We Try Five Brands of Root Beer: Dad’s, Zesto, Arcy, and MoreSeptember 1, 2018
Root beer is a curious beverage—a sweetened, often non-alcoholic carbonated drink with a taste as peculiar as its surprising pharmaceutics-oriented origins. Its distinct flavor profile is an amalgation of various other flavors, which may include herbs (e.g. wintergreen), spices (e.g. aniseed, allspice, cinnamon), roots (e.g. sassafras, sarsaparilla), and more. And though not the most popular soda option in the Philippines, it has its fair share of Filipino fans, forming part of the standard soda lineup that local brands would churn out their own takes as well. We are by no means connossieurs, instead casual root beer guzzlers always up for a swig of the said drink; and with five canned versions (both local and foreign in origin) widely available in the market, how does each brand fare?
Note: we limited our selection to brands with local adaptations, thus excluding purely imported brands (e.g., Virgil’s or Barq’s). For tasting, root beers were chilled, poured from their original cans to glasses, and tasted sans additional ice.
This local brand is produced by ARC, a.k.a. the makers of RC Cola (we sense a theme; see what they did there?). Sweetened with sugar, you’re off to a crisp start, which comes supported by a licorice-y roundness, and in the backdrop, a caramelized-sugar depth similar to what you get in cola. A mellow tang follows before Arcy releases a spice-filled warmth—in particular, we can identify cinnamon—that lingers long, and works well to add a comforting complexity to every sip.
Dad’s hails from the U.S., deeming itself as “America’s Premium Root Beer” on the label. Its ingredient list reads that it’s sweetened with “High-Fructose Corn Syrup and/or Sugar” (oddly different from the cane sugar-sweetened American version); we don’t mind the HCFS, and maybe it’s all in our heads, but we notice a more round (and intense) sweetness that settles on the tongue more immediately as we sip. Past that is a spice-y hint with what we can best identify as cinnamon and/or nutmeg, plus a licorice-y depth that surrounds the tongue, before moving in a slightly more creamy, vanilla-y direction compared to the other brands and ending with a minty hint.
Mug (owned by Pepsico) also comes from the U.S.. This Philippines-marketed iteration has a slightly different ingredient list from the American version however, being sweetened with sugar and not high fructose corn syrup, and listing only “artificial flavors” (as opposed to both “natural and artificial flavors” in the original), making it difficult to determine how similar or different the two might be. Regardless, at the onset is a caramel-y depth that lays a good baseline for what’s to come: a citrusy note (specifically evoking lemon zest), similar to their flagship cola Pepsi. Though the overall taste is not particularly sour, the said lemon-y point lends this soda a more bright, perky character. Sadly it falls short on the deeper herbs or spices characteristic of root beer. You might as well call it a less-tangy cola, but it’s appealing in its own vibrant, fruity way.
Sarsi offers a curious case; online resources point to its being a sarsaparilla drink (which is similar to, but distinct from, root beer), yet you’ll find the words “root beer” printed on the side of the can—we’ll take their word for it and view this as a root beer anyway. Another high fructose corn syrup-sweetened soda (apart from employing “sweeteners neotame and ace-K”), it’s comparatively one-note, coming on the sweet side and flaunting a mostly herbal, bubblegum-y (even toothpaste-like) profile. It gains a semblance of depth from its hint of (fake) vanilla, but falls flat on the other flavors we associate with rootbeer. It’s perhaps this very simplicity that makes it a hit with Filipinos though; combined with its highly carbonated body (think bigger bubbles with an acidic mouthfeel), it’s great guzzled down between bites of salty, greasy eats.
Local beverage conglomerate Zesto’s take delivers great anise-y notes, with hints of a cinnamon and/or clove-dominated spice-y warmth—just enough to add a happy zing. A hint of acidity follows through, producing a crisp, bright combination that’s still well-balanced with a whisper of herbal depth. As it finishes, you get a slight mintiness that feels cool on the tongue, and which is great when evened out as you take another sip and go through each part of the flavor wave all over again. We wouldn’t call it the most (as the label claims) “full-bodied and rich” take, but it hits all the right flavor spots for a balanced sum.
The Verdict: Arcy
With its well-rounded profile that ticks the checklist of delivering on the root beer-y herbalness, a slight tang, and a long, spice-filled finish, Arcy is our top pick; it’s refreshing on its own, but still goes great with a scoop of ice cream for an indulgent float. Coming close is Dad’s sweet but depth-delivering, anise-redolent and more creamy version in how it brings to mind thoughts of the pop shop, soda fountain-lovin’ days of the good ol’ days. Zesto’s well-balanced take also proves to be a hit; and though less root beer-y than we’d like, Mug’s fruitier and Sarsi’s more bubblegum-y versions carry an appeal of their own.