Your Father's Corporate Root Beer

Michael Donato, June 30, 2015

Not Your Father’s Root Beer is an alcoholic beverage that I’m sure you’ve seen in the last few weeks.

It’s ostensibly a beer, though any hops it might have are negligible at best. That doesn’t disqualify it from being beer; some gruits are tasty beverages. That’s pretty much what you’d expect from a root beer. It’s a beverage generally flavored with things like sarsaparilla, wintergreen, and sassafras. It’s started showing up all over the country in the last few weeks, from a previously unheard of brewery called Small Town Brewery.

I like root beer. I once brewed a homebrew root beer beer. It was pretty good, though nothing like this. I’d like to try it again when I have time with a tweaked recipe, it was an interesting flavor but it was clearly beer-forward.

So I bought a six-pack of Not Your Father’s Root Beer. I mistook the initial marketing push for actual buzz and interest and thought I was getting something desirable. The beer itself wasn’t bad. It tasted like root beer; it was sweet and syrupy, with a little kick. I used to, before I really loved beer, mix Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, Root Beer Schnapps, and Coke for a drink that tastes very similar to this. I could see drinking this in the summer time, at BBQs, during the Fourth of July perhaps. I intend to bring the rest of my six-pack with me on Saturday to do just that.

I continued to see every beverage place I subscribe to on Facebook and Twitter posting about getting this in, and that’s when I got skeptical. This wasn’t as in your face as Anheuser-Busch putting up display cases of Oculto front and center in front of craft beer sections, but it certainly started smelling familiar.

A brewery I’d never heard of, which a generic, but local sounding, name suddenly exploding onto the scene and much of the news about it coming from retailers instead of fellow drinkers? That’s not usually how it goes. A little Googling found threads talking about the same concerns, with evidence that it was Pabst distributed and owned by the company that makes Four Loko.

Gary Dzen of the Boston Globe did a little more digging. He found the website unhelpful for really getting in touch, and when he did it was with a public relations company. Small town breweries don’t have PR companies. There are plenty of other suspect things revealed when he does finally get past scripted responses, such as the supposed head brewery being unsure of what types of hops are in the beer, or the idea that he claims to make 30 different beers but the website doesn’t list any of them. 

So it’s clear that this is not simply a well made local beer that went viral. This doesn’t change that the beer itself is good, and popular, but the deception is still disturbing. Dzen discovered an LLC filing in Illinois that lists Small Town as part of Innovative Brewing, which is a subsidiary of Phusion Projects, who are the ones that make Four Loko. This product has been out for a while it’s only now that people are really discovering that it’s not really what it seems and that news likely won’t filter down to the thousands of people that will go to pick something up this weekend to bring to a party this weekend... even if they cared.

I can’t say for certain that Small Town Brewery is technically a test program for Phusion, or Pabst, or whoever, but that’s what it feels like. Other big breweries have test breweries where they try out plenty of different things, but they don’t then get buried in companies within companies and mass-marketed across the country.

In a way, that’s what Blue Moon was; a test beer brewed at a Coors owned Brewery that was not Coors. We all know the deal with Blue Moon now so it’s not as big a deal, but maybe Small Town is trying to build on the mistakes Coors made in not obscuring ownership enough. The same goes for beers like Third Shift, Redd Apple Ale, Oculto, or whatever they try out on us next. These companies keep trying to sneak one by us and while those of us that pay close attention usually catch on pretty quickly, it’s hard not to see Small Town as a success story from Phusion’s standpoint. 

Michael can be found on Twitter and Untappd. He's wondering if he should just drink the rest of his Sixpoint Jammer on the 4th.