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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer

In summers past, Sandy and I have had the privilege of going to some pretty remote towns in Mexico for a week to help out with some medical work and to get to know some of the local people. Honestly, I'm not even sure I can point to where we've gone on a map. All I know is, we flew into Mexico City, hopped into a 15-passenger van with 20 other people, and drove something like 10 hours over a mountain range or two, through endless desert stretches and then a rain forest, and wound up in a hot, dusty village on a mountainside where we'd set up shop for the week to go drive somewhere else an hour or more away to even smaller towns. Crazy fun. One of the best things about these trips (aside from, y' know, helping people/making a difference/learning from a culture different from our own) was, no matter where we went, no matter how remote, every single village had at least two or three small stores with a Coca-Cola sign out front. Go inside and there would be a cooler full of ice-cold Cokes, all frosty in their glass bottles. Late in the afternoon on a 115-degree plus day, after you get done chasing a bunch of 10 year olds around a soccer court, there's little that's more refreshing than that. Sandy and I would routinely seek a store out and for only a few pesos (something like the equivalent of 30 cents), we'd each have a Coke and seek out a shady spot to sit down and relax.

For those who don't know, "Mexican Coke" is much different than the Coke available here in the U.S. The biggest difference is, instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used a sweetener, Mexican Coke (and most other sodas in the world, for that matter) use real, honest-to-goodness sugar. HFCSs have been used commonly since about the late '70s-early '80s as an ingredient in pretty much every processed product known to man (In lunch meat? Really?) mostly because as a result of imported sugar taxes and farm subsidies, it's much cheaper to use in American food production. There's been all sorts of allegations that the prevalent use of HFCSs has been THE leading contribution in the spikes in obesity and heart disease rates in the past couple decades. There's arguments for and against that notion, and it could go on and on and on, and probably will ad infinitum.

My take? I just want to have a cold, tasty drink. Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer makes a pretty excellent choice for that. Like other soft drinks marketing themselves under a "retro" or "old school" label these days, TJ's root beer is HCFS-free, just using sweet tasty cane sugar as nature intended. I find sodas made with real sugar tend to be lighter, fresher, and crisper tasting, and the root beer doesn't do anything to change that notion. It's smooth, too, because it's not nearly as fizzy as other soft drinks. To say that it tastes "flat" would be incorrect, I think, because that implies it lacks the carbonation it should have. TJ's Vintage Root Beer tastes more like what you could expect from a homebrew kit or festival stand (like the fresh birch beer I had on the 4th at a Pennsylvania Dutch festival) than a bottle of Barq's or can of A&W. It's light, refreshing and highly drinkable with real root beer flavors like vanilla and anise shining through, and even better served over ice. I'm not as sure it'd be a great choice for floats, though that could be more my own preference because I like the combination of fizz and ice cream. All in all, by itself, it's an excellent drink.

Sandy's not much of a soda drinker aside from the very occasional Dr. Pepper, but she said she really likes it, enough to give it a 5 for all the reasons above. I'm fairly certain she tried to sneak the last bottle while I was showering upstairs, and only very reluctantly shared it with me when I caught her in the act.* Me? Tough to say exactly. It's hard to impress me sometimes on some treats I grew up with in Eastern PA that those of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage tend to make better than just about everyone else (if TJ's ever tries to make a shoo-fly pie or funny cake, God help them), which I consider root beer being among them. To me, it's not as good as home brewed at a festival, but better than most other types that are commercially available except for A-Treat brand. Now that's some great stuff...also, at $3.99 for a four pack, the TJ's strikes me as being a little pricey. If Coke can get a fridge full of bottles to some dusty Mexican village literally in the middle of nowhere and turn enough coin to sell them at barely over a quarter each, I'd think you could get a similar high quality bottle of soda for less than a greenback each in a major U.S. metropolitan area. Maybe that's just me. Eh. Enough quibbling for me, because for what it was, I definitely enjoyed it and I'm going with a four. All this writing about it definitely just got me thirsty for another one...

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

* Yes, dear, this is a slight exaggeration. But only slight. By the way, notice how I wrote an entire review about soda and never once called it what you and all you silly Pittsburgh-born-and-raised folks call it?


  1. Oh, don't tell me Sandy calls it "pop."

  2. PJ of course I call it pop! That's what us 'yinzers' call it :)

  3. I just discovered your blog- I'm so excited to find new products to try. But also, a bit concerned I will want to go spend a ton of money.

  4. I was born and raised in da 'Burgh, moved to California 20+ years ago, and I STILL call it pop. Yinz just don't get it.

    PS I'm totally picking this up on my next TJ's run. I love a good root beer. :)

  5. Call it whatever, it's good! Just drank an IBC Root Beer on lunch...TJ's Vintgae kicks its butt for sure. And I like IBC.

  6. A little hint re: the Coke-with-sugar issue - when Passover comes around, stock up on the Coke with the yellow or white caps marked "kosher for Passover" (yellow cap reads OU-P, white cap is CRC-P). Regular Coke is kosher anyway so you have to make sure it's the Passover product. Back when caffeine and I were still friends, I'd actually fill a couple of grocery carts with "Passover Coke" to dole out over the next few months. Friends would insist there couldn't be any difference - until they had a glass, after which the hard part was keeping them from wiping out the entire 2-liter bottle. Nothing better for a Coke float, either, although it'd give a nutritionist six kinds of fits.

    Even here in northern New England, Walmart carries Mexican Coke - labels in Spanish and English, in the traditional glass "contour" bottles - for those who need their hit the rest of the year. So, it oughtn't be too hard to find in places with a less-unbalanced distribution of ethnicities.

  7. Mari - great tip! Will have to check it out next time around :)


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