Neighborhood Burgers offers 40+ root beers, sarsaparillas and birch beers on stock in our Root Beer Alley cooler. Enjoy a traditional choice like Henry Weinhard’s, Dad's, or Frostie, a can't miss like Boylans, or something flavorfully unique like Craft. And add some soft serve ice cream for a great root beer float!



​A GUIDE TO ROOT BEER


Root beer is a dark sweet beverage traditionally made using the root or bark of the tree sassafras albidum (sassafras) as the primary flavor. Root beer may be alcoholic or non-alcoholic, and may be carbonated or non-carbonated. Modern, commercially produced root beer is generally sweet, foamy, carbonated, and non-alcoholic, and is flavored using artificial sassafras. Root beer does not naturally contain caffeine, although some brands add it (e.g., Barq’s).

Sarsaparilla is a soft drink, originally made from the smilax ornata plant, but now sometimes made with artificial flavors. Many consider sarsaparilla to be root beer since it’s usually flavored with sassafras.

Birch beer in its most common form is a carbonated soft drink made from herbal extracts, usually from birch bark (although in the colonial era, birch beer was made with herbal extracts of oak bark). It has a taste similar to root beer.

HISTORY

Sassafras root beverages were made by Native Americans for culinary and medicinal reasons before the arrival of Europeans in North America. Sassafras-based beverages similar to root beer have been documented in different forms since the mid 1800’s for medicinal and nutritional qualities.

Pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires was the first to successfully market a commercial brand of root beer. Hires discovered his root tea made from sassafras in 1875 and debuted a commercial version of root beer at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Hires was a teetotaler (someone who abstains from alcoholic beverages) 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 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. Sassafras is no longer used in commercially produced root beer and is substituted with artificial flavors.

Root beer is a beverage almost exclusive to North America, yet there are a few brands produced in other countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand. The flavor of these beverages often varies from typical North American versions. 

FLAVORS

While there is no standard recipe, the primary ingredients in modern root beer are sugar and artificial sassafras flavoring, which complement other flavors. Common flavorings are vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, cinnamon, and honey. Soybean protein is sometimes used to create a foamy quality, and caramel coloring is used to make the beverage brown.

  • Anise: Provides a licorice flavor (pronounced “ann-iss”)
  • Birch oil: Provides a flavor similar to teaberry
  • Sarsaparilla: Provides a bitter flavor 
  • Sassafras: Provides the basic root beer flavor and a deep, bitter flavor
  • Vanilla (Bourbon or Tahitian): Provides a creaminess flavor
  • Wintergreen: Provides a minty flavor

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root beer.