Hustling back and forth between gleaming tanks in the back room of Grind Modern Burger in Boise, PostModern Brewers’ Marvin Kinney stops briefly to address the million-dollar question being posed by a grinning journalist.
Is hard root beer — the alcohol-infused version of the brown, sweet-tasting soft drink — even actually beer?
“Uhhh!” Kinney half answers, half groans. He flashes a smile. “Yes and no. Ha-ha!”
Kinney has done considerable thinking about the subject as head brewer at PostModern, the in-house brewery at Grind, 705 W. Fulton St. At the behest of Grind’s founder, he launched PostModern’s Hard Root Beer in December of last year.
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“It’s a fermented product,” Kinney says. “But it has ingredients not normally used in beer.
“It depends on your definition of beer,” he continues. “The definition of beer is always changing.”
One thing not changing? The definition of success.
Hard root beer, which has exploded into grocery stores and bars nationwide in the past month or two, is an unequivocal smash.
Two major players are jostling for shelf space: Not Your Father’s Root Beer (5.9 percent ABV), distributed by Pabst Brewing, and Coney Island Hard Root Beer (5.8 ABV), operated by a subsidiary of Boston Beer Co. (maker of Samuel Adams). Following the scent of money, MillerCoors LLC also plans to release soda-inspired beverages in 2016, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. In Idaho, PostModern has increased its distribution footprint and hopes to start bottling hard root beer by the end of the year.
The undeniable king of the hard root beer phenom? Not Your Father’s, which sells for around $10-$12 per six-pack. It’s the creation of Small Town Brewery, which was started by a home brewer in Wauconda, Ill.
“We blew through ours,” Boise Co-op beer buyer Matt Gelsthorpe says. The Co-op sold its initial allotment of 15 to 20 cases at a pace of about 2 1/2 cases per day, Gelsthorpe says. “The people who don’t like beer can drink this,” he adds.
Sweet alcoholic beverages are becoming more popular, especially with younger drinkers. The Co-op’s No. 1-selling beer this summer was Stiegl Radler, which essentially tastes like grapefruit soda mixed with beer.
The top-selling product brewed at PostModern is its light, refreshing Hard Ginger Ale. The Hard Root Beer is No. 2.
Kinney created these hard sodas intending them to be part of Grind Modern Burger’s cocktail program. At just 4 percent ABV, the root beer and ginger ale do make intriguing mixers. But plenty of patrons enjoy drinking them straight. They’re served at Grind in a large mug over ice. Or try them with ice cream as a $6 hard float. The root beer is served with vanilla ice cream. The ginger ale comes with pineapple sherbet.
If you’ve ever had an A&W or Barq’s, you’ll be familiar with some of the flavors hard root beers exude: sassafras, vanilla, wintergreen, spices. PostModern suggests that its root beer has “notes of mint and cherry.” It’s also incredibly sweet. Not Your Father’s Root Beer, while arguably not quite as sweet, is still relatively off the charts in the cloying category.
When Kinney first started experimenting with creating a hard root beer recipe, he ordered 40 kinds of nonalcoholic root beer from around the country, he says. “And I sat down and drank them all,” he adds. “And not one of them tasted similar at all.”
The one thing they all seem to have in common? Sweetness. There’s also a jaw-dropping lack of alcohol in the flavor.
I recently poured a small amount of Not Your Father’s Root Beer for a friend who normally drinks cocktails. After taking a sip, her eyes grew wide.
“Really?” she exclaimed. “This is really good. I mean, this is scary. Woo! This is root beer. Unreal.”
Kinney is accustomed to similar reactions from customers trying his hard sodas for the first time.
“I’m proud of them,” he says. “They aren’t anything I ever would have thought to make. But damn, they’re doing well. As a brewer, it was a really great learning experience.”
If you’re into IPAs — or hops at all — chances are, you might not appreciate the new hard root beers much. But like “malternatives” such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade or Smirnoff Ice, that doesn’t mean hard root beers are going away anytime soon.
“The purists who are, like, ‘That’s not beer!’ can scoff all they want,” Gelsthorpe says. “But when it comes down to just sales, they speak for themselves.”
Adds Kinney: “Craft beer was built doing different things. (This is) just casting a wider net. I see no harm in it.”
Still, when it comes to drinking his own Hard Root Beer?
“It’s not a product for me,” Kinney admits. “I’m a beer drinker.”
Hey, wait a minute — what was that million-dollar question again?
Tips? Bar banter? Reach out to Deeds on Twitter: @michaeldeeds.