BY ANTHONY TODD | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Did you ever wonder what root beer used to taste like?
You know, before caramel coloring, corn syrup, artificial vanilla flavoring and the like?
The owners of Forbidden Root, a new brewing company whose beers are now available in bars all over Chicago, wondered that too.
“The inspiration was the child’s question: where does root beer come from?” explained Robert Finkel, the “Rootmaster” at Forbidden Root. “We went on a deep dive, and we found there was this world, pre-soda, of botanic beer. From the Egyptians on forward, you brewed whatever you could forage for.”
Most of that stuff wouldn’t pass muster today – Finkel emphasizes that while they work with botanical ingredients and ancient ideas, they aren’t trying to replicate old recipes. “Some were poisonous, some wouldn’t pass FDA requirements or taste very good,” he laughed. ”This is taking that philosophy and bringing it into the modern times. We’re not replicating what they did, we’re taking the ethos and moving it forward.”
These techniques and ingredients were so unusual that it took Forbidden Root more than 18 months to perfect their eponymous signature beer. The beer, inspired by root beer, has more than 20 botanicals including cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, sandalwood, black pepper and more.
At first, they weren’t sure where to start.
“One of the biggest questions from the beginning was ‘what is this going to taste like?’ There was root beer that happened to have alcohol in it on one end, and on the other end was normal craft beer. Where on that line was this gonna land?” said B. J. Pichman, Operations Manager at Forbidden Root.
They tried tons of different things, and finally narrowed it down to the right recipe. “The magic ingredient, surprisingly, was a little bit of oak aging. We ferment every batch on Hungarian oak,” explained PichmanRight now, they also offer two other beers. Sublime Ginger, made with key lime, lemon myrtle, honey bush and ginger, is my pick to replace grapefruit-flavored Steigl Radler as the summer beer everyone is drinking. The Shady Character is a porter made with roasted black walnuts and toasted chesnuts, which is mean to taste like “the Midwest in the middle of the woods,” said Finkel.
Around 20 different bars and restaurants around Chicago have Forbidden Root on draft, and they’re hoping to release bottles in August. In addition, they’re starting construction on a brewpub. The pub will feature lots of guest taps from other craft brewers, as well as small batch attempts from Forbidden Root. Finkel is ready to get started: “It’ll be experimentation central. We have a huge backlog of ideas, and we’re looking forward to brewing some of those things.”