Root beer has been a beloved soft drink in the U.S. and beyond for more than a hundred years. Today’s article explores the origin story of the time-tested and delicious drink.
In the late 1800s, a range of health issues plagued the nation. Rampant illness spread more quickly than than science could keep up with, claiming countless lives far before their time and adding pain and misery to the days of millions. Pharmacists throughout the United States knew their plight like few others. As such, many pharmacists throughout early America grew increasingly determined to craft their own “cure-all” remedies for their customers’ most common ailments. This mission had immense potential for the public good - and for pharmacists' own profits.
In 1875, Pennsylvania pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires successfully launched the first successful commercial line of root beer. Hires had experimented on and off throughout his career with attempts at the perfect recipe. As the story goes, he first developed the winning combination in the form of a delicious herbal tea while honeymooning with his new bride. He soon began to sell a dry version of the tea, instructing buyers to mix it with water, sugar and yeast before leaving it to ferment. This process caused carbonation in the resulting beverage. Russell Conwell - founder of Temple University and trusted friend - advised Hires to create a liquid variety to increase the product’s appeal and rate of sale. The batch that followed incorporated more than twenty-five ingredients - a careful selection of herbs, roots and berries added to carbonated soda water.
At Conwell’s insistence, Hires introduced his concoction to the public in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Hires was an adamant teetotaler and wanted to call the drink “root tea” to avoid any association with alcohol whatsoever (though his standard recipe didn't actually contain any). However, he ultimately agreed to call the brew “root beer” to increase its appeal to the large community of coal miners throughout Pennsylvania, believing that they’d be much more likely to sample a drink described as “beer” instead of “tea.” While the drink contained no actual alcohol, the era’s Temperance Movement was in full swing, and proponents of prohibition were outraged by the public sale of a brand new type of “beer.” Hires persisted nevertheless, sticking to his guns with the name “root beer,” and the beverage’s fanbase gradually grew. Like cola in its earliest form, root beer was originally pitched as a health drink with the slogan “Join Health and Cheer, Drink Hires Root Beer!”
By the end of the 1800s, root beer was a widespread favorite throughout the United States. Despite the initial common misconceptions that Hires’ version of the drink contained alcohol, its popularity surged after the onset of prohibition outlawed all varieties of alcoholic drinks.
Hires’ original root beer recipe was made from sassafras. Another popular recipe of the drink’s earliest days included a sugar made of water and molasses paired with the root and bark of sassafras. The distinctive oil of the sassafras plant - otherwise known as Safrole - gave root beer its well-known flavor. Unfortunately, when laboratory animals were given large doses of safrole, they developed cancer and liver damage at alarming rates. This prompted the FDA to ban the oil from use in mass-produced foods and beverages in 1960. Thankfully, safrole can be fully extracted from natural ingredients through the processes of distillation and extraction. Further research by the FDA has determined that this process fully eliminates the harmful health risks - allowing for the classic root beer flavor to be reborn.
Sassafras naturally foams, which gave earlier root beers the classic appearance still recognized today despite evolving modern recipes. Some manufacturers added carbonation to their root beer products to make them more bubbly. Many now prolong the bubbling and lower surface tension with the use of surfactants or thickeners.
A range of successful root beer brands were launched in the decades following Hires’ immense success - including A&W, Barq’s and Mug Root Beer. Today, countless varieties of root beers are available for purchase - including non-alcoholic and alcoholic varieties and a range of unique variations of Hires’ original brew. Most use natural extracts containing zero safrole and artificial flavor varieties.
Colorado’s Best Drinks’ Root Beer stays true to the original soda fountain flavor beloved for generations. Each delicious batch blends all-natural ingredients like vanilla, birch, and wintergreen with broad spectrum hemp extract for a modern-day twist on the traditional beverage. We carefully craft each batch of Sparkling CBD Root Beer and proudly offer our certificate of analysis for each of our seven beverage options, so you’ll always know exactly what you’re drinking.
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