A mysterious Midwestern brewer toys with dessert
Everyone loves root beer. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that an alcoholic version, recently introduced into Massachusetts, is selling like mad.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer is a product of Small Town Brewery, of Wauconda, Ill. Since April 8, Craft Beer Cellar in Braintree has ordered 69 cases, according to owner Kay Lorenz, who can’t keep it in stock.
This was the first I’d heard of Small Town, which has a beautiful website, with buzzwords like “tradition” and “passion” overlaid onto a close-up of a hand reaching into a bin of grain.
“We have had thousands of requests from all over the country,” the site reads, but getting in touch is another thing. An e-mail to the contact form goes unanswered; calls over several days to the phone number listed for the brewery go to voice mail for a full inbox.
Later, a tweet to Small Town’s official Twitter account gets an immediate response, and I’m quickly connected to someone from a PR company, who sends canned answers to my questions.
Finally, I get an interview with the head brewer. On the phone, Tim Kovac relays a story about how a canceled European trip gave him time to brew with his college-age son. The pair decided on a root beer, perfecting the recipe over the course of two years. “The first batches tasted like root beer, but something was a little off,” says Kovac. Eventually, the beer that won out was an ale. Kovac lists wintergreen, sarsaparilla bark, anacin, cinnamon, nutmeg, Madagascar vanilla beans, and honey as ingredients.
Poured into a glass, Not Your Father’s Root Beer buzzes with the unmistakable fizz of a soda. It tastes like the root beer you grew up on, sweet and syrupy and begging to be poured over vanilla ice cream. It’s tasty, even if it drinks like dessert.
But this is beer, right? There must be hops in it.
“It has floral hops in it,” says Kovac. “A very small amount.” Tasting it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which there are hops.
“What kind of hops?” I ask.
“You want to know the names of the hops?” Kovac says, pausing. “Crystal,” pause again, “Willamette.”
Kovac tells me he brews more than 30 different kinds of beer, but other than the root beer at three ABV levels — 5.9 percent, 10.7 percent, and 19.5 percent — they’re not listed on the website. Small Town brews the two higher-alcohol beers on site and sells them locally, while the 5.9 percent beer is brewed in La Crosse, Wis. Kovac is vague about that arrangement.
Beer people are nothing if not skeptical, and there are Reddit and Beer Advocate forums dedicated to figuring out what Small Town is all about. I ask Kovac if Small Town is an independent company.
“It’s just me and a couple others here, but they work part time,” says Kovac.
I imagine someone brewing in a garage.
A couple days later, I discover an LLC filing with the state of Illinois that lists Small Town as part of Innovative Brewing, a subsidiary of Phusion Projects, makers of Four Loko. When I show it to the PR company, they go silent for days, then finally back off their claims of independence, explaining that Small Town was recently acquired by Eugene Kashper, the owner of Pabst.
No garage location going on here, just a lot of modern marketing for a new, old-fashioned root beer.