The History of Root Beer: Why it Called Root Beer?

Root beer has been around for a long time already. Today, it is now one of the most common drinks out there. We have become so used to it that many have overlooked that its name does not exactly fit it. After all, root beer is not, well, beer.

With that, you might now be wondering where the name originated. In other words, why is root beer called root beer? Well, we can answer this question by going through the root beer history!

Grab some root beer, relax, and let us have a quick history lesson!

Root Beer and the Small Beer

Root Beer and the Small Beer

As we have pointed out, and you probably know, root beer is not beer, as it does not have alcohol. However, many believe it was not always like that.

Today, water is undoubtedly the healthiest thing to drink. However, there was a point in history when it was not due to water pollution. During this time, many preferred brewed drinks to try and avoid getting sick from contaminated water. One of those brewed drinks was the small beer.

Many believe that small beer is the origin of what we now call root beer. However, unlike modern-day root beer, this drink contained some alcohol, albeit only a low percentage. Small beer used to have only as high as 12% alcohol. On the other hand, it could have as low as 2%.

There are a few ways brewers made this drink, but it almost always used some bark, berries, and herbs. However, the belief is at least one of its varieties bears similarities in taste to modern-day root beer.

Root Beer and the Root Tea

Root Beer and the Root Tea

As you might already know, it did not end with the small beer. While this drink might be able to explain how root beer came to be, it still does not tell us how root beer got its name.

Not much happened in the following years regarding the advancement of root beer, and the story only continues almost a century later. Here, root beer seemed to have taken a step back before it took a step forward.

Before we continue, it might be the best time to note that for some, this event is not the continuation of the root beer history story. Instead, for some, it is the origin story. For good reasons, as you will see in a bit.

The events that led to the creation of what we now know to be root beer started from an attempt to make a miracle drug. Here, what we know to be root beer today resembled cough medicine. It was in syrup form and tasted sweet but bitter, not unlike modern-day cough syrup.

However, this might not be surprising for you anymore. If you have read or heard of the history of other drinks, you already know that this is how many of them started out.

Soon, Charles Elmer Hires turned this syrup-like medicine into two different forms. One which required the drug to be brewed, similar to how one brews tea. With that, the name root tea was born.

Hires was a clever man, though. Not only for his invention of root beer. As you will see in a bit, this cleverness brought him a fortune, and us, the root beer name.

Root Beer and Charles Elmer Hires

Root Beer and Charles Elmer Hires

Hires might have had a noble motive to create the drug. However, he was also in it for the profit, and it would be what would bring the name we know today.

Hires knew his market and how to play his cards right. He knew root tea was not going to cut it. Hence, he changed the name of his concoction from root tea to root beer.

There are two speculations about how the name change brought fame and fortune to Hires.

First, the belief is that root beer became a hit with its new name as it appealed more to the working class. As you can imagine, root beer sounds more appealing than root tea after a hard day’s work.

On the other hand, this drink emerged in the Temperance Movement. With that, Hires marketed root beer as an alternative to beer. At the time, it was the public’s beer but, of course, without the alcohol. It did not stop there, though. Root beer slowly but surely became advertised as a health drink.

Hires only changed a word, but as you can see, it was enough to bring the customers to his door.

Root Beer and the Sassafras Root

Root Beer and the Sassafras Root

We now know how root beer got its name. However, there is still more to say about its history.

We might not have Hires’ exact recipe, but let us look at some of the common root beer ingredients before:

  • Anise
  • Burdock
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Dandelion
  • Ginger
  • Licorice
  • Nutmeg
  • Sarsaparilla
  • Sassafras

As we have said, root beer got advertised as a health drink at one point. However, if you looked at the list above, you might have noticed something that should not be there. Something in that list is, well, not so healthy.

One of the primary ingredients of Hires’ root beer was sassafras. By the 1960s, the United States Food and Drug Administration declared sassafras was no longer safe for human consumption for being a carcinogen. In turn, root beers typically use artificial flavoring now.

With that, one could say no part of the root beer name is accurate anymore today.

Root Beer Today

Root Beer Today

Root beer is no longer a correct name for the drink. However, for some reason, it stuck, and root beers are still known as, well, root beers!

Hires was not without any competition before. However, in a way, being one of the very first to write a precise recipe and to brand the drink, he did pull most of the consumers to him.

Today, you might have a favorite root beer, but it is safe to say that no brand has that big of a hold of the root beer field as Hires did before. With that, let us look at some of the well-known labels and brands today to have a glimpse of how far the root beer field has advanced through the years:

Brand

Established

Mug

1940

A&W

1919

Bulldog

1997

Sioux City

1987

IBC

1919

Barq's

1898

Dad's

1937

Bundaberg

1960

Frostie

1939

Sprecher

1985

As you can see, there are now many companies that have jumped into the root beer industry. However, the ones we listed are not all of them. There are a lot more!

3 Root Beer Recipes to Try Out

At some point, root beer was a convenient drink. It was medicinal and a healthy alternative to beer. However, as we discussed, that is no longer true. Still, that does not mean this drink has no use anymore. One can enjoy it as it is, but there are now many other ways to savor it.

The influx of companies that popped up in the root beer industry is not the only way the drink has evolved! Today, root beer is now more than just, well, root beer. Here are some of the most popular ways people use root beer today:

  • Creamy Root Beer Rum Cocktail: Root beer does not have alcohol. However, if you want some kick, you might want to try this recipe then!
  • Root Beer Float: On the other hand, if you want to keep your root beer alcohol-free, you might want to check this recipe out. Even kids can have this one!
  • Vodka Root Beer Float: However, if you do not have to share with kids, you might want to give this root beer float recipe a shot!

With these examples, one can see that root beer has come a long way from being a supposed cure-all syrup medicine.

It might not have been able to cure that many a disease, but today, it can undoubtedly cool you off after being under the scorching sun for way too long. With that, how do you think it will fare in the future? Well, let us talk about that before we let you go.

Root Beer and the Future

Today, as you might have noticed, root beer does not hold the top spot as the most preferred drink. It is one of the top favorites, but is undoubtedly not number 1.

However, there is no telling if it will snag the spot at some point in the future. Demand forecast says that there is a driving factor enough to push this drink far beyond where it is now. With that, all we can do is enjoy this drink and wait and see how far it can go.

Final Words

Why is root beer called root beer? Well, we answered that and so much more today in this mini root beer history lesson!

As you have seen today, root beer might be a simple drink, but it sure does have a complex history to tell. However, it is not the only drink that does. If you want to get to know the other ones and their history, feel free to check out our other talks!

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