Root beer is one of those iconic drinks that we all seem to know, but none of us actually understand what it is. We know that it’s sweet and bubbly, and that it tastes fantastic with ice cream, but few of us can actually list the ingredients.
The carbonated beverage that we all enjoy today is pretty different from its original roots – pun intended. Because the “root” in “root beer” comes from sassafras, a now banned plant.
And while root beer is often served in large glasses with the foamy head of a good beer, the “beer” in “root beer” doesn’t actually come from beer.
So, if that’s everything that root beer isn’t, you might be confused about what root beer is. In this guide, we cover exactly what makes root beer great (and what you’re getting when you order root beer in Australia).
What Exactly Is Root Beer?
When you order a glass of root beer, you’ll be served a sweet, carbonated beverage, with a lot of foam and no alcohol.
What you won’t be ordering is any roots. Classic root beer was made from sassafras root, which is now a banned substance. Modern, commercially produced root beers are now made with artificial flavorings, designed to mimic the taste of sassafras.
This flavoring has been developed through many years of experimentation so you can get the delicious drink we all love, with none of the sassafras side effects.
Where Did Root Beer Come From?
Root beer actually has a fairly long history. Long before America was colonized, an early version of root beer was already being brewed by Native Americans. They used the root of the sassafras to make drinks, and it was also used in cooking.
When the Europeans came, they observed the ways that Native Americans used this unusual root. They then applied their own methods of brewing, to create new drinks using the sassafras plant.
Part of this brewing process is thought to link back to Medieval Europe, when people brewed beer as a healthy drinking option.
Although it may seem strange to us, back then beer was healthier than water. Fresh water would often contain parasites and other diseases that could make people badly ill when drunk.
It’s suspected that this version of root beer developed from similar fermentation methods that created other types of small beer. These low alcohol, aromatic drinks were very popular.
Both the Native Americans and the European settlers were aware of the medicinal properties of sassafras. Early versions of root beer have been sold in stores since the 1840s, although these were often in syrup form. The root syrup would be added to soda, creating a drink.
Root beer came along, perhaps unsurprisingly, thanks to a teetotaler. Pharmacist Charles Hires developed a root tea using sassafras, which he intended to sell. With an audience of Pennsylvania coal miners to please, he decided “root beer” was a better name than “root tea”.
By 1893, root beer was widely distributed across the United States.
So, a thick syrup mixed with soda created the frothy and sweet drink we love today.
The Traditional Way Of Making Root Beer
Early recipes for root beer date back to the 1860s. Many people would have their own version of the recipe, making root beer to suit their families tastes.
A traditional method for brewing root beer involves heating a syrup made of water and molasses. Once the syrup had formed, it would be left to cool for several hours. Then the root ingredients would need to be added.
This could be sassafras root, sassafras bark, and wintergreens. Other recipes might include juniper, licorice, and vanilla. The sassafras bark would give the beer its distinct foam appearance. Yeast would also be added, and everything would be left to ferment for 12 hours.
After this, the drink would be strained, bottled, and left to ferment again.
This root beer would be a fair bit different from what we drink today, but a lot of the key features were there, including the iconic foam. Root beer brewed to this recipe would have a small alcohol content, around about 2%. The alcohol could be adjusted for your own personal taste.
What Are The Ingredients Of Root Beer?
Just like in the olden days, no two recipes for root beer are the same. Root beer is brewed commercially across the globe, and each company – or family – will have their own, unique version.
There is one ingredient you certainly won’t find in root beer – the sassafras root. While this was once a primary ingredient, it was outlawed in America in the 1960s,
Without the sassafras root, manufacturers had to look for new ways to recreate the flavor. Artificial sassafras is one way to do it, but you may also find vanilla, nutmeg, cherry tree bark, cinnamon, or anise, as well as traditional flavorings like licorice root, wintergreen, sweet birch, and honey.
Another thing you won’t actually find in root beer – beer. While early varieties would be heavily fermented and often fortified with ethanol, modern root beer is generally alcohol-free (or with an incredibly low alcohol content).
Root Beer, Sarsaparilla, And Birch Beer: What’s The Difference?
It’s easy to assume that root beer, sarsaparilla, and birch beer are all different names for the same thing. They all have a similar consistency, and they all feature a similar version of that sweet and aromatic taste.
As there can be variety in recipe for each individual drink, it’s easy to understand why so many think of them as the exact same thing.
So, you might be surprised to learn that there are differences.
Sarsaparilla the drink is brewed using sarsaparilla, the root. It tends to have quite a licorice flavor, which is often complemented using anise. Compared to root beer, sarsaparilla has a limited ingredient list.
Root beer does often use sarsaparilla for flavoring, but the primary taste used to come from sassafras root. Nowadays, sarsaparilla is one of multiple ingredients used to give root beer its sassafras-like flavor.
Birch beer may have a similar taste, but the ingredient list is very different. As you may have guessed from the name, birch beer uses the birch tree for flavoring.
Root Beer In Australia
So, if that’s the basics of root beer, what can you expect to get when you order it in Australia?
What Do You Get When You Order Root Beer In Australia?
If you’re spending time in Australia, you may have noticed bottles of Bundaberg are sold everywhere. The distinctive dark bottle and bright orange label is almost synonymous with root beer down under.
It’s everything you want in a root beer: sweet and aromatic, with a good head of thick foam.
Bundaberg also sells sarsaparilla, but it’s made from the same recipe as the root beer. A complex brewing process and top quality ingredients gives this sarsaparilla its unique depth.
Can You Get Drunk Off Root Beer?
As long as you buy the right root beer! Not all root beer is alcoholic, but some of it is – although, often with a lower alcohol content. Root beer also makes a good mixer. Try it with bourbon or rum.