The history of root beer & popular brands: From healing tonic to a favorite soda

The history of root beer and popular brands at ClickAmericana com

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Who would’ve thought humble roots, herbs, and bark could spin such an effervescent tale? The history of root beer is both intriguing and surprising — a story steeped in indigenous medicinal origins that bubbled its way into popular culture.

Here, we have a couple of vintage articles originally published back in the 1960s that take us for a trip through root beer’s history (and one even includes a traditional recipe for brewing root beer at home).

The journey of root beer — from a North American indigenous tribal tea to pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires’ first national soda brand— highlights a legacy of innovation and tenacity. Here’s a look!

Antique root beer ads from the 1800s at Click Americana
Antique root beer ads from the 1800s

The history of root beer is as American… as root beer

Adapted from the Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) August 20, 1966

With the variety of canned and bottled drinks available almost anywhere, it is surprising that homemade root beer has survived so far into the coin machine era. What old-timer doesn’t remember the refreshing experience of having the a few bottles of root beer, cold from the cellar, in the hayfield on a hot summer day?

“As American as root beer” might be more appropriate than the apple pie expression.

Vintage Frostop Root Beer sign outside a restaurant at ClickAmericana com
The Frostop mug advertising sign outside “The Drive In” in Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Carol Highsmith/LOC

Root beer from an old farm recipe

It was just a century ago that a young Philadelphia pharmacist, Charles E. Hires, persuaded a farm boarding house operator to let him have her family recipe for the delicious herb tea she served him and his bride on their honeymoon.

Antique Hires Rootbeer ad from 1896 at ClickAmericana com
Antique Hires Rootbeer ad from 1896

Back in his drugstore, he later produced a powdered extract, which he undertook to sell under the name of “Hires Herb Tea.” Sales were slow until the pharmacist was persuaded to give the brew the more robust name of “beer.”

A sampling fountain at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 launched “Hires Root Beer” as the first nationally distributed brand name soft drink.

Hires Root Beer ad from 1919 at ClickAmericana com
Hires Root Beer ad from 1919: “The natural flavor of real root juices makes Hires more delicious than imitation root beers”

Basic plus variations

Although ingredients varied from place to place, homemade root beers usually contained basic black birch, wintergreen, sassafras, and sarsaparilla. Some home recipes also called for hemlock tips, spice wood bark, licorice, dandelion, dock roots, coriander, Jamaica ginger, bayberry leaves, hops, and winged seeds of the water ash. Beet tops, molasses, honey, or maple syrup provided sweetening.

Barq's Root Beer ad from 1955

The basic root beer recipe remains close to the original. Most companies use black birch essence, ginger bark, vanilla beans, hops, and “undisclosed root extracts” plus artificial flavors. A modern casualty is sassafras, which the Food & Drug Administration has ruled out because of medicinal qualities.

Retro 50s Richardson Root Beer at ClickAmericana com
Retro 50s Richardson Root Beer

Root beer history: A favorite since colonial days

By Lynn Forbish – Janesville Daily Gazette (Wisconsin) June 17, 1968

Ice up the time for root beer! Accompanying the arrival of warm weather is its constant companion: thirsty throat. And a sure bet for a quick quench is a tall, tasty root beer.

Root beer has been popular since the seventeenth century, when the early colonists who settled in New England devised their own brews of barks, roots, herbs, and berries that were found in the new land. Some of these brewed drinks resulted in spruce beer, nettle beer, meads, ginger beer, sarsaparilla, and root beer.

Ted's Creamy Root Beer (Ted Williams)
Vintage 60s ad for Ted’s Creamy Root Beer (with baseball star Ted Williams)

What is root beer made of?

Their new type of drink — root beer — was made mainly from sassafras root, birch twigs, and licorice root. These natural products were thought to have medicinal qualities and prescribed by so-called medical botanists as tonics.

See how vintage drugstores 100 years ago sold lots of things you can't (legally) buy anymore

The carbonation was formed by the natural fermenting of sugar with the aid of yeast. Oil of sassafras and oil of wintergreen were first used for flavor, burnt sugar or molasses added color, and the foaming quality coming from licorice root.

Vintage Hires Root Beer (1931) at ClickAmericana com
Vintage Hires Root Beer (1931)

Traditional root beer ingredients

A young Philadelphia pharmacist gave root beer its name in 1860, because he believed beer was masculine, and would have a greater appeal to men than tea.

Vintage Ol'Smoothie Root Beer at ClickAmericana com

Recipe for homemade root beer

A typical early recipe for making root beer at home was: 3 gallons of molasses mixed with 10 gallons of boiling water, which is let stand for two hours; then add to this mixture 1-1/2 pounds powdered or bruised sassafras bark, 1/2 pound wintergreen leaves, 1-1/2 pounds sarsaparilla root, 1 pint yeast, and enough water to make 50 gallons. This mixture was fermented for 12 hours and bottled.

Hires Root Beer (1959) at ClickAmericana com

Root beer was known to colonists as a “temperance drink” in its early days, but occasionally the mixture fermented longer, after which the “temperance drink” contained percentages of alcohol ranging up to 20 percent!

With the advent of mass production, root beer was adapted to meet the demands of more and more consumers. A heavy syrup was developed from the leaves, roots, and oils, resulting in a high concentration of flavor which could be mixed with dilutants.

Mason's Old-Fashioned Root Beer (1950) at ClickAmericana com
Mason’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer (1950)

Old root beer bottler formed in 1856

This syrup was bottled in gallon containers and sent to major bottling companies where the root beer extract could be mixed with other liquids to be bottled and eventually distributed to thirsty consumers. Gray’s Beverages of Wisconsin, one of these bottlers, claims to be the oldest bottler in history, since the company was organized in 1856.

Don’t miss! Bubble Up lemon-lime soda: The old soft drink with a surprisingly long history

Old Tower Root Beer sign

At the Gray company, the extract is mixed with liquid sugar and carbonated water, bottled, and distributed within a 25-mile radius of Janesville. A stainless steel tank, holding 4,000 pounds of liquid sugar, is kept sterile by lamps that kill any bacteria.

Bob's Root Beer sign, Fallon, Nevada (Photo by John Margolies/LOC)
Bob’s Root Beer sign, Fallon, Nevada (Photo by John Margolies/LOC)

Once the bottling process has begun at Gray’s, the liquid is never touched by human hands. The sugar liquid is pumped to smaller tanks and measured accurately by a meter. Water, which will be mixed with the sugar and extract, is processed in giant water treaters to remove hardness and impurities.

The three liquids join at a filler where amounts are automatically measured and dropped into each bottle. Water is kept at an even 33 degrees to make the carbonation suspend, allowing no foam or liquid to run out of the bottle.

See more: 1950s orange soft drinks & sodas, including old Bireley’s & Crush bottles

Bob Hope for Hires Root Beer (1961) at ClickAmericana com
Bob Hope for Hires Root Beer (1961)

The bottles have been previously washed, sterilized, and rinsed with hot and cold water to remove any residue that might settle on them. After washing, the bottles pass through an inspection glass which magnifies them many times to show cracks or chips.

When the bottles are filled, they are automatically capped and tumbled by a machine to mix and distribute the liquids, as the extract is heavier than the water. The full bottles accumulate for one final inspection before they are loaded into cases.

Gray’s processes about 700 cases of root beer a day. Root beer has been ready-mixed in bottles as we know it today since 1936.

RICHardson’s root beer (1954)

RICHardson's root beer (1954) at ClickAmericana com

“That’s my pop”: Dad’s Root Beer (1969)

Dad's Root Beer (1969)

1970s: Hires root beer is number one

Hires root beer

Hires and ice cream by any other name would still be delicious (1972)

  • Super Soda.
  • Hires Root Beer Float.
  • Hires and Ice Cream.
  • Black Cow.
  • Boston Cooler.
  • Hires Root Beer Soda.
  • Black and White.

Everyone knows what an irresistible treat Hires and ice cream make, so everyone has a special name for this refreshing, all-time favorite.

Call it what you will, but it calls for the great taste of Hires Root Beer to make the combination even tastier. Hires… honest root beer, made from honest-to-goodness great-tasting ingredients. Enjoy some ice cream before another day goes by!

It’s high time for Hires… the honest root beer.

Black Cow, Boston Cooler Hires Root Beer Floats (1972)

MORE: 7-Up float: Combine Seven-Up soda & ice cream for a truly retro treat

Cooling off with an old-fashioned root beer float

The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California) July 17, 1974

Sacramento today celebrates an anniversary of dubious distinction. The hottest day in the city’s history was recorded on July 17. The year was 1925, before air conditioning. The temperature was 114 degrees. How did the people stand it?

“It’s been so long ago I can’t even remember it,” says Carrie Bettencourt, who observed her 81st birthday last Saturday. “But we had pleasant ways of relief from the heat.

“Corner root beer stands were popular in those days. The frosted glasses were so nice. I probably was like a lot of others who either walked or drove to a stand for a root beer float and then spent most of the evening on the front porch with a hand fan which many merchants gave to their customers in the old days.”

There was no legal way to cool off with a real beer. The repeal of Prohibition was still seven years away.

Old-fashioned root beer float
Photo by bhofack2/Envato

Retro Barrelhead draft-style root beer (1974)

Retro Barrelhead draft-style root beer (1974) at ClickAmericana com

A&W Root Beer cans (1980)

AW Root Beer cans (1980) at ClickAmericana com

Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer TV commercial (1980s)

YouTube video

John Goodman in a A&W ad before he was famous (1984)

YouTube video

Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn and Dad’s Root Beer promo (1981)

Orville Redenbacher's popcorn and Dad's Root Beer promo (1981)

1990s A&W Root Beer Spider-Man promo

1990s AW Root Beer Spider-Man promo at ClickAmericana com

Sugar Free A&W Root Beer (c1990s)

Sugar Free AW Root Beer (c1990s) at ClickAmericana com

7-Up history, plus find out the soda's (terrible) original name

Some of the most popular root beer brands

Here’s a list of some of the most popular root beer brands that were around  in the 20th century:

  • Hires Root Beer: Started in 1876
  • Barq’s: The brand started in 1898
  • A&W Root Beer: Brand debuted in 1919
  • IBC Root Beer: Started in 1919
  • Dad’s Root Beer: Brand started in 1937
  • Mug Root Beer: Sebuted in the 1940s
  • Sprecher Root Beer: Started in 1985

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I enjoyed your informative article on the origin of root beer and the role of Charles Hires in bringing this delicious treat to the American public. Your readers may be interested in my recent biography of this ingenious entrepreneur: “Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation” published by Temple University Press.

    Bill Double

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