We often get asked why it’s called “root beer.” Over the years, I have also heard many replies, rumours, and myths as to where it got its name. The main theme being that it is descended from a herbal remedy with magical powers to cure ailments.
Well, there is an element of truth in this. Food historians say that the first rendition of root beer was actually referred to as “small beer.” Shakespeare even mentions it. Likewise, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington also enjoyed small beer, sometimes even with breakfast. The small beer recipe varied over time but was always a fermented tea brewed with bark, berries, and herbs. This tipple was widely popular in medieval Europe because water pollution was so common and made people sick.
From there, it became the task of many 19th century pharmacists to develop a miracle “cure-all” drug. In fact, many of the soda brands available today began with these attempts, including Coca-Cola. Some food historians believe that root beer was among these attempts as it was offered as a syrup to accompany their cordial. It most likely tasted much like the cough syrup of today.
Charles Hires is credited as the creator of root beer, although many varieties existed at the time. However, he actually sold dry packages of the tea mixture to consumers in his drug store. Then, he came up with a liquid concentrate that people could mix in their water. It was called Hires Root Tea.
Fast forward to 1919, Roy W Allen honoured the war veterans’ homecoming parade with a root beer stall in Lodi, California. He used a recipe from a local pharmacist and it was very successful. He went on to open an additional five market stalls. In an intelligent business move, he soon partnered with Frank Wright and they together opened a chain of franchised restaurants. Using their initials, A&W Root Beer was born.
Their franchise grew to 170 different restaurants and one was owned by Alice and John Marriott. Based on the success of the restaurant, they opened the Marriott Hotel next door. Suffice to say, business boomed.
Nowadays, root beer is enjoyed by the masses for is sweet and rich flavour. In addition to its vibrant history, it also has an interesting present. Root beer can come alcoholic or non-alcoholic, carbonated or not, or even paired with ice cream for a delicious root beer float.