Do You Know How Root Beer Really Came About?

Root beer has been popular in America literally since the first settlers landed on Plymouth Rock. Brought with them from Europe, small beer as it was called then, eventually evolved into what we now call root beer. The tale, however, is long and twisted and unfortunately, filled with legend parading as fact and fact that has morphed into legend. What follows is the distillation of the best information and sources.

Small Beer
Beer has been brewed for thousands of year, dating back to ancient Egypt and before. In Europe’s middle ages, improper sanitation made most water that people could access undrinkable. The result was the drinking of beer and wine as a way to stay healthy. Because even children needed to drink the beer, “small beer” was developed with a very low alcohol content, running at about 2% or less. This was made with a variety of herbs and in some ways resembled a kind of sweet fermented tea.

The Americas
The first settlers of course brought the tradition of drinking small beer to the New World. However due to the absence of hops or other common kinds of grains that were typically used for small beer, they turned to native plants. Some of the plants they discovered are still in use for a variety of sodas today; sarsaparilla root, sassafras root, ginger root, birch bark, wintergreen bark, vanilla bean, licorice, cinnamon and others are both crucial ingredients in various root beers or the main ingredients in popular drinks bearing their names, such as birch beer, ginger ale, sarsaparilla, and others.

Root Beer
Small beer production continued on as it was. The modern equivalent of root beer is credited primarily to the man Charles E. Hires. Many tales exist explaining the exact origin of Hires’ recipe. Whichever one is actually true may never be determined. What is true is that Hires found a recipe for an herbal tea that had about 15 to 25 various herbs, barks and berries. A pharmacist with a soda fountain in his store as all good pharmacies had back then, Hires combined the herbal mixture with the popularity of soda water and the rest, they say, is history.

Hires’ invention did not take of right away, however. He sold the dry mixture with instructions for making it into root beer, a common drink at the time without a unified or typical recipe. In 1876 Hires presented his drink at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. 4 year later Hires was marketing a liquid concentrate of his root beer for people to make in their homes or business to make at their soda fountains. Finally in 1893 Hires began sale of a bottled version of his root beer and that was where the popularity of root beer truly began. However, originally Hires had planned to call it “tea” instead of beer. The exact person who decided to call it “beer” is contested. The enduring popularity of the drink, is not

Many companies in America today are producing root beer, numbering in the hundreds and hailing from every state. Some are smaller, boutique local brands; others are mass-market brands with international distribution. Root beer is even brewed all across the world. And although the true origin of root beer may never be perfectly known, two things are clear; if it wasn’t for Charles E. Hires, we probably wouldn’t have the modern drink we know as root beer. The second is this – when drinking an ice cold root beer on a hot summer day, all of this is easy to forget.