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Drink Origins: Root Beer

Published on:

September 22, 2021

If someone asked you to describe the flavor of root beer soda, what would you say? We’re betting you might struggle to find an answer–or that your answer might vary greatly from your peers. There’s a good reason for that.

Root beer sports an elusive profile that has had consumers around the world scratching their heads for generations. The truth is that there’s no truly authentic root beer recipe and, in fact, recipes differ between brands as well as around the globe.

Get to the root of root beer with us as we explore the origins of this classic drink, how it evolved into a beloved soda, and why it continues to change what the world is drinking.

An Indigenous Medicine Becomes A Colonial Treat

Root beer owes it beginnings to the indigenous populations of early America. Far before colonists arrived on our young nation’s shores, native people were already using different parts of the sassafras tree to create medicinal tonics and delicious cuisines, alike.

Every part of the plant–from the leaves all the way down to its roots–was utilized to create tisanes (herbal teas) and throat-coating syrups to treat respiratory conditions and stomach problems. It was also not uncommon for natives to consume the young leaves at leisure or use the fruit to make jelly or wine.

While the leaves provided a fresh lemony aroma, it was the roots that delivered what we identify today as a distinctly “root beer” profile. As colonists settled in the Americas, they learned the recipes for various food and drink from the natives, and root beer was one such invention embraced by these newcomers.

Colonists had long enjoyed “small beers”, essentially alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages made from herbs, berries, and bark. These drinks, which included birch beer and ginger beer were already a part of the diets of most European settlers, so similar beers made from American ingredients like sassafras root did not seem too unfamiliar to try. It didn’t take long for settlers to acquire a taste for root beer.

In fact, the colonists enjoyed these earliest forms of root beer so much, that records identify it as a favorite among 18th century farmers. As homebrewers, these farmers would often prepare their own versions of the stuff for social events, family celebrations, and parties. Even our founding fathers kept records of their favorite root beer recipes. Talk about American history!

Making Early Root Beer

In addition to sassafras root, common ingredients of the time included sarsaparilla, dandelion root, guaiacum chips, dog grass, and more. When you are living in an uncultivated country, you can’t afford to be picky, so many of these ingredients ended up in root beer. Yep, not quite what you might expect to find in your modern soft drink.

So, how was early root beer made?

Well, the process usually started out with boiled water. Ingredients would be heated in water to create a wort. Sweeteners like molasses, honey, or maple syrup were then added along with yeast and more water. Finally, the mixture could be barreled to ferment. The length of the fermentation process determined the final alcohol content of the beer, as well as its level of carbonation.

This process is surely what inspired the first commercial root beer recipe–ironically the brainchild of a teetotaling pharmacist.

The First Commercial Root Beer

Most people don’t spend their honeymoon seeking out inspiration for their next entrepreneurial venture, but we’re assuming Charles Hires wasn’t most people. In fact, you can thank Hires for contributing to the widespread popularity of root beer we enjoy today.

It all starts in 1875. While on his honeymoon, Hires discovered and developed a taste for an herbal “root tea,” taking the recipe home with him to Philadelphia. There, he tinkered with the recipe and became the first to market root beer as a commercial product.

The packaged dry blend contained 16 ingredients and was introduced to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. One package of his product cost 25 cents and could create five gallons of the finished drink. Consumers loved it.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, Hires soon re-formulated his dry blend into a liquid concentrate of the drink, which included nearly 30 different herbs, berries, and roots. By 1893, he had established a successful business in selling bottles of his famous brew.

A&W

Seeing an opportunity, other brands would later emerge and market similar products of their own. Barq’s launched in 1898, followed by followed by A&W in 1919. Dad’s Old Fashioned made its debut in the late 1930s, becoming the first product to utilize the standard six-pack packaging format we enjoy for most beverage products today. Originally marketed as “Belfast Root Beer,” Mug was then created during the 1940s.

Today, these four brands remain the most widely distributed root beer products globally, with A&W dominating as the number one in root beer sales worldwide.

Root Beer, Every Way!

We know what you’re thinking–what’s the deal with all of these root beer brands? While brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi dominate the cola market, root beer doesn’t seem to have any one clear winner–at least in so far as consumer tastes are concerned.

Sure, we can see that A&W brings in the most sales for the category, but debates surrounding which root beer brand reigns supreme in flavor usually tend to skew towards the complicated–much more so than the question of “coke or pepsi.”

While root beer has developed a few accepted characteristics–it’s bubbly, brown, sweet, and non-alcoholic–that’s where the similarities stop. Just like the homebrews of the early days of “root tea” and small beers, root beer today continues to be a diverse beverage category with a profile that can be hard to describe.

Medium has attempted to sort through the web of flavors, grouping popular root beer brands by their core profile. “Sharpy pungent” styles of root beer are spicier, sometimes even more bitter or astringent. Brands like Barq’s and Dads Old Fashioned appear in this category, plus the Australian brand Bundaberg. Medium’s head-scratching “sweet and creamy” and “smooth and creamy” groupings present two additional categories for the soda, with subtle differences that again speak to the challenge of nailing down a classic root beer profile.

Our Chief Flavorist, Tom Gibson, has his own take on what constitutes a root beer, then and now:

“There are a variety of flavor profiles of root beer on the market, but at the heart is a wintergreen profile with secondary vanilla, anise, and herbal, earthy notes. Traditionally, the sassafras tree root was blended with other herbs and spices to either enhance that defining wintergreen quality or provide earthier, herbal notes and enhanced flavor. Vanilla was later added to provide a creamier, smoother profile that takes the edge off of the bitter astringency. Over time, root beer has evolved and contained ingredients like allspice, burdock root, sarsaparilla root, yellow dock root, ginger root, juniper berries, wild cherry bark, birch bark, anise, lemon, wintergreen, and more.”

Modern beverage manufacturers continue to utilize some of these components along with a combination of flavorings, sweeteners, carbonation, and caffeine, but there continues to be no single way of making a great root beer product–that’s an exciting prospect for beverage creators.

When you’re ready to talk about your idea for the world’s next root beer soda, give us a call at (502) 273-5214 or get started with this web form.

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