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History of Rootbeer

There's nothing quite as wonderful as a frosty mug of old fashioned rootbeer. But where did this carbonated soft drink come from? The historical roots of rootbeer run deep, and there's a considerable amount of confusion about how this creamy treat came to be.

In the Beginning
Early historical records indicate that Shakespeare drank "small beer". This early recipe from Colonial America contained a small amount of alcohol, herbs, berries, and bark. Other records indicate that 18th century farmers brewed an alcoholic version of rootbeer in stills for family gatherings and parties. Lastly, the Library of Congress has in its collection of cookbooks, recipies from the mid-1800s. No sources indicate the inventor.

The Temperance Movement
The story rootbeer as as a non-alcoholic soft drink began with the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement was established to encourage moderation in the consumption of intoxicating liquors, and even to call for complete abstinence. Many of the movement's ranks were filled by women who, along with their children, had endured the effects of drinking that their husbands brought into their homes.

Charles Hires
For the popularization of rootbeer, through mass marketing and mass production, we credit Charles Hires. Hires was a pharmacist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who allegedly discovered a recipe for an herbal tea while on his honeymoon. He began selling a dry version with the label "root tea", while working to perfect a liquid version of the same tea. The resulting recipe of was a combination of more than twenty-five herbs, berries and roots. Hires was later encouraged to change the name of the soda to "root beer", so that it might have greater appeal to the Pennsylvania miners. Charles Hires unveiled his rootbeer to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Four years later, Hires introduced a liquid concentrate, and then finally gave us the bottled ready-to-drink rootbeer in 1893. Popularity skyrocketed.

Government Ban
The key ingredient in rootbeer for quite some time was derived from the sassafras root, which produced its unique flavor and thick texture. Unfortunately, it was carcinogenic. So, in 1930 the United States government stepped in, and banned its use. In the 1960's an effort was made to find a suitable replacement for this ingredient. It was found that by removing the oil, the cancer causing agent, the root could still be used. Today, natural and artificial ingredients are commonly used to create rootbeer's unique flavor.

The First A&W Rootbeer Stand
Roy Allen set up his first A&W rootbeer stand in 1919, joining others to celebrate the homecoming of WWI veterans. Excited about his success, he asked Frank Wright to partner with him in a new business, and they use the initials of their last names to brand their rootbeer.

The first permanent A&W stand opened in Lodi, CA in that same year, and was followed by another in Sacramento. Their permanent stands were the first establishments to feature drive-in service with tray-boys. In 1924 Allen bought out his partner, and set another milestone in American history when he created the first franchise program. The interest in owning an A&W franchise caught on, and by 1933 there were more than 170 A&W restaurants.

Rootbeer traveled a long and winding road to finally arrive on our grocery store shelves, but it made it. We're sure glad it did!

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