A Brief History of Root Beer
Strictly speaking, no one knows when root beer first came to be brewed. Recipes for making teas, drinks, and brews from roots, herbs, berries, and plants go back pretty far. Documents from Shakespeare's time refer to drinking "small beers," thought to be related. Native Americans made drinks "ancestral" to what we now know as root beer. The American colonists made various brews (usually lightly alcoholic) from roots, bark (birch), sarsaparilla, and ginger. Due to a lack of barley, they would use whatever was at hand, discovering that adding plenty of sugars (in the form of molasses) could get most things to ferment. People throughout the history of the United States have made various teas and brews out of whatever herbs et cetera were handy.
But people often prefer a definite starting point to a story. A single act or event or person who started it all (consider creationism as opposed to evolution, Abner Doubleday and baseball, or similar things). So how did we get root beer as we know it today? Where and when did it start?
Charles E. Hires. Philadelphia. 1870.
The beginning of modern root beer
Hires (1851-1937and yes, that's where the brand came from) was a pharmacist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On a trip back to his native New Jersey (one source says for his honeymoon) he sampled a great tasting beverage (possibly a tea, accounts vary slightly) made from roots and bark that really grabbed him. Upon his return to his pharmacy in Pennsylvania, he began experimenting with various ingredients. Among them: juniper, pipsissewa, spikenard, wintergreen, sarsaparilla, hops, vanilla beans, ginger, licorice, berries, dog grass, and birch bark. An important ingredient that became the chief one in the making and flavoring of root beer (not only prior to Hires' experiments, but for years to come) was sassafras.
He originally sold the mixture in powdered form as "Hires' Herb Tea." He sold packets of his "tea" at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The instructions were to boil the ingredients, strain them, add a certain amount of sugar and yeast, ferment, and bottle. Having all the ingredients in one ready to use packet was very popular (presumably as was the taste). It was marketed not just as a refreshing drink but for its supposed "medicinal" qualities, as well (many early soft drinks made similar claims). In 1880, he sold it as a syrupy mixture (yet another step closer to the stuff on the shelf today) which was even more popular, especially with home brewers.
It was first advertised in 1884 (Harper's Weekly). The drink's popularity and the name recognition grew to almost 3 million bottles being sold each year by 1892.
While it was years before any other brand was able to command national attention (or distribution), there were many small companies producing locally (even today, root beer has a large number of companies that are local or regional). During Prohibition, many breweries were able to keep in business by switching to root beer. When it came to an end, root beer production had increased and become quicker and more efficient to make.
During the 30s, Hires advertised his drink to be made with "16 roots, barks, herbs, and berries that were blended in a slow costly percolation process" (www.sodamuseum.bigstep.com).
In 1919, Roy Allen bought a recipe for root beer from a pharmacist in Arizona. He soon opened up one, then two, roadside root beer/hamburger stands in California. They became the first drive-in restaurants (initially using "tray-boys" to serve the orders to the parked cars, heprobably wiselysoon swiched to "tray-girls"). It was first sold for 5¢. He also popularized putting the beverage in a heavy glass mug that soon became a trademark.
An employee, Frank Wright, started a partnership with Allen in 1922 (hence: A&W). They bought more stands and expanded throughout California (Allen bought him out in 1924). In 1922, they introduced the first car hop restaurant. Allen registered the brand ("A&W Root Beer" and the logo. When Allen decided to retire in 1950 (he died in 1968), there were 450 franchises and after selling the company, it grew to over 2000 by the 60s.
At the start of the 70s, the drink and restaurants remained popular and retail versions of the beverage were launched as well as the creation of a mascot, the "Great Root Bear" (a guy in a bear costume who would travel around making "goodwill" appearances). By the end of the decade, McDonalds was well ahead in the restaurant business, though the drink remained popular. In the 90s, the company was bought by Cadbury-Schweppes.
The brand continues to do well despite strong competition by soda giants Coca-Cola (Barq's) and Pepsi ( Mug).
The great root ban
As mentioned, sassafras root was the chief ingredient in most of the brands of root beer. Unfortunately, sassafras contains a known carcinogen: safrole. So in 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras oil. Makers switched to other ingredients, mainly wintergreen, though some (mostly small companies) use a specially treated "safe" version of sassafras.
There is no (nor has there ever been) definitive version of a root beer recipe. Perhaps that is part of the charm and why so many small companies are able to survive despite the big three (or five: A&W, Barq's, Dad's Old fashioned, Hires', and Mug are the only nationally distributed brands), as each brand has its own unique taste. And even though the use of artificial flavorings is more widespread, many of the old ingredients remain in use.
It has been estimated that at one time or another there have been over 2000 brands of root beer.
(Sources: www.uta.fi/FAST/US8/PAPS/rootbeer.html, www.sodamuseum.bigstep.com, http://tn.essortment.com/historyrootbeer_rhnc.htm)