Serious root beer comes to South Hill

Corey Anderson categorizes root beer three ways.

“Strong and bitey.”

Those are the root beers made with heavy wintergreen notes or other sharp flavor.

“Smooth and creamy.”

Those are made with heavy notes of vanilla.

The third category’s a little more troubling to define, but Anderson said he knows one when he tastes it.

“You take a sip and you look at the bottle. You have to look at the bottle a second time. I’ve got a few of those that don’t fit the strong or the smooth and creamy – so I call them amazing.”

Consider Anderson an expert-level curator of root beer. His love of root beer grew from making it with his dad when he was a kid.

His third store featuring America’s most nostalgic non-alcoholic beverage, The Root Beer Store, opened in November on Puyallup’s South Hill. He operates other outposts in Lynnwood and Redmond, as well as an online store.

The Puyallup Root Beer Store features about 100 types of root beer in a 1,600-square-foot space that’s crammed with soda pop, root beer brewing kits and root beer-flavored foods (including barbecue sauce, cookie mixes and even mustard). Root beer tastings are hosted the second Saturday of every month.

The store also stocks nostalgic and small-batch soda pops in other flavors beyond root beer, but that accounts for only a fraction of the inventory.

Anderson acknowledges that a store devoted to root beer is filling an awfully narrow niche, but he said root beer is a category of soda with broad reach in flavors and ingredients. The ingredient list can include just about any spice or root you can imagine. And that’s why there are so many kinds of root beer while the field of lemon-lime or orange soda is tiny by comparison.

Also, Anderson said, consider the collectors of root beer culture. Those collectors are why people are willing to shell out three bucks for a single bottle.

“We were shocked at the passion and culture and love. I don’t know of anybody that collects an array of orange soda bottles and puts it on their cupboard, but I know many people who have collections of root beer bottles all around their homes,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s no root beer snob, but he knows his way around a good one.

Does he sell bad tasting soda? You bet, he said. There’s one flavored with bacon he described as “terrible.”

He caters to what customers want, not necessarily what he thinks they should like, although he and his staffers gladly offer recommendations. Just don’t expect that bacon soda to top his list of go-to sodas.

What do customers typically prefer? Definitely the smooth and creamy – the vanilla-toned root beers, Anderson said.

Customers also seek local bottlers, such as Hummingbird Hill in Silverdale. Anderson features small craft brewers such as Hummingbird in his root beer of the month club.

If you ask his favorite, he’ll guide you to Buckin’ Root Beer, a root beer from Jackson Hole Soda that he first found at Larry’s Market (now closed), one of few grocery stores that carried unusual soda varieties a decade ago. “It’s a wintergreen flavor, and strong. I like that one,” said Anderson. He added, “When we tell people it’s a wintergreen, you have to be careful. You wouldn’t know what’s in it unless I told you. It’s a strong root beer.”

For those who really want to delve deep into the category of strong root beers, Anderson recommends Sparky’s from a bottler in California.

So does he covet a root beer he just can’t get? Anderson said he’d love to offer Barq’s in a glass bottle because while grocery stores everywhere carry that brand in cans or plastic battles, it’s tough to find in glass. That means collectors want it.

“They make it back east in a small distributor. We’re trying to get around that. It’s not a holy grail, it’s a feather in my cap to get that,” he said.