By Susan Verberg
It’s well known that root beer is a sweet, alcohol-free soda, but did you know its “roots” are unique to America?
I decided to explore what exactly makes root beer a root beer and if there are actually any “roots” in there at all!
The Origins of Root Beer
Indigenous peoples in the Americas have long been using sassafras and sarsaparilla—the central ingredients to root beer—for culinary and medicinal purposes, including infused beverages. In fact, botanical infusions have existed around the world for nearly as long as the ability to heat water with fire for things like tea and tinsane. But as the two ingredients most closely associated with modern root beer are North American sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and South American sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.), root beer is genuinely made up of uniquely American flavors.
When Europeans encountered these “new” ingredients, they were quickly assimilated into European culinary culture in America and exported back to Europe. Over time, this included the evolution of the sweet, alcohol-free root beer soda of today. However, the unique flavors of sassafras and sarsaparilla did not see the same enduring popularity in Europe and today remain little-known to many Europeans.
What are Sassafras and Sarsparilla?
True sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.) is a tropical woody vine that grows deep in the canopy of the rainforest. It is native to South America, the West Indies, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Honduras, and Mexico, where the Spaniards encountered the plant and introduced it to Europe in the 16th century. There are various species of sarsaparilla, all valued by the natives for their medicinal qualities. The ground cover wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) of the northeast is not related to Smilax sarsaparilla but has similar flavoring. Its aromatic rhizomes can be used as a substitute for true sarsaparilla (explaining how it got its name).
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) was a well-known plant to the natives of the southwestern United States long before the Europeans arrived. It had many uses, including cooking (to flavor bear fat and cure meat) and medicinal purposes. European interest in sassafras brought colonists into closer contact with the Native Americans during the early years of colonization in 16th and 17th century Florida, Virginia, and parts of the northeast. Early European colonizers enjoyed the aromatic scent of sassafras, and legend has it that Christopher Columbus found land from the smell of sassafras.
The Growing Popularity—and Near-Extinction–of Sassafras
When the English first arrived on the coast of the northeast, sassafras trees were reported as plentiful. Sassafras bark was sold in England and continental Europe. It was made into a dark beverage called ‘saloop’ that was touted to have medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for various ailments. This refreshing beverage was sold in place of tea and coffee, which were much more expensive, and served similarly with milk and sugar.
Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest to bring sassafras to England in 1586, and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to export sassafras in 1602 commercially. Since the bark was the most commercially valued part of the sassafras plant—due to large concentrations of the aromatic safrole oil—the trees were stripped of their bark, which kills the tree. As significant amounts of sassafras bark were harvested, supplies quickly diminished, and sassafras became more challenging to find. In 1602, one of the first commercial shipments of sassafras weighed a ton, but by 1626 the English colonists failed to meet their 30-pound quota. The Europeans had drunk the beverage—and its central ingredients—nearly to extinction.
Martin Pring of Bristol, England, sailed off the coastline of New England and down the Piscataqua River in 1603 in search of sassafras:
“In all these places we found no people, but signs of fires where they had been. However, we beheld very goodly droves and woods replenished with tall oaks, beeches, pine trees, fir trees, hazels, witch-hazels and maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of beasts, as stags, deer, bears, wolves, foxes, and dogs with sharp noses [coyotes]. But meeting with no sassafras, we left these places with all the aforesaid islands, shaping our course for Savage Rocke discovered the year before by Captain Gosnold, where going upon the Mayne we found people, with whom we had no long conversation, because here also we could find no sassafras. […] Bancroft, following Belknap, identifies Whitson’s Bay with the harbor of Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, […] and finding a pleasant Hill thereunto adjoining, we called it Mount Aldworth, for Master Robert Aldworths’ sake as a chief investor in the voyage, with his purse as with his travel. Here we had sufficient quantities of sassafras.”
The Origins of Root Beer Production
The tradition of brewing, or fermenting, root beer is thought to have evolved out of other European small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with low alcohol content. These were considered healthier to drink than possibly tainted local drinking water sources and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used. Initially, root beverages were one of many low-alcohol options in colonial America that were thought to be safer to drink than the often-polluted surface water and healthier due to the addition of medicinal (-ish) herbs.
Then the 19th century came around with pharmacists attempting to create a “cure-all” for whatever ails you, and medicinal root concoctions, which also tasted incredible, found a new image. Many popular sodas today have their roots in such an attempt, as does root beer. And while root beverages had been around for centuries, 19th-century pharmacist Charles Hines is credited as the inventor as he came up with the first marketable recipe. First, he sold packages of dry root tea in his store and later developed a liquid concentrate called “Hires Root Tea,” as it was brewed like tea. The word “root” indicated the sassafras root, which was the main ingredient of Hines’ recipe. Then the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 came around, and likely to appeal to the working-class, Hines changed the name from root tea to root beer. And the rest is history.
As a side note, in 1960, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned real sassafras in commercial root beer as safrole in (unrealistic) high amounts was found to be carcinogenic. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and basil also contain safrole, but that was not an issue. Not all that surprising, recent research indicates safrole in small amounts may play a protective role in human cancers. With a flavor strikingly similar to sassafras, wintergreen—already an ingredient in root beer—made a ready replacement. Today, most root beers contain neither sassafras nor wintergreen, as it is not very shelf-stable. Now, they are typically made with artificial flavors instead.
Modern root beer is made as a syrup that is then diluted and either force-carbonated or lightly fermented to add the sparkle. If you do not mind artificial ingredients, it is very simple to make since rootbeer extract is available commercially. Just add some sugar and carbonation, and your brew is ready to chill. However, if you prefer to skip the artificial ingredients—and if you live in sassafras country (or source online)—by all means, make root beer syrup from scratch: you’ll never go back to store-bought root beer again!
Many herbs and spices are appropriate to use in your concoction, but remember that the signature taste of root beer comes from just a few. The other ingredients help to enhance the flavor, and the amounts can be tailored to your personal preference (or what happens to be in season in your backyard). Below are suggestions of different roots, herbs, and spices that work well in a root beer:
- allspice (Pimenta dioica)
- anise (Pimpinella anisum)
- anise, star (Illicium verum)
- barley (Hordeum vulgare; malted)
- birch, black (Betula nigra; sap/resin/bark, a source of “wintergreen”)
- birch, sweet (Betula lenta; sap/resin/bark)
- Burdock (Arctium lappa; root)
- cherry, black (Prunus serotina; bark/resin)
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
- Cinnamon, cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum)
- cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
- coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
- dandelion (Taraxacum officinale; root)
- fennel (Foeniculum vulgare; seed)
- fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
- Fir, balsam (Abies balsamea)
- ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- hops (Humulus lupulus)
- Juniper (Juniperus communis; berries)
- licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- mint (Mentha sp.)
- nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
- root beer plant (Piper auritum)
- sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii, S. glyciphylla)
- Sarsaparilla, wild (Aralia nudicaulis)
- sassafras (Sassafras albidum; roots/bark)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin; bark, berries)
- spruce (Picea rubens, P. mariana, P. auritum)
- St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Tolu balsam (Myroxylon balsamum)
- wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens; leaves, berries)
I find it most rewarding if I can source my ingredients locally, especially from our backyard. My home borders state-protected wetlands with plenty of native plants to forage, including several we planted with the making of root beer in mind, like black birch and the root beer plant. I find fresh growth stronger than deep-summer harvested plants (be aware of spring spicebush leaves, their taste is overpowering).
My son quite enjoys our spring scavenging hunts in the backwoods: scraping birch bark, spotting black cherry resin globs, digging up dandelions, to then crush everything we found with our large stone mortar and pestle and simmer the concoction on the woodstove. It is an excellent youth-adult project! It sure feels magical turning sticks & stones, so to speak, into an enjoyable brew with such infinite possibilities! As Sir Kenelm Digby so aptly advised, in his renaissance brewing cornucopia: “You may use what Herbs or Roots you please, either for their taste or [their] virtue.”
Homemade Root Beer Recipe
The making of root beer is pretty simple, with first the simmering of the herbal ingredients to make a simple tisane to which sugar is added to create a flavored syrup. This syrup can be refrigerated for up to a year.
Root Beer Ingredients
- 4-6 cups of water
- 1 cup fresh sassafras roots (about 3.5 feet of ¼-inch roots, chopped in ½-inch pieces; can mix in some bark but stay heavy on the roots). OR ½ cup dried sassafras roots OR ¼ cup sassafras AND ¼ cup sarsaparilla
- ½ cup finely chopped burdock root and/or dandelion root
- 1-2 cloves
- 1 star anise OR ½ tsp anise seeds OR ½ tsp fennel seeds OR 1 tsp licorice root
- 1 tsp coriander seeds OR 4 crushed allspice berries OR 6 crushed spicebush berries
- ½ cinnamon stick OR ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- extra-strength: 2 drops of wintergreen OR peppermint extract
- ¼ cup light molasses
- 6 cups of cane sugar (equal amount to the volume of the tisane)
- 2 quarts of (carbonated) soda water OR a pinch of yeast
- Fine metal sieve or cheesecloth and funnel
- mason jars and lids (for the extract)
- flip-top bottles (for the root beer)
Making the Syrup
- Chop any fresh and dried roots, twigs and leaves into half inch pieces. Add these, and your choice of spices, to a medium-sized pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes – add a lid to minimize evaporation.
- Add the molasses and simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it cool. If you want to use an extract, add it now (return the lid).
- When cool enough to handle, strain out the solids.
- Add the sugar, stir well to dissolve. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, uncovered.
- Pour the syrup into mason jars and seal. Refrigerate until use.
Making the Root Beer
The easy way: add 1-2 tablespoons of syrup to a normal glass and dilute with soda water/seltzer.
The fun way: add a ¼ cup of syrup (or more, to taste) to a flip-top bottle, dissolve with non-chlorinated warm (around 98° F) water, and sprinkle a small pinch of bread yeast on top. Close well, and keep at room temperature (70-80° F) until there are visible fermentation bubbles going up the sides of the bottle. Then immediately refrigerate to slow down fermentation, which in turn is pressurizing the bottle.
Home fermented soda is notorious for being over-carbonated: this can be avoided by not over-using yeast, by filling the bottle with at the most an inch of headroom, and by chilling rapidly, and in time. Fermented root beer stores well in the fridge, and will often age nicely, but also can become slightly alcoholic. Keep an eye on the brew if it’s shared with the kids!
About the Author
Susan Verberg lives with her family, furry and human, on a small homestead in upstate New York. She enjoys growing European variety fruits for fermentation, especially wild ferments, in summer and researching traditional meads and herbal beers in winter. She enjoys sharing her exploits in mainstream homesteading magazines, as well as the occasional medieval brewing-oriented academic journal. Visit her website to learn more: medievalmeadandbeer.wordpress.com/
- Cummings, Kate. Sassafras Tea: Using a Traditional Method of Preparation to Reduce the Carcinogenic Compound Safrole. All Theses 1345, 2012. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_theses/1345
- Dietz, Birgit and Judy L. Bolton. Botanical Dietary Supplements Gone Bad. Chem Res Toxicol. 2007 Apr; 20(4): pp. 586–590. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2504026/
- Digby. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened by Kenelm Digby. Brome, 1669. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16441
- Gibbons, T. G. Sarsaprilla; a short account of its introduction into Europe; … its medical virtues, etc. 1871 (p. 3) https://books.google.com/books?id=c8QN2oaqyy0C&dq=introduction+of+saraspirilla+into+europe+from+mexico&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Pring, Martin. The Voyage of Martin Pring, 1603. Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906. Pp. 343-352 (p. 346-47). http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/aj/id/2523