Root beer is a sweet North American soft drink traditionally made using the root bark of the sassafras tree Sassafras albidum or the vine of Smilax ornata (known as sarsaparilla, also used to make a soft drink, sarsaparilla) as the primary flavor. Root beer is typically but not exclusively non-alcoholic, caffeine-free, sweet, and carbonated. Like beer, it usually has a thick and foamy head. A well-known use is to add vanilla ice cream to make a root beer float.
Since safrole, a key component of sassafras, was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960 due to its carcinogenicity, most commercial root beers have been flavored using artificial sassafras flavoring, but a few (e.g. Hansen's) use a safrole-free sassafras extract.
Sassafras root beverages were made by indigenous peoples of the Americas for culinary and medicinal reasons before the arrival of Europeans in North America. European culinary techniques have been applied to making traditional sassafras-based beverages similar to root beer since the 16th century.
Root beer has been sold in confectionery stores since the 1840s, and written recipes for root beer have been documented since the 1860s. It possibly was combined with soda as early as the 1850s, and root beer sold in stores was most often sold as a syrup rather than a ready-made beverage.
The tradition of brewing root beer is thought to have evolved out of other small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with very low alcohol content that were thought to be healthier to drink than possibly tainted local sources of drinking water, and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used.
Beyond its aromatic qualities, the medicinal benefits of sassafras were well known to both Native Americans and Europeans, and druggists began marketing root beer for its medicinal qualities.
Pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires was the first to successfully market a commercial brand of root beer. Hires developed his root tea made from sassafras in 1875, debuted a commercial version of root beer at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and began selling his extract. Hires was a teetotaler who wanted to call the beverage "root tea". However, his desire to market the product to Pennsylvania coal miners caused him to call his product "root beer", instead.
In 1886, Hires began to bottle a beverage made from his famous extract. By 1893, root beer was distributed widely across the United States. Non-alcoholic versions of root beer became commercially successful, especially during Prohibition.
Not all traditional or commercial root beers were sassafras-based. One of Hires's early competitors was Barq's, which began selling its sarsaparilla-based root beer in 1898 and was labeled simply as "Barq's".
In 1919, Roy Allen opened his root-beer stand in Lodi, California, which led to the development of A&W Root Beer. One of Allen's innovations was that he served his homemade root beer in cold, frosty mugs. IBC Root Beer is another brand of commercially-produced root beer that emerged during this period and is still well-known today.
Safrole, the aromatic oil found in sassafras roots and bark that gave traditional root beer its distinctive flavor, was banned for commercially mass-produced foods and drugs by the FDA in 1960. Laboratory animals that were given oral doses of sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contained large doses of safrole developed permanent liver damage or various types of cancer. While sassafras is no longer used in commercially produced root beer and is sometimes replaced with artificial flavors, natural extracts with the safrole distilled and removed are available.
One traditional recipe for making root beer involves cooking a syrup from molasses and water, letting the syrup cool for three hours, and combining it with the root ingredients (including sassafras root, sassafras bark, and wintergreen). Yeast was added, and the beverage was left to ferment for 12 hours, after which it was strained and rebottled for secondary fermentation. This recipe usually resulted in a beverage of 2% alcohol or less, although the recipe could be modified to produce a more alcoholic beverage.
Root beer is identified by its classic foam, appearing as white bubbles on the surface of the drink. Root beer was originally made partially with sassafras root bark (and sarsaparilla, etc) which naturally foamed, giving it its distinctive look. Root beer manufacturers initially carbonated the drink to add bubbles, later adding a surfactant to lower the surface tension and let the bubbles last longer. Different brands of root beer have slightly different foams, giving each a different identity.
Commercial root beer is now produced in Canada and every U.S. state. Although this beverage's popularity is greatest in North America, brands are produced and imported in other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Argentina, Germany, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Sweden, Vietnam, and Thailand. The flavor of these beverages may vary from typical North American versions, or be similar to those found in North America. While no standard recipe exists, the primary ingredients in modern root beer are filtered water, sugar, and safrole-free sassafras extract, which complements other flavors. Common flavorings are vanilla, caramel, wintergreen, black cherry bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, cinnamon, sweet birch, and honey. Soybean protein is sometimes used to create a foamy quality, and caramel coloring is used to make the beverage brown.
Ingredients in early and traditional root beers include allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, hops, burdock root, dandelion root, spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, sarsaparilla, spicewood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root, vanilla beans, dog grass, molasses and licorice. Many of these ingredients are still used in traditional and commercially produced root beer today, which is often thickened, foamed or carbonated.
Root beer can be made at home with processed extract obtained from a factory, or it can also be made from herbs and roots that have not yet been processed. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic traditional root beers make a thick and foamy head when poured, often enhanced by the addition of yuca extract, soybean protein, or other thickeners.
Alcoholic root beers produced in the 2000s have included Small Town Brewery's Not Your Father's Root Beer; Coney Island Brewing Co.'s hard root beer; and Best Damn Brewing Co.'s Best Damn Root Beer.