What Was Root Beer?

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.

Props

Even once you get past the physical and psychic reasons to drink, there are the pathetic psychological reasons, like having a prop to hold in your hand.

I’m not really a go out to a bar for drinking and fellowship sort of guy, but I am a music club kind of guy. The idea of going to a rock show and not drinking a beer? Crazy.

My whole idea of “what is cool?” is tied up with drinking, or at least holding a beer.

Reading an interview with the members of X, John Doe drinking a long neck beer and leaning against the wall at the back of an LA club.

Not drinking, what do you do with your hands?

What do I do to cover up my normal fidgeting tendencies?

Water bottle? Nalgene? Smoke?

Systemic Analgesic

One of alcohol’s strongest selling points, per yer average Western movie dentist or surgeon, is as an analgesic.

I always think of the body as struggling towards equilibrium.

If you add another element to the balance, it adjusts the other way.

The body has a bunch of strategies for dealing with pain, mostly psychological.

However, if you pour in an analgesic pain reliever into your gullet every day for decades, your body probably discards a bunch of those strategies for dealing with pain, or they fall to disuse.

You stop drinking and everything just sort of hurts.

Even worse, habitual use of a painkiller allows you to damage yourself physically without noticing it so much.

Routine

250ml Sicilian Nero d’Avola.

Like I mentioned, I had a drinking routine.

I would come home from work, make and photograph a Savoy Cocktail.

Attempt to get it blogged.

My wife would then get home from her work, and we would have a beer together.

After which, we would go out for dinner.

One of our favorite local pizza places is always busy and we’ve been going since it opened. As there is always a wait, the establishment let’s you hang out in a nearby bar and then they come and fetch you when your table is ready. We’d usually have another beer and play some pinball.

Well, they take the excuse to leave work and get a shot of Fernet, Jaeger, or Tequila at the bar, then tell you your table is ready. It’s a cozy arrangement.

So, by the time we’re finally in the restaurant and our salad arrives, we’re feeling pretty toasty. Of course, we then order a bottle of wine to split while we enjoy our dinner.

In January, I was trying not to drink, and so my wife just got wine by the glass. “Oh that is very healthy of you,” was the comment from the waiter.

Lately, we’ve taken to not drinking before dinner and then just ordering a carafe of wine to split with dinner, instead of a bottle. The waitress was downright Sarcastic with her comment about Carafes vs Bottles the last time we were in.

And it’s not even that they are grumpy that we are spending less, as often they would just charge us for two glasses, and serve us a whole bottle.

It’s like we’re letting them down. And, of course, they are now charging us full price for a carafe of wine.

No Drinking Alone

Seems like a no-brainer, eh?

However, my method for the entire Savoy Project was to get home from work and get a drink made, photographed, and blogged before my wife got home from work.

Early on, especially when I would attempt more than one drink in a night, (hey, I don’t like to waste,) this was a disaster.

As relationship mistakes go, unbalanced levels of inebriating substances being consumed has to be right up there in the top 10.

Being mostly in the bag before your significant other gets home from work is kind of a disaster.

Heck, the opposite is even challenging, one partner trying to stay sober, while the other doesn’t quite feel as urgent a need for sobriety.

Well, anyway, the new rule is, no drinking alone, and it is a good one.

Ease of Use

When I was younger, I used to make Cassette mixes to impress girls I thought were cool.

This meant sitting next to my stereo, picking individual songs off of vinyl albums, playing them, and recording them to cassette in real time.

A cassette was/is 60 or 90 minutes long.

Aside from the planning effort, written longhand, this meant an effort of, say, a minimum of a couple three hours just to make a single mix tape.

Now, I feel like I am lucky to find the time to rip a few CDs to MP3.

Where did the time go?

Wake Up in the Morning

“I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”

Attributed to Frank Sinatra.

On the other hand, lately, I’ve been feeling the complete opposite.

I feel sorry for people who do drink, knowing how bad they will feel the next morning.

One of the problems I’ve been hitting lately, is, as I’ve gotten older, recovering from just about anything takes longer. Being sick, physical activity, drinking too much…

Where when I was young, a little sleep and a lot of water would cure a slightly excessive night of drinking. As I’ve grown older, it takes longer and longer to recover back to normal.

It seems like people either choose to skip normal, and keep drinking, or choose to skip imbibing.

If I want to continue to get back to being a base-line normal human being, somewhere there has to be a point of diminishing return, and I do like feeling alert and “normal”.