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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Journey John Barleycorn Root Beer

The Weird Soda Review Labs are (or try to be) bastions of scholarship* in the field of Weird Soda research. If there is an "ivory tower" of academia, I suppose we're the "scratched plastic pitcher" of carbonated beverage study. Thus, when we visited the Galco's Institute in April and found Journey's "John Barleycorn" root beer, we had to procure a sample for analysis. Why, you ask? What's so special about this?
About the soda, I have no idea. Never tried it. But John Barleycorn is a fascinating figure.

Apparently, "John Barleycorn" is a figure of English mythology. In the songs sung about him, John represents the various grains used in the production of fermented beverages, and undergoes all of the processing which the grains undergo as they are transformed into beer. According to Wikipedia, Robert Burns' version of the song begins thus:

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

In the rest of the song, Mr. Barleycorn is variously threshed, roasted, smashed, burned, and eventually killed. However, his body is used to make beer and bread, which can then be consumed, giving life to others. We literally eat of his "body" and drink of his "blood", and gain life thereby.

The similarities of this story to the life of Christ--and to many other stories of sacrifice, death, and rebirth--need not be elaborated. Barleycorn is a mythic figure representing life, death, and rebirth, and the harvest cycle. However, apparently, in the earlier versions of the John Barleycorn songs--as in the older stories of figures of death and rebirth--the story doesn't end there. John Barleycorn is reborn/resurrected, and opens up a can of whoop-a** on his persecutors. He wreaks vengeance upon them in a serious way.
Again, the parallels to consumption of the products of John Barleycorn's death (namely beer and whiskey) are fairly obvious. I think that another name for hangovers should be "the inevitable vengeance of John Barleycorn".

Obviously, the story of Christ represents a different take on the more traditional stories of sacrificial death and rebirth. Jesus didn't come down and take vengeance upon the people of Judea after his death, right?
"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." Acts 2:1-4, New International Version.
Seen through the lens of John Barleycorn (and possibly Roland Emmerich), I could imagine this as heavenly plasma cannons, and what they were speaking was "AAAAAAAGH! MY HEAD IS ON FIRE! AAAAAAAAAGH!"
I know, it's not the traditional interpretation, but isn't that what academic inquiry is all about? Pushing the boundaries?**

It's also probably worth noting that, just a few verses later, we have:
Amazed and perplexed they asked one another, 'What does this mean?' Some, however, made fun of them and said 'They have had too much wine.' Acts 2:13
As the Kibbitzer-in-Chief--whose academic training is in literature--puts it, "anyone who has seriously looked at nature and natural cycles knows that nature bites back."

So when we found Journey's John Barleycorn Root Beer, we felt we'd better give it a try. Actually, we're kind of afraid to give it a try, given the discussion above. Further contributing to our apprehension is the "Historic Brew" label on the bottle, and the fact that the image is of a man's face emerging from the wood of a barrel. It's reminiscent of "Green Man" pagan imagery, and messing with the Green Man generally involved an unpleasant ending. But being struck down by the ancient pagan spirit of sarsaparilla is just one of those occupational hazards of being the Quaffmaster.

Where and when: purchased April 2009 at Galco's, Los Angeles
Color: dark brown, pretty normal.
Scent: Wow. Nuts, spices, licorice. The K-i-C votes for "meaty". She's not wrong. Complex and bizarre, not much like regular root beer.
Taste: The initial taste is not unlike root beer, but almost instantly a very tart/sour taste comes out from under that initial taste. It's quite strong, almost lemony. The initial taste has spices, cinnamon and nutmeg, but that citrus is very strange.
Lead Assistant Tester: "I like it!"
K-i-C: (shudders, winces, makes an "oh God" face): "I don't like it. It's a regurgitation sensation."
The licorice isn't as evident in the taste as in the scent, but it comes through under the lemon.
To me, the strongest tastes are of nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon.
The ingredients list is very interesting: water, "natural sweetener blend", fructose, cane sugar, extract of malted barley, essence of wintergreen, citric acid, natural flavors". I can't directly taste the wintergreen, but I'm assuming the barley is the nutty flavor. It's actually kind of chocolatey.
Once again, Journey puts out a strange, distinctive, and controversial brew. Between this and their "Caribbean Creme", I think they may be the Kibbitzer-in-Chief's least favorite beverage company ever.

Quaff rating: 2.5. Complex and interesting, but not very pleasant.
Cough rating: 1.5.

*And by "scholarship", we mean "willingness to skim over Wikipedia entries".
**And really, really hoping that God has a sense of humor

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