I began my journey with Forbidden Root back in June of 2012. I was taking photos at an event for 5 Rabbit. Andres hired me to document a dinner party they were throwing with a Top Chef contestant. Towards the end of the night I was catching up with Randy Mosher. Randy and I had known each other pretty well at this point. He was/is an active member in the Chicago Beer Society where I had been sharing my homebrew since 2006. “What are you doing nowadays?” he asked. “Enjoying the best summer of my life.” I replied. I had recently been laid off from a long time market research job and was riding out my severance. “Are you up to brewing a pilot batch of beer?” he continued. “Ummm…yes.” He spoke of the project as if it were top secret, careful not to divulge too much information. Instead he told me that he was going to introduce me to “a guy”. The next day, he made good on his word. I was introduced to Robert via email and we scheduled a phone call immediately. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was very confused and surprised by Robert’s idea. I was to brew a beer that tasted like root beer. At this point I was a die hard craft beer purist. A root beer beer was breaking all sorts of rules. Still, I was intrigued. Randy is a homebrew God and writes books on crazy ingredients in beer; I was in good hands.
The idea of incorporating root beer flavors into beer didn’t sound all that difficult to me at first. We just throw in some sassafras in the boil and call it day, right? Wrong. Did you know that the use of sassafras in food products is illegal in the US? Yeah, me neither. Turns out, it is a known carcinogen. The only safe way to use it is via extracts that approximate the flavor of sassafras. “Oh well.” we thought. We can just brew up a base beer and incorporate the extracts prior to packaging. Before we could even dream of adding the extract we had to design our root beer profile. Root beer is traditionally compiled of a plethora of different roots, herbs and spices. Trying to create one from scratch proved to be very difficult and time consuming. After countless missteps and reboots, we finally landed on a blend of 20 different botanicals. Great! Done! Now let’s just brew up a simple base beer and mix it in. Nope. Not so fast Mr. Wizard. Turns out each and every component of the flavors in beer reacted to the extracts in various, and sometimes surprising, ways. Hop bitterness would send the wintergreen notes through the roof. Fruity esters of the yeast would create havoc on the balance of our root beer profile. The list goes on. Thankfully we had Randy there to help guide us through the maze of flavors and aromas. I mean, he did write a book called “Tasting Beer”. His ability to put words to his palette’s experience is second to none. He really taught me that language is the biggest limiting factor in critical tasting. I’m still growing and learning but I’ve come a long way from “I don’t know, it tastes kinda blah.”
What is it?
“Is it beer or root beer?” “If you have a spectrum and on one side is a brown ale and on the other is Dad’s Root Beer….where do we want to live?” These questions came up at every round table we had for the better part of a year. Like most good decisions, we didn’t arrive at the answer on the first shot. During our long development two Midwest breweries introduced their own “Root Beer beer”. I have to admit, when I first heard about the first one I was very concerned. Had we missed our opportunity to do something truly unique? Did we spend too much time trying to make it just right? Those concerns were quickly squashed when we tried the competition. There was no doubt in my mind we had a superior product. We had a serious beer for folks with refined tastes…they had a hit at an 8yr olds birthday party.