Mug of root beer
Root Beer's Medicinal Roots Date Back To Pre-Colonial Times
By Nico Danilovich
Root beer, a now mass-produced soda, began as pre-contact American folk medicine. It started with sassafras, a tree native to the north and southeast areas of the present-day U.S.
Sassafras root-flavored teas were believed to bolster health and treat various ailments, such as aches, colds, fevers, rheumatism, skin conditions, upset stomachs, and more.
Its spicy roots taste like anise, cinnamon, citrus, and vanilla, giving off an enjoyable flavor. This drink, dubbed "root tea" by English colonizers, later became root beer.
18th-century American farmers took notice of Indigenous customs and started using roots, herbs, flowers, and barks to make slightly alcoholic drinks called "small beers."
The ingredients' flavors were extracted with hot water, strained, and sweetened with syrup, molasses, or honey. Yeast and water were added to ferment the liquid in barrels.
The carbon dioxide produced would make it slightly fizzy — soda water was added later. The drink was fairly healthy since it was boiled and sanitized by carbon dioxide and alcohol.
In the mid-19th century, root beer was marketed as a drink that do things like cure cholera. Some made it themselves, while others bought extracts from manufacturers.
Charles Hires brought "root beer" powder into the public eye at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and eventually supplied root beer syrup to soda fountains nationwide.
Per Hires' ads, better health remained a supposed benefit of drinking root beer. He owned a pharmacy and was health-conscious, creating non-alcoholic root beer during Prohibition.
20th-century science eventually disproved that sugary sodas were good. In the 1960s, the FDA banned food and drinks from using sassafras oil due to its carcinogenic nature.