The History of Root Beer

Love Root Beer? Thank Charles Hires!

Root Beer Floats
Root Beer Floats. Paul Johnson / E+ / Getty Images

According to his biography, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires discovered a recipe for a delicious tisane—a form of herbal tea—while on his honeymoon in New Jersey. Not long after, he began selling a dry version of the tea blend but it had to be mixed with water, sugar, and yeast and left to ferment for the carbonation process to take place. On the suggestion of his friend Russell Conwell (founder of Temple University), Hires began working on a liquid formulation for a carbonated root beer beverage that would be more appealing to the masses. The result was a combination of more than 25 herbs, berries, and roots that Hires used to flavor carbonated soda water. At Conwell's urging, Hires introduced his version of root beer to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Hires' Root Beer was a hit. In 1893, the Hires family first sold and distributed bottled root beer.

The History of Root Beer

While Charles Hires and his family contributed greatly to the popularity of modern root beer, its origins can be traced to pre-colonial times during which indigenous tribes commonly created beverages and medicinal remedies from sassafras roots. Root beer as we know it today is descended from "small beers," a collection of beverages (some alcoholic, some not) concocted by American colonists using what they had at hand. The brews varied by region and were flavored by locally grown herbs, barks, and roots. Traditional small beers included birch beer, sarsaparilla, ginger beer, and root beer.

Root beer recipes of the era contained different combinations of ingredients such as allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, hops, burdock root, dandelion root, spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, sarsaparilla, spicewood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root, vanilla beans, hops, dog grass, molasses, and licorice. Many of these ingredients are still used in root beer today along with added carbonation. There is no single recipe for root beer.

Fast Facts: Top Root Beer Brands

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Charles Hires would have a lot to feel flattered about. The success of his commercial root beer sales soon inspired competition. Here are some of the most notable root beer brands.

  • A & W: In 1919, Roy Allen bought a root beer recipe and began marketing his beverage in Lodi, California. A year later Allen partnered with Frank Wright to form A&W Root Beer. In 1924, Allen bought his partner out and obtained a trademark for the brand which is now the number one selling root beer in the world.
  • Barq's: Barq's Root Beer debuted in 1898. It was the creation of Edward Barq, who along with his brother, Gaston, were the principals of the Barq's Brothers Bottling Company founded in the New Orleans French Quarter in 1890. Brand, still owned by Barq's, is currently manufactured and distributed by the Coca-Cola Company.
  • Dad's: The recipe for Dad's Root Beer was created by Ely Klapman and Barney Berns in the basement of Klapman's Chicago-area home in the late 1930s. It was the first product to make use of the six-pack packaging format invented by the Atlanta Paper Company the 1940s.
  • Mug Root Beer: Mug Root Beer was originally marketed as “Belfast Root Beer” during the 1940s by the Belfast Beverage Company. The product name was later changed to Mug Old Fashioned Root Beer, which was then shortened to Mug Root Beer. Currently manufactured and distributed by PepsiCo, Mug's brand mascot is a bulldog named “Dog.”

Root Beer and Health Concerns

In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras as a potential carcinogen. Sassafras is one of the main flavoring ingredients in root beer. However, it was determined that the potentially dangerous element of the plant was found only in the oil. Once a method to extract the harmful oil from the sassafras was found, sassafras could continue to be used without harmful repercussions.

As with other soft drinks, classic root beer is classified by the scientific community as a sugar-sweetened beverage or SSB. Studies have linked SSBs to a number of health concerns including obesity, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. Even non-sweetened beverages, if consumed in too great a quantity, have the potential for negatively impacting health.