History of Root Beer

As with many things, the history of root beer is less clear than we are sometimes led to believe.  Beverage historians point to any one of several starting points for this unique beverage.  However, after a little research, we were able to piece together a history of root beer that is likely pretty close to what actually happened.

It is clear through numerous accounts that at least a general precursor of root beer was introduced in the time of Shakespeare in Europe.  Shakespeare talks of a “small beer” that was around 2% alcohol, and was really a mixture of several local drinks.  This small beer was only minimally similar to the beverage we know and love today, but it was nonetheless an important step in the evolutionary process of the drink.  A much closer relative of today’s root beer can be found in colonial America.  In fact, it’s safe to say that root beer is as American as apple pie.

In colonial times small beers were quite popular, and were essentially a collection of local beverages that were alternately alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  The “beers” were made with a variety of herbs, barks, and roots, and included birch beer, sarsaparilla beer, ginger beer, and, of course, root beer.  Various accounts indicate that these drinks were quite popular in certain areas and were enjoyed by adults and children alike.  By the 1850s, there was at least one company in the United States manufacturing a close relative of today’s root beer.

This brings us to perhaps the most important name in the history of root beer: Charles Hires.  Hires was a Philadelphia-area pharmacist who was a drink enthusiast for most of his life.  On his honeymoon he discovered a recipe for a extremely delicious herbal tea.  He soon started selling the beverage in the form of a dry mixture, while working on a liquid form of the tea.  When he was done experimenting, he had developed a beverage that was a mixture of over twenty-five herbs, berries, and roots that he combined with carbonated soda water.  His new drink was introduced to the public in 1876 at the Philadelphia centennial exhibition.  In 1893 the Hires family began to manufacture the beverage, and for the first time, sell it in glass bottles.  Hires’ beverage was very popular, and he can probably be credited with launching the “modern” root beer movement in America.

If Hires can be credited with launching it, it was probably Roy Allen, founder of A&W Root Beer, that can be credited with sending the movement to new heights.  A&W was founded in 1919, and since then has become the #1 selling root beer in the world.  The nation-wide prohibition of alcohol only increased the popularity of this largely non-alcoholic beverage.

The production of root beer hit a major speed bump in 1960, however, when the       U.S. Food & Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras oil, labeling it a carcinogen.  As any root beer enthusiast would know, sassafras root is the key ingredient in root beer, and root beer is simply not root beer without it; it gives the beverage its rooty, thick, brewed flavor.  Root beer manufacturers would not be deterred, however, so they started to experiment with new recipes.  In their experiments, they discovered that sassafras could be used after all; it just had to be treated first to remove the oil.

What is Root Beer made of?

There is no standard recipe for root beer, which is why it is one of the most exciting and unique drinks made today.  Manufacturers use many different combinations of various ingredients to create unique blends.  Common flavors used, however, include vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, anise, acacia, molasses, cinnamon, clove, and honey.  Gourmet root beer manufacturers often add yucca as well to enhance the head of the beverage.  It is also interesting to note that most root beers are caffeine-free.  However, at least one main stream brand, Barq’s, has caffeine.

Where does root beer come from today?

Different types of root beer have appeared all over the country.  The Root Beer Guys consider there to be three mass market brands: A&W, Barq’s (Coke), and Mug (Pepsi), and two near-mass market brands: Dad’s and IBC.  Most of the rest of the brands can be considered fairly regional brands.  However, some of these local brands have become much more national in recent years, including one of our favorite brands: Hank’s.  Many brands that are extremely unique and tasty have only a local or regional following, and one of the goals of The Root Beer Guys is to promote these local brands.