We ordered a case of Ugly’s latest drop into the bubbleverse the first day it was announced, and it sold out before our box even landed on our doorstep. So you’re already reading a tale of a bygone era.
Sorry. It’s back to A&W for you, unless you’re one of the blessed few who got in on this one.
Or you could try Kroger’s Fizz & Co. Root Beer flavored sparkling water, which we haven’t had a chance to try yet (but we have had The Doctor, which we’re low-key obsessed with). Or, apparently, Shasta has a Sparkling Water line that includes a Root Beer flavor.
But these commodity-brand sasparillas are all consolation prizes for those who slept on Ugly, who create stunningly delicious flavors and then bizarrely remove them from existence forever.
If the feeding frenzy around this limited edition proves one thing, it’s that humanity’s brains and tongues exist in a tangled and subterranean symbiosis with those silently penetrating plant proboscises: roots.
You’re probably familiar with the primary root that gives Root Beer its first name: sassafras. But the original root beers of colonial-era America often contained a wild variety of roots, barks, and spices, including spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, spicewood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, and dog grass.
Fermenting guaiacum chips and dog grass is probably one of the least weird things the settlers got up to, so instead of getting buried away in the Id of Empire, it became sanctified as a hallowed American tradition in the same way every other American tradition was sanctified: with a pile of sugar.
Of course, we have a strict no sugar policy here in the Bubbleverse, but we do love writing about roots, so we were extra excited that Ugly was returning Root Beer to the days of yore, serving us a carbonated root drink unsweetened.
Fun fact: using real sassafras to flavor Root Beer is actually illegal because it contains the potentially carcinogenic organic compound safrole, which, fun fact number two, is also the chemical precursor to MDMA.
So while we like to imagine that Ugly wildcrafted this from roots and spices foraged from the deep Alleghenies, it’s probably safe to say that will remain our personal fantasy.
But let’s crack this can open and see if we can detect any notes of pipsissewa or spikenard!
One whiff and you’re inhaling a snootful of pipssisewa. No joke.
Pipsissewa, or if you want to be fancy, “Prince’s Pine”, is an herb found in the Wintergreen family. And this aroma is all Wintergreen. It kind of breaks our mind, because we don’t associate a frothy A&W with our favorite Tic Tac.
Here’s the thing about Root Beer. We spend our whole lives acclimated to it as a flavor unto itself, to the point that “Root Beer” is basically classified up there with the other main flavors like “sweet” and “salty”.
So, on the one hand, we take a sip of this and we’re like, wow, this tastes incredibly like Root Beer. And this Ugly is a creamy, full-throated expression of the drive-in diner classic, a giant tongue on rollerskates bringing you your hamburger. This is an ice cream float stickily melting on a summer evening, washing down your corn dog at the county fair. But better.
There’s none of that corn syrup nonsense here, which we find quite impressive because this tastes like the real thing. It doesn’t need sweetener: there’s nothing bitter or harsh about this. It gives you all the satisfaction of the bad stuff with all of the effervescent joy of the good stuff.
(We’ll acknowledge that “better” may be biased, because you may love your soda, and we’re not necessarily an objective judge.)
But on the other hand, when you start to pay attention, especially knowing the actual history and ancestral recipes, things start to get weird. You’re like, what is this, fennel? How did I never notice that Root Beer tastes like wintergreen??
Your entire worldview just kind of disintegrates in your mouth like you knocked over some obscure spice rack in your pioneer grandfather’s root cellar, interrupting the raucous game of Hide The Thimble he’s playing with Johnny Appleseed, your mouth thick with clouds of anise and juniper.
This is Root Beer as Quintessence: the flavors, the herbcraft, the arc of the aromatics, cunningly crafted by sassafras fairies who understand the sparkling magic that comes from the holy flavor trinity of sarsaparilla, spikenard and dog grass.
And it slowly dawns on you that you spent your entire childhood unknowingly imbibing an herbal apothecary, that your sucrose-fueled excesses were really a trojan horse for the plants’ secret alchemy, that the whispers and distant calls that echo through your dreams at night are the forest calling you home, to burrow deep underground and allow yourself to finally become one with the roots.
Ok! We’re going to try this in a Root Beer Float, so check back soon!
Sparkling Water, Natural Flavor