Root Beer History

Early History

That carbonated, creamy, soft and foamy drink we love known as Root Beer has a long history. In 1265, the British Isles enjoyed a Dandelion and Durdock beverage; it was a naturally fizzy soft drink and is still made there today. During medieval time sanitation was so bad there was very little clean water to drink, so the people who drank from wells, rivers or streams became sick. It was healthier to drink wine, spirits, tea, and small beer. It is told in Belgium that St Arnold, a monk and a scientist studied why rich people were healthier than the poor. His answer was in what the people drank, water or a brewed drink. It was important to have a low alcohol drink for women and children, so small beer was made. Some historical documents say Shakespeare was known to drink “small beers.” One recipe for small beer was from early colonial America, containing 2-12-percent alcohol, berries, herbs and bark. This was considered a refreshing, social drink. During this time other beverages besides Root Beer was enjoyed, Ginger Beer, Birch Beer and Sarsaparilla Beer. As the pilgrims came to America they had to have liquid to drink and water stored in wooden kegs spoiled much too quickly. Therefore, beer was the beverage consumed. The colonists built their towns and had to provide most everything for themselves.

They baked their own bread, grew all their own food and brewed their own beers. They did not have barley or other grains for brewing at first, so they used what were available, berries, bark and roots. The alcohol was the preservative. The beer was boiled and brewed like tea to blend the flavors and kill the germs. It was then cooled and fermented with yeast. Small beer was made one of three ways; from the leftovers of the strong beers, with small amounts of grain, or was consumed during its early stage, while still sweet, before fermentation was complete. This was the real beginning of Root Beer. It is truly as American as baseball and apple pie.

Medicinal History

Many people believe that Root Beer as we know it came about as an accident. There were many pharmacists trying to create cure-all drinks, often coming up with liquids containing roots, berries, bark and flavorings. You would buy the syrup from the pharmacist, take it home and then experiment with how much water to mix it with. The result tasted both sweet and bitter, and was never popular. One such man, Charles Hires, on his honeymoon came across a recipe for a wonderful tasting tea. He developed it into a liquid concentrate made up of more than 25 herbs, roots and berries. This elixir was then mixed at home with water or seltzer water. It was introduced in 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the public loved it. By 1893 it had become so popular it was bottled and sold as a soft drink. The drink was originally going to be called Root Tea, but with the intention of appealing to a larger audience, he called it Root Beer.

Hires Company

Meanwhile, Charles Hires, also a pharmacist, was on his honeymoon around the same time when he discovered an herbal tea he simply could not part with. After taking the recipe of herbs, berries and roots home to Philadelphia with him, he began selling a packaged dry mixture to the public made from many of the same ingredients as the original herbal tea. Well received, Hires soon developed a liquid concentrate blended together from more than 25 herbs, berries and roots. The public loved the new drink and as a result, Hires introduced commercial root beer to the public in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. In no time, it became a popular drink of its day. By 1893, the Hires family sold bottled versions of their well-known brew, sealing their place in root beer history.

No matter which version of root beer history is true, one thing is for certain: Root beer is an original brew, predating colas and other popular sodas.

Government Ban

The key ingredient to root beer is sassafras root, which is what produces the tangy, thick brewed flavor that root beer is noted for. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras oil, labeling it a carcinogen. Root beer makers began experimenting with new and improved recipes, minus the sassafras oil, hoping to find a suitable tasting alternative. Not long after the ban, the root beer industry was saved when inventors discovered that sassafras could be used after all, if treated first, to remove the oil.

What’s In Root Beer?

There’s is no true authentic root beer recipe, since there are so many different combinations and brews. Over time, root beer has contained ingredients like allspice, birch bark, coriander seed, ginger and ginger root, hops, burdock root, dandelion root, guaiacum chips, spicewood, wild cherry bark and bitters, wintergreen and wintergreen oil, yellow dock, prickly ash bark and even, molasses.

Today, root beer is made from a mixture of flavorings, sweeteners and carbonation. Depending on the brew, bottler and manufacturer, root beer still contains a large number of herbs (burdock root, sarsaparilla root, yellow dock root, ginger root, juniper berries, wild cherry bark, birch bark, etc.), oils (anise, lemon, artificial wintergreen, etc.), sweeteners (sugar, molasses, corn sugar, fructose, aspartame, brown sugar, lactose, malt extract, etc.) and carbonation (yeast, artificial, forced carbonation.)


Without root beer, we wouldn’t have the Marriott Hotels and certain fast food restaurants. In 1927, a young couple named John and Alice Marriott opened up a root beer restaurant called Hot Shoppe in Washington. The restaurant experienced a huge amount of expansion over the years and turned into the Mariott Hotel chain. The Marriotts actually bought the shop from A&W, now a well-known restaurant chain root beer brand. A&W helped to popularize the idea of franchising. By 1960, there were over 2000 A&W restaurants—more than McDonald’s at the time! Another restaurant that got its start in root beer was Sonic, which started off as a root beer and hamburger stand and now has over 3500 restaurants in the United States.