The Real Reason Root Beer Was Invented

With or without ice cream, frothy root beer is a delicious treat enjoyed by kids and adults alike. With a unique taste unlike any other soda and best served in a frosted glass, root beer traces its origins back to the colonial days of America, although it wasn't commercially sold until the late 1800s.

The name root beer may imply that the soda contains alcohol or is fermented like beer; however, neither is the case. It was the sassafras root and sarsaparilla root that provided the flavor for the soft drink for decades until the FDA banned sassafras as an ingredient in packaged foods, per Portable Press. The ban started in 1960 when sassafras was labeled as a carcinogen. To give modern-day root beer its taste, a flavoring is added that combines two unlikely flavors: wintergreen and vanilla. Root beer also has trace amounts of ginger, licorice, anise, juniper berries, and dandelion. According to Renegade Brewing, root beer sales make up about 3% of the soft drinks consumed in the United States annually.

Two origin stories

In many ways, you could say that root beer was invented twice. Once by the early settlers of America who made their own beer with roots to have a safe beverage to drink when water wasn't always clean and the next when it was created as an alternative to beer in the 19th century (via Renegade Brewing). 

The first settlers of the New World were forced to get creative when making beer because they didn't have hops to give the beer its bitterness, so they turned to roots. These roots could include sassafras, sarsaparilla, and ginger, among others. It wasn't until the second half of the 1800s that root beer was sold as a soda commercially, according to Sprecher Brewery. Charles E. Hires, a pharmacist, was inspired to create root beer after he tasted a delicious brew. After tweaking the recipe, he began to sell his new drink as "powder root tea," which wasn't a well-received name. Hires, a Quaker who was opposed to drinking alcohol, first marketed his beverage to miners as an alternative to the hard stuff. To change the perception of his drink, Hires came up with the name root beer.

Hires' recipe included more than 25 herbs, berries, and roots, per ThoughtCo. To build his market for root beer, Hires sold it at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition, where it was well-received. Since the early days of root beer, many companies have put their own twist on the drink.