The making of a *root* beer dates back centuries and originally a form of a mild alcoholic beverage served on special occasions. But, it was also considered a health tonic and sold for it's medicinal qualities. Root Beer is so important in our history, that August 6th has been set aside to celebrate.
There were many different recipes for making root beer and each as unique as the creators. But only one became commercially produced in the late 1800s. That was Hines Root Beer, and the creator was a teetotaler named Charles Hines. He originally intended to call it *root tea*, but he also wanted to be able to sell the beverage, so he opted to name it *Root Beer* for a larger audience. His brew was introduced to the public at the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. It wasn't until 1893 that Hines Root Beer was sold as a bottled soft drink. Hines also offered a packet of herbs, bark and spices so that others could make their own root beer, but by 1885, he decided it would be more useful to offer a bottled extract to simplify making the root beer, which was then offered to druggists and soda fountain operators.
Many different ingredients have been used in creating the varieties of root beer, but the main ingredient was Sassafras root until the 1960s, when the FDA determined that the safrole in Sassafras root was a carcinogen and it was removed from the market. Because of this, root beer manufacturers had to come up with flavors to replicate the taste of root beer. Though they are called *artificial* flavors, they are actually still herbs, spices and other plants and trees that create those artificial flavors, not some chemical component. Sometimes terminology is misinterpreted as to what artificial actually means in current manufacturing.
Licorice root, birch bark, spruce, black cherry, among many other plants were used to replicate the flavor of root beer. But the main ingredients are Molasses, sugar, water, honey, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, clove and nutmeg, depending on the individual recipes used. There are no standard recipes for root beer, though you can find root beer recipes.
You can purchase a root beer extract for making your own beverage, but today the extract is not Sassafras, it could be a variety of extracts, depending on the brand you purchase. Most will include a recipe for making and you can purchase root beer kits that include the extract, bottles and complete instructions.
Sarsaparilla is a form of root beer and was a more common beverage, and is made by a number of bottlers and still available today. Root Beer and Sarsaparilla do have distinct flavor difference, as do the many different brands of root beer. I've had Sarsaparilla and a variety of Root Beer beverages. Sarsaparilla that I've had tastes very mild, much like vanilla, with a hint of licorice, where Root Beer in some brands has a very spicy taste, along with molasses and hint of licorice. I have to say, my favorite Root Beer is still A & W™. I'm not fond of the spicier flavors of Barq™ and Dad's™ root beer. But that said, Barq™ gets it's flavor from distilled *safrole*, which removes the carcinogen. It is the flavor of Barq's that is most similar to the original root beers.
Have you ever wondered where the foam in root beer comes from? It's from Qillaja saponaria, *Soapbark*. Soapbark was used for laundry and hand washing because of its ability to foam up. And you'll notice from the ingredient list all products originally used to make root beer were herbs, trees and weeds (including dandelion root). Many are still made with those ingredients. It is only the Sassafras root that has been removed from usage. If you've ever been around a Sassafras tree you likely recall the smell of root beer, not only in the bark, but the leaves and if you remove dirt from the roots, you will also smell that distinct root beer fragrance. And to make that Sassafras tree even more special, I love that the leaves are all different shapes, but many look like little mittens.
No doubt many concoctions were happy accidents as I like to call things that happen without purposely intending. I often wonder who tasted these concoctions first to deem they were not poisonous or had adverse side effects. And how many may have tasted certain ones and did not live to tell about it. Of course we'll never know the answer, and now things are tested in a lab to determine the make up of the plant, eliminating some of the guess work to be sure.
With warm weather upon us, if you're a fan of root beer, you'll want to visit your local fountain for that tasty root beer float, especial on August 6th, where some establishments may actually be giving away a free beverage, and know that our ancestors before us approved it as *good for what ails ya*.
(To make your own Root Beer check out our links below)
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