Why is Root Beer Called Root Beer? A Brief History

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: January 12, 2022

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Few things are as American as Coca Cola or apple pie, except for maybe root beer. That’s right, root beer. The history of this classic carbonated beverage is fascinating and raises some questions. For example, why is root beer called root beer anyway? Though most people know root beer as part of a root beer float or a fizzy drink like ginger beer, this delicious concoction was once brewed much like beer.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you want to learn about the history of root beer, we have to start with a man named Charles Hires.

The History of Root Beer

In the late 1800s, a pharmacist from Philadelphia named Charles Hires discovered a recipe for an herbal tea known as tisane while honeymooning in New Jersey. While we might question why he ever went to Jersey to honeymoon, there is one thing we can be very glad about. Hires used that herbal tea recipe to make himself famous. First, he sold a dry variant that had to be mixed with yeast, sugar, and water (sound familiar?) and left to ferment until carbonated.

At the recommendation of a friend, Russell Conwell, who founded Temple University, Hires decided to work on a carbonated drink, as it would be more popular with the masses. Hires eventually developed a drink that used a combination of berries, roots, and 25 different herbs and unveiled it at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial convention.

In 1893, the first Hires family bottled root beer was sold. Amazingly, Hires ended up being a marketing superstar. He was able to generate enough interest in his “temperance drink” that he sold 115,000 root beer bottles in the first year of business, soon becoming a multi-millionaire. For the late 1800s, that’s quite the power move.

But here’s the funny part: Hires, a pharmacist, was using sassafras root as the main ingredient, claiming it was medicinal. In 1960, the Federal Drug Administration banned sassafras root, as it was found to contain a carcinogen. That’s why modern root beer doesn’t contain a speck of real sassafras root—only natural flavorings.

Now, while Hires’ success story is intriguing, it doesn’t give us the whole picture. That lucky find of Hires’ in NJ did lead to great things, but where did the tisane recipe come from in the first place?

The True Origins of Root Beer

We can credit the ultimate discovery of root beer as we know it to Hires, but he wasn’t solely responsible. In fact, the origins of root beer can be traced back to America’s pre-colonial era. Indigenous tribes utilized herbs and plants regularly for medicinal purposes. One of those plants was sassafras root.

Root beer stems from the creation of “small beers,” or a kind of beverage that could either be non-alcoholic or alcoholic that was flavored with bark, roots, and herbs. Does sarsaparilla and birch beer ring any bells? Root beer is the same.

Fun Facts and History About Root Beer Brands

While Hires’ brand was well-off for a while, his root beer also spawned a lot of competition. Many of the brands that started up to combat Hires’ root beer empire still exist. Here are some of the most well-known:

  • A & W: In 1919, the founder of A & W, Roy Allen, purchased a root beer recipe and used it to make his own blend in Lodi, California. In 1920, Allen and Frank Wright came together to create the A & W brand. By 1924, they purchased the trademark for their root beer. Now, A & W is one of the best-selling root beers in the entire world.
  • Mug Root Beer: Did you know that Mug Root Beer was originally “Belfast Root Beer” during the 1940s? Down the road, the Belfast Beverage Company renamed the drink Mug Old Fashioned Root Beer, but the name was soon shortened. PepsiCo currently manufactures and ships Mug Root Beer.
  • Barq’s: Debuting in 1898, Barq’s was a direct contestant for root beer brand supremacy from the beginning. Barq’s was created by Edward Barq and then bottled and sold by Edward and Gaston Barq as part of the Barq’s Brothers Bottling Company. The company was founded in 1890 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The Barq family continues to own the brand, but Coca-Cola manufacturers the root beer.
  • Dad’s: In the 1930s, Barney Berns and Ely Klapman came up with the recipe for Dad’s root beer. This was the first product to ever use the six-pack packaging style that the Atlanta Paper Company had invented in the 1940s.

What is Root Beer Made Of?

Root beer once contained sassafras. Some homemade recipes still do, though it’s recommended you don’t use sassafras root. As mentioned earlier, sassafras could potentially kill you over time, as both the US and European Commission of Health have named it a carcinogen.

So what is root beer made of today? Well, the recipe is pretty simple. You need yeast, sugar, water, and some flavorings. Then you leave all that to ferment at a low temperature. This is why root beer becomes a beer, because of the fermentation process and very low amount of alcohol created.

Most commercial brands use root beer extract—a blend of ethyl alcohol, natural flavorings, and water. The natural flavorings part is usually an undisclosed proprietary blend. But you can also find root beers using a mixture of sarsaparilla, licorice, dandelion root, ginger, molasses, mint, allspice, cinnamon, sweet birch, and cloves to make root beer taste more like the original but risky beverage.

How to Brew Root Beer at Home

Sometimes the best way to learn why root beer is called a beer and not a tea or soda is to brew it up at home. There are a plethora of recipes on the internet alone. Many of them continue to use sassafras root despite the warnings from the FDA and other organizations. However, you don’t need sassafras root to get great-tasting root beer that is fizzy and delicious. Simply replace it with a taste substitute, like root beer extract or sarsaparilla root.

Keep in mind that there’s no be-all-end-all recipe for root beer, either. As long as you use the base recipe, you are free to flavor your beer the way you want.

Here is a sample DIY root beer ingredients list:

  • Sweet sarsaparilla
  • Artificial sassafras root bark
  • Licorice
  • Hoja santa
  • Black cherry
  • Black birch or sweet birch
  • Burdock root
  • Dandelion root

If you’re looking for more foam in your homemade root beer, you can add in yucca, cassava, or manioc root. Soapbark also works.

Root beers are also generously spiced with a selection of the following:

  • Nutmeg
  • Allspice
  • Fennel
  • Hops
  • Mint
  • Anise
  • Ginger
  • Clove
  • Cassia
  • Cinnamon
  • Chocolate

Homemade Root Beer Recipes

Making root beer from scratch is a fun process, especially if you’ve already brewed up your own beer. This is a great option for letting the kids join in, too, since you get a fizzy, non-alcoholic drink at the end of it. Of course, we’re going to also include an option that lets you brew up an alcoholic version of root beer.

Non-Alcoholic Root Beer Recipe

You will need the following:

  • 1.5 cups sarsaparilla root bark
  • 1.5 cups wintergreen leaf
  • Dash of vanilla extract
  • A pound of honey or sugar
  • 1 cup of molasses
  • 2.5 gallons water
  • Desired spices to flavor the root beer
  • Optional: if you want to do bottle carbonation, add in neutral ale yeast

Brewing Directions

Once you have gathered your ingredients, do the following:

  1. Add you sarsaparilla root bark, wintergreen leaf, vanilla extract, and any spices to 2.5 gallons of water. Bring it to a boil.
  2. Reduce the heat and add in the molasses and sugar.
  3. Gently stir the mixture and let it simmer for about 30-35 minutes.
  4. Turn off the heat entirely to let the mixture cool. Since you’re going to have stuff floating around, take a mesh strainer or cheesecloth and pour the cooled liquid through.
  5. Pour in the yeast, stirring gently. Remember, you must use neutral ale yeast, never bakers yeast. Let the yeast sit for about 15 minutes.
  6. Bottle the root beer immediately and store it at room temperature. Carbonated bottles must be stored somewhere cool and dark to avoid explosions.
  7. Allow for 4-5 weeks for the root beer to ferment and carbonate slightly. They will be drinkable within that time frame. Before opening a bottle, place them in the refrigerator.

Tempted to make a very original root beer using sassafras (or a substitute), check out this easy to follow video:

Alcoholic Root Beer Recipe

Hankering for an alcoholic root beer? You’re in luck. The foundations of a hard root beer is going to be a dark ale recipe. So if you have home-brewed your own beer before, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge for you.

You will need:

  • 5 lbs of dry malt extract (DME)
  • 20 oz sugar
  • 1 lb lactose
  • Neutral ale yeast/brewer’s yeast
  • 1.5 cups sarsaparilla root bark
  • A tablespoon of birch bark
  • Vanilla extract to taste
  • Select spices to taste
  • 2.5-3.0 gallons of water

Brewing Directions

  1. Fill a cleaned and sanitized pot or kettle with about 2.5 gallons of water. Add in your sarsaparilla root bark and birch bark, as well as any herbs or spices, into a mesh bag and let it steep as the water heats.
  2. Stir in the DME while it continues to heat. Keep stirring until all of it dissolves to keep it from burning.
  3. Maintain a steady boil for about an hour or so. During this time, you may remove the mesh bag of sarsaparilla and birch.
  4. Reduce the heat after an hour and cool your “wort”. Once the mixture is cool, add in the remaining ingredients—the sugar, lactose, and vanilla extract.
  5. From here, you can add the wort to the fermenter, pour in your yeast, and follow standard beer making procedure from there. Your root beer should be ready to drink within a few weeks.

Unsure about the instructions? Check out our complete Extract Brewing Guide for Beginners to learn more.

And remember, you’re free to try a dozen different methods and get as creative as you want with both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic recipes. If you don’t like a certain flavor, such as wintergreen, you are welcome to try other leaves, roots, and herbs. That’s what makes root beer so nifty—as long as you’re using roots, you technically can’t go wrong.

Now You’re At The Root of Beer

Why is root beer called root beer? Because it’s a fermented tea that is brewed like beer. Now that you’ve delved into the history of root beer, you might be wondering what it is like to brew some of your own, which is why you’ll find recipes to follow. Just remember that the traditional main ingredient—sassafras root—is unhealthy and should be avoided. If you want to get as close to the original flavor as possible, use some sarsaparilla!

FAQs

Did root beer used to be alcoholic?

While most commercial brands of root beer like Barq’s, Dad’s, A & W are non-alcoholic, traditionally brewed root beer could be alcoholic. In the past, root beer used to contain a small amount of alcohol, around 2%. More could be added to make it a stronger alcoholic beverage.

Is root beer actually beer?

Yes, root beer, when brewed the traditional way, is technically a beer. You use sugar, water, and yeast, along with sassafras root or root beer extract to make root beer. When the beverage is left to ferment, you can get a small amount of alcohol. As such, the fermentation process is essentially identical to beer.

Why is root beer banned in the UK?

The UK banned root beer in 2014 after citing health concerns. However, this is mainly on root beers that have a significant amount of sodium benzoate in the ingredients. You can still purchase healthier root beers online in the UK.

What is the difference between sarsaparilla and root beer?

There are many differences between sarsaparilla and root beer, but here is the gist of it: Sarsaparilla is a drink made from the zarzaparrilla plant and has a unique, bold flavor and bitter aftertaste that is like root beer but not. Sarsaparilla is also used to flavor root beer, but it is safer to drink than root beer made with sassafras root. Sarsaparilla is non-alcoholic and serves a medicinal purpose as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Meanwhile, root beer is carbonated, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, and commercially produced as a soda.