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.

Lack of Adult Beverages

As wonderful as it is to have a profound selection of drinking waters, it just isn’t as fun to drink water with dinner as it is to drink wine or beer.

With water, there is almost zero chance of a miracle interaction, like where your wine pairing brings your food up to a new level.

And, well, every other damn soft drink on the planet is aimed at children, or at least those with the palates of children, pumped to the gills with sugar and cartoon level flavors.

Grapier than grapes. Applier than apples.

I don’t always feel like Coffee or Tea, though I do almost always feel like Cold Brewed Tea. If only it were easier to find decent, well made, unsweetened Iced Tea in the real world.

It seems like there is a whole category of non-alcoholic adult beverages missing from the market in the US.

The Fizzary

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 17

Fizzary SF.

Fizzary SF.

Taylor’s makes a line of Mate based soft-drinks, but about 6 months ago they opened a retail space specializing in Candy and Fizzy Lifting Drinks.

Gaseosas y Dulces.

Gaseosas y Dulces.

AKA Gaseosas y Dulces.

Many Root Beers.

Many Root Beers.

And a fine selection of Root Beers, do they have. I scored Root Beers from Goose Island, Jackson Hole Soda, Kutztown, and, last but not least, 3 Dachshunds. Expect reviews of those in the next week, and more Root Beer from the Fizzary to follow.

The Fizzary, An Urban Menagerie of Soda

“Join our campaign to create a hands-on botanical brewery & soda wonderland in San Francisco, CA Plans are to expand our retail showroom and introduce a beverage museum. We also plan to create an unparalleled craft beverage incubator for the budding brewmaster and a delicious stop over for the parched adventurer! To receive campaign and contribution updates, as well as sneak peeks of the premiums you will be awared, simply drop us an email and you’ll receive an auto-reply with more information. We look forward to you joining our fizzy collective…Cheers!”

We’re OPEN! Tuesday-Sunday 11:45 am – 7:00 PM

2949 MISSION ST, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94110

ph: 1-877-368-4608

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 9

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Maine Root Sarsaparilla

Handcrafted Ingredients: Carbonated Pure Water, Fair Trade Certified organic cane syrup, and spices.

From the Maine Root Website:

“A lighter bodied brother to our super popular Root Beer. The flavor profile has less clove, allowing the taste of wintergreen to be showcased. Soda fans agree, it’s the best they have ever had!”

Lighter in color, even! Definitely with the Wintergreen at the fore.

There are three basic kinds of Root Beer-like beverages.

Root Beer, based, more or less on Charles Hires Formula, primarily flavored with Sassafras Root Bark and Wintergreen.

Birch Beer, which is supposed to feature the flavor of Birch Bark or Birch Sap Extract or something.

Sarsaparilla, which is supposed to feature the flavor of the root of the Jamaican Sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii).

The interesting thing about Sarsaparilla is versions of Sarsaparilla flavored beer pre-date the use of Sassafras. Even more interestingly, Sarsaparilla based beverages are used traditionally in Jamaica as an, uh, enhancing tonic for male potency, currently touted by certain DJs under the name “Baba Roots”.

I’m not sure exactly where the Sarsaparilla comes in, as the Maine Root version tastes mostly like Wint-O-Green life savers.

I like that they left the Caramel Color out, but this is just too cloying and sugary.

2 out of 5 Barrels.