A Cure for Hot Fall Days: Root Beer Floats

Instant Heat Relief: Root Beer Float

Nothing can take the edge off of a particularly hot summer day quite like an ice-cold root beer. Peppery and bold with nuances of vanilla, black cherry, wintergreen and licorice, this quintessential beverage of summer is as synonymous with the season as going barefoot, roasting marshmallows over an open flame and stargazing well into the wee hours of morning. A quick survey of anyone between the ages of 8 and 80 would confirm that root beer is a well-loved American classic.

My grandfather sparked my love of root beer. He was mischievous and secretly pilfered those barrel-shaped root beer candies from my grandmother's crystal candy dish. Then, he would delight in pulling them from his pockets with the same sleight-of-hand finesse as a skilled magician.

The candies were shockingly spicy and after only a few moments would send my palate into distress, their peppery boldness so intense that the only way I could cool down the fire on my tongue was to hold the oblong candy between my teeth and rapidly blow the heat out through pursed lips. 

They may have caused me tremendous discomfort, but of all the childhood treats, I loved those root beer candies the most and could easily pass an entire afternoon before wearing a single one down to microscopic thinness.

For many people like me, the mere mention of root beer can conjure visions of childhood delights, but long before it became a famous beverage, it was a staple of medicinal folk remedies. Root beer–or, as it was more commonly known, root tea–was a magical potion reputed to cure everything from a common toothache to a more sinister case of influenza. Root tea was common among Native American tribes and the Colonists, too, but had it not been for Charles Hires, a pharmacist who sampled it on his honeymoon, root beer might never have made its way into mainstream American culture.

Hires first sampled root beer as a tea and was immediately enamored by its unusual taste– sassafras root–so much so that he begged and pleaded for the recipe. Once back in his laboratory, he tinkered with it, adding spices, vanilla, molasses and honey until he hit upon his well-known–and loved–formula.

It was the heyday of the pharmacy and competition was stiff. Every corner pharmacy had its own signature elixir concocted especially to draw customers in and Hires quickly followed suit. He decided to name his beverage root tea, but was soon convinced by Russell Conwell, a Baptist preacher and confidant, to change the name. Conwell argued that Hires would never make any money advertising it as a tea, but that if he called it root beer, he would appeal to the hard-drinking men who worked in the mines.

The idea was pure marketing genius and soon the popularity of Hires' root beer gained momentum. Then, at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania, Hires passed out samples to the nearly 10 million visitors who came by land, sea and on foot. Shortly after, he sold packets of root beer concentrate that could be mixed with water. This allowed people to enjoy his beverage in their own homes. By 1890, he'd figured out a way to bottle and distribute his root beer to the masses and only a year later, in 1891, Charles Hires claimed to have sold over one million bottles of root beer. Things were going smoothly and Hires was well on his way to making a significant fortune, but his savvy marketing campaign had attracted some unwanted attention, too. The Women's Christian Temperance Movement was in full swing and on a crusade to end drunkenness. By 1895 they set their sights on Charles Hires and vowed to shut his root beer empire down.

Charles Hires' root beer recipe contained yeast and went through a fermentation process, but it only contained trace amounts of alcohol. Hires, himself a Quaker and a teetotaler, was unable to convince the Women's Christian Temperance Movement that his root beer didn't contain any alcohol, so they called for a nationwide ban on his product–a war that they would wage against Charles Hires for three long years until an independent laboratory would finally prove that his root beer was, indeed, alcohol-free.

Root beer was a popular and much loved beverage from the late 1800s to the early 1960s, when, amid health claims, the FDA banned safrole, the oil extracted from the sassafras root, labeling it a carcinogenic, unsuitable for human consumption.

Thankfully, scientists and chemists rallied, coming up with a method using the characteristic sassafras root, without putting consumers in danger. Soon, root beer was back and Americans were enjoying it with a vengeance.


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