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A History of Root Beer

Early History

That carbonated, creamy, soft and foamy drink we love known as Root Beer has a long history. In 1265, the British Isles enjoyed a Dandelion and Burdock beverage; it was a naturally fizzy soft drink and is still made there today. During medieval time sanitation was so bad there was very little clean water to drink, so the people who drank from wells, rivers or streams became sick. It was healthier to drink wine, spirits, tea, and small beer. It is told in Belgium that St Arnold, a monk and a scientist studied why rich people were healthier than the poor. His answer was in what the people drank, water or a brewed drink. It was important to have a low alcohol drink for women and children, so small beer was made. Some historical documents say Shakespeare was known to drink “small beers.” One recipe for small beer was from early colonial America, containing 2-12-percent alcohol, berries, herbs and bark. This was considered a refreshing, social drink. During this time other beverages besides Root Beer was enjoyed, Ginger Beer, Birch Beer and Sarsaparilla Beer. As the pilgrims came to America they had to have liquid to drink and water stored in wooden kegs spoiled much too quickly. Therefore, beer was the beverage consumed. The colonists built their towns and had to provide most everything for themselves.

They baked their own bread, grew all their own food and brewed their own beers. They did not have barley or other grains for brewing at first, so they used what were available, berries, bark and roots. The alcohol was the preservative. The beer was boiled and brewed like tea to blend the flavors and kill the germs. It was then cooled and fermented with yeast. Small beer was made one of three ways; from the leftovers of the strong beers, with small amounts of grain, or was consumed during its early stage, while still sweet, before fermentation was complete. This was the real beginning of Root Beer. It is truly as American as baseball and apple pie.

Medicinal History

Many people believe that Root Beer as we know it came about as an accident. There were many pharmacists trying to create cure-all drinks, often coming up with liquids containing roots, berries, bark and flavorings. You would buy the syrup from the pharmacist, take it home and then experiment with how much water to mix it with. The result tasted both sweet and bitter, and was never popular. One such man, Charles Hires, on his honeymoon came across a recipe for a wonderful tasting tea. He developed it into a liquid concentrate made up of more than 25 herbs, roots and berries. This elixir was then mixed at home with water or seltzer water. It was introduced in 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the public loved it. By 1893 it had become so popular it was bottled and sold as a soft drink. The drink was originally going to be called Root Tea, but with the intention of appealing to a larger audience, he called it Root Beer.


There are now hundreds of root beer brands in the United States, produced in every state and yet there is no standardized recipe. The main ingredient for this popular drink was sassafras root, which is what produces the tangy brewed flavor root beer is best loved for. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras oil as it was found to be a carcinogen causing cancer. The root beer industry quickly started experimenting to find a replacement, while preserving the flavor. Inventors discovered that sassafras could be treated prior to the removal of the oil, keeping the flavor and eliminating any risk. Today artificial flavorings can be used.