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The “Other” Type of Beer: Root Beer

We talk about all types of beer in this column, but haven’t ever covered a completely different kind of beer: Root Beer! 

The origin of root beer hearkens back to the indigenous peoples of North America. These Native Americans used the roots of the Sassafras tree to concoct medicinal tonics to alleviate stomach and respiratory ailments. Once colonists began to inhabit the continent, the use of the tree roots started to be adapted from the original Native recipes and incorporated into typical drinking beverages of the time. 

Water, as we know it, is fresh and clean and is something that we, today, take for granted. Water was not a “healthy” beverage in those days, and thus, colonists relied on other beverages to stay hydrated. These “small beers” as they came to be known consisted of taking berries, tree bark, plant roots and other herbs and creating both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages that were safe to drink – Birch beer, ginger beer, and Sarsaparilla, being examples. In order to make these “small beers” the plant matter was boiled with water, allowing for the flavors to be extracted, then typically a sweetener was mixed in – honey, molasses, or maple syrup – yeast was then added and the brew was allowed to ferment. The fermentation allowed for both a slight amount of alcohol production (2%-12%), and created a bit of carbonation – the byproduct of carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process – giving the final beverage a bit of fizziness. Root beer became so popular in the American colonies that our Founding Fathers – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had their own favorite recipes for the beverage.

The first commercially marketed root beer product was through a Philadelphian pharmacist, Charles Hires, who in 1876 began selling a “tea” of powder for 25-cents, consisting of sixteen roots and berries, that would produce 5-gallons worth of root beer. By 1893, his founded company – the Hires Root Beer Co. – began bottling the liquid root beer for sale and consumption. Barq’s Root Beer debuted in 1898, and A&W Root Beer, another popular competitor, was created by Roy Allen in 1919 and today remains the top-selling root beer in the world. 

In 1960, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned the Sassafras tree root from being utilized to create root beer. This is because it was discovered that safrole, a component in the root, is actually carcinogenic. Root beer brewers had to reformulate their recipes and create a synthetic mimicked flavor instead. By 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act rolled back the ban once there was a way to safely extract safrole from the Sassafras oil so that the root could again be utilized in production.

Today, root beer is found everywhere in the US as a carbonated, sugary-sweet, non-alcoholic beverage, but even that notion is changing. Not Your Father’s Root Beer (5.9% ABV) is a popular hard soda that has hit the market in recent years. There are also several liquor companies (Dr. McGillicuddy’s, Smirnoff, DeKuyper) that offer root beer flavored spirits to enjoy on-the-rocks, or as a mixer. Even some breweries are hopping on board to offer their take on the traditional drink with DuClaw Brewing Company (The PastryArchy Root Beer Float – 8.7% ABV), WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Root Beer Float Stout – 6% ABV), and Temperance Beer Co. (Root Down – 5% ABV), being a few options out there. 

With June 17th being National Root Beer Day, and later, August 6th being National Root Beer Float Day, take the time to enjoy a very traditional American “beer” with deeply indigenous roots this summer. It’s sure to delight your taste buds in a nostalgic way! 


Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!