02 September 2006

The Root of Root Beer

Inspired by a recent trip to In-n-Out Burger, I started wondering: what roots are used to make root beer? My guess at the time was sarsaparilla, and in part I was right. A little research reveals that root beer has been made from a wide variety of plants, including (not just roots, but also berries and herbs from) sassafras, sarsaparilla, vanilla, juniper, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, birch bark, licorice, anise, cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, yucca, and a bunch of other things I can't spell. The recipe we have come to know and love was invented and marketed by a pharmacist, Charles Hires, in the 1860's. The beverage gained popularity after he introduced it (as a powdered drink mix) at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exposition. He and his family began selling bottled root beer in the 1890's.

Although root beer is usually associated with North America, the British have experimented with root teas since the 18th century, starting with colonial American recipes. Alcoholic versions of fermented root beer were brewed, though non-alcoholic recipes were far more common and gained especial popularity during the temperance movements of Britain and the United States.

In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras because of emerging research suggesting that safrole, the oil of the sassafras plant, is mildly carcinogenic. Sassafras bark was banned in 1976. The root beer industry probably would have died without the advances in chemistry to allow for the creation of artificial sassafras flavors. Modern recipes for root beer use artificial flavorings, or use young sassafras shoots, bark, and leaves, which do not contain safrole. Safrole can also be extracted from sassafras root so the root can be used safely.

In 2005, a Canadian high school student researched the medicinal potential of sarsaparilla, another key ingredient in traditional root beer, and determined that it may have great potential as a cancer-fighting medicine. Sarsaparilla grows wild and abundant in certain parts of Saskatchewan.

(An aside about In-n-Out Burger: after reading Fast Food Nation five years ago, I quit fast food entirely, with In-n-Out Burger being the sole exception that didn't totally gross me out by the end of the book. If you are lucky enough to live near an In-n-Out Burger, make sure you go armed with the secret menu.)

1 comment:

Your Armchair Scientist said...

Neat! Thanks for posting the secret menu, I've only known about a few of those things before.