Taste adventure: Root beer collection features unusual flavors

VARIETY: Chris Karlin keeps an eye out for new and different kinds of root beer when he travels. He is holding a bottle of Topedo root beer, which is only made and sold in Manitowac, Wisc. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

VARIETY: Chris Karlin keeps an eye out for new and different kinds of root beer when he travels. He is holding a bottle of Topedo root beer, which is only made and sold in Manitowac, Wisc. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

BIG RAPIDS — The mantle above the fireplace in Chris Karlin’s home doesn’t have “99 bottles of beer on the wall” — but it’s close.

Karlin, a Salvation Army lieutenant in Big Rapids, collects as many different types of root beer as he can find. He’s up to 75 kinds of root beer, with the only requirement for a root beer to join his collection being it must be in a glass bottle. Those bottles are displayed on the mantle at his home.

The fascination with root beer began by chance a year and a half ago, while Karlin and his wife were visiting her parents in Huntington, Ind.

Karlin was looking around in a store called Antiqology when he discovered an unusual wall.

“I noticed a wall of sodas,” he said. “They claimed to have one of the largest selections of root beer anywhere. It’s probably 12 to 15 feet long, all bottles of root beer.”

Growing up in Wisconsin, Karlin was aware there were several varieties of root beer. He doesn’t drink alcohol, and he rarely drinks pop, but he will occasionally enjoy a root beer.

“A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t know there were 75 kinds of root beer,’” Karlin said, describing visitors’ initial reactions to his collection. “They only know the ones that are sold everywhere.

FAVORITES: Chris Karlin’s four current favorite root beers, from left to right, are Pure Sodaworks Root Beer #4, Brownie Caramel Cream Root Beer, Cicero Beverage Company Salted Caramel Root Beer and Homer Soda’s Maple Syrup Root Beer. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

FAVORITES: Chris Karlin’s four current favorite root beers, from left to right, are Pure Sodaworks Root Beer #4, Brownie Caramel Cream Root Beer, Cicero Beverage Company Salted Caramel Root Beer and Homer Soda’s Maple Syrup Root Beer. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

“Any of your typical root beers are good, but there are better ones out there,” he continued. “Since I’ve started trying root beers, my palate has become a little more refined — I’ve kind of become a root beer snob.”

Karlin’s four current favorites, in no particular order, are Pure Sodaworks Root Beer #4, Brownie Caramel Cream Root Beer, Cicero Beverage Company Salted Caramel Root Beer and Homer Soda’s Maple Syrup Root Beer.

“I like finding unique flavors in them now,” Karlin said. “I’ve found them made with cherry wood or wintergreen or butterscotch. Root beer is made with the bark and some wood from the sassafras tree. When you use different types of roots and tree bark, you get the oils and flavors out of them.

“I think the thing I enjoy most is I’ll take a drink and then read the ingredients,” he added. “When I do that, I start to pick up on the different flavors and notes in each bottle.”

At the Salvation Army board Christmas Party, Karlin invited board members to sample some of the root beers in his collection. One board member was disappointed his favorite wasn’t part of Karlin’s collection.

“At our Christmas party, I was joking about Faygo because Bon Appetit, a gourmet magazine, rated Faygo one of the top root beers at the time,” said Nick Campau. “Chris tried to be standoffish, saying he only wants glass bottles. We went and bought him some and he relented and tried it. He gave it a ‘that’s not bad,’ so we took that and thought it was a victory.”

Karlin promised Campau he would look for a glass bottle of Faygo. Karlin found one in Bourbon, Ill., so he bought it for the collection.

COLLECTOR: Chris Karlin sits behind his collection of root beer varieties in his home in Big Rapids. Karlin currently has 75 different kinds of root beer. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

COLLECTOR: Chris Karlin sits behind his collection of root beer varieties in his home in Big Rapids. Karlin currently has 75 different kinds of root beer. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

When he buys a new root beer for his collection, he tries to get two bottles — one to drink and one to keep.

Karlin has begun selling root beer tasting events in Salvation Army fundraisers. So far, he’s sold two, with Campau buying one and Ben Montgomery buying the other. Montgomery knew his friend’s children liked root beer, so he took them to his tasting.

“It was very cool and different,” said 13-year-old Camden Tellkamp. “I’ve never really experienced something like that before.”

In the tasting, the guests were presented with several varieties of root beer, from which they selected the 10 kinds to sample. Tellkamp enjoyed learning about the different root beers available. His favorite from the event “tasted more like pumpkin cider” than traditional root beer.

“It’s a very cool experience,” he said of the tasting. “People who do one should keep their minds open to different types of root beer and make sure they appreciate all the different kinds.”

Anyone interested in trying a new root beer option doesn’t have to go far, Karlin said. Meijer in Big Rapids carries three or four different varieties, and The Electric Cheetah and World Market in Grand Rapids also have unusual root beers for sale.

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Posted by Candy Allan

Candy is the Pioneer's associate editor. She also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Parenting pages. She can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at callan@pioneergroup.com.

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