Root Beer: A True American Classic

By 7th August 2016Advice

Sometimes here at Silke, we like to take a look at treats and dishes from a little further afield, largely to get a better perspective of a culture very different from our own. And indeed, sometimes ones that seem very similar on the surface (and sometimes are in a number of little ways) can be vastly and noticeably different in many others. North America is perhaps the most triumphant example of a culture that is similar, yet very dissimilar, and this is reflected in a number of their traditional recipes and confections. Today, we’re looking at one of their classic staples; Root Beer.

Very different from the more well known example of the drink available today, Root Beer finds its origins in drinks brewed by the Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans. These drinks were brewed using the root of the Sassafras albidum tree, and were consumed by the Native American population for both culinary and medicinal purposes. It is worth mentioning that though the drink gained further popularity and widespread appeal as a result of colonisation, European people had been brewing similar drink using the Sassafras albidum root at least as early as the 1600s. It was from around the 1840s onwards that the drink really began to take off, with recipes for it turning up in numerous cook books and confectionery stores selling it to locals- although, curiously, it was first sold in syrup form intended to be mixed with Soda by the customer, rather then as a ready-made beverage. Even in this arguably more “commercial” form, the health benefits provided by the Sassafras extract didn’t go unnoticed by either the Native Americans nor the European settlers, and Pharmacists often sold it as a medicinal drink.

Chris Elmer Hires was the first individual to successfully market Root Beer commercially, debuting his take on the drink at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876; he based it off of a Root Tea he had developed using Sassafras. Originally, Hires had intended to market the drink under the name Root Tea, but his desire to market the drink to the local coal miners lead to him going with the now iconic name of Root Beer- likely suspecting the name would go down better. The drink was a roaring success by all accounts, and by 1893, it was wildly distributed across the entire country.

Two facts that might surprise people are that a number of competing variants of the drink cropped up not long after, and that initially, Root Beer actually was wholly alcoholic. So far as the former is concerned, one of the earliest and most famous competitors of Hires was Barq’s, a Root Beer made using extracts from the Smilax regelii plant instead of Sassafras albidum root; this was the drink that later evolved into Sarsaparilla, a drink with deep ties to pop culture surrounding the American West. And regarding the latter, almost all Root Beer was alcoholic to some capacity until variants without it became available around the turn of the century, becoming especially popular during the Prohibition Era. The effects of this are so great that most commercially available brands of Root Beer today are non-alcoholic by default.

Likewise, most commercially available Root Beer these days is completely lacking in the very core component of the drink; Sassafras. To be more specific, it’s lacking in Safrole, the aromatic oil within Sassafras root and bark it’s distinctive flavour. The reason for this is due to a series of trials undertaken by the Food & Drug Administration in the 60s, where laboratory animals given oral doses of Sassafras Tea or Sassafras Oil that contained large doses of Safrole would, over continued exposure, begin to develop Liver problems and even some forms of Cancer. The substance was banned from appearing in mass-produced commercially available products from that point onwards, and pretty much all Root Beer used today approximates the famous twang through the use of artificial flavours instead. Although incredibly rare and likely very difficult to come by outside of specialist stores, however, there do exist Root Beers that contain natural extracts of Sassafras albidum with the Safrole content either heavily distilled to a very minute amount, or removed from the drink entirely.