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Root Beer -- housemade or good bottle selection??

I'm organizing a root beer tasting, and would appreciate your ideas on which stores have a good bottle selection (North Bay preferred) or where all over the Bay Area, a restaurant or brewery makes good house-brewed root beer. Happy to drive to chase down a good product.

I prefer spicy, complex brews, but all suggestions are welcome, including those for birch beer, sarsaparilla, etc.

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  1. I'd suggest getting in touch with the various branches of Powell's Sweet Shoppe. The original, flagship store in Windsor used to have a soda department with dozens of root beers. It has since scaled back, but I've not been in recently to say how much. Here's the page on the corporate website with locations, linking to each store's own site.

    And I'll put in a word for Sparky's root beer, made in Monterey County. Almost too spicy and complex, I prefer it with lots of ice or better yet, in an ice cream float, to dilute its power.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Will do. The Windsor shoppe is on my radar. Thanks, Melanie.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I haven't posted forever! been too busy working... but I have to chime in and say that I also love Sparky's. It is very strong and I can't drink a lot of it at once, but it is amazing. Bevmo carries it now I believe.

        Also, as much as I want to love Devil's Canyon's root beer (they are very local), it is just too sweet and not complex enough... I enjoy there beer however.

        1. re: lrealml

          Happy to see a post from you again, welcome back!

          Today I was parked near the Healdsburg location of Powell's Sweet Shoppe (smaller than Windsor) and popped in to see what might be in the soda case. Found IBC, Rat Bastard, Frostie, Polar Classics, and Sioux City. There may be more but the staff were busy and I couldn't ask.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Thanks! The Windsor store was a bust...

            We've got a pretty good list assembled.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              There's the IBC: red bottle cap and non-paper labeled bottle.

        1. re: wolfe

          Great topic. You'll find a great variety in terms of sweetener (HFCS, sugar, honey, molasses), and presence of vanilla, wintergreen oil, or anise.

          I'd caution against BevMo--- I did a root beer tasting of their entire selection a few years back, and several of them were stored improperly and interacted with the metal caps. As a general rule, stick to places in which the root beer is refrigerated.

          The only house root beer I had in recent memory was at Ice cream bar in Cole Valley last night. They don't package to go though.

          1. re: wolfe

            Bevmo had quite a few selections. Thank you!

            1. re: maria lorraine

              ETA Bevmo in San Rafael was the mother lode.

              Also, surprising, Friedman Brothers!! Pick up some root beer with your drywall.

          2. +1 BevMo carries a lot of RB. They carry KEGS of root beer on order and I think a sampler. Sprecher and Berghoff are interesting but I'd just buy anything there.

            I always liked Hires which of course you can't get. I liked it because it had a dry finish and works great with a root beer float. Too sweet or a wet finish gets lost with ice cream. Too wet a finish and not so good as cold bev. In the same range as Hires but not spicy or complex, I like IBC and Teddy's, both available at Lucky's supermarket and probably at BevMo.

            You might try Brewcraft the beer place on Clement, I'm positive they sell a RB kit and I'm sure they can tell you how to prep/doctor it towards your taste. It would be a great comparo. Actually I should check that out. If they can tell me how to produce a dry finish I'd buy it.

            2 Replies
            1. re: ML8000

              Indeed Brewcraft does sell Root Beer extract (as well as Ginger Beer). Have tried them both, but moved on to experimenting on my own to get the taste I want. Here's a book I got a brewcraft for ideas.


              1. re: leefc

                We used to make root beer when I was a kid living in the Midwest. I'd love to make it next round. I've heard Zatarain's extract is great.

                Bevmo sounds like a good resource. I'll check it out.

                If any other gourmet grocery stores with good selections come to mind, let me know.

                So far, we have Frostop (current favorite), Rat Bastard (rated pretty highly), Stewarts,
                Sioux City and a few others. I'll probably get around ten or so bottles -- Abita, Weinhard,
                Virgils, and then supplement with the fresh brews.

            2. I don't know much about rootbeer except that I often find bottled ones too sweet but FWIW I really enjoyed the housemade rootbeer at Magnolia I tried a couple of weeks ago. The brewer would not share the exact ingredients but it tasted quite complex to me. Perhaps you could get a couple of litres to go?

              4 Replies
              1. re: grayelf

                I'd like to check out Magnolia's. I have a Cabernet tasting on Monday in SF, maybe I'll roll by and try the RB at Magnolia's. Thanks for the tip.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I hope you like it. Be warned though that if you order a full glass it comes in a pint. I couldn't finish it despite wanting to :-). The other thing I really liked about it was that it wasn't overly carbonated.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    Perhaps your root beer at Magnolia was different than mine. This one was thin, not much to it. But we journeyed on to Kezar, just a few blocks away and had the Devi's Canyon.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      So sad! But I surmise that the brew was indeed different. The guy we spoke to said he made the batch I was drinking and he preferred his rb less sweet and made it so. I guess they brew it up frequently and different people are in charge of it on any given day.

              2. Phil's Sliders downtown Berkeley makes root beer to order but on my visit the mix wasn't right. About those Bevmo root beers it's probably best to only buy the ones made with cane sugar as I believe they have the longest bottle life.

                7 Replies
                1. re: wolfe

                  Root beer to order is probably just made from root beer extract.

                  1. re: sugartoof

                    Then again maybe not..
                    Perhaps Lindsay makes it from scratch.

                    1. re: wolfe


                      You just linked to a recipe for an extract.

                      If you made a ginger syrup, and added seltzer it would be a different process than if you made a ginger ale. Same with Root Beer.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        I dare say that many of the commercially bottled root beers are probably made the same way. I'm sure you know better and can provide examples of the companies that actually ferment their product.

                        1. re: wolfe

                          I always thought root beers were by definition non alchoholic. Wouldn't that mean no fermentation?

                          Certainly some sodas were/are made from syrups. I have seen old bottles of root beer and cola syrups.

                          All that said, Fentiman's might make a slightly alcoholic version. They do make a nice cola with minor alcoholic content.

                          1. re: chocolatetartguy

                            "A WORD ABOUT THE ALCOHOL IN HOME MADE ROOT BEER (OR GINGER ALE ): I have received numerous inquiries about whether there might be alcohol in this home made soft drink. The answer is yes, but... We have tested in our lab the alcoholic content which results from the fermentation of this root beer and found it to be between 0.35 and 0.5 %."

                  2. re: wolfe

                    Phil's has a heavy star anise flavor. Not sure I've tasted that in a root beer before. They have other house syrups as well such as ginger. I wasn't too keen on the carbonation level.

                  3. Devils Canyon Brewery is supposed to have growlers of their root beer available. It might be available on tap somewhere.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: sugartoof

                      That's a great lead. They look like a pretty creative company. Thanks, sugartoof.


                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        Had the Devil's Canyon at Kezar today. Had a nice amount of vanilla and some clove for bottom notes, but not concentrated. I wanted a little more intensity and more spice notes.

                    2. I did have a tasty house-made root beer at, of all places, Homeroom, that mac'n'cheese place in Oakland.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: dunstable

                        Tasted Homeroom's root beer last night -- herbal, would have preferred a tiuch of vanilla personally. The fizziness was just right and it was not too sweet for me.

                      2. Bevmo has the best selection. They usually have Abita, which you should definitely include. I also like and they have Sioux City and Sprechers. Faygo is sweet but good. Sioux City also makes root beer variants Birch beer and Sasparilla. These brands are superior to the bigger commercial brands that I have tried like Thomas Kemper and IBC. Always liked Mug as a kid. Bevmo also has a 12 can pack of assorted root beer brands. I have only had the bottled brands.

                        Phil's Sliders makes their own, but I haven't tried it. They make great homemade tator tots too.

                        I love root beer! Are we all invited? Just kidding.

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: chocolatetartguy

                          I've read so many good reports of Abita. Gotta score some. Thanks for mentioning them.
                          Good lead on Phil's. I love a good root beer, and am probably gravitating towards making
                          my own extract eventually -- especially since my brothers and I made this as kids with our Dad. This exercise of gathering and tasting will get me ready for the summer. I have a
                          feeling cold root beer in a frosted mug and root beer floats are in my future.

                          Any more suggestions or reports or sightings, I'm happy to hear!

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            "especially since my brothers and I made this as kids with our Dad. "
                            Great memory and a one time favorite root beer, Dad's. Available World Market
                            3934 Bel Aire Plaza

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              Abita is my favorite, although it took some getting use to. It is made by a New Orleans brewery that also produces alcoholic beer. It is barely sweet at all and has a very slight bitter barky flavor. Very refreshing, but I would not think that children would like it. Never seem to get around to it, but I bet it would make a great float. I believe that Wood Tavern uses it to make a rb granita.

                              Sprechers is made with honey and has a long, honeyed finish. Sioux City used to be my favorite. Not sure why, but it is light and well-balanced. Still like uncomplicated Faygo, but for some reason it is more expensive that the others. I'll have to look around at all the bottles sitting on my kitchen counter to come up with some others.

                              One brand that I don't care for is the Australian one with the kangaroo on it: Bund...? It was bitter and the top was hard to remove. btw, some Bevmos have more variety than others. I find almost everything at the Berkeley/Albany store. The SF store on Van Ness doesn't have much selection.

                              1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                Does someone besides Queenie's Po Boy carry Abita? Bundaberg, sorry to hear it about their root beer , I think there ginger beer is great.

                                1. re: wolfe

                                  Bevmo usually has it in stock. Surprisingly that New Orleans place near Castro ,which is now closed, didn't. They might have it at Wood and there was at least one other place that I heard was using it to make drinks.

                                  You should try Bundaberg, you might like it if you like their other products. I had a lot of trouble opening the damn bottle.

                                  1. re: wolfe

                                    " I think there ginger beer is great"
                                    their, what I really need is stupidity check.
                                    I see Abita in the Bevmo link above but I never saw it in Albany, oh well.

                                    1. re: wolfe

                                      I do that all the time. As I age, I seem to type phonetically more than just once or twice. I find I have to proofread b4 hitting send. I never noticed that there was a there there where there should have been a their. I think I got that right! :)

                                    2. re: wolfe

                                      I'm pretty sure I just saw Abita Root Beer on the menu at Paisan in Berkeley, but I'm a root beer avoider so I'm not 100% on that. Also, you might want to check with Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen, as they have several varieties of Abita beer, though, again, the root beer didn't necessarily catch my eye.

                                    3. re: chocolatetartguy

                                      Abita is turning up more frequently in the city. Fatted Calf's Hayes Valley location has the root beer for example.

                                2. Devil's Canyon root beer on tap at Kezar Pub at 770 Stanyan Street. I think a pint is under $5. not too sweetish. http://www.devilscanyonbrewery.com/ca...

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Cynsa

                                    Great. I really wanted to try DC. Thanks for the tip.

                                  2. Fun endeavor! Around 10 years ago, my ex (a serious root beer fan) and I tasted around 25, which he acquired via a mail-order place. We didn't do them side by side, but sequentially, one or two per day. Very interesting to note all the differences, as others have said. Sometimes ingredients like honey or vanilla really stand out, and I discovered that an outstanding root beer, to me, is one that is cane-sugar sweetened and very balanced in flavor, with a clean finish. There were around five that really stood out; unfortunately, I couldn't tell you now what they were.

                                    1. My favorite is Bulldog. Hard to find, but most World Market's carry it. A little ice to cut it with....ahhhh.

                                      1. Dempsey's in Petaluma. They sell growlers, IIRC.


                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: kcshigekawa

                                          Got it, found it on the kid's menu.

                                          1. re: kcshigekawa

                                            Dempsey's is fantastic. Had it today. Loved it. The best so far since Frostop!
                                            And made in California!

                                          2. The 21st Amendment in SF (SOMA) had it on their menu last week, as well as a ginger ale/beer - not sure which one.

                                            1. I was in Piedmont Grocery in Oakland this afternoon, and I counted 15 different root beers for sale, either in the cooler on on the shelves.

                                              1. We've been drinking SodaStream carbonated water flavored with Torani's Root Beer flavor. I just thought I would mention it -- my spouse loves it, I think it's too sweet and simple. IF you're doing a tasting, something like that might help to point out the differences. And make you appreciate the better ones.

                                                1. OK, here is the line-up SO FAR:

                                                  Sea Dog
                                                  Hosmer Mountain
                                                  Dog N Suds
                                                  Rat Bastard
                                                  Capone Family Secret
                                                  AJ Stephens
                                                  Captain Eli's
                                                  Jack Black's Dead Red
                                                  Triple XXX
                                                  Barrel Brothers Creamy Vanilla
                                                  Sparky's Fresh Draft
                                                  Route 66
                                                  Dang That's Good Butterscotch Root Beer
                                                  Henry Weinhard's

                                                  Would like to find -- any sightings in the North Bay?
                                                  IBC (just for comparison)

                                                  On tap:
                                                  Devil's Canyon at Kezar

                                                  I think we'll do this like a wine-tasting with a matrix for an evaluation of qualities like creaminess, color, complexity and finish; and definitive flavor components like vanilla, wintergreen, ginger, licorice, and sarsaparilla; with more spaces for proprietary spices, general spice level and so forth. Ideas?

                                                  Any more suggestions for good root beers, keep 'em comin'!

                                                  11 Replies
                                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                                    Iron Springs in Fairfax makes a great root beer. Pretty sure they will do growlers of it.

                                                    1. re: pininex

                                                      I love this word "growler." Before, I thought it was just was a complaining person. Yahoo for the tip on how to score root beer to go!

                                                    2. re: maria lorraine

                                                      I used to work in a Frostop in Tyler, Texas. Before I worked for them I thought it was cool that they pumped rootbeer from the barrel in the restaurant. Kinda deflating to find out it was for show only! hehe. The frosted mugs rocked (except when I had to wash dozens of them at a time). I just found Frostop in the bottle a few months ago.

                                                      1. re: randyjl

                                                        I swear Frostop has the worst marketing and customer service. We've written and called them five times to find out where we can buy it (it's the current favorite). Nothing in response, ever.

                                                      2. re: maria lorraine

                                                        I saw Abita rootbeer on the menu at Foreign Cinema $4. Maybe they can sell you some.

                                                          1. re: maria lorraine

                                                            So the BevMo's near you don't stock Abita? I picked up a few bottles over the weekend at the Emeryville branch - I wouldn't have figured the different stores would have very divergent stocks.

                                                            1. re: Spatlese

                                                              "I wouldn't have figured the different stores would have very divergent stocks."
                                                              Yes they do but I think they have access to the same brands since they can order from a central warehouse and Abita is on their list.

                                                              1. re: wolfe

                                                                But they do. The El Cerrito/Albany branch has a huge selection. The SF Van Ness branch has almost none. Likely a matter of how much space they have.

                                                        1. re: maria lorraine


                                                          I once bought Bulldog at:

                                                          Cost Plus World Market
                                                          2040 Redwood Highway
                                                          Greenbrae, CA 94904
                                                          Tel: (415) 924-7743

                                                          Most of the stores run out of it fairly quickly, so you might want to phone ahead to check stock.

                                                          1. re: Smitty1964

                                                            Cost Plus (World Market) is usually a great place for interesting sodas.

                                                        2. Cal-Mart on California Street in the Laurel Village shopping strip has Teddy's root beer.
                                                          It's stacked on the end of a produce aisle near the bread shelves today.
                                                          3585 California St
                                                          (between Locust St & Spruce St)
                                                          San Francisco, CA 94118
                                                          Neighborhood: Laurel Heights

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: Cynsa

                                                            Teddy's is real good stuff. It's an example of a nice root beer that might not standout in a taste test grouping, but it's a great old brand to pick up if you spot it.

                                                            Lunardi's in Burlingame has the whole line at a good price.

                                                            1. re: sugartoof

                                                              You can get Teddy's at many mainstream supermarkets like Lucky's.

                                                              1. re: ML8000

                                                                I've never seen it at Safeway, or Andronico's. Not sure about Molly Stone.

                                                          2. We have gathered roughly 20 bottles, and will set up a tasting of flights.

                                                            I'll let you know the favorites of each round.

                                                            Thank you so much for the ideas! Stay tuned.

                                                            1. Pacific Coast Brewing in Oakland on Washington usually has a house made root beer available.

                                                              1. Did you see Anthony's Root beer Barrel blog ~500 reviewed

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: wewwew

                                                                  Yes, that's a good resource. Will check it again.

                                                                2. Here are the root beers we've assembled to begin:

                                                                  AJ Stephens
                                                                  Barrel Brothers
                                                                  Creamy Vanilla
                                                                  Boylan's Birch
                                                                  Bull Dog
                                                                  Capone Family Secret
                                                                  Captain Eli's
                                                                  Columbia Soda
                                                                  Dang That's Good
                                                                  Butterscotch Root Beer
                                                                  Dog N Suds
                                                                  Henry Weinhard's
                                                                  Hosmer Mountain
                                                                  Jack Black's Dead Red
                                                                  Jackson Hole Buckin'
                                                                  Jackson Hole
                                                                  Snake River Sarsaprilla
                                                                  Maine Root
                                                                  Olde Rhode
                                                                  Island Molasses
                                                                  Rat Bastard
                                                                  River City
                                                                  Route 66
                                                                  Sea Dog
                                                                  Sioux City
                                                                  So Duh! Rockin'
                                                                  Sparky's Fresh Draft
                                                                  Triple XXX

                                                                  We may add more, as we hear about them and find them. Thanks for all the suggestions!

                                                                  10 Replies
                                                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                    Impressive! What are you serving to clear the palate?

                                                                    Jackson Hole might be a good inclusion. They make a great Huckleberry soda. So Duh maybe not. They make a red hot cinammon soda that I never finished.

                                                                    I'm thinking you should include the classic old school brands: Mug, Hires, A&W. There is an on tap sasparilla served at Saul's and Gioia in Berkeley.

                                                                    1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                                                      Yes, we are throwing in some of the popular, familiar brands like Hires and A&W. We'll pick these up in the next couple of weeks. Our plan is to pick winners in the popular brands category as well.

                                                                      We have no idea how to clear the palate other than what we would use for wine. During the first flight, we felt no need to clear anyway. The differences between the bottles were quite obvious.

                                                                      BTW, we tasted double-blind.

                                                                      1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                        "BTW, we tasted double-blind."
                                                                        I would expect nothing less.

                                                                          1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                            This is a great (and ambitious) undertaking! Do you have a report for us?

                                                                            I was at our local vintage soda shoppe here in Vegas this morning, and they have quite a variety to choose from. What are your favorites, since the tasting?

                                                                            1. re: Steve Green

                                                                              So, far Abita and Frostop. We are still tasting through all the root beers after a summer hiatus for travel and life interruptions.

                                                                              Abita had depth, power, creaminess and good vanilla, wintergreen, clove and other flavors.
                                                                              Frostop was a total surprise. Lots of flavor for a mass-market brand.

                                                                              More later. We haven't forgotten about this thread.

                                                                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                                Where did you find Abita & Frostop?

                                                                                  1. re: wolfe

                                                                                    Yes, Abita is at Bevmo.

                                                                                    Frostop is widely distributed, at Bevmo and many other spots.

                                                                                  2. re: hhc

                                                                                    Abita is by far my favorite. I have only seen single bottles at Bevmo. Andronico's has six packs at a slight discount.

                                                                        1. Wanted to mention that The Fizzary opened last month. I haven't been yet, but you might find some happy hunting there.

                                                                          The Fizzary
                                                                          2949 Mission St
                                                                          @ 25th St
                                                                          San Francisco, CA 94110

                                                                          7 Replies
                                                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                            I've been, and can vouch for the solid root beer selection. Most of it's the standard regional stuff you might find at a BevMo, but there are a few real oddball brands, and it seems like you can make requests. It's a quirky store with bottles propped on divey, somewhat kitschy thrift store furniture. They have the sodas arranged by type.

                                                                            1. re: sugartoof

                                                                              Thanks, I read somewhere that Fizzary can chill your soda selection in 3 to 5 mins so you can drink it on the spot.

                                                                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                I heard one of the owners offering that to some people. They have a small fridge with a random assortment of sodas - my guess is they'll stick it in there, or a freezer for a few.

                                                                                1. re: sugartoof

                                                                                  Besides soda, what else is sold at The Fizzary?

                                                                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                      taffy. penny candy bins. it's pretty much a soda shop sold in bottles.

                                                                                      i wouldn't go unless you're a real avid soda fan who gets a thrill from seeing a&w in a bottle, or buying pumpkin soda, or an obscure southern lime rickey soda.

                                                                              2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                Thanks, Melanie (as always). I love the name of this place. Will try to make it there next time I'm in SF.

                                                                              3. After being inspired by this thread, I bought a bunch of root beer the next time I was in a BevMo. I bought the following; nothing like Maria's selection but still...

                                                                                AJ Stephans
                                                                                Dr. Brown
                                                                                Henry Weinhard
                                                                                Jack Black's

                                                                                I've had one per day most days and have to say I don't think my root beer taster is very highly developed. I liked all of them, Arbita best because it was the least sweet and had good complex flavors. Then my notes say Boylans is probably next (very good creaminess) and then AJ Stephans and Boylans in no particular order. I still have the Sprecher to try. I didn't see any Frostop that day so will get that later.

                                                                                Hey, this is fun.

                                                                                8 Replies
                                                                                1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                  Sprecher's is made with honey and has a very honeyed finish. It's good and Dr. Kayo Jr.'s favorite. I don't think you can beat Abita for complexity. It is definitely not a child's root beer and makes a great float.

                                                                                  1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                    Oops, I meant to write: and then AJ Stephans and Jack Black's Dead Red Root Beer in no particular order.

                                                                                    1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                      Thanks for your post and report. We've slacked off a bit on our root beer flights tasting -- life has intruded, dammit. We'll get back on it come fall and report back. Keep drinkin'.

                                                                                      1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                                        Heh heh, I bought another several bottles today for later perusal. Such dedication. Still didn't find Frostop (BevMo, San Rafael).

                                                                                        1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                          I finally found a root beer that I don't like. It's Waialua Root Beer from Waialua Soda Works in Waialua, Hawaii. Their website says " the company uses only clear glass bottles, pure cane sugar, and natural flavors". I found it simple with no creaminess at all, and actually unpleasant. I'm saying this here not to warn people off at all, but because I'm curious to see if others like it as I'm sure they must. Taste is such a personal thing.

                                                                                          1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                            After reading a glowing recommendation on some internet site for Virgil's Root Beer, I got a four-pack at Whole Foods in Mill Valley yesterday. The label says all the right things - "like the original brewers, we use only natural ingredients - nutmeg, imported anise, and wintergreen." And cane sugar. Well, I believe the label. The flavor is strong and complex. But I might not have recognized it as root beer, which of course I grew up on at A&W stands, etc. This is a different beast, and I decided after two bottles that I actually don't much like it. I think, however, that all root beer lovers should try it and see what they think; it's that distinctive.

                                                                                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                              I like RB quite a bit but have to agree with your assessment of Vigil's. The wintergreen is over done and gives a mouth wash tinge.

                                                                                        2. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                          Interesting about Boylan's. When we tasted around 25 root beers 10 years ago, we didn't care for Boylan's, whereas we thought Boylan's birch beer (and birch beer is very similar to root beer in ingredients/flavor) very good.

                                                                                        3. Does anyone know a root beer similar to that served at the Lone Star Brewery tour (it's brewed in-house and not sold elsewhere, as far as I know)? It's the best I've ever had... not too sweet, not too spicy, not too carbonated.