Root beer has come a long way from its origins as a beverage. During Colonial times in America, Root beer was a light alcoholic beverage (about 2% abv) flavored with herbs, berries, bark, and yes, roots. Flavorings included sarsaparilla, vanilla, mint, licorice, sassafras, and hops. Farmers would brew the beverage for get-togethers and other social events, making it a traditional style beverage.
Later on in the 19th Century, root beer became better known for its medicinal properties and its claimed heath benefits. A pharmacist of unknown origin is said to have brewed up a batch and claimed it as a cure all. It was never very well received in this manner, and was eventually revived in a more traditional manner by another pharmacist.
Charles Hires was also a pharmacist, but unlike our unknown pharmacist, Hires sought to preserve the flavor of a tea whose flavor Hires enjoyed greatly. He whipped up his own concoction of several of the herbs in the original tea and created a concentrate. Just before the 20th Century, Hires became a popular root beer and quite possibly the first commercially available root beer.
As mentioned earlier, sassafras root has been used as a major flavoring in the root beer brew. In 1960 the FDA chose to ban the ingredient due to it containing safrole, a carcinogen. Safrole is also a major precursor to the drug MDMA, making more reason for the ban. Root beer wouldn’t taste the same for a while, or at least until safrole-free sassafras extract became available.
Today root beer is a sugary concoction far removed from its roots. Commercial root beers use artificial flavorings to mimic the rooty taste of the real thing. Some craft brews are available and use real herbs and roots, but nothing can compare to home-brewed (something I have not tried but should get into).
Well that’s it. A brief history of root beer. Thanks to essortment for being a great source of information for this article.