The History of Root Beer

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Today, there are hundreds of Root Beer brands all across the United States. Though there is no one recipe, this favorite soft drink flavor has definitely found its place in American history, and is a favorite of young and old.

This beverage actually started as a two percent low alcohol “small beer”. “Small beers” date back to the 13th century. Poor public sanitation led to water-transmitted diseases which often led to death. The daily consumption of small beer was one way to escape possible infection, as the alcohol helped to kill the bacteria. Historical documents note that Shakespeare had partaken of small beers, George Washington had a recipe for small beer, and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography mentions that he sometimes had a small beer with breakfast.

In Colonial America, small beer was part of their diet. As the colonists settled, they didn’t have the crops of barley or other grains to use when making their small beer. They had to use other sweeteners such as cane sugar, honey and molasses. For bitterness, instead of hops, they had to discover which plants in the new world would provide the bitterness and flavor.

Early Root Beers contained ingredients such as birch bark, allspice, spicewood, wild cherry bark, ginger, coriander, yellow dock, hops, wintergreen, juniper, burdock root, vanilla beans, dog grass, spikenard, sarsaparilla, dandelion root, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, sassafras root, molasses and licorice. Many of those ingredients are still used today with the addition of carbonation.

The invention of an actual Root Beer recipe may have happened by accident. Using a handful of roots, berries and herbs, an unknown pharmacist came up with a drink that was very medicinal. While the pharmacist was eager to create a miracle cure-all drug for the public, it never really took off.

In the 1870s another pharmacist, Charles Hires, created a recipe for a delicious herbal tea. Later, the combination of over twenty-five herbs, berries and roots was used to flavor his carbonated soda water. In 1893, Hires tasked the Crystal Bottling Company to bottle and distribute his Root Beer to local retailers. Being a pharmacist himself, Hires promoted his Root Beer as a good-for-you brew, and he called his new product “root tea”. However, to appeal to a larger audience, he was encouraged to call it Root Beer. The popularity for this soft drink skyrocked as a result of Hires mass marketing, and this soft drink soon became as American as apple pie and baseball.