Root beer steps out of the shadows as popularity grows

  • Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Root beer flavors the batter and frosting in this simple cake.

    Root beer flavors the batter and frosting in this simple cake. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • A root beer float is a traditional use for this spicy soda, but it can be used with savory foods as well.

    A root beer float is a traditional use for this spicy soda, but it can be used with savory foods as well. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Published: 10/28/2009 12:01 AM

It's been quietly lurking on store shelves for decades. You've probably caught a glimpse of the dark bottles out of the corner of your eye as you grabbed for a case of red and silver cans.

Root beer will hide in the shadows no longer. Buoyed by the popularity of nostalgic foods and the increasing availability of small-batch varieties, this slightly spicy, sometimes creamy carbonated beverage is moving into the light.

"For me, and a lot of Midwesterners, root beer reminds us of A&W ... going to the drive-in was our big Saturday night. We'd watch horror movies with popcorn and root beer floats," says celebrity chef Gale Gand.

Root beer maintains a place in Gand's North suburban Riverwoods home. She's been mixing up her own batches for about 15 years and now bottles and sells Gale's Root Beer with an image of a young girl and a brown dog, Rooty, on the label.

Part of the appeal for root beer brewers and root beer fans is that there is no single flavor profile for the carbonated beverage.

Historically root beer was made with the sassafras root (hence the name) but vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, anise, molasses, cinnamon, clove and honey can be added to the brew.

Gand flavors her blend with cinnamon, ginger and vanilla from Nielsen-Massey, a high-end vanilla distiller in Waukegan - "that's the pastry chef in me," she admits. She hit on that combo after several attempts and admits her honey and star anise batch didn't make the grade.

Because the creaminess, spice intensity and fizz vary between brands, don't discount root beer as a beverage category; you're likely to find one that satisfies your palate. Spicier versions include Gale's Root Beer and Boylan's, while Sprecher has a creamier texture.

Those differences make root beer a good foil for food, notes Stacey Ballis, a Chicago-based food and lifestyle blogger with a passion for pop.

"You can pair different root beers with foods the same way you would pair wine with food," she says.

For steak and potatoes, "Faygo all the way," Ballis says about its balanced flavors. For a float, choose Sprecher and its vanilla undertones.

Beside the iconic root beer float, the soda can be used in other sweet and savory preparations.

"You can riff on Coca-Cola pork and make pork shoulder with root beer," Ballis says. My own pulled pork starts with a pack of country ribs, a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce and 8 ounces of root beer cooked in a slow-cooker on low for eight hours.

Ballis also loved root beer-glazed bacon. Pour a can or bottle of root beer in a sauce pan and reduce it slowly over low to medium-low heat. Paint it on raw bacon and bake until crispy.

At your next party, perhaps your Halloween gathering Saturday, consider serving root beer flights, small tastings of different brands.

"It's almost like having a beer, but it's not;" Ballis says. "It can be real fun."