Root Beer is a non-alcoholic, carbonated beverage.
It is dark and frothy. Once poured, looks something like stout. It has a creamy texture on the tongue, and a somewhat spicy, earthy smell.
It doesn’t taste like beer at all, having none of beer’s bitterness.
Root Beer was originally a fermented tonic, and thus classed as a “small beer.” Early root beers had a very complex taste, being a blend of up to 16 essential oils. Today’s commercial brands will use up to half that amount.
One of the key flavours in Root Beer comes from a compound in sassafras called “safrole.” In the 1960s safrole was banned as carcinogenic by the American Food and Drug Administration. Most bottlers switched to a blend of other ingredients to compensate for the lost ingredient, among which were anise, cloves, lemon and orange oils, molasses, vanilla, and wintergreen. A few companies, such as Crowley Consolidated Beverage Corporation, still make root beer with the safrole compound removed from the sassafras.
Some brands of Root Beer are sweeter, some are foamier, some are spicier, some are creamier.
Today, (2006) Root Beer makes up less than 3% of the soft-drink market. Hire’s is the number one brand. Other large brands are Barq’s (now owned by Coca Cola) in number two position, A&W (now owned by Cadbury-Schweppes) and Mug (owned by Pepsi.)
Smaller brewers include Thomas Kemper (Seattle, Washington), Abita (New Orleans), Dominion (Ashburn, Virginia), Henry Weinhard’s Root Beer (Portland, Oregon), Root 66 (New York City), Witches’ Brew (Salem, Massachusetts), Dr. Brown’s (New York) and IBC (owned by Cadbury Schweppes since 1995.) The Dominion recipe includes honey. Dr. Brown’s is Kosher.
Root Beer is sometimes available in England at Tesco’s.
Classic root beer mugs
© klndonnelly / flickr.com / 2008 / CC BY 2.0
Root Beer is ideal for floats because it tastes already halfway there in terms of creaminess.
Root Beer extract can still be purchased. Sometimes, at church or company picnics, the root beer extract is mixed up in big pails or clean new garbage cans, then has food-grade dry ice added to it. As the dry ice ( i.e. carbon dioxide) “melts,” it fizzes up the root beer. It has to be served up promptly so it doesn’t go flat.
Home made Root Beer takes about a week after being bottled to be ready to drink. The yeast will carbonate it.
In Europe, ginger, lemon, and bark from spruce and birch trees were used as flavourings for “small beers.” American settlers had access to these ingredients, but they learned from the Indians that sassafras and sarsaparilla could be used as well.
We don’t know when European settlers started brewing small beer from such roots.
The earliest printed recipes for Root Beer seem to date from the 1850s. Such connections were believed to have health benefits. A recipe from 1864 that uses roots appears in a book called “Dr. Chase’s Recipes.”
Charles E. Hires of Hires Root Beer never actually claimed to have invented root beer, despite what hyperbole you may read. He wouldn’t have got away with such a claim, anyway: Root Beer was a very common home recipe, and everyone had their own version. What he did do is make it a more convenient beverage.
In 1876, he started selling a dry packet mix that people had to boil first, then brew up. Then, he sold a liquid concentrated extract which did away with the boiling stage, but still required brewing. A 3 oz bottle of extract could make 5 gallons of Root Beer, enough for around 50 bottles. With both products, dry and liquid, you’d add yeast to carbonate it; the resulting product would be mildly alcoholic.
Hire’s Root Beer Extract Bottle
Hire’s Root Beer Extract Bottle
Then, in 1893, his company moved on to selling the Root Beer already brewed, bottled and ready to drink. This made him the first to market a bottled Root Beer, but at this point, the competition in bottled Root Beer began in earnest.
Since 1876, estimates of the number of different brands of Root Beer range from 800 to 2,000. The most famous are:
Some brewing companies during Prohibition (1920-1933) switched to making root beer. Some brewing companies today still make both beer and root beer.
The heyday of Root Beer was in the 1950s. By the 1960s, it was seen as very dated.
Literature & Lore
Root Beer. For each gallon of water to be used, take hops, burdock, yellow dock, sarsaparilla, dandelion, and spikenard roots, bruised, of each 1/2 oz; boil about 20 minutes, and strain while hot, add 8 or 10 drops of oil of spruce and sassafras mixed in equal proportions, when cool enough not to scald your hand, put in 2 or 3 table-spoons of yeast; molasses 3/8 of a point, or white sugar 1/2 pound gives it about the right sweetness.
Keep these proportions for as many gallons as you wish to make. You can use more or less of the roots to suit your taste after trying it; it is best to get the dry roots, or dig them and let them get dry, and of course you can add any other root known to possess medicinal properties desired in the beer. After all is mixed, let it stand in a jar with a cloth thrown over it, to work about two hours, then bottle and set in a cool place. This is a nice way to take alternatives, without taking medicine. And families ought to make it every Spring, and drink freely of it for several weeks, and thereby save perhaps several dollars in doctors’ bills.
From: Alvin Wood Chase, M.D. Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or Information for Everybody. Ann Arbor, Michigan. 10th edition, 1864. Page 61.