The History of Root Beer

Photo by: Bigstockphoto
Photo by: Bigstockphoto

Root beer is a sweet, dark beverage flavored with the root or bark of the sassafras tree or the sarsaparilla vine. This drink comes in alcoholic and non-alcoholic variants. Enjoyed for decades, root beer traces its roots in colonial times in America.

Apart from the root or bark of the sassafras tree or the sarsaparilla vine, root beer is also made with a variety of herbs. Root beer also comes in different types including birch beer, sarsaparilla beer, and ginger beer.

The Beginning of Root Beer

Root beer was derived from a traditional native American beverage made from sassafras. This herbal drink was used to treat certain ailments as well as mixed in cooking. But as Europeans made their way into the North America, the drink was being prepared using European techniques. The earliest root beer recipe existed in the 16th or 17th century. From the 1840s and beyond, root beer was being sold in candy stores. Written recipes of root beer have been recorded since the 1960s. Historians believe that the root beer recipe was incorporated with soda recipes during the 1850s to make the beverage. However, root beer was sold as a syrup, not as a ready-made drink.

Charles Hires developed the first commercially available root beer recipe. Hires was a Philadelphia pharmacist who allegedly discovered the herbal concoction while on his honeymoon. He began selling the dry version of the tea. Eventually, he developed a liquid version of the recipe. Hires’ root beer recipe was made from over 25 ingredients, including berries, herbs, and roots. He was also the first to combine the root beer mixture to soda pop to alter its flavor.

In 1876, Hires’ version of root beer was launched to the masses through the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition.

Root Beer Ingredients

Root beer was classified as small beers. Small beers are local beverages made from barks, roots, and herbs. Early root beer recipe included allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, and hops. Other ingredients are burdock root, dandelion root, spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root*, vanilla beans, dog grass, molasses, and licorice. All these ingredients add to the rather complex flavor of the beer as well as its distinct color. Some of the ingredients listed above are still being used in modern root beer.

Different companies have different variations of the root beer recipe. Unsurprisingly, these recipes are kept under lock and key! This means root beer does not have a single recipe at all.

Launching Bottled Root Beer

Charles Hire would eventually make his fortune on his herbal concoction. The Hires family continued manufacturing root beer and was the first to distribute the drink in bottled, ready to drink form in 1893. This was the beginning of the modern root beer we know and love today.

Since then, different companies came up with different versions of the more popular recipe developed by Charles. Once such company is A & W Root Beer, which was founded by Roy Allen in 1919.


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