When most people think of root beer, they imagine a store-bought bottle or can of Barqs, A&W or Dad’s picked up in a 24-pack at the local supermarket. Root Beer was not always thus – it has a long and illustrious history that predates that of commercial soda!
Root Beer started off as a home-made alternative to alcoholic brews, or simply as a delicious and refreshing drink. It was originally made by gathering various roots and spices from nature and making an infusion in hot water. After extracting the flavours from the roots and spices, the brew was diluted, sweetened, and yeast was added. It was then bottled and allowed to ferment, a biological process that adds carbonation. Unlike beer, however, the fermentation did not continue long enough to produce much alcohol, although the first root beers were probably mildly alcoholic.
The most iconic ingredient in root beer was sassafras, a deciduous tree whose bark and leaves give a wonderfully aromatic flavour and scent. It was thought to be a medicinal plant with curative properties. Other common flavours include sarsaparilla (itself a main ingredient in the closely-related beverage of the same name), vanilla, anise, and many others. Many producers took pride in their individual creations, and individual recipes were jealously guarded.
Root Beer took a terrible hit in the 1960’s when safrole, the component of sassafras that gives it its aromatic (and supposedly curative) properties, was discovered to be a carcinogen. The United States Food and Drug Administration declared it illegal as a food additive, and production methods changed to use synthetic flavours and alternative spices.
Today, you will most likely use a commercially-available root beer extract to make root beer. While these no longer contain sassafras, the blend of flavours are a good approximation. Large producers like Pepsi and Coca-Cola have their own brands, of course, although in many cases they bear little relation to the rich and complex flavours in true root beers. So please, take a chance and try one of the delicious and unique root beers reviewed on this site. I think you will be surprised at what the world of root beer has to offer!