Back to our Roots: The History of Root Beer

The Surprising Origin of the Distinctively American Beverage Root Beer 

A 16oz bottle of Sprecher's Award-Winning Root Beer next to a mug of Root Beer on a bar.
Sprecher’s Award-Winning Root Beer [1]

Imagine describing the taste of root beer to someone who has never tried it before. What would you say? It’s probably not easy to come up with an answer. If you’re like most people, you don’t know what exactly in the glass. Roots? Beer? Who’s to say?  

A craft soda aficionado might say that a sip of award-winning Sprecher Root Beer has the sweet taste of honey, notes of wintergreen and vanilla, and a creamy mouthfeel. This is all true, but what is Root Beer, really? Well, root beer is a beverage with surprisingly deep—and distinctly American—roots.  

Indigenous Root Medicine 

The sweet, bubbly, non-alcoholic root beer we know today bears little resemblance to the root beers of yesteryear. The forbears of this beloved beverage were root beers in the literal sense—beers made from roots.  

Before the first root beer was brewed, root teas and medicines were the all the rage. Many of the indigenous peoples of North America brewed medicinal teas and tinctures out of roots, barks, berries, and flowers. Some of these medicinal drinks used sassafras, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla. These North and Central American plants were thought to boost immune function, reduce inflammation, combat allergies, and more. 

A diagram of a Sassafras plant, a key ingredient in early root beer and root tea.
A diagram of the sassafras plant, a key ingredient in many pre-colonial and colonial era root teas and root beers. [2]

For indigenous people, these root-based beverages were not for recreational consumption. These drinks didn’t always taste very good, and some of them had harmful side effects when overused. For example, while sassafras has analgesic and antiseptic properties, too much of it can cause liver damage .[1]   When European colonists came to the Americas, they learned of these health benefits and made their own root-based drinks.

Root Beer in Colonial America

European colonists brought their own traditions to the Americas, including the medieval tradition of “small beer.” Small beers were low-alcohol beers (hovering at 1-2% ABV). Europeans brewed small beers because they were safer than water, cheap, nutritious, and unlikely to get you too drunk during the day. Colonists made small beer by shortening the fermentation time of the brew or by re-using grain from a stronger beer. [2] 

When European colonists observed indigenous people using sassafras, sarsaparilla, wintergreen and other roots, barks, and berries for their health benefits, the colonists did what they knew best—made small beer. Colonists used Sassafras and Sarsaparilla roots—among other local plants—to brew a type of small beer they (unimaginatively) named root beer. Generally, colonists did not drink root beer to get drunk. Instead, they drank root beer to hydrate safely and get (real or perceived) medicinal benefits.

Families passed down their recipes for root beer like heirlooms. Countless varieties of root beers made from different blends of American plants, water, sugar, and yeast emerged. This practice continued for many years. In the early days of the United States, merchants sold in small shops and drugstores throughout the country. Still, the general public largely saw root beer as a niche health drink. 

Root Beer goes Commercial

An advertisement for Hires' Root Beer, the first successful mass market Root Beer.
An advertisement for Charles E. Hires’ root beer. [3]

In the 1870s, this all changed thanks to a Philadelphia pharmacist named Charles E. Hires. After tasting a particularly delicious root beer at an inn during his honeymoon, Hires begged the innkeeper’s wife for her recipe. Hires got it, and when he returned from his honeymoon, he took the recipe to a couple of local college professors. He asked the professors to help him adjust the recipe for commercial production.  

The professors did two great things for Hires. First, they came up with a way to turn the ingredients into a shelf-stable powder. Root beer powder was easier to sell and distribute as the base for a tasty non-alcoholic drink. Second, the professors eliminated (pun intended) the strong laxative effect of the original recipe.  

Hires was a Quaker, and he was deeply opposed to boozing. So, he wasted no time in fervently marketing his new “powder root tea” to local miners—men known for their love of the sauce. This didn’t go over well until a friend advised him to stop calling it powder root tea (duh!). In a bid to appeal to the masculine sensibilities of the miners, Hires called his drink root beer, and a commercial hit was born.  

Hires’ root beer quickly took off and evolved as a product. Soon, Hires was selling it as a syrup and in kegs to soda fountains, who were pouring it as fast as Hires could make it. Hires died a rich man, and many sought to follow in his footsteps. [3] [4] 

Prohibition and the Birth of Big Root Beer 

Hires’ root beer is no longer with us, but its commercial success inspired many competitors who are still around today. These early competitors of Hires grew into big root beer companies that remain well-known throughout the country. 

The original Barq's Root Beer bottling facility in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The original Barq’s bottling facility in Biloxi, Mississippi. [4]

Barq’s root beer appeared on the scene in 1898 in Mississippi. After a slow start, it exploded in popularity during prohibition, and leveraged its newfound popularity to grow throughout the 1900s. Barq’s cemented its status as a big root beer company when the Coca-Cola company purchaed it in 1995. [5]  

A&W also jumped on the root beer bandwagon in the wake of Hires, in 1919. A&W lays claim to a major innovation: selling root beer cold in frosted mugs. The ice-cold root beer was a revelation to people used to room-temperature root beer (I shudder to imagine), and with this innovation, A&W grew rapidly during prohibition just like Barq’s. These big root beer brands rose to dominate the industry, leaving little room for competition from smaller root beer producers. [6] 

The Banning of Traditional Root Beer 

However, small root beer producers soon found an angle into the craft root beer market: better ingredients and technique. This became possible in part because traditional root beer recipes were effectively outlawed in the 1960s.  

In the early days, root beers like Hires’, Barq’s, and A&W were made with sassafras, calling back to the drink’s indigenous origins. However, as indigenous people knew, sassafras is not without its side effects—it may have some health benefits, but too much sassafras can cause liver damage. This is rather ironic, since marketers initially touted root beer as a healthy alternative to alcohol.  

An early advertisement for Root Beer that suggests Root Beer is a healthy alternative to alcohol.
When it was first sold commercially, Root Beer was frequently advertised as a healthy alternative to alcohol. [5]

In 1960, the FDA recognized the liver-damaging effects of Sassafras oil and banned its use as a food additive in the United States. [7] Now, commercially produced root beer is made with a variety of extracts that imitate the flavor of Sassafras. This is no easy feat, and extract makers closely guard their recipes. [8]  

The Origins of Sprecher Craft Root Beer

Since it is illegal in the United States to commercially produce root beer with all of its traditional ingredients, the quality of ingredients and brewing process used to make root beer make a big difference for the authenticity and flavor of the final product.  

The Fire-Brewing Process

Randy Sprecher knew this when he opened up Sprecher Brewing Company in 1985. That’s why he decided to make Sprecher root beer with extracts produced by trusted local suppliers and raw Wisconsin honey. It’s also why Randy decided to use a traditional fire-brewing process. In fire-brewing, the ingredients are brewed in a kettle under a flame until the sugars in the honey are caramelized. The result is a uniquely rich flavor that cannot be replicated by a cold-mix brewing process.  

The original handmade Sprecher brew kettle, where the first batches of Sprecher Root Beer were fire-brewed for sale to the public.
The original handmade Sprecher brew kettle. [6]

The “Why” of Sprecher Root Beer

But why did Randy make root beer in the first place? Sprecher Brewing Co. was founded as a brewery focused on making traditional European beers. What could be less like European beer than an all-American soda popularized by a teetotaling pharmacist? That story begins with Sprecher Brewery Tours.  

The Brewery Tour is a peculiar tradition with its own unique history. Sprecher began giving tours to give beer geeks an opportunity to marvel at the inner workings of the first post-prohibition craft brewery in Milwaukee. Legend has it that these tours were all-you-can-drink, which was appealing to adults, but not so much to the children who would sometimes tag along with them. Not wanting to leave the kids out, Randy brewed small batches of root beer for underage visitors to enjoy on the tour, applying the tools and techniques of his craft to make the best soda he knew how.  

Randy, living up to his reputation of brewing good things, wowed everybody with his root beer, and many tourgoers were quick open their wallets for a chance to take some home with them. Ever the shrewd businessman, Randy started to sell his root beer outside of the four walls of his brewery. It was a hit! Sprecher Root Beer quickly became a favorite in Wisconsin and the Midwest, far outselling Sprecher’s original craft beer. Root beer has since become central to Sprecher’s identity and even inspired the name of Sprecher’s official mascot, Rooty

The Future of Root Beer

Now, Sprecher Brewing Co. hopes to take Sprecher Root Beer to every corner of the country, and one day, all around the world! Root beer has a long history as a uniquely American brew that appeals to all kinds of people. Sprecher is both a part of that history, and part of the future of the storied drink called root beer. We on the Sprecher Brewing team think that future is in good hands. 

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Jared Corbett, Sprecher Digital Marketer and Tour Guide

Jared Corbett

Digital Marketer & Tour Guide

Sources

[1] Burrows, Jillian Ada. “Root Beer’s Indigenous Roots.” Medium, July 21, 2019, https://medium.com/jill-burrows/root-beers-indigenous-roots-bfd6e8ba8de4.

[2] Anchor Brewing, “Small Beer, Big Flavor.” Anchor Brewing, July 5, 2012, https://www.anchorbrewing.com/blog/small-beer-big-flavor/.

[3] Funderburg, Anne Cooper. Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2002, pp. 92-5.

[4] Smith, Andrew F. Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 231-2.

[5] Barq’s.com. “Barq’s History.” https://www.barqs.com/history.

[6] Allen, Molly. “The Untold Truth Of A&W.” mashed, Dec 10, 2020, https://www.mashed.com/161394/the-untold-truth-of-aw/.

[7] Dietz, Brigit and Judy L. Bolton. “Botanical Dietary Supplements Gone Bad.” Chem Res Toxicol., vol. 20, no. 4, Apr. 2007, pp. 586-590. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2504026/

[8] Delfino, Jessica. “The Root In Root Beer: Behind This Soda’s Toxic Ingredient.” Allrecipies.com, Aug 17 2020, https://www.allrecipes.com/article/root-beer-sassafras-safrole/.

Image Attribution

[1] Sprecher Media Library

[2] “Sassafras albidum – Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-260,” uploaded to Wikimedia Commons from Author Franz Eugen Köhler under the public domain. No changes made to the original image.

[3] “Charles E. Hires Co. (3092723475),” uploaded to Wikimedia Commons from the Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections under the public domain. No changes made to the original image.

[4] “Barqs Building,” uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by author Woodlot under the CC BY-SA 3.0 License. No changes made to the original image.

[5] “Bryant’s Root Beer (1897) (ADVERT 279),”uploaded to Wikimedia Commons from an unidentified author under the public domain. No changes made to the original image.

[6] Sprecher Media Library