It might twist your cap to learn that the mid-Atlantic region, like others around the country, has a rich history with soft drinks. Mountain Dew was first marketed in Marion, Va., while old-time favorite Frostie root beer was born in Catonsville, Md.
These days, there are still a number of sodas being produced within a reasonable drive of the District, so I decided to round up the best ones to find out how they measured up to the national brands.
This proved to be harder than anticipated. After visiting Whole Foods in Silver Spring, Safeway in Petworth, Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan, Magruder’s in Chevy Chase, Shoppers in Takoma Park, 7-Eleven in Manor Park and both Rodman’s and World Market in Friendship Heights, I had just five bottles to show for my efforts: Old Dominion root beer, Harris Teeter root beer, Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer, Rock Creek Cherry Smash and Boylan’s black cherry.
A couple of sodas I had been specifically seeking weren’t available. Shenandoah Brewing Company’s root beer wasn’t for sale at the stores I visited, which might be due to its recent sale. Northern Neck Ginger Ale was also MIA, though I later learned that it’s available at Food Lion grocery stores out in — wait for it — Northern Neck, Va.
Once my five finds had been chilled, I held a glucose-spiking taste test at my dining room table. First up was Old Dominion’s root beer, which was created in Loudoun County, though it’s now brewed in Dover, Del. The label boasts that it’s “made with pure honey,” which is one of the three flavors that’s immediately evident, along with caramel and a vanilla undertone. None of the flavors linger long, though, and I’m soon left with nothing but a cloyingly sweet taste in my mouth that lacks real personality.
Next up is Harris Teeter’s store brand root beer, which is brewed down Matthews, N.C. Holding a glass of it up to the light reveals a watery brown color — not an encouraging sign. A few sips in, I determine the manufacturers have decided to substitute high fructose corn syrup for flavor. This is root beer in name only and not worth the $2.50 I paid for it. I pour the remainder of the liter down the drain and move on.
Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer has been an Eastern seaboard standard since it debuted in Philadelphia in 1936. The label claims it is “made from an old Pennsylvania Dutch recipe,” which sounds promising. Cracking the cap releases a cloud of rootsy bubbles that tickle my nose. I pour out a glass and hold it up to the light. Its rich, reddish-brown hue suggests a heartier, more developed flavor than the last soda. The first sip confirms it. There are hints of wintergreen and licorice, which leave my tongue with a slight numbness when the glass is finished. Finally, a soda worthy of a cross-city scavenger hunt.
With the root beers dispatched, I pour a bright red glass of Rock Creek’s Cherry Smash, which is made in Landover. I’m a little worried that this is going to be carbonated Kool-Aid, but I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s not too sweet, and the cherry flavor isn’t at all medicinal. If cherry is your comfort flavor of choice then this soda is a steal at $.99 a liter.
The session ends with a Boylan’s black cherry, which hails from Teterboro, N.J. With a purple-ruby color and an ingredient list that includes sweet cherry juice and natural black cherry flavors, it has potential. Half a glass later, and I happily confirm that this soda delivers. Light and refreshing with a bold fruitiness, it’s the perfect finale to this regional sodas tasting flight.
Nevin Martell is a Washington-based food and culture writer. You can find out more about him at nevinmartell.com.