Root beer has its origins in what is referred to as small beers. Small beers are a collection of local beverages (some alcoholic, some not) made during colonial times in America from a variety of herbs, barks, and roots that commonly included: birch beer, sarsparilla beer, ginger beer and root beer.
Ingredients in early root beers included allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, hops, burdock root, dandelion root, spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, sarsaparilla, spicewood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root*, vanilla beans, hops, dog grass, molasses and licorice.
Many of the above ingredients are still used in root beer today along with added carbonation. There is no one recipe.
Charles Hires was a Philadelphia pharmacist who according to his biography discovered a recipe for a delicious herbal tea while on his honeymoon. The pharmacist began selling a dry version of the tea mixture and also began working on a liquid version of the same tea. The result of was a combination of over twenty-five herbs, berries and roots that Charles Hires used to flavor a carbonated soda water drink. The Charles Hires’ version of a root beer beverage was first introduced to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition.
The Hires family continued to manufacture root beer and in 1893 first sold and distributed bottled root beer. Charles Hires and his family certainly contributed greatly to the popularity of modern root beer, however, the origins of root beer can be traced further back in history.
Another famous brand of root beer is A & W Root Beer, now the number one selling root beer in the world. A & W Root Beer was founded by Roy Allen, who began marketing root beer in 1919.
*In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras as a potential carcinogen, however, a method was found to remove the oil from sassafras. Only the oil is considered dangerous. Sassafras is one of the main ingredients in root beer.