Why Is It Called Root Beer?
Root beer is called root beer because sassafras oil is extracted from the bark of the sassafras tree’s roots. The name describes the source of the drink’s flavor. Thats it. Plain and simple.
The two dominant methods of making root beer were either by fermentation or by making soda syrup and then mixing it with soda water. Both methods seemed equally used, with neither being older or more authentic than the other. In the 1800s, soda water was expensive and hard to come by outside of soda fountains, so the fermentation method was more common for homemade root beer, and the syrup method was more common at soda fountains. The syrup method is also faster to produce, makes a more consistent product, and stores better than a fermented root beer, all qualities that would appeal to businesses. Fermented root beer is cheaper to make and something fun anyone with a few ingredients and time on their hands could make at home. This fermented part is most likely where the “beer” part of root beer came from.
Root Beer Vs. Sarsaparilla Vs. Sassafras Tea
After searching through many old recipe books for root beer and sarsaparilla and finding (for lack of a better word) colloquial examples of sassafras tea recipes handed down from grandparents, I think I have a rough idea of the differences between the 3.
For starters, root beer and sarsaparilla are not the same drink. For most of my life, I believed sarsaparilla was just 1800s cowboy talk for root beer, but they are, in fact, two different drinks. From the root beer and sarsaparilla recipes, I found the common difference was root beer tended to be sassafras, wintergreen, lemon, and a bitter herb flavor. In contrast, sarsaparilla generally was just sassafras and wintergreen. This drink evolved from medicinal sarsaparilla (Smilax Aristolochiifolia) extract, used as a “blood purifier.” Sarsaparilla extract is still sold today as a home remedy for joint pains, skin problems, etc. Wintergreen was often added for flavor but also as an anti-inflammatory. Somewhere along the line, real Sarsaparilla was dropped, and sassafras replaced it to make the drink. FYI. Real Sarsaparilla does not taste good. It’s very earthy and tastes like old wood, and is very tannin-y. Sassafras taste much better, and it makes more sense as a non-medical, everyday fun drink.
Unlike the others, Sassafras tea is much less involved and something done at home with its recipe handed down from generation to generation. It simply consisted of boiling the root bark in water to extract the flavor and adding sugar to the tea. It’s very good. Most homemade recipes extract the flavor by boiling the roots, while professional recipes use the essential oil of the sassafras bark.
The History Of Root Beer
Most sources will say Charles Hires invented root beer, but that’s not true. Hires was not the first to create root beer or even give it its name. He started that story to promote his business. In fact, the product Hires sold at the 1876 World’s Fair was called Root Tea. It was simply a bag of herbs and barks to make a root beer flavored tea. Hires tried to trademark the name Root Beer but was denied due to the term’s common use, but he was able to trademark “Hires Root Beer” with his last name attached. Hires then used the Coca-Cola method of prosecuting anyone who sold a “Hires Root Beer” without using hires syrup.
The way this worked is Hires would sell the syrup dispenser at a loss and then keep track of every pharmacy purchased one. Part of the legal agreement to own one was that it could only be used to dispense their syrup brand. Once a pharmacy stopped buying their syrup, someone would go to the pharmacy and casually ask for hires root beer, knowing they did not have any hires syrup. If the soda jerk provided them a root beer without saying it was not Hires or using the dispenser, they would sue the pharmacy for trademark infringement. Large soda companies used this to snuff out competition and monopolize the market effectively. This legacy can still be seen today with the server asking if a Pepsi or 7up is okay when a guest asks for a Coke or Sprite. Pepsi eventually found one way to overcome this was by buying entire restaurant brands. Pepsi bought Taco Bell and other restaurants just as a way to force it to sell Pepsi products only. Soda brands are weird, but back to root beer.
Despite this, other brands would emerge. Barq’s was invented in New Orleans in 1890, A&W in California in 1919, Dad’s in Chicago in 1937, IBC in Missouri in 1919, and Mug in San Francisco in 1940. The list goes on, but those are some of the major brands
About The Banned Ingredient Sassafras
I will preface this by saying Don’t consume sassafras oil as the FDA has deemed it unsafe to eat. Sassafras is a banned food ingredient in the United States. In addition, the sale of extracted sassafras root bark is illegal, too, because sassafras oil (safrole) is the primary ingredient in MDMA. Sassafras has been in Western diets since the 16th century. It was banned in the United States in the 1970s when MDMA/Ecstacy became a popular party drug. I forget where I found the research used to ban it, but the test was conducted by giving mice, rats, and dogs 1g of oil per kg of body mass every day for half the animal’s life. The animals were then impregnated. None, or very few, of the original mice developed cancer, and around 40 to 50% of the mice babies were born with cancer. That’s pretty high for in-utero cancer, but only mice had this issue. The rats and dogs did not develop cancer. To put that in perspective, a typical adult would have to drink almost 3 oz of pure safrole oil every day till our 40s, then get pregnant, and if this human also happens to be a mouse, then their child may be born with cancer. You would have to consume 900 to 1000 12 oz root beers a day, every day, to get 3 oz of safrole oil. The test summarized that the results were not great but ultimately inconclusive, and further testing was needed. Regardless, sassafras oil was banned from food and from being sold, and now sales of the raw bark are monitored by the DEA.
From what I gathered, owning and buying sassafras is still legal, but it is illegal to process, sell, or use it as an ingredient.
Substitutes For Sassafras
A good substitute for sassafras oil is star anise oil. Sassafras is slightly drier and spicier than star anise, and star anise has a warmer and sweeter flavor profile than sassafras. But star anise is a near-perfect substitute, flavor-wise, for sassafras. The flavors are 85% the same, and that’s good enough for the final product. I could not taste the difference between root beer made with sassafras and one made with star anise. Maybe a more familiar root beer connoisseur would notice which was which.
- 1849 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Volume 40
- 1891 The Manufacture of Aerated Beverages, Cordials, Etc – Stevenson & Howell
- 1892 Soda Fountain Beverages – G.H. Dubelle
- 1913 Some Advertising Reminiscences – C. Hires
- DEA Website on Sassafras