Not Your Father’s Root Beer: My Strange Visit to Small Town Brewery

I didn’t care about Not Your Father’s Root Beer. I didn’t read any of the many articles being written about it. I was oblivious to the controversy surrounding it. I successfully ignored it as it repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. I certainly wasn’t going to make an effort to taste it. Writing about it was even lower on my list of priorities. Why would I? It’s an alco-pop like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I don’t do those. Despite all of the publicity, I had managed to stay only vaguely aware of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

And then I got an email from Andrew Gill, host of the Chicago-based beer podcast Strange Brews. They were doing a story on Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Illinois, a suburb north of the city. The hosts had read my profile in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland and were intrigued by the account of my visit. They wanted to talk. Little did I know, they wanted to talk about Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

I had indeed tasted an alcoholic root beer when I visited the Small Town in January of 2012, but I hadn’t made a connection between that odd little brewery and the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the nation. The root beer ripping up the marketplace is a mere 5.9% ABV. The one I sampled tipped the scales at an astounding 20%. It tasted like a decent root beer spiked with vodka. It was darned delicious though. I finished my sample and almost asked for more. Owner/brewer Tim Kovac wove tales of bar owners pleading for more.

Of the 236 brewer interviews that I did for the book, my conversation with Kovac was certainly one of the most interesting and perplexing. In the Small Town profile I write, “I must confess that, having spent an hour with Kovac, I left the brewery feeling less clear about what he is doing than when I arrived. It’s obvious to me that his understanding of the brewing process and history are limited at best. With simple brewing calculations, it is impossible to re-create the beers he is making using the methods he describes.” That was true in 2012. Re-playing my recording of the interview, it remains true today.

Small Town’s origin story is an interesting one. Kovac wanted to spend more time with his son and suggested homebrewing as a way to do that. When a vacation was cancelled due to “some volcanic eruptions in Ireland” (I think he meant Iceland), the pair compensated by brewing every day, sometimes multiple batches. They also made root beer. The beer and root beer were apparently so good that soon-to-be business partner John Dopak approached Kovac about starting a brewery together.

Kovac’s mother had long spun tales about a great, great, great grandfather (one great has since been dropped in the marketing copy) who was a ship’s captain ferrying colonists to the Americas in the 17th-century. When Kovac told his mother of the brewery plans, she revealed a part of the story that had hitherto been kept secret. This ancestor was also a gambler. He won a brewery in a game of cards and became a brewer. Kovac told me that it was this relative who discovered that giving passengers and sailors beer on shipboard instead of water kept them healthier and happier. After revealing this bit of family history, Kovac’s mother pulled a dusty, leather-bound volume from under the bed. It was a document from the 1600s containing recipes for beer. This manuscript is the well from which Small Town’s recipes spring.

It was difficult to get an interview with Kovac. He wouldn’t return my emails and calls. When he did, he seemed reluctant to have me visit. But I was writing a book, gosh darn it. And the story on his website was compelling. I persisted. He relented.

Tim Kovac with his rig

Tim Kovac with his rig

Small Town was located in the second floor of an old warehouse building. If memory serves, the first floor was occupied by a woodworking shop. The Small Town floor had been an indoor sports/recreation facility of some kind. Making our way to the small corner that the brewery occupied, we wound through a labyrinth of defunct batting cages and possibly an indoor mini-golf course. I recall it being a little bit creepy.

Although expansion plans ultimately had the brewery filling the entire floor, at the time it fit in just two small rooms. The “aging” area where full kegs were stored wasn’t even finished. It was framed, but no drywall had been hung. That space is where they planned to install a distillery. The brewery was in a small, but finished room with a cold box to one side.

The brewhouse consisted of two, 50-gallon, Groan soup kettles – the kind you would see in a commercial kitchen – and two 100-gallon plastic fermenting tanks. The various pieces were linked together with white PVC pipe (cue the sound of brewers cringing). In the cooler was a row of small, stainless steel conditioning tanks. An apartment sized stove served to stew vanilla bean and other spices that went into the root beer.small town (1)

It was on this rig that Kovac claimed to make the magic of 20% root beer happen. It was here that my confusion began. Kovac said that his root beer was made with barley malt, the way it was made in the 1600s. He was using a brew-in-a-bag method, which according to him was how brewers would have done it in the 1600s. I’ll dig into historical accuracy later. For now let’s focus on the feasibility of his claim. Using brewing software, I attempted to recreate his process. I could not make it work.

The brew-in-a-bag method involves conducting the mash with the crushed barley malt in a big mesh bag. When the mash is complete the bag is simply removed and drained. This allows the brewer to mash and boil in the same vessel. It is a fairly inefficient method, meaning that the brewer extracts less sugar from each pound of grain than with other more conventional methods. Some brewers sparge, that is they rinse the grains with hot water to remove additional sugar, which would increase efficiency. But when Kovac talked me step-by-step through his process he made no mention of this. With this in mind, I based my calculations on an assumption of 65% mash efficiency, which without a sparge step is maybe a bit generous.

Kovac told me that he was making all-grain wort, using 100 to 110 pounds of grain for each 50-gallon batch. He reported a starting gravity for the root beer of 1.200. By my quick and dirty calculations, 100 pounds of grain gives a gravity of 1.055. He would need more like 400 pounds of grain to hit 1.200, which would vastly exceed the capacity of his kettle. I assumed then that he was using malt extract or some other sugar to boost the gravity of his wort. When I asked about that, he insisted that he was not using extract, but admitted that he was using “malt powder.” So…extract. I estimate that he would need approximately 165 pounds of dry malt extract to go from 1.055 to 1.200. Again, there would be no room in his kettle for liquid.

Then there is the matter of fermentation. It isn’t impossible to get yeast to ferment up to 20% alcohol, but it is terribly difficult. Although yeast creates alcohol as a by-product of fermentation, that alcohol is poisonous to it. As the alcohol level increases, the ability of yeast to do its job decreases. Beyond around 15%, our favorite fungus starts to sputter and die. It takes constant babying to get beyond that. Kovac claimed he was doing just that, rousing and re-aerating the beer to see the yeast through a seven-day fermentation. Having seen his setup, I find it hard to believe that he was accomplishing this feat with any degree consistency and without creating some pretty terrible off-flavors.

And so, I found Kovac’s process description to be confusing at best, suspect at worst. But he really didn’t seem like a guy who was out to intentionally deceive. Without having actually seen what he was doing, I could only take him at his word.

17th century brewery

17th-Century Brewery

And then there’s the history part. Brewers actually had breweries in the 17th-century; breweries that worked essentially like the breweries of today. They weren’t huddled over wooden vats steeping grains in a bag. Also, Kovac says that his barley-based root beer recipe is authentic to the 1600s. The only references I can find suggest that fermentable sugars for various types of root beer at the time came from tree sap and molasses.

Confusion and mystery aside, it seems our boy Tim Kovac and his business partners have done well for themselves. They secured a deal to contract brew Not Your Father’s Root Beer at City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There appears to be some squishy relationship with Phusion Projects LLC, the makers of such delights as Four Loco, Moskato Life, and Signature Cocktails. The brand has apparently been sold wholly or in-part to Pabst Brewing. I’m sure the Small Town guys made a pretty penny on the deal.

Does this mean that Small Town Brewery is finished as an entity? Who knows? Besides the root beer, Kovac also made beer. I sampled a brown, an amber, and a Christmas beer, among others that I don’t recall. I remember the beers being unremarkable, but Kovac indicated they were in high demand, with one bar owner apparently pleading to pay full price for a partial keg of year-old English brown ale. I know, I didn’t believe him either. He also spoke of plans for a concoction called Grandpa Gone Wild with label art showing “grandpa doing grandma from behind and she’s using a walker.”

So about that Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Apparently it was originally non-alcoholic. Kovac explained that when he and his son made the first recipe it was so good they wanted figure out how to make an alcohol-free version. He asked brewers for advice and was told to boil the alcohol away. And that is what he did. When I asked why he started leaving the alcohol in he replied, “Well, the whole point is saving a step, to be honest with you. I don’t have to boil it off and I can charge more. So that’s even better.”

Here’s my notes:

Not Your Father's Root BeerNot Your Father’s Root Beer
Small Town Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.9% ABV

Aroma: Highly aromatic. Caramel. High vanilla. Wintergreen. Like wintergreen lifesavers with an undertone of vanilla. Low clove-like spice.

Appearance: Low, fizzy, soda-like head with no retention. Dark brown with red highlights. Brilliant.

Flavor: Sweetness is high. Caramel and vanilla are both high. Wintergreen is there, at first a bit more restrained than in the aroma. A low hint of alcohol, but like distilled spirit. Similar clove spice from the aroma. Strong wintergreen on the way out. A hint of anise. Finish is sticky sweet. Lingers on caramel, wintergreen and vanilla. Vanilla and wintergreen are the high notes. As I sit with it, the alcohol becomes more apparent, but still with that distilled character rather than fermented. A bit burning.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high carbonation. Like soda, but a little lower than most. Medium-full body. Cloying. Some alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Aroma is really quite enticing. I might not guess there is alcohol if I weren’t told. It’s a decent root beer base, but I do wish that it weren’t quite as sweet as it is. I know that Kovac says he made it with grain, but there is nothing in the flavor that makes me think of grain. No roastiness that the color would indicate. No grainy bread crust. Only caramel and herbs. The low amount of alcohol taste is just enough to be a distraction. Not solvent, but more peppery spicy. On the whole, this is not bad, but the sweetness has me not wanting to finish the glass. It’s soda. Put it in a glass with ice. The cold helps cut the cloying sweetness.

July 30th Addendum

Based on a few Facebook comments, I want to clarify a couple of things.

– He is not producing the current quantity from this 100-gallon system. As I wrote above, NYFRB is contract brewed by City Brewing in La Crosse, WI.

– I believe at the time of my visit he was making everything in house. There was no bottled product yet. There was beer in tanks, not-great beer to be sampled, kegs in the aging room, and yeast being propagated. There was no indication of any connection to anything larger. I think Kovac just found a way to sell the product he developed and make some money on it. There is nothing wrong with that.

– I never had the sense that Kovac was intentionally deceiving me. That’s what made this visit so confusing. He seemed absolutely genuine about what he was doing. I simply couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. Sure, he may have embellished the history story a bit, but that’s marketing. He struck me as utterly sincere, and frankly sort of geeky. The whole thing was way too elaborately quirky to simply be a front for Phusion Projects.

Leave a Reply