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In The Family
What is Root Beer Exactly?

How an indigenous medicine became a soda fountain classic.

Root beer is a drink so American it predates the formation of the United States, and while it may be closest tied to a scoop of vanilla ice cream today, it actually began as a medicinal drink.

Long before Europeans arrived on American shores, indigenous peoples boiled the roots of sassafras, a deciduous tree that thrives in the Northeast, as an herbal tonic. While sassafras leaves produce a fresh lemony aroma, the roots deliver a distinctly root beer natural sweetness, which was often amplified with other sweeteners to enhance the throat-coating effect.

The Europeans caught on, selling the drink in pharmacies and candy shops, and in 1875, a pharmacist named Charles Elmer Hires bottled and sold the first commercial root beer. Hires was a teetotalling medicine man and wanted to call the drink root tea, but changed the name when he realized that “beer” probably sounded a lot more appealing to working-class stiffs. Technically, his brew was indeed a beer—without refrigeration, starch-laced liquids like sweetened sassafras tea will naturally ferment into a low-alcohol drink. Modern root beer obviously isn’t. Nor is it made with real sassafras most of the time, ever since the FDA flagged the root for its trace amounts of the carcinogen safrole.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.