What Is Root Beer?

Featured Article, In Season, Ingredient, Summer
on July 4, 2011
Root Beer Float
iStock Photo

Summertime is the perfect season from one of my favorite desserts: a root beer float.

Root beer, I’ve learned, is something folks can be quite picky about. Some swear by A & W; others by Barq’s or Dad’s. Still others want only local concoctions like Hank’s in Philadelphia or Pioneer in Davenport, Washington.

Today’s sweet soft drink originated centuries ago as a low-alcohol beer made in Europe from spruce or birch. Touted as a health tonic, these drinks were commonly served to children and the elderly. North American colonists brought a taste for these “small” beers with them and found that sarsaparilla roots, sweetened and fermented with molasses, made a perfect brew.

In 1876, Charles E. Hires began marketing kits for home brewers, stating that his recipe created the “Greatest Health-Giving Beverage in the World.” Within a few years, he went in to the bottling business, having realized that consumers wanted a more convenient way to get the drink. More bottlers following: Barq’s in 1898, A & W in 1922 and Dad’s in 1937.

In 1960, most bottlers turned to flavorings of anise, wintergreen, lemon and orange oils, cloves, molasses and vanilla, abandoning sassafras, which was found to contain carcinogenic elements.

—By Candace Floyd, Relish Managing Editor