Boozy root beer coming to Canada — just in time for summer
Three Canadian companies and two industry giants bring alcoholic root beer to market.
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After liquoring up lemonade, kicking up cola and jacking up juices, they finally went there: they revved up root beer.
The trend that swept the U.S. last year has arrived north of the border in time for summer patio season, with three Canadian companies concocting different versions of the old time favourite, infused with booze.
You’d think that hard root beer might actually contain beer since it’s part of the name. Not exactly. Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery, whose success with craft brews led to a takeover by Labatt Breweries this year, uses its vanilla porter bierschnaps and mixes it with their homemade root beer to make its hard soda.
Bierschnaps is made from beer that has been distilled into a clear, dry spirit similar to vodka, and Mill Street cranks out the rare beverage in an old copper still at its Beer Hall in the Distillery District. Since craft soda and craft spirits are already a hit with consumers separately, makers say blending the two was a no-brainer.
“We thought, ‘well we already make both, let’s mix them together,’ and it turned out to be delicious,” said Martha Lowry, head distiller at Mill Street’s Beer Hall in the Distillery District.
“We are really excited by the initial response to our root beer, and we have our still at the Beer Hall working overtime to keep up with the demand,” she said.
So far it’s only sold in Ontario, and it’s so popular that it’s been hard to keep it on the shelves at the LCBO lately. Even on The Star’s recent visit to the Tankhouse Lane brewpub to talk about the product, they had already sold out to thirsty patrons and had to bring in some six-packs from the downtown brewery for pictures.
One-third of the LCBO’s annual sales are in the summer, with vodka and beer the top sellers during warmer months. Summer sales in 2015 for vodka were $693 million, a boost of more than 16 per cent compared to the rest of the year.
This year, the LCBO is expecting a hot summer at the cash register, projecting $1.8 billion in total summer sales. Ready-to-drink cocktails and coolers fly off the shelves — 127 per cent more at this time of year — and represented $98.2 million of summer sales last year.
The liquor agency says the category is “erupting,” particularly with the recent release of hard root beer. It’s even recommended on its website as a cool gift for Father’s Day. (Ironically, a U.S. brand is called Not Your Father’s Root Beer.)
Crazy Uncle Hard Root Beer, which launched in Toronto in the spring, is sold in cans rather than Mill Street’s brown bottle format, and is marketed as a “craft soda for grown-ups.”
“Everything retro is still cool,” says Bruno Codispoti, who created the Crazy Uncle brand with his brother Davide, which also includes a blood orange punch and a whisky cider and chai drink.
The duo’s latest product is a grain-based, triple distilled vodka base mixed with root beer that is made with natural sarsaparilla, sweet birch, wintergreen and licorice root with a creamy vanilla finish.
“We’re only selling it in cans because we don’t want it confused with beer,” he explained.
They recommend restaurants add it to their dessert menu and make root beer floats with it for adult customers rather than just swigging it at the bar.
Meanwhile competitor Dusty Boots, first on the Canadian market last December, is a malt beverage with the highest alcohol content of the new entrants at 5.9 per cent. The makers pitched their ready-to-drink beverage company Sage Mixology on CBC’s Dragon’s Den two years ago and landed an equity deal, but later decided the investment wouldn’t be a good fit and backed out.
“We promote our root beer at beer festivals and sell it everywhere from Yorkville restaurants to regular pubs. There’s not really one target market for it,” noted co-owner Daniel Bartek.
He was born in the Czech Republic and had his first sip of root beer when he moved to Canada at 17. It was A&W and he became an instant fan.
“It’s fun to be first in a fast-growing category, and our brand seems to be responding well so far,” says Bartek.
Of course the big guns are muscling in on the lucrative business. Molson Coors Brewing Co. recently released Mad Jack Premium Hard Root Beer that is sold alongside its other brews at The Beer Store. Spirits giant Diageo also created Captain Morgan Spiked Root Beer in tall cans.
Ken Wong, marketing professor at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, said he thinks overall “this product has a chance, at least in the short-term.
“The reason has less to do with the taste and more to do with the novelty. Beer consumption tends to be heaviest among younger Canadians — millennials — who consume experiences as much as products,” he says.
“It would provide an instant source of conversation and taste-testing at barbeques and parties. So I can see people buying it for such an occasion as opposed to buying it for self-consumption,” he says.
Hard root beer really took off in the U.S. last year. Sales in the hard soda category there jumped to $116 million (U.S.) in 2015, according to market research firm IRI.
Root beer’s roots
1800s — Root beer actually started out as a type of beer and an alcoholic beverage. It was known as a “small beer,” a beverage brewed during colonial times in America from a variety of herbs, bark, roots and berries. During those times, rampant pollution in the water supply made people ill, so brewed drinks like tea and beer were considered safer. Small beer contained alcohol, usually between 2 and 12 per cent. Ingredients in early root beers included sarsaparilla, allspice, vanilla beans, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen and molasses — many of which are still used in root beer today along with added carbonation. There is no one recipe.
1876 — Teetotaler Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, discovered a recipe for a delicious herbal tea while on his honeymoon. He began selling a dry version of the tea mixture and also began working on a liquid version of the same tea. The result was a combination of over 25 herbs, berries and roots that Hires used to flavour a non-alcoholic, carbonated soda water drink. Hires introduced the first root beer beverage to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Originally he wanted to call the beverage root tea since he didn’t drink, but because one of his target markets was beer-drinking coal miners, he decided to call it root beer.
1893 — The Hires family continued to manufacture root beer and in this year first sold and distributed bottled root beer.
1919 — One hot day in June in Lodi, California, an entrepreneur named Roy Allen mixed up a batch of creamy root beer and sold the first frosty mug of the beverage for one nickel. The co-founder of A&W restaurants purchased the formula from a pharmacist in Arizona.
1960 — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras, one of the main ingredients in root beer, as a potential carcinogen. However, only the oil is considered dangerous, and a method was found to remove the oil from sassafras.
Today — A&W Root Beer is the world's number one selling root beer and is still mixed fresh daily — but the unique blend of herbs, spices, barks and berries remains a proprietary secret. Hires also remains a popular brand.
Key Canadians in hard root beer
Crazy Uncle: Toronto brothers and entrepreneurs Davide and Bruno Codispoti have been making and promoting various food and drink brands for the last 20 years and bringing them to market under their company Brand Fusion. Crazy Uncle is their line of pre-made, non-sugary cocktails that includes Uber Caesar, Blood Orange Punch and Whisky Cider & Chai. The name is meant to reflect the eccentric and the unpredictable.
Dusty Boots: Daniel Bartek, 27, came to Canada from Olomouc, Czech Republic to play hockey in the WHL and later attend Dalhousie University. He got a business degree there at the Rowe School of Business and also met students Cam McDonald and Bobby Besant. The trio found investors and started the Sage Mixology company that they successfully pitched on Dragon’s Den. They also created Crazy Beard Apple Ale, a mixture of cider and beer.
Mill St. Distillery Root Beer: Martha Lowry, 29, says she’s having a blast as head distiller at the Mill Street Brew Hall, creating beverages in a bright copper still in the historic Distillery District, where spirits haven’t been distilled since 1940. She says their hard root beer is unique since it’s the only one that mixes a craft spirit with a craft soda. She has been making 150 litres of vanilla porter bierschnaps every week since February and figures they’ll soon be able to keep up with demand from thirsty consumers this summer.