Wauconda brewery making splash with root beer flavor
Last fall, Small Town Brewery bottled 50 kegs of Not Your Father's Root Beer in 22-ounce bomber bottles -- a limited release distributed to seven Binny's Beverage Depots to go on sale at 9 a.m. on a Saturday in November.
Brewmaster Tim Kovac, eager to gauge how popular his brew had become, asked family members to fan out to the locations and report back. Lines stretched through the rain, he said. "The whole batch went in nine minutes."
As Small Town Brewery prepares to open a taproom in Wauconda in coming weeks, a similar thirst for its soda-like beer is spreading across the country. In a span of months, its six packs have been distributed in 38 states and racked up millions of dollars in sales. Storefront displays, quickly stripped bare, have prompted headlines like, "Not Your Father's Root Beer Not To Be Found in New Jersey."
"At the beginning of this year it was in Illinois and in Ohio," Kovac said. "From that point, it just started spreading like wildfire."
Tucked in an industrial park off Rand Road, next to a smoke shop and a CrossFit gym, Small Town Brewery is priming for its public debut. There is a fresh coat of purple paint on the taproom walls and a high gloss to the new wooden bar. A barroom window gives a glimpse of the steel brewing tanks in back, where there is an unmistakable scent of root beer in the air.
While Not Your Father's Root Beer will certainly be on tap, Kovac said the space will function as a "pilot brewery," where visitors can sample a collection of new beers in the works, such as "French Toast," "Strawberry Rhubarb," and "The Fat Elvis," a dessert beer with a flavor profile of milk chocolate, peanut butter and fried bananas.
More traditional styles -- a London pilsner, a double IPA, a brown ale -- will also be on draught. A distillery for making small-batch whiskey is also planned.
The brewery is small. And given the sheer volume of root beer being trucked coast-to-coast, it makes you wonder: where do they make all the beer? In fact, the Not Your Father's Root Beer on sale in liquor stores and bars from Chula Vista, California, to Bangor, Maine, is brewed and bottled on contract by City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
That beer is a tweaked version of the original recipe, according to Kovac. At 5.9 percent alcohol, it's also considerably less boozy than the heavy-hitting 10.7 percent and 19.5 percent versions that originally gained traction in the Chicago market.
In March, Small Town reached an agreement with Pabst Brewing Co. to distribute the beer nationally. Kovac said it will be available in every state by year's end and the 10.7 percent version will soon follow.
The tale of how the brewery got its start is a marketer's dream.
Kovac, a graphic designer and longtime home-brewing enthusiast, said a canceled vacation in 2009 allowed him to spend time brewing beer with his then 21-year-old son, Jake, who suggested they make an alcoholic root beer. Fast-forward two years and 78 test batches, and Kovac said he perfected Not Your Father's Root Beer -- "the perfect counterfeit for real root beer," in the words of one beer writer.
Around that time, Kovac said, his mother revealed brewing was in the family blood.
She handed him a 17th Century journal from a distant relative, an English ship captain said to have won a brewery in a high-stakes game of cards. Inside were gruit-style beer recipes, which Kovac says served as inspiration for his root beer.
However, as Kovac and two partners work to manage their brand's rapid rise, skepticism has bubbled up in some corners of the beer world over their brewing method and credentials as a small town operation.
"Something smells about Not Your Father's Root Beer, and I'm not talking about the heavy dose of vanilla extract," began a less-than-flattering column last month in the Philadelphia Daily News.
The article points out that City Brewing, which brews the widely distributed version of the root beer, also makes Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and other artificially flavored "malternative" beers.
Separately, the article cites company filings to suggest Small Town is concealing a partnership with Phusion Projects, LLC, a Chicago-based beverage company best known for its caffeinated "energy beer" Four Loko, which was pulled from shelves in 2010 after being tied to hospitalizations and prompting wrongful death lawsuits.
In a phone interview, Don Russell, who writes the "Joe Sixpack" column, said Small Town Brewery's "charming back story" smacks of a corporate marketing scheme and he expressed doubt the beer was made with traditional methods and real spices.
"I taste a lot of beer in my job," Russell said. "I don't detect even a molecule of anything that tastes like beer in that."
Kovac dismissed the criticism, saying his beers are made with traditional brewing methods and real ingredients, including wintergreen and sarsaparilla bark, cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla beans. He acknowledged a relationship with a Phusion Projects subsidiary, but said it was dissolved once a deal was struck with Pabst. As for the brewery's back story, he said it may be charming but it's also true.
Such skepticism has done little to dampen excitement for the beer.
According to Chicago-based market research firm IRI, Small Town's root beer topped $7.5 million in retail sales through mid-June -- not including sales at liquor stores, bars or restaurants -- placing it among the fastest growing products in craft beer. The spectacle has lured other brewers into the root beer game, including Sprecher Brewery Co. and Berghoff Brewery.
Kyle Fornek, a beer buyer at Binny's, said Not Your Father's Root Beer has been its No. 1 seller nearly all year. "We've never seen anything like this," he said.
This month, the Wauconda Village Board approved a conditional use permit to allow the brewery to open its taproom. A liquor license is expected to be issued soon, allowing the taproom to open.
"We were really happy to work out a deal to keep them in Wauconda," Mayor Frank Bart said. "I like their root beer; my wife likes it. Careful though -- they're dangerous."
Even Russell, the critical columnist, said he couldn't complain after sampling a bottle. "I made an ice cream float out of it," he said. "It was great."