Why Is Root Beer Called Root Beer? A Quick Guide

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The beloved beverage root beer contains no actual beer, sparking the question – why the name? Tracing back centuries, “root” refers to early teas brewed from sarsaparilla and botanicals. Today’s commercial root beers retain a nod to these origins despite major evolution. This article answers the question of why is root beer called root beer – and explores the winding journey it has travelled: from its primitive medicinal roots to modern sweet soda.

Table of Contents

When Was Root Beer Invented?

Root beer’s origins can be traced back centuries to the indigenous tribes of North America. Various Native American groups brewed teas and tonics from local roots, barks, and herbs like sassafras, spruce, and birch for their reputed healing properties. These foraged ingredients inspired what we now know as root beer.

When European colonists arrived in the 1600s, they learned root brewing techniques from tribes like the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Cree. Colonists adapted these traditional recipes by adding molasses and other fermentable sugars to create mildly alcoholic “small beers.” These DIY root concoctions laid the groundwork for modern root beer.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that root beer was commercially produced. Englishman Charles Hires first sold powdered extract kits in 1876 for hand-crafting root tea at home. Then in 1875, Hires developed large-scale production methods to bottle his popular root tea for mass distribution as “Hires Root Beer.” This launched the commercial industry still thriving today.

So while ancient Native American civilisations pioneered brewing bitter, earthy roots into tonics, early colonists and entrepreneurs like Hires later transformed these homemade recipes into the beloved bubbly brew we now call root beer. Its origins may be ancient, but root beer continues capturing hearts and tastebuds today as it has for centuries!

Evolution

Prohibition Influence

The temperance movement and Prohibition in 1920s America directly impacted root beer’s evolution. As religious campaigners advocated against alcohol consumption on moral grounds, root beer’s mild alcohol content from natural fermentation became controversial.

To align with new sober social standards and legal regulations, root beer manufacturers removed fermentation from the production process. Instead, they created innovative recipes using artificial carbonation to achieve the bubbly texture and beloved flavours Brits still enjoy today.

This pivot away from alcoholic “small beer” was key to root beer solidifying its reputation as a wholesome, family-friendly beverage on both sides of the pond.

Commercialization

As root beer expanded into a booming commercial industry in the early 1900s, production methods were modernized. Bottling companies increasingly relied on artificial rather than natural flavours to achieve mass distribution.

The safety of sassafras root also came into question after research on its active compound safrole. So ingredients like anise or wintergreen took over as the starring flavour.

Still, most brands retained “root beer” in their names as a nod to the old-fashioned roots-based brews. This savvy move tapped into consumer nostalgia while catering to modern expectations.

So while the homemade root tea tradition may have catalyzed this drink’s origins, 20th-century commerce and regulations transformed root beer into the beloved bubbly brew it remains across the pond today.

Ingredients

Root beer earned its name from the various roots, barks, and berries historically used to brew this beloved beverage. The key ingredient was typically sassafras root, which imparted much of root beer’s distinctive flavour profile with its sweetly pungent, earthy essence.

Additional roots like dandelion, yellow dock, and burdock root were also common ingredients, chosen for their bittersweet zing. The blend of roots, along with aromatics like wintergreen, sarsaparilla, and birch bark, gave traditional root beer its hearty, herbal taste and purported medicinal properties.

Fermentation Process

The “beer” portion of root beer reflects its brewing process. Much like traditional beers are fermented from grains, early root beers underwent fermentation from the natural yeasts and sugars in their root-based ingredients. This yielded a mildly alcoholic, carbonated beverage.

However, traditional root beer contains just 0.5% to 2% alcohol, much less than your average pint. This allowed root beer to be enjoyed more freely among wider demographics in 19th-century America, including women and youth.

Temperance campaigners initially encouraged root beer consumption as a family-friendly alternative to regular beer! Of course, most modern root beers contain less than 0.5% alcohol, or none at all. But the minimal fermentation of old-fashioned root beer is what earned it the “beer” namesake.

So in summary, both root beer’s distinctive ingredients and production method contributed to its memorable moniker that endures today. Even without alcohol, a frosty mug of root beer still channels the sweet snap of history in every sip!

When Does Root Beer Contain Alcohol?

Traditionally, root beer contains a small amount of alcohol. This came from the natural fermentation process used to brew the “beer” from roots, herbs, barks, and sugars. So the original root beer recipes yielded mildly alcoholic drinks with around 0.5-2% alcohol content.

This allowed root beers to be positioned as family-friendly alternatives to regular beer in 19th-century America. However, temperance campaigners were still wary of any alcohol in soft drinks. So when Prohibition hit 1920s America, root beers could no longer be legally brewed using fermentation.

Non-alcoholic modern root beers emerged, like A&W and Mug. These are brewed using artificial carbonation instead of yeast fermentation. So your typical can of mass-market root beer today contains no alcohol at all.

However, some traditional and craft breweries have revived old-fashioned alcoholic root beer recipes. These speciality root beers undergo fermentation and contain around 5% ABV, similar to commercial beers. Examples include Two Beers Brewing Company’s “Alcoholic Root Beer” and Capital Brewery’s “Superior Root Beer.”

So while classic root beers did have a kick, most modern root beers sold today are non-alcoholic. But alcoholic versions are making a comeback with beer aficionados and root beer purists seeking that nostalgic fermented taste. Just check the label before cracking one open!

Best-Selling Root Beers

A few key brands stand out as the most popular root beers in the UK. These top sellers have earned their stellar reputations thanks to their distinctive flavours, histories, and marketing.

A&W Root Beer

One of the best-known brands, A&W has been around since 1919. Their signature vanilla-tinged root beer delivers a smooth, sarsaparilla-accented profile balancing sweetness and herbal notes. While A&W is American, Brits love its nostalgic flavours reminiscent of old-fashioned soda fountains.

Barq’s Root Beer

Those craving a bolder root beer often choose Barq’s. Its bite comes from higher carbonation and a distinct lingonberry twist, setting it apart from creamier options with its zing. Despite being from Louisiana, Barq’s has a cult following in the UK where it’s nicknamed “Englishman’s root beer”.

Mug Root Beer

Mug stands out through marketing showcasing frosty mugs. Their visual branding cemented icy bottles as an iconic image. Flavour-wise, Mug offers straightforward sweetness free of spice, suiting all palates. Its simple taste makes it a failsafe choice.

IBC Root Beer

IBC Root Beer, made by the IBC Beverage Company, is appreciated by aficionados for its peppery bite and prominent wintergreen and licorice notes. Its old-fashioned flavours and candied aromas transport drinkers back to a bygone soda fountain era.

Virgil’s Root Beer

Virgil’s takes a craft approach, using all-natural ingredients like anise, licorice, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, wintergreen, molasses, and honey. This complex blend creates a botanical symphony, though the sweetness may overpower some palates. Still, Virgil’s richness stands up wonderfully in root beer floats.

Interesting Facts About Root Beer

Sassafras: The Original Root Beer Ingredient

Sassafras root was the key ingredient in traditional root beer, prized by Native Americans and colonial settlers for its sweetly pungent flavour and believed medicinal properties. The bark and roots were used to treat various ailments, from blood disorders to skin conditions. Even though sassafras lends much of root beer’s distinctive taste, it’s been banned from foods and drinks in the UK and EU due to health concerns around its safrole content.

The Delicious Discovery of the Root Beer Float

The quintessential root beer float was invented accidentally in the late 19th century by a Philadelphia pharmacist, with customers soon clamouring for his new-found tasty treat. As the deliciously cool concoction spread in popularity across soda fountains, creative monikers emerged like “black cow” and “brown cow” – the former in chocolate-flavoured form! By the early 1900s, the “black and white” root beer float was an American staple.

Root Beer’s Heyday During 1920s Prohibition

With alcohol banned in the US Prohibition era, root beer sales skyrocketed as a family-friendly alternative for social drinking. Saloons re-opened as root beer stands, serving sweet soda alongside sandwiches and ice cream floats to stay afloat. Root beer’s non-alcoholic status even attracted praise from temperance leagues and religious groups. This catapulted root beer as a cultural icon of that period.

International Root Beer Variants

While the classic North American style prevails abroad, international root beers impart distinct regional twists. In the UK, traditional brewers like Fentimans craft “botanically brewed” root beers. Virgil’s blends British honey for a touch of sweetness. German Afri Cola features distinctive orange and coriander notes. Italy’s trademarked Beverly root beer delivers a distinctive bite from chinotto citrus. And Filipino Sarsi root beer plays up anise botanicals.

Secret Root Beer Ingredients Revealed

Traditional small-batch root beer recipes remain closely guarded trade secrets. But classic ingredients often include wintergreen, vanilla, molasses, ginger, and the signature sassafras. Brewers layer botanical extracts like birch bark, licorice root, and juniper berries for complexity. Fermentation with wild yeast brings that frothy “beer” finish. And regional honey lends root beers their signature smooth sweetness.

Wrap Up

Root beer has transformed over centuries from Native American medicinal tonics into today’s quintessential soda. Its signature tang comes from roots and herbs historically believed to have healing properties. Through adaptations into commercial production, root beer shed its mild alcohol yet kept its crisp, nostalgic essence. So while ingredients and methods modernized with the times, its rich origins continue resonating with each satisfying sip hundreds of years later. Even now, cracking open a frosty mug connects us to generations past through enduring flavours unchanged since colonists first discovered this addictive, mysterious brew.

Why Is Root Beer Called Root Beer: FAQs

How did root beer get its name?

Root beer got its name from the old-fashioned way of brewing it using the roots, bark, and berries of sassafras trees as the primary flavouring ingredients. Hence the name “root beer” refers to the roots used.

Is root beer still made from roots?

Modern commercial root beers are generally no longer brewed from the original sassafras root ingredients, but instead use artificial sassafras flavouring or other herbs/spices like wintergreen, vanilla, and cinnamon to try to mimic the original sassafras-based flavour profile.

What does the root in root beer mean?

The “root” in root beer historically referred to the roots of sassafras trees which were used to brew the very first root beers back in the 1600’s. So the root is about the main plant ingredient originally used to flavor it.

Does root beer have beer in it?

No, root beer does not contain any actual beer or alcohol despite having the word “beer” in its name. The term “beer” used to mean any brewed, fermented beverage so “root beer” was coined to distinguish sassafras-based soft drinks from alcoholic beers brewed from barley and hops.

By Tickety Brew

Ivor Ardghal : Brewer and Writer at Tickety Brew