Root Beer's Interesting Origins

Brown glass bottle of root beer with background view of city skyline at dusk

Root beer is one of those products that seems to have one foot planted firmly in the present and one planted stubbornly in the past. The whole idea of root beer just seems so barbershop quartet that it’s hard to comprehend how it’s survived into an age of AI, space exploration and natural sodas. But it has. Somehow, some way root beer has managed to thrive when most other beverages familiar to Victorians have faded from the scene. But where exactly did root beer come from? And what is it about this beverage so many people find so appealing? In this post, the team who make Rocky Mountain Root Beer vegan and kosher soda set out to answer those questions.

The Ancient Roots of Root Beer

Root beer can trace its origins back some 7,000 years. That’s right, 7,000 years. At that time a crude version of the drink that more closely resembled beer than any kind of soft drink was being consumed by people in what is now Eastern Europe as well as parts of the Middle East, including pre-pharaonic Egypt.

Over time this beverage, along with other types of homebrew, began to spread in popularity among the emerging tribes of Central and Western Europe. As the centuries passed the various incarnations of beer became more clearly defined and began to carve out niches for themselves among the markets of the day.

Into the Middle Ages

Change happened slowly in the ancient world. So slowly that someone from the time of the Trojan Wars would no doubt recognize the brew being crafted by monasteries and by feudal lords during the Middle Ages, 2,000 years later.

One huge difference between the world of ancient Troy and that of the Middle Ages in Europe, however, was the sheer number of people. These proto-modern cities were growing by leaps and bounds. And as they grew city planners often had a difficult time keeping up. As a result urban sanitation standards during the 15th, and 16th centuries were often appalling.

In order to fend off deadly health problems caused by drinking contaminated water the Europeans of the day turned to their local brewers for a safer way to satisfy their thirst. In response, and for the first time in thousands of years, local brewers began to diversify their product offerings.

This is when the first lower-alcohol beers began to appear for those who didn't want to be drunk all day. It's also when what we would now recognize as early root beer first began to split off from its straight-up beer roots.

An Old Drink for a New World

In the late 15th century Europeans first became aware that the world consisted of more than Europe, Asia and Africa. As word of the “new world” spread people who had suffered much under the European feudal system and system of religious persecution took their chances and shuffled onto wooden ships for the perilous journey across the ocean. These pioneers brought with them an appreciation for wine and beer and many set up breweries within their tiny communities.

The problem is they lacked the proper ingredients to make proper beer. So they reached back in time to recipes that relied less on things like hops and more on plant roots (including sassafras root) and tree bark. It was around this time in the 16th century that the term "root beer" first began to appear in diaries and official documents.

Purging the Alcohol

This root beer offshoot of traditional beer became wildly popular, but many community leaders were concerned about the effects of alcohol intoxication on community members. The problem was that the fermentation process which was necessary to create the carbonation also produced alcohol, and while attempts had been repeatedly made to reduce the alcohol content of various beer types none had been completely successful.

Finally in the late 18th century, a breakthrough. Joseph Priestley, a British doctor, invented carbonated water. Suddenly fermentation was no longer necessary to produce a tasty carbonated beverage and root beer makers were among the first to adopt the new invention to create an alcohol-free drink.

The Modern Beverage

Like most people who helped to create the modern soft drink industry Charles Hire was a pharmacist. He lived and worked in Philadelphia during the 2nd half of the 19th century and early 20th century. While on his honeymoon Hires and his new wife were staying at a hotel in New Jersey where they were served something called “root tea”.

Hires was smitten by the taste and obtained the recipe from a cooperative hotel employee. Turns out the recipe for root tea was actually an old recipe for root beer. Hire sold his slightly tweaked version of the recipe as pre-mixed packets that were to be mixed with water.

Eventually Hires dropped the packet idea and started mixing his ingredients directly with carbonated water and selling the resulting beverage under the name “Hires Root Beer”. He chose to revert to the name root beer and drop root tea because he believed root beer would have wider appeal to the working class.

Try Our Rocky Mountain Root Beer Natural Soda

Root beer has been around in one form or another for thousands of years and remains an incredibly popular soft drink worldwide. If you like your soft drinks to be eco-friendly, gluten free, vegan, kosher and have no GMOs, try our Rocky Mountain Root Beer.