The Humble Origins Of A&W Root Beer

Root beer as we know it has been around since the 19th Century, when Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires stumbled upon a recipe for an extraordinary-tasting herbal tea while honeymooning in New Jersey. With the encouragement of his friend Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, Hires concocted a formula for a carbonated drink that would be more appealing to the masses. Hires showcased his new beverage at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia (via ThoughtCo). From that moment forward, root beer became a legend and a standalone soda category. And expectedly so, several followed in his footsteps.

Originally made with sassafras extract, the formula has changed quite a bit over time. And, as with colas, citrus-flavored sodas, and other varieties, no two root beers are created equally. Though typically similar in base notes and even aromas and colors, every brand prides itself on its distinctive taste, production process, and branding. Root beer, like other ubiquitous soda categories, has a unique flavor all its own, with bold or faint hints of vanilla, caramel, molasses, wintergreen, cherry, licorice, sarsaparilla, nutmeg, anise, ginger, and dandelion (via Difford's Guide).

One of the most famous root beer brands of all time is A&W. The iconic product was introduced to the world just over a century ago by two entrepreneurs by the names of Roy W. Allen and Frank Wright — the eponymous "A" and "W." So, what's their story?

A&W started as a roadside soda stand

Roy W. Allen, a hotelier, bought the rights to a root beer recipe from an Arizona pharmacist in 1919. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the town of Lodi, California, where he officially opened his first root beer stand on June 20, 1919, which happened to be the same evening as the city-wide homecoming parade for local World War I soldiers. His product, not surprisingly, was a huge hit amongst thirsty attendees (per Thrillist).

A few years later, in 1922, Allen asked one of his top employees, Frank Wright, to be his business partner. The duo named their beverage A&W Root Beer. They soon opened more soda stands in Sacramento and Stockton, where root beer was sold in cold, frosty mugs for 5 cents a pop. In 1924, Allen took a giant leap and franchised the business, becoming the first official franchised restaurant chain in the country (per Atlas Obscura).

The beloved root beer brand became commercially available in bottles and cans in 1971, allowing consumers to enjoy the fizzy goodness at home. Today, there are approximately 1,000 A&W restaurants in the U.S. and Southeast Asia (via A&W). Most A&W locations still use a paddle-operated brewing kettle to make their own root beer in-house daily. Clearly, some traditions are simply worth keeping.