Rick Mulcahey knows so much about root beer that he’s earned the nickname “Root Beer Rick” by the vendors and regular customers who stop into his small shop on Galena’s Main Street. Get him talking and he’ll weave a history of the classic soda from Colonial America to the modern revival of craft breweries.
He has good reason to know all this; he manages Root Beer Revelry, a store that carries around 50 varieties of root beer from around the country, along with other specialty sodas like ginger ale, cream soda and sarsaparilla. Root Beer Revelry also has four root beers on tap for root beer floats and tasting flights for customers who want to compare different brands.
Sherri Hildebrand and her wife, Beth Ward, stopped into Root Beer Revelry on a recent weekend during a visit to Galena, Ill., for their 10th wedding anniversary. The couple live in Normal, Ill., but married in Galena and enjoy returning to the town.
They tried a flight of four different root beers. Some were creamier, some more tart — both said they never expected root beer to vary so much.
“Oh, yum!” Hildebrand said, taking a sip of a root beer from Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin. “I only knew about A&W root beer. But this is really rich and full.”
Mulcahey seemed delighted with their assessments, just as he was delighted by every family that ordered root beer floats and by the individuals assembling six packs of mix-and-match root beer to take home.
Root Beer Revelry owner Reed Andrew lives in Wisconsin, and Mulcahey has managed the store since it opened about six years ago. He said the concept has proved popular in the tourist-filled town.
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“I had people say, ‘Oh my gosh, all they sell is root beer? They won’t last three months,’” he said. “That was six years ago.”
He’s spent those years expanding his repertoire of root beer stories and facts.
“Root beer is very American,” he said.
The beverage started as a medicinal home-brew of sorts, he said, as both American Indians and colonists used herbs, barks and berries to make tinctures and tonics for their ailments.
“That’s why there were so many soda fountains in pharmacies,” he said.
In 1876 Charles Hires introduced the first commercial root beer. During World War I, American pilots in Europe drank the soda and when they returned home root beer stands started opening across the country, helped by Prohibition forcing traditional beer halls to close or adapt. The drink fell in popularity during the Depression and World War II but saw a resurgence in the 1950s age of drive-ins and the expansion of the A&W chain. More recently, craft breweries have jumped into the root beer and specialty soda game.
Just as craft breweries have their own beer recipes, they have their own root beer formulas, and many of those unique brews line Root Beer Revelry’s shelves. Mulcahey likes the brewery offerings because they often use natural ingredients like cane sugar and flavors derived from things like real licorice, vanilla, honey and orange zest.
“Craft beers have seen a real resurgence, and craft sodas are following in their footsteps,” he said. “These root beers are the real McCoy.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Root Beer Revelry
WHERE: 228 S. Main St., Galena, Ill.
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
DETAILS: (608) 393-8283, rootbeerrevelry.com