the judges talked about which samples they felt to be the best or worst. There was general agreement that Samples A and B (Stewart's, Pirate's Keg) had been the best, while Samples H and I (Big Shooter, Tommyknockers) were below average, and Sample J (Natural Brew) was definitely the worst.
Yet, once the scores were totalled, how did the root beers fare?
Average scores across all categories:
Just comparing the one category of "Overall Taste," here are the results:
What makes a good root beer? Why choose one over the other? Do you prefer a creamy sweet taste? Or a harsher punch? How should a root beer smell? Is it fair to compare a micro-brewed root beer with mass-produced varieties? Is it fair to compare root beers made with all-natural ingredients to root beers made with artificial flavors?
What, in the end, distinguishes the best root beer? After the taste-testing was over and all the judges had gone home, I was cleaning up in the kitchen. Many of the bottles still had a little bit of root beer left, still chilled but not too carbonated. I took a swig from one, then another. Hey, these were pretty good! It didn't matter if we'd just spent the last few hours determining that Route 66 or Tommyknockers had been on the bottom of the list, when I drank some straight from the bottle, without comparing to any others, they both tasted pretty good. Perhaps the whole taste test is an unnatural situation. Usually when I drink root beer, I do not open more than one bottle to compare back and forth. Aside from obvious best or worst, the differences between most of these root beers may be exaggerated by taste-test myopia. Ultimately, the truest test of a root beer is sipping one on a hot afternoon.
Our Rigorous Taste Testing
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