Getting to the Root of Root Beer

Image by Marc Pascual from Pixabay

Nothing says summer like a cold root beer float and shady front porch. ~ Moi

Want to know the quickest way to feel like a kid again? Slurp a fizzy, frozen root beer float; trust me, it’ll bring back memories of summer fun when all you worried about was how many days until school started.

National Root Beer Day is a Reason to Indulge

Tomorrow is #NationalRootBeerFloatDay and I am planning on making a classic version to celebrate. Root beer is a funny thing, though. Granted, I like the tangy, sassafras-infused flavors and aromas of a well-made root beer but never drink it straight; I prefer my root beer served in a classic float made with premium quality vanilla ice cream (my favorite, FarmFriend Vanilla, is made by Trickling Springs Creamery). If you would like to make your own float to honor this yummy holiday, you can use my simple recipe.

Getting to the Root of Root Beer

Did you know that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin drank root beer? Back then, root beer was just one of several types of “small beers” made with herbs, barks, and roots brewed at a much lower strength (2% to 12% alcohol by volume) than typical ales.

In addition to root beer, there were birch beers, sarsaparilla beers, and ginger beers and each one was based on local ingredients and recipes developed on the farm. Depending on local traditions and taste preferences, recipe variations have, over time, recipes have varied and included a wide range of ingredients like birch bark, coriander seed, hops, allspice, ginger root, dandelion root, burdock root, molasses, wild cherry bark and bitters, and wintergreen.

A Quintessential American Drink

If you are one of the millions of Americans who love this distinctively flavored drink you’re in good company, just don’t bother asking for it outside of U.S. borders; folks in other countries just don’t “get” our passion for this pungent drink. What began as homebrew made on the farm and in people’s kitchens from foraged roots was first marketed commercially by Charles E. Hires in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and then commercially brewed and bottled by Hires in 1893.

Today, America’s favorite root beer (and the brand that’s number in sales) is A&W, a company that started as a roadside root beer stand (what we would call a pop-up today) in Lodi, California on June 20, 1919. The man who brainstormed the idea was Roy Allen and he was shortly joined by his partner Frank Wright, which is the origin of the A&W name.

Just a few years later, A&W expanded the menu to include hot dogs, franchised the stands, and opened them in multiple locations at the state and in other California cities, but this was minus Frank Wright as a partner. He left the company and Roy Allen carried on solo eventually building an empire of 1,000 A&W restaurants worldwide.

It’s All in the Recipe

Although A&W’s recipe is a closely guarded company secret, we know that in 2017 the company returned to making the root beer “fresh in the restaurants from real cane sugar, water and a proprietary blend of herbs, bark, spices, and berries that are served in a frosty mug.”

This revised recipe is fresher tasting, not as sweet, and new flavors such as sarsaparilla root, licorice, birch bark, and anise have significantly improved the taste and the brand’s popularity.

Could Root Beer Be Good For You?

For centuries, indigenous people have used sarsaparilla root to treat joint stiffness from arthritis and to heal topical skin problems like psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis, but what the heck is sarsaparilla?

First, it’s not the same as sassafras (see more about his below) that comes from a deciduous tree and sarsaparilla is non-toxic tropical, climbing, woody vine from the genus Smilax. It grows mostly in the canopy of deep rainforests and is native to Mexico, Honduras, South America, Jamaica, the Caribbean, and the West Indies. Sarsaparilla is a prolific plant with seven species of Smilax in the sarsaparilla category, including:

S. officinalis
S. japicanga
S. febrifuga
S. regelii
S. aristolochiaefolia
S. ornata
S. glabra

Dispelling the Sassafras Myth

Here are few tasty tidbits about root beer:

How to Choose a Root Beer

When choosing your root beer, it helps to know a little bit about the styles of root beer made in America. Although there are about 400 different brands on the U.S. market, a search reveals that most brands, including boutique microbrewers, fall into three main style categories:

Sharply pungent-this style of root beer is often spicy, strongly flavored, and can even be bitter and astringent. It’s not for the faint-hearted and some brands in this category include:

* Barq’s
* Dad’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer
* Bundaberg
* So Duh! Rockin’ Root Beer

Sweet and creamy-this style of root beer is for those with a sweet tooth. They are well-made but on the sweeter side and include:

* Henery Weinhard’s Root Beer
* A&W

Smooth and creamy-this style of root beer is a happy balance of pungent flavors and sweetness with a smooth texture that blends perfectly with ice cream. I’ve tried quite a few brands but my favorite is still A&W. For balanced flavors here are some other names to consider:

* Sprecher Root Beer
* Hanks Gourmet Root Beer
* Virgil’s Root Beer

Need a recipe for your float? Here’s my easy recipe that takes less than 5 minutes.


If you want to do some serious research here are two resources for tracking down dozens of root beers.

This list,, doesn’t have links to sites or include links to buy root beer but the list is extensive and could be a good place for collecting names of producers.

This list,, ranks many root beers with links to buy them, judge for yourself by tasting to see if you agree with their ranking.



Bonjour! I'm The Food & Wine Diva and when not gardening I pine for France. I write about food, life, culture, and travel. And lately, I yell at the TV a lot.

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Summer Whitford

Bonjour! I'm The Food & Wine Diva and when not gardening I pine for France. I write about food, life, culture, and travel. And lately, I yell at the TV a lot.