With beer being the safest form of drinking liquid, which every healthy body needs, it was important to have a very low alcohol beer for an everyday water substitute, especially for children. Small beer was about 2 % alcohol. The alcohol acted as a preservative, and so did some of the bitter-tasting ingredients in the beer. Beer is made like a tea with barley or other grains for sweetness, and hops or other herbs for bitterness. It is boiled or brewed to blend the flavors and kill the bacteria and germs in the water, and then it is cooled and fermented with yeast. The yeast creates the alcohol and the bubbly carbon dioxide. There were three ways to brew small beer; either it was made from the small bits of sugars left in the grains after a strong beer was made, or it was made with a very small quantity of grain, or it was drunk very young and sweet before fermentation was completed. Modern root beer is closest in flavor to the last method because of its high sweetness level, although no modern commercial root beers use yeast or contain any alcohol at all, as I will explain in a moment.
Very Early Root Beer
Way back in ancient times, and up until hops were discovered in about 1400 AD, people had to rely on roots and bark and other spices to provide the bitterness and preservative qualities in small beer. However, small beer did not become root beer until the Europeans settled America. Did you know the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, instead of Virginia because they ran out of beer? Before departing England, some water was brought on the ship for the long voyage, but water spoils in wood kegs after a short time, therefore beer was the main liquid that the people aboard the Mayflower drank to stay alive. Drinking seawater would have killed them.
Once the colonists settled all over the east coast, they built towns, and they built breweries too. However they were truly pioneers even in the towns, and they did most things for themselves, and that included baking bread and brewing beer at home. Unfortunately they didn't have crops of barley or other grains to use when making their small beer, so they had to use other sweeteners such as honey, molasses, and cane sugar. And they didn't have hops for bitterness, so they had to discover which plants in the new world would provide bitterness and flavor. That is the real beginning of root beer! It is truly as American as apple pie, and a lot older than apple pie. Some of the plant materials that have been used in root beer over the years include sarsaparilla root, sassafras root, dandelion root, ginger root, yellow dock root, burdock root, spikenard root, birch bark, wild cherry bark, wintergreen bark, prickly ash bark, spicewood, allspice, juniper berries, vanilla bean, coriander seed, licorice, dog grass, pipsissewa, cardamom, cinnamon, and even hops. Some recipes did not use roots, or relied mainly on one ingredient, and that's where Birch Beer and Sarsaparilla Soda came from. However, root beer was the king in popularity even back then.
Home-Brewed Root Beer
This truly old-fashioned root beer would have tasted different from the kind you buy at the store today. It would have been a bit cloudy, and it would have tasted less sweet, and therefore a little dry. When I was a girl, my family made root beer once for fun, and I think it was a lot like those early root beers. My dad bought a bottle of Hires Root Beer Extract, and following the directions on the little bottle, we added it to a big pot of water, then added sugar and a teensy amount of yeast. We stirred it up, bottled it, and then capped the bottles. We made about two cases or 5 gallons, and yes, some of the bottles exploded. The yeast was needed to carbonate the root beer, and some of the bottles developed an excessive amount of carbonation and foamed all over when we opened them. The alcohol level was tiny, probably about half-a-percent. We kids didn't like it so much, because we were used to super sweet sodas from the store, so we poured it over vanilla ice cream to make floats and the ice cream sweetened it up enough for us. Many people make their own home-brewed root beer from concentrates today, and there are plenty of recipes on the Internet for people who want to try to make an authentic old time root beer from roots. However, it is hard to find all the roots, barks, and spices needed to make root beer, which is why people buy concentrate.
The next step in the evolution of Americas' most indigenous modern drink, root beer, was that somebody had to figure out a way to carbonate it without fermenting it with yeast. The history in that branch of the root beer family tree leads us back along a different route, to the belief that soaking in naturally bubbly mineral springs could help to heal or cure illnesses. The word bath comes from a place in England called Bath, which had just such a type of spring. Once I was in western Turkey on vacation, and "took the cure" in the springs at Pamukkale. The water was warm, I felt buoyant, and bubbles formed on my skin. It was like swimming in a big pool of warm seltzer water!
In olden times this kind of water was considered very healthful, and even if you couldn't sit and soak in it, perhaps you could drink it. A market for bottled bubbly spring water developed, and people who couldn't travel to "take the cure" bought the bottled water to drink. It was a very rare kind of water, and of course very expensive. Then in 1767 Dr. Joseph Priestley in England invented a way to create carbonated water artificially. This artificially produced mineral water was also considered healthful, and as new inventors fine-tuned the production process, bottled carbonated water gained wider distribution and popularity. It didn't take long for people to begin to flavor the bottled bubbly water, similar to our flavored carbonated waters of today. This was the birth of the soda industry, as we know it.
The Hires Formula For Success
Now a third branch in the root beer family tree involves a man named Charles Hires, a pharmacist and brilliant entrepreneur living in Philadelphia. Many people say that Charles Hires invented root beer, but as you can see, the colonists had been making root beer for 200 years before Charles Hires was born. In fact, there were some commercial root beer brewers such as Caleb Smith, in Flushing, New York, as far back as the 1850's, who produced a fermented draft root beer.
However, Mr. Hires was the first to commercially produce root beer in bottles, and he was a great promoter as well. The legend says that on his honeymoon, visiting his home state of New Jersey, Charles and his bride stayed at a guest farm where the landlady served them her homemade herb tea. Charles either got the recipe from her, or secured a packet of the herb tea mix, and then went back to Philadelphia to figure out the recipe. Once he put together a recipe to his satisfaction, he began to sell the herb-mix packets at his pharmacy. Being the astute businessman that he was, he sold boxes of the packets to other pharmacies to sell as "Hires' Herb Tea", and he also sold it at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The directions said to boil the ingredients, strain them, and add sugar to the liquid, then add yeast and ferment. Hires Herb Tea was an instant hit with the housewives because they didn't have to go collect the roots, barks, and berries anymore. The root beer that Charles' "tea" produced was very similar to the root beer my family made from concentrate when I was a kid.
The Birth of Commercially Bottled Root Beer
By this time, being in the health business, many pharmacies had soda fountains to dispense the healthful carbonated water, and Charles and other pharmacists began to add "Hires' Herb Tea" to the carbonated water, which changed the flavor and removed the fermentation step of the process. But, you still had to boil and strain the ingredients before they could be added to the sweetened carbonated water. Therefore Charles introduced a new and improved liquid version that could be fermented at home once water and yeast were added, or it could be added directly to sweetened carbonated water. This liquid extract was first advertised in an 1884 issue of Harper's Weekly. Mr. Hires was a good promoter and gave away lots of samples for people to try. At the time the anti-alcohol temperance movement was mounting, and housewives loved the convenience of the new liquid extract.
The next logical step for a businessman like Charles Hires was to bottle finished root beer, and make people's lives easier by removing the need to do any work to produce root beer at home. In 1893, the Crystal Bottling Company began bottling Hires Root Beer and distributing it to local retailers. Of course being a pharmacist, Charles promoted his root beer as being good for you. With it's slightly bitter herbal character, every root beer, no matter which recipe (and they're all a little different) has a slightly medicinal flavor. That's part of what makes root beer taste so old fashioned!
Modern Root Beer Flavors
There's one more flavor difference between the original root beers and modern root beers, and that is sassafras. Sassafras contains safrole, which the FDA has determined is a carcinogen. Therefore sassafras oil has been banned since 1960, and sassafras bark since 1976. If the food chemists hadn't been able to come up with a comparable artificial sassafras flavoring in the 1960's, root beer might have died out, because sassafras was the main seasoning ingredient in all root beers. Supposedly tobacco is a tame carcinogen compared with toxic safrole. Root beer purists claim that the flavor of artificial sassafras is not the same as the original, and they complain that many modern root beers rely too heavily on wintergreen, anise, cloves, lemon oil and orange oil. I say it doesn't matter as long as the root beer tastes good!
The Bulldog Difference
When you taste a root beer, you will immediately say, "Yes, it's root beer." However, side-by-side, root beers are remarkably different, more different than Coke® and Pepsi® are from each other. Some root beers have an herbal medicinal bite, some are sweet, some are bitter, and some are highly carbonated and make you burp.
Our Bulldog Root Beer® is softly carbonated so that you can smell the delicate real vanilla and gentle honey aromas. Our root beer Recipe Development Team spent two years, slaving over nine test batches, until we developed the exact flavor that we thought was the best. We use real cane sugar to give it that rich deep old-fashioned flavor. Granulated cane sugar costs a lot more than the heavily refined high-fructose corn syrup that the big root beer producers use, but we think it's worth every penny. And we think you'll agree!
Take the Bulldog Root Beer challenge, and compare Bulldog with your regular root beer brand. Or just pick up a 6-pack and enjoy it cold, straight from the bottle if you prefer.
that you know all about root beer, aren't you thirsty for a cold one
© Teri Fahrendorf, all rights reserved.