One of the hottest sellers from a state craft brewery right now isn’t even a beer but the new Hard Root Beer from Sprecher Brewing Co.
If what the beverage industry calls a fermented malt beverage — think Smirnoff Ice, Twisted Tea or Mike’s Hard Lemonade — seems a bit odd from the well-respected Sprecher, one that evokes root beer should not.
Sprecher is also to the soda world what it is to the beer world: A worthy, handmade (-ish) premium alternative to the (more) mass-produced standards. My favorite Sprecher sodas — and I do love soda — are the traditional flavors: the crisp, spicy ginger ale, voluptuous vanilla bomb cream soda and not-too-sweet cherry cola.
But among its sodas, Sprecher is best known for its root beer, and its take on this classic soda can be found at many restaurants and even bars that want to offer dry-minded patrons something on par with the craft beer taps they offer. The idea behind Hard Root Beer was to translate that into an alcoholic beverage and, as the packaging says, give a nod to “the original fermented malt mixtures of roots and herbs that have evolved into modern root beer.”
Hard Root Beer debuted in the Milwaukee and Madison areas last month and quickly sold out. Woodman’s East sold out of its supply in one day, a clerk there said. So it came as no surprise when Sprecher announced in early February that Hard Root Beer would become a regular member of its lineup.
So even though Hard Root Beer is not beer, let’s take a look at this soon-to-be fixture on Wisconsin beer shelves.
Hard Root Beer
Style: Root beer-flavored fermented malt beverage
Brewed by: Sprecher Brewing Co., Glendale
What it’s like: Everything about it says “root beer,” not “hard.”
Where, how much: Sprecher last week bottled and shipped its second batch of 4,000 cases of Hard Root Beer, so it should be back on shelves as you read this, although if you really want to try it soon, I wouldn’t wait. Four-packs of 12-ounce bottles sell for around $5.
The beverage: Hard Root Beer pours a deep mahogany brown with a modest sudsy head that smells of caramelized sugar, anise and a touch of vanilla. Those aroma characteristics come through in the flavor as well, along with a slight bourbon character alluded to in the packaging. (It’s not actually aged in bourbon barrels but flavored to evoke that taste; the label is ambiguous about that.) Hard Root Beer has a creamy texture with a dry, surprisingly clean finish for such a sweet drink overall.
If all of this seems like I’m describing a root beer, that’s exactly correct. I try to avoid speaking in absolutes about a sense as fickle as flavor, but I detected zero alcohol presence in this beverage. Danger zone!
Booze factor: Despite the sheep’s clothing described above, this wolf packs 5 percent ABV, the same as a Heineken, a Budweiser or a Sprecher Special Amber.
The buzz: One of the longtime criticisms of fermented malt beverages is that, because they tend to taste like liquid candy and mask the alcohol, they target underage drinkers. I must admit that my first thought on finishing my first Hard Root Beer was, “Boy, this is going to be really popular with college freshmen.” I had a sweet tooth when I was 19 as I do now, and I would have loved Hard Root Beer then.
But even though I’m a hard-core beer guy now, I have to say I love Hard Root Beer now, too. It has enough flavor complexity that I can see other craft beer drinkers reaching for this occasionally for a change of pace. And while I think more often Hard Root Beer will be favored by those who “don’t like the taste of beer” — a sure sign they just aren’t picking the right beers — it’s nice that they can look to a Wisconsin craft brewer for a quality “malternative.”
Bottom line: 3½ (out of four)