The Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi presents the

Great American Root Beer Showdown

Round Four

The root beer cabinet was bursting with new bottles yearning to be tasted. Recent expeditions to suburban Chicago grocery chains and Minnesota were highly successful, bringing back a haul of half a dozen new or untested brands of brew. All this root beer was itching for someone to drink it. Yet constrained schedules postponed Round Four for several weeks until we abandonded the traditional Sunday afternoon time slot for a less-conflicted Tuesday night. Even so, only five researchers from the pool of judges were able to meet on the evening of May 15, 2001.

The time change brought with it a little apprehension as we started the test. Would the judges be as enthusiastic and crically alert after the sun had set on a long work day? Or would the sudden intake of sugar water simply dull their senses and lull them into torpor while they waited on the couch for the next samples to be brought forth from the kitchen?

Proceeding cautiously with these new concerns, the judges immediately took a vote on our first decision: how many root beers to sample, with such a small number of judges participating in tonight's testing? The refrigerator had been stocked with seven wrapped and disguised root beer bottles, but the judges elected to sample only a conservative six flavors. One random bottle would be left out of this round of testing. That bottle (an exciting new discovery and one of the hard-won prizes hauled back by porter from Minnesota) will have to wait perhaps two months for the next round to be sampled.

The Root Beers Tasted:

  1. Baumeister - (Sample E)
  2. Boylan's - (A)
  3. Health Valley Sarsaparilla Root Beer - (F)
  4. Iron Horse - (B)
  5. Myers Avenue Red - (D)
  6. Wildwood - (C)

The Test

Five veteran testers received their new score sheets and settled quickly into their roles, awaiting the first sample with pencils and tongues ready. Once again the able-bodied but ill-informed "bar-keep" removed the disguised bottles from the refrigerator, opened them, and poured a round of paper cups for each sample set.

And, as before, the researchers filled out their worksheets to rate their satisfaction with each root beer on a 1-5 scale for the categories of Sweetness, Creaminess, Complexity, Punch, Aroma, and Overall Taste, written remarks and the comic-relief "Guess the Brand."

One drawback to the increased ease and routine of the testing is that we had neglected to buy more paper cups for the test. Only a small stack of paper cups remained from Rounds 2 and 3. Initially we decided to wash out the cups after each sample round and return the rinsed cups to their labelled owners. This would also reduce the waste produced by the experiment and ensure that all the experiment could be completed. However, it became clear after the first round that our paper cups would never survive more than one washing. Fortunately, we discovered a small stack of wax cups in the back of the cupboard, just enough to complete the experiment.

One item of note, a problem with our testing methods that as yet has no satisfactory solution, is that most of our samples are packaged in bottles, but a few samples are packaged in cans. At one point the assisting researcher opened the particular canned sample in secrecy in the other room, causing a distinct "tss-chuck!" and betraying the origin of that sample. Attempts to gently open the canned samples without making noise have proved fruitless, as happened in this instance. A possible solution to this problem would be to ensure that loud noises or music surround the researchers at all times, sequestering them from intruding sounds. Or "red herring" canned beverages could be opened at the same time as the bottled samples, providing inconclusive and confusing noises to hide the origins of all the samples. Perhaps in Round 5 we will be able to test these techniques.

Round Four Results

With five seasoned taste-testers and only six root beers, Round Four proceeded smoothly and easily. A wide range of flavors were represented in the samples chosen from "natural" root beers to regional favorites to cheap canned products. The judges quickly came to agreement which ones were the best and which were the worst.

Total Scores

Average scores across all categories:

  1. Boylan's - 3.63
  2. Iron Horse - 3.03
  3. Baumeister - 2.98
  4. Health Valley Sarsaparilla Root Beer - 2.07
  5. Myers Avenue Red - 2.00
  6. Wildwood - 1.70

Overall Taste

Average scores in the category of "Overall Taste":

  1. Boylan's - 4.50
  2. Iron Horse - 3.40
  3. Baumeister - 3.00
  4. Health Valley Sarsaparilla Root Beer - 1.70
  5. Myers Avenue Red - 1.60
  6. Wildwood - 1.20


Round Four brought an even wider range of scores than the last round. From the obvious favorite Boylan's with the new test high of 4.5, to the obvious low Wildwood with an all-time low of 1.20, the veteran tasters seemed to be getting more comfortable with their task and self-confident with the rating tools at hand. This new assuredness in the reviewers' judgements would seem to bode well for future experiments, as long as the novelty of the experience still nurtures their enthusiasm.

Without compromising the statistically random intentions of our sampling methods, it seems that each round works best when the sample set is intentionally seeded with a wide array of flavors and types of root beers. A wide range of flavors enhances the delight and pleasure of the reviewers with unanticipated smells and tastes, while allowing a wider range of data, indicating greater disparities and making easier comparison. Our somewhat crude rating methods seem to work best when the reviewers utilize their full gamut.

Our Rigorous Taste Testing

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Copyright 2001 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Matt Bergstrom