Strangely, root beer is referred to as ‘beer’ when it’s essentially a kids’ drink with no alcohol or caffeine. It’s paired with (vanilla) ice cream to make a float. It used to be flavored with sarsaparilla or sassafras before they were banned. These days, root beer is brewed with safer synthetic safrole. Root beer is a dark, syrupy, saccharine drink with a thick, frothy head.
Kids love the sugary aspect, but it’s a hit among adults who have a sweet tooth. But it’s defined as a ‘beer’ because traditional teas and ‘small beers’ were safer and healthier than untreated water. They were made with roots, berries, barks, herbs, and a little booze. A lot of people considered it medicinal. But things have shifted, so let’s check out today’s top brands.
The Best Root Beer Brands In The World
White Rock Beverages started as a company that sold bottled water. And it wasn’t just any water. It was sacred spring water that the Potawatomi Tribe valued for its medicinal properties. That was in the 1870s. By 1924, billionaire’s daughter Gloria Vanderbilt was baptized in the stuff. The sparkling water brand was also used to launch monoplanes.
By 1952, Morgan Beverages had bought the company and started producing soft drinks. Sioux Root Beer is one of the brand’s top sellers to date. It’s one of the seven flavors, serving up 160 calories per bottle (43g of cards and another 43g of sugar, totaling 14%). So it’s a heavy drink. This root beer is sweetened with pure cane sugar. It echoes smooth vanilla and high fizz.
Does that font look familiar? The cursive scroll on the label? It should … because Barq’s is bottled and distributed by Coca Cola. And just like Coke, there’s a regular version and a dirt version. Also like Coke, Barq’s has a dash of caffeine to give it that extra kick. The brand is labeled ‘artificial flavors’. That’s usually a bad thing, but in the case of safrole, fake is good.
It also announces itself as containing GMOs. The ‘coffee’ bit is probably why ‘Barq has Bite’ as their punny slogan implies. The drink was originally brewed by Edward Barq in 1898 and has 160 calories (44g sugar and 44g carbs to make 16%). The diet version has zero calories. So, as Edward once said (and later emblazoned on the bottle), “Drink Barq’s. It’s Good.”
Root beer was originally sold as a panacea. At the time, it was called root tea. (Hires changed it to ‘beer’ as a marketing tactic, and it worked.) So it’s not surprising this root beer is packaged like a medicine bottle. It’s far more palatable though. Might be all those spoons of sugar. The beer is brewed for 3+ days with molasses, vanilla beans, and licorice root.
But this root beer is Australian – one of the few non-American versions – so it’s not as syrupy as you’d expect. Their palates are less attuned to sucrose drinks. Plus, safrole is still legal in Aussie, so this bottle (or rather its brewing barrel) is packed with real sarsaparilla root. To retain maximum head and carbonation, turn the bottle upside-down before opening.
Did you know root beer (and other ‘soft drinks’) aren’t necessarily teetotallers? All that fizziness and preservative does infuse a tad of alcohol. But it’s a trace amount, zero-point-something percent, barely detectable. So yes, Safeway can sell it to kids stress-free. But not to weight-watchers … since it has 170 calories per can. That’s 47g of carbs and 12 tsp of sugar.
Some people find Refreshe to be flat and bland. But it’s popular enough that both Safeways and Shaw’s (Star Market) stock it. So it seems to suit the average Massachusetts palate. The canned and bottled versions have different levels of flatness and fizz. Their calorie count varies as well (from bottle to can) so try both and see which packaging you prefer.
When you’re taking root beer recommendations, check with someone who likes root beer. Otherwise, they’ll complain about the very elements that define this category. That said. A&W is such an industry favorite that they’ve nabbed rootbeer.com. They even offer recipes and how-to’s on the best way to enjoy their drink. And it comes in various flavors!
A&W’s original root beer is among the best root beer brands. It’s a heavy drink though – 290 calories per bottle! That includes a whopping 78g of carbs and 76g of sugar for every 20 fluid ounces. They do offer a zero-calorie diet version, but that’s way harder to find. Both variants are brewed using aged vanilla, giving this mellow root beer a smooth, creamy mouth-feel.
When you’ve been around since 1919, you can claim to be the best root beer brand. Justifiably. IBC makes a regular root beer (160 calories) and a diet version. The regular root beer comes in a 12-fluid-ounce bottle and has 40g of carbs and 40g of added sugars. That’s slightly less than the market average, so it’s not as sweet as the other root beer brands.
Instead, you can pick the beautifully blended sweet and sharp notes. IBC – the company – folded, but the beer brand was adopted by Keurig Dr. Pepper so you can still find it around. And despite being brewed and distributed by a coffee company, IBC has no caffeine content. This root beer has a creamy mouth-feel and no aftertaste (a problem in many root beers).
To quote a popular meme format, the existence of ‘Not Your Dad’s Root Beer’ implies the existence of ‘Your Dad’s Root Beer’. Except, in this case, the tweme is based on fact. Dad’s Root Beer is one of the best root beer brands. And possibly the most beloved. It defines itself as ‘old fashioned’ in homage to the original recipe. But it does have a ‘diet’ version as well.
This root beer is rich in cane sugar, vanilla, licorice, and wintergreen. The company brews lots of other flavors, both traditional and contemporary. But root beer is their flagship drink. It’s a light, heavily malted beverage that’s syrupy in texture. It tastes a lot like root beer barrel candy and is super sweet so it may be overpowering in a root beer float.
Hires is one of the first commercial root beer brands. Invented by pharmacist Charles Hires, it was initially sold as medicinal ‘root tea’. He packaged it as a powder you could mix with water – hence ‘tea’. Later it was sold as a liquid concentrate you could dilute with water. Hires positioned root beer as a cure-all tonic and it was sold as pharmacies and drug stores.
It boomed during the prohibition years as a ‘healthy substitute’ and got counterfeited a lot. Over the years, the Hires Root Beer brand has been sold and resold. Today, it sits in Canada, mixed with vodka. It has an ABV of 5% so be sure not to drive or handle heavy machinery.
With something as ubiquitous and standard as root beer, you need a bit of pizazz to stand out. The best root beer brands achieve this by playing with flavor. Like butterscotch. This candy flavor shares notes with root beer – brown sugar, vanilla, corn syrup, molasses, and cream (plus butter) so they play well together. It’s brewed with cane sugar in four variants.
Original root beer, diet root beer, butterscotch root beer, and diet butterscotch root beer. The diet versions have zero calories. And with a name like that, you know it’s brewed with Americans in mind. Imperial is based in Milwaukee and owned by the Pettigrews. They started making Dang in 1964. It has a rich aroma, 31g of sugar, no gluten, and no caffeine.
The best root beer brands are broadly classified. They can be hard (meaning they’re infused with notable amounts of alcohol). But even ordinary root beer has trace amounts of booze for carbonation and preservative use. They can be spicy (like Barq’s) or more on the syrupy side with a rich, silky texture. They can be creamy and saccharine with 120 to 180 calories.
Or they can be diet drinks with zero calories and no added sugar. This root beer was originally Frank Stewart’s side hustle. He was a schoolteacher and started brewing in 1924. The secret recipe for this 150-calorie root beer includes extracts of quillaia, yucca, and acacia gum. It’s brewed with cane sugar and distributed by Keurig so soda fountains often have it.
Given today’s dieting craze, Virgil’s Zero Sugar line of sodas is pretty popular. So yes, they do sell a calorie-free root beer. But today, we’re more interested in their sweetened version. It’s brewed with ‘fifteen roots and spices’. The diet version may not have added sugar, but it’s naturally flavored with stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit so it’s sufficiently palatable.
The regular root beer packs 150 calories, and both variants are creamy and filling. The beers have a satisfying fizz because they’re brewed with sparkling water and citric acid. The beers are crafted by hand in small batches and the regular version uses cane sugar instead of Virgils’ proprietary sweetener. The root beer is pleasantly spicy with none of that sharp aftertaste.
12. Mug Root Beer
Is Pepsi okay? If you like Mug’s, then yes, it’ll have to be. This root beer brand wasn’t initially theirs – but Pepsi bought it in 1986 and made it their flagship root beer. And like its name, it was mostly sold on tap (or draft or fountain). Today, you can find it in cans and plastic bottles. Before Pepsi, this root beer was marketed as Belfast Root Beer in 1940s ‘Frisco.
Today’s Mug Root Beer is known for its thick foam and heady aroma, pun intended. The drink has 160 calories, 43g of added sugar, and quillaia extracts for flavor. It’s a favorite base for root beer floats but is just as creamy if you drink it ‘chilled and neat’. And because it has no gluten or caffeine, it’s safe for kids. Watch out for that mid-to-after-party sugar high!
Marketing is tough. Especially for FMCGs like soap. Or candy. Or soda pop. But we all know blondes have the most fun. So why not go for gold? Root beers are usually dark, malty, chocolate-colored drinks. This one is more on the yellower side (though they do have a standard-colored version). Oak Creek Root Beer is always aged in oak barrels for flavor.
Both the blonde beer and its brunette sibling are aged in or a year or more. But they don’t ferment so even after 12 months they’re still zero proof and safe for kids. The root beer is handcrafted in small batches. Both variants are spicy and smoky. The blonde beer is sweeter and gets its color from 25% brown sugar. It has vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.
Root beer is best-served ice cold. So Frostie is a good name for a root beer brand. Just don’t add the ‘s’ and end up with breakfast cereal instead! Frostie Root Beer is a retro ‘jailhouse beverage’ originally brewed in a former police cell. George Rackensperger of Frostie Enterprises brewed his first ‘prison batch’ in 1939 as a soda fountain concentrate.
The brand has gone through several hands over the years, including Stewarts, Monarch, Dogs n Suds, Leading Edge, before settling at Intrastate in 2009. It’s a creamy beer with hints of vanilla, anise, and wintergreen. The root beer is made from pure cane sugar.
The best root beer brands infuse molasses or cane sugar to get that rich color, flavor, and aroma. Sprecher puts a slight twist on the recipe by replacing sugar with honey harvested straight from the comb. The honey is raw and unprocessed, ensuring organic, wholesome texture and flavor. Plus, honey never goes bad so you the brewer’s cut down preservatives.
Honey makes the root beer softly sweet in comparison to molasses. And this root beer is fire-brewed. The concoction is ‘cooked’ in gas-powered kettles then aged. This magic formula has earned the brand two golds and a silver. Sprecher is a silky, creamy drink with a thick, foamy head. The root beer also infuses vanilla and ‘wild aromatic botanicals’ from Wisconsin.
16. Abita Root Beer
Is the pun intended? Probably not, since the brand is proud of using real cane sugar, ‘unlike rivals who stuff their brewing barrels with fructose and corn’. The cane sugar creates the same retro flavor of 40s and 50s soda pop. This root beer is also filled with yucca (for that sweet, sudsy froth), vanilla, herbs, and spring water. The water comes from Abita Spring.
This Cajun root beer is a big Louisiana favorite. It’s not particularly spicy, but its flavor pairs well with the extreme seasoning preferences of the bayou. The root beer is brewed from a hot mix meaning it’s brewed using hot liquids (as opposed to brewing over fire or brewing with cold water). It’s available all year round and contains caramel but no caffeine.
This hot-dog-and-root-beer stand is a popular franchise with decades of history under its belt. It has – at various times – shared a label with Stewart’s and Frostie. It’s among the best root beer brands in the states. It’s a full-bodied drink and the ‘suds’ in the brand name are fitting – this root beer has a decent amount of head although it’s not the frothiest out there.
It does have a strong heritage though. And regardless of your thoughts, locals still call it the world’s creamiest root beer. This Illinois root brew has retained its winning formula since the 1950s. The sweetener is pure cane sugar but it’s on the lighter side. It only 110 calories per bottle with just 30g of added (cane) sugar. The drink is fructose flavored with corn syrup.
This root beer can’t quite settle on a name – they keep adding the WBC, dropping it, then tacking it back on. The WBC is for Wit Beverage Company. But whatever they choose to call themselves, they retain the winning formula of their famous root beer. It’s brewed in ‘Chicago Style’ that was first introduced in 1920. WBC launched theirs in 1988.
Their secret is ‘triple carbonated water’ for that fabulous fizz. It’s not as sweet as competing brands. And because it’s not pasteurized, it’s not syrupy. But it’s still pleasantly rich and creamy, with a vanilla front and a wintergreen finish. It has a total of 45g of carbs, which include 43g of real cane sugar. It carries 180 calories per bottle though so watch that gut …
19. Hank’s Root Beer
Excess adjectives are often a warning sign. Grammar teaches hate it, but marketers swear by it. Either way, Hank’s Root Beer is described as premium, genuine, and gourmet – it’s right there on the bottle. And while the bottle has won packaging awards, we’re more focused on what’s inside. This Philly root beer is brewed with yucca for froth and acacia for flavor.
It’s not an old vintage – it was first brewed in 1996. Its aroma is strong but its flavor is mild. This is a middle-of-the-road root beer. Not too sweet, not too bitter, not too fizzy. That’s not to say it’s mediocre or bland. It’s just … moderate. It has a consistent taste even as it warms, and there’s a minimal aftertaste. The cane sugar root beer also has bits of quillaia extract.
If Hank sounds like a rugged Pennsylvania cowboy, then Hansen seems more like a city-slicking hipster. And he is. Hansen Beverage got into the business by selling sodas to film crews. They hung around film studios in the 1930s and soon became a favorite brand among the backstage crowd. A few of the starlets probably sipped these sodas as well.
In the 1970s, Hansen tried their hand at root beer. Their full-bodied drinks use 100% cane sugar while their diet drinks are flavored with Splenda sucralose. Hansen’s Root Beer uses non-GMO ingredients and carries 160 calories per can. The beverage has no sodium, protein, or fats. It does have 41g of added sugar. This California drink works well in ice cream floats.
The best root beer brands have all the qualities of good beer. They have the head, the lace, and the aroma – even if they won’t get you drunk. Saranac Root Beer achieves this in spades. Its frothy top is thick and creamy with solid staying power. And its hot pink packaging is sure to catch your eye (unless toxic masculinity gets in the way). Saranac is the name of a railway.
1888 Tavern Root Beer – later named Saranac Root Beer – is brewed by FX Matt Brewing. Its founder – Francis Xavier Matt – was a 19-year-old German at Carl Bierbauer’s brewery in Columbia. He ‘re-organized’ the Utica branch into West End Brewery with a dozen staff. During the prohibition, root beer and other soft drinks kept the brand afloat, pun intended.
Utica is the home of several breweries. And the Saranac Railway of 1888 linked Utica to the Adirondack Mountains. So of course our next root beer is one of theirs. This one uses high fructose corn syrup (as opposed to organic sugar). It’s a brand brewed for the US so it may be uneasy overseas where penalties against safrole and sodium benzoate are harsher than here.
Adirondack comes in 2 or 3-liter bottles so it’s visually distinct from other root beer brands. (You can still get a six-pack though.) But it’s a good weight-watching drink with just 110 calories and barely 28g of sugar. It has 25g of sodium as well. These figures derive from a 240ml serving though so drinking the whole bottle will still require some fat-burning …
Nickelback is Canadian. So is Nickelbrook. (No relation to the band beyond provenance – it’s named after the founder’s kids, Nick and Brook.) And while punk rock from the north isn’t particularly polite, their root beer does mind its ps and qs. Also, root beer is largely an American thing, so the few foreign ones taste … different. This Canadian version is crafty.
Although it’s an artisanal (root) beer, they make it using ‘traditional processing and organic ingredients.’ It’s not as sweet as American brands, and the licorice notes are more noticeable. You’ll catch snippets of anise, sassafras, and orange peel in there too. The finish is vanilla, burdock root, and cinnamon bark while the primary sweetener is brown cane sugar.
What’s your favorite root beer brand? Tell us in the comments – we might add it to the list!