After a long day on the dusty trail, there’s nothing better than taking off your hat and chaps, sitting down at the bar, and ordering a tall glass of root beer. At least, that’s what old western movies would have us think. In those movies, it’s the drink of choice of the good guy as he sidles up to the bar and leers over at the bad guys playing cards. Is there any truth to this portrayal of root beer in the old West? And just where did root beer come from and what is root beer made of? Settle down, partner, and I’ll tell you a story.
What is root beer made of?
Root beer gets its name and aromatic quality from its primary flavoring ingredient: the root of a sassafras tree. This tree is found in most of the Eastern United States and was often used by Indigenous tribes for its medicinal properties, treating wounds, infections, and fevers. These practices were also co-opted by European colonizers.
To make root beer, you whip up a simple syrup (sugar and water) and flavor it with sassafras. Then it’s bubble time. Early root beer makers added yeast to create bubbles—much in the same way that actual beer is made. Fermented yeast also creates alcohol, which accounts for the “beer” part of root beer. Early root beers did have some alcohol content, albeit less than traditional beer. As commercial soda production evolved, the yeast was replaced by carbonated water, effectively making root beer a non-alcoholic beverage, though you can still find hard root beer to this day (it had a trendy moment in the sun a decade or so ago).
In 1960, the FDA banned the use of true sassafras in commercial products because the primary component, safarole, is carcinogenic. Modern root beer is usually made with artificial sassafras flavoring or the root or bark from a different plant.
When was root beer invented?
It’s widely believed that root beer was first invented in the 1840s. It was mostly sold in syrup form at candy stores, but would also be offered as a fizzy drink at saloons, since it had small amounts of alcohol. So, yes, cowboys did drink root beer.
The first commercially available root beer was from my hometown of Philadelphia (Go Birds!) and the one I remember having growing up. Charles Elmer Hires, a pharmacist by trade, began selling his non-alcoholic root beer to Pennsylvania miners in 1886. In less than a decade, Hire’s root beer was distributed nationwide.
Other early brands of root beers that are still around today include Barq’s, IBC, and A&W. Today, there are countless soda makers that specialize in root beer like Dad’s, Dang! That’s Good, Boylan, and Hank’s.
Does root beer have caffeine?
With the notable exception of Barq’s, most root beers are not caffeinated.The lack of caffeine is one of root beer’s benefits. In addition to its less sugary, abrasive taste, the fact that you can have one at a midnight movie and not be up until six in the morning makes it a preferred drink for early risers.
Root beer vs birch beer vs sarsaparilla
Now that we’ve established root beer, it is important to note the other “beer” sodas out there. First, is birch beer. If root beer is made from sassafras tree root, then it stands to reason that birch beer is made from birch tree; in this case it’s the bark (specifically oil from the bark) and not the roots. In general, birch beers are less sweet than root beer.
Sarsaparilla, while definitely the most fun to say, is functionally a birch/root beer combo, at least in the United States. The sarsaparilla plant is native to central and south America, so would not have been a common ingredient in American soda-making. Instead, sarsaparilla was made of a combination of sassafras root and birch oil, and was initially created as a medicine, complete with patent. It’s far less common in America these days, but still popular in Central America and Southeast Asia.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!