This Is Where The Flavor Of Root Beer Comes From

Root beer is a classic American invention, distinctively sweet and served in an icy cold mug or as a delicious float, but it might surprise you that the earliest purpose of this brew was as medicinal tea created by the Native Americans, as Jillian Burrows writes at Medium. Over the years, the drink has evolved and been adapted. Fast forward to the 19th century and, per Voice of America, pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires created a dry version of this drink he originally called root tea. He wasn't the first to make it, but he was the first to produce and market it nationally.

His dry mixture had to be combined with other ingredients like yeast, and then was whipped up into a carbonated beverage. At the urging of a friend, Hires made it into a liquid extract derived from various berries and roots, and he introduced it to a much larger audience in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial. It was a huge success and the rest is history. Hires turned root beer into the commercial beverage we enjoy today.

Equally surprising about this beverage's origin is that there isn't a specific recipe for root beer. Makers of this drink kind of do their own thing (via Thought Co). Though each brand is unique, what is the common ingredient that gives root beer its distinctive flavor?

Sassafras and sarsaparilla give root beer its flavor

Christopher Cruise of the Voice of America noted during an interview, "... Some root beers taste like bubble gum or medicine. This helps explain why not everyone likes root beer. There was even a scene about that in the movie Big Fan." But what is it that makes root beer taste, well, like root beer? According to McGill Office for Science and Society, sassafras and sarsaparilla are the two root ingredients that are primarily responsible for root beer's iconic flavor — or were.

Sassafras was pulled from root beer's magical formula and list of ingredients due to studies in the 1960s that showed safrole, which is found in both sassafras and sarsaparilla, can cause cancer in rats. Most modern root beers are flavored with an artificial sassafras instead.

Each company's recipe for this drink is unique. According to Difford's Guide, today's root beers might include flavors like vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice, sarsaparilla, nutmeg, anise, ginger, and dandelion, all combined to various degrees with the goal of making the taste pop. Brands like A&W, Barqs, Dad's, and IBC are among some of the most popular, reports Barstool Sports.  But, if you have a hankering for this childhood favorite, you can also visit David Fankhauser's blog and try your hand at making it yourself.