The History of Rootbeer

Did you know that root beer is technically the most American carbonated beverage? An English scientist named William Brownrigg probably created the concept for a carbonated beverage in the 1740s; English scientist Joseph Priestley created the first carbonated drink in the 1760s. And while Coca-Cola was invented in 1892 in the United States, it was built on prior European carbonization concepts. 

So, root beer is technically and arguably an All-American carbonated beverage (although it is not always carbonated).

Root beer contains no alcohol despite its name (and was initially brewed similarly to traditional beer). Unlike beer, hops are not used to make root beer. 

And while root beer is a carbonated beverage, it is not a cola or soda. Colas have different recipes and were traditionally made with kola nut extract, although modern cola recipes use imitation kola nut flavoring. 

And the most significant difference between root beer and traditional colas is the taste factor. Colas are sweet, but root beer features a distinct, vanilla-like sweetness with a full-body taste. Root beer, especially root beer floats topped with vanilla ice cream, is a unique American carbonated beverage frequently confused with cola, which is an unwarranted comparison.

And it is an unwarranted comparison because root beer is already so popular on its own.

Almost 42% of the global root beer market exists in the United States. 

A 32% share of the global root beer market resides in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Asian and the Pacific Islands comprise 26% of the worldwide root beer market.

Root beer is in a category all by itself, and it deserves that distinction! The best way to understand and appreciate the unique distinction root beer holds amongst other carbonated beverages is to examine its origins. 

The origins of root beer all start with various kinds of roots, tree bark, berries, herbs, and ancient recipes.

Small Beers

Although modern root beer is a matter of historical record, its origins potentially go back hundreds of years.

The Indigenous Americans made herbal drinks out of roots, bark, berries, and herbs long before colonization. Indigenous Americans made teas and drinks with these ingredients for refreshment and medicinal purposes. 

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and George Washington, the United States’ founding fathers, all drank a precursor to root beer called “small beer.” Small beer is a type of beer made with any local roots, tree bark, and herbs that were available. And small beer was alcoholic, ranging between 2% to 12% alcohol by volume. 

Small beer was an Anglicized variation of the traditional root drink initially developed by the Indigenous Americans.

These roots, bark, and herb-based recipes then made their way to Europe and back to the United States. Variations of small beer were popular in Medieval Europe as well. People drank it to cope with the polluted water they drank in a pre-industrial society (more on that later).

Small beer contained ingredients like hops, birch bark, burdock root, wild cherry bark, coriander seeds, vanilla, licorice root, dandelion root, ginger wintergreen, sarsaparilla, and sassafras root. The taste and flavor of the small beer varied according to the local ingredient available.

In the 19th century, Appalachia’s settlers brewed an herbal tea drink, ostensibly a small beer derivative, that contained sassafras bark, sarsaparilla root, and various herbs. 

No one knows who technically created the modern non-alcoholic version of root beer. We know that an American pharmacist from Philadelphia named Charles Elmer Hires marketed and popularized the non-alcoholic version of root beer that we enjoy today.

Charles Elmer Hires

The exact circumstances that led to Hires’ discovery of the original ingredient formula for modern-day root beer have been lost to time and legend. Numerous stories describe how Hires came across the idea to create root beer.

One of the most popular but unverifiable legends involves Hires coming across the Appalachian version of sassafras root tea/small beer and being inspired to make his non-alcoholic version.

The early experimental versions of root beer were called “Hires Root Tea.” And Hines teas were initially marketed as a medicinal tonic.

Hires experimented with sweet and bitter versions of his original root tea formula. And he used ingredients like sarsaparilla, sassafras, birch bark, wintergreen, and juniper berries. Hires experimented with different concoctions and boiled them to achieve the taste he sought.

Hines Root Beer

In the early 1870s, Hires sold and marketed his root tea in his pharmacy with the marketing hook, “The Great Health Drink. And while Hines can be credited with creating the modern root beer recipe as we know, there are historical records that show uncredited root beer recipes existed at least 20 years before Hines’ entrepreneurship. 

Hines changed the name of his product to “Hines Root Beer” by 1876. The name change was probably initiated to appeal to men or acknowledge the drink’s small beer roots. Hines presented his product at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the same year. The event celebrated the first centennial of the country.

After the event, Hines kept brainstorming ways to popularize his bottled drink. As previously mentioned, the people of that era liked to make a homemade version of their root teas and small beers. Capitalizing on this fact, Hines began selling a powder mix and liquid extract root beer kit in his store. So, people started making home versions of Hines Root Beer.

And Hines did not stop there; Hines began brainstorming ways to expand the Hines Root Beer brand name as much as possible. So, Hines started networking and making contacts with businesspeople who owned breweries locally and around the country. 

Hines began a marketing tour and began selling his root beer kit to breweries. The brewers added ingredients local to their communities, like water, syrup, and other ingredients, and created their custom variations of Hines Root Beer over time.

(Modern root beer does not contain sassafras. The FDA banned sassafras in 1960, as scientific studies showed it caused cancer. Modern root beers feature imitation sassafras flavoring).

If Charles Elmer Hines kept his recipe to himself or didn’t network and sell his root beer kit to breweries, modern root beer as we know it now might not exist.

Try Soda God Root Beer

The early promotion, recipes, and commercialization techniques of Charles Elmer Hines enabled countless breweries to create their own root beer variations.

If you want a sip of history, order some root beer from Soda God today.


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