Before Charles Hires cemented the flavor profile for commercial Root Beer with his incredibly successful product, what were its origins?
First, as we’ve seen, the gamut of spices and flavorings used in Root Beer were primarily medicinal before they found their way into Root Beer. They were also native to the Americas: Wintergreen from Northeastern America, Sweet Birch from Northeastern America, Sassafras from Southeastern America, and Sarsaparilla from Central America via the Caribbean.
The peoples native to the Americas had traditions of Root and Herb based medicines.
Africans brought to North America, also had their own traditions of Root and Herb based medicinal elixirs.
When French, Spanish, and English settlers came to the Americas, they brought European traditional medicines, but a lot of the ingredients they had been using in Europe were either in short supply or unavailable to them in the Americas.
So for their ailments in the New World, presumably, they turned to the people who were already living here who had some experience with using the native flora and fauna for medicinal purposes.
In addition to the Medicinal ingredients being in short supply, many of the raw ingredients which had been used to produce recreational beverages in Europe were also only available as imports from Europe and the supply lines were not reliable.
The grapes which had been used to make wine in Europe did not grow in America; the types of Grain which had been used to make beer did not grow in abundance; Apple trees which were ubiquitous in areas of England, France, and Spain were non-existent; Domesticated Bee colonies had to be introduced before anyone could make mead…
While the South and Central Americas had more plentiful carbohydrate and sugar sources that allowed them the ability to have surplus to ferment, this was not the case in North America, where the intoxicating substances used for ritual and social purposes were generally smoked or eaten, rather than fermented and imbibed.
In truth, fermentable sugars and carbohydrates were pretty thin on the ground in North America, especially the North Eastern America, until the Sugar and Molasses trade in the Caribbean got up to speed.
In addition, making beer is a bit complicated and takes a while, not the easiest thing to do while you’re busy establishing a new country.
But, habits die hard, and I can see how the quickest route to some sort of alcoholic beverage, ANY sort of alcoholic beverage, would be to take the highly concentrated fermentable carbohydrates of plain sugar, (including Molasses, Maple Syrup, or Birch Syrup,) and turn them into intoxicating beverages with a little yeast. However, I’ve tasted fermented cane juice and it is pretty nasty. The same goes for Sugar and Molasses wine.
It totally makes sense that someone would take spices, herbs, etc. and throw them into their fermented sugar beverages, just to make them remotely palatable. If the herbs are medicinal, well, bonus! At least you know they aren’t poisonous.
And indeed, until the technology of artificial beverage carbonation became commercially viable in mid to late 19th Century America, all yeast carbonated Root and Ginger Beers were at least mildly alcoholic.
Like Chicory or Dandelion used to make imitation coffee, I think Root Beer probably started primarily as a quick substitute for actual beer. Luckily, Charles Hires discovered a formula for the beverage that was not only palatable in desperation, but also enjoyable on its own merits. As a consequence, from the late 19th Century to the Mid 20th Century, Root Beer was the king of soft drinks in America.