What Is Root Beer Made Of

Root beer is a classic carbonated drink that has been loved by many for generations. With its sweet, earthy taste and distinct flavor profile, root beer stands out from other sodas and soft drinks. But what exactly gives root beer its signature flavor?

A Brief History of Root Beer

The origins of root beer can be traced back to the colonial days of America. Indigenous cultures like the Native Americans were known to use the extracts of the sassafras root and other botanicals to produce drinks and home remedies. Later, American colonists started experimenting with fermenting combinations of roots, barks, and herbs to create “small beers.”

Over time, these herbal beers evolved into the root beer we know today. The recipes varied across different regions based on the locally available ingredients. The term “root” in root beer comes from the key ingredients used – roots, barks, and herbs.

While originally alcoholic, root beer evolved into a non-alcoholic, soda-like beverage in America by the late 19th century. With mass commercialization, root beer became widely popular across the United States. Today, it comes in different styles – from traditional sodas to local craft root beers.

Key Ingredients Used in Root Beer

Key Ingredients Used in Root Beer

So what is root beer made of? There are a few key ingredients that give root beer its characteristic flavor profile.

Sassafras

The sassafras root is the original and most well-known root used in root beer. The oil extracted from sassafras contains a compound called safrole that gives root beer its distinctive aroma and flavor. Safrole has a sweet, spicy aroma with notes of anise and licorice.

However, commercial use of sassafras has been banned by the FDA since the 1960s due to the carcinogenic effects of safrole. Most mainstream root beers today use artificial sassafras flavoring or natural extracts with the safrole removed. Some smaller brewers still use authentic sassafras in limited quantities.

Wintergreen

Wintergreen is another crucial ingredient used in root beer. The methyl salicylate compound in wintergreen leaves provides a minty, medicinal taste. Today, wintergreen is the predominant flavor used in many commercial root beers.

Spices

Warm spices like anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove are commonly used to provide depth to root beer’s flavor profile. Star anise is paired with licorice root to replicate sassafras’ sweet licorice notes. Vanilla is also added for extra sweetness.

Other Flavorings

Other botanical ingredients like birch bark, ginger root, juniper berries, spruce tips, and honey can provide complexity to the flavor of root beer. Commercial versions may also contain caramel coloring and artificial flavors.

The Root Beer Making Process

So how exactly is this combination of roots, spices, and plant extracts turned into the beverage we know as root beer? Here is a quick look at the standard root beer production process:

  • Brewing: The roots, herbs, spices, and other ingredients are steeped in hot water to extract the flavors. This produces a concentrated liquid extract.
  • Sweetening: Sugar or other natural sweeteners like honey or molasses are added to sweeten the brewed extract.
  • Carbonation: The sweetened extract is combined with carbonated water and bottled. This gives root beer its signature bubbly, effervescent texture.
  • Flavoring: Other flavor extracts like vanilla or wintergreen can be added for extra complexity. Artificial flavors are used in some commercial root beers.
  • Bottling: The finished root beer is bottled in glass bottles or cans. Root beer obtains its carbonation from the pressurized bottles.

This traditional brewing method produces old-fashioned root beers with authentic flavor. However, most mainstream root beer brands use more modern and efficient bulk manufacturing methods.

The Distinct Flavor Profile of Root Beer

So what does a chilled mug of fresh root beer taste like? Here’s a look at some of the standout characteristics of root beer’s flavor:

  • Sweetness – Root beer has a pleasant sweetness, often described as maple-like. This sweetness comes from added sugar/honey or the natural sweetness of ingredients like licorice, vanilla, and anise.
  • Wintergreen – The predominant wintergreen flavor provides a cooling, minty taste and aroma. This adds to the drink’s refreshing appeal.
  • Spiciness – There are warming spice notes like cinnamon, clove, and sassafras that create depth.
  • Carbonation – The bubbly effervescence and fizz of root beer is part of its signature mouthfeel.
  • Mild acidity – Subtle, tangy acidity from ingredients like birch bark cuts through the sweetness.

The combination creates a complex, nuanced flavor – sweet but not too sugary, spiced but not hot, refreshing yet earthy. The taste is difficult to compare to any other soda!

Why Homemade Root Beer Tastes Better

Why Homemade Root Beer Tastes Better

One of the best ways to truly appreciate the flavors of root beer is to brew your own homemade batch. Homebrewed root beer allows you to control the ingredients and highlight the botanical flavors.

Here’s why homemade root beer tastes extra delicious:

  • Quality ingredients – You can source fresh, natural ingredients like sassafras, licorice root, pine needles, vanilla beans, and spices.
  • Balanced sweetness – The sweetness can be dialed down to optimal levels.
  • Stronger botanical flavors – The root flavors have a bolder presence when freshly infused.
  • Mild carbonation – The light fizz perfectly complements the flavors when using flip-top bottles.
  • Appealing aroma – The root beer gives off an enticing aroma from real botanical extracts.
  • Smooth drinkability – The flavors blend together smoothly without harsh artificial tastes.

So for homemade root beer that looks, smells, and tastes better, brew your own batch!

FAQs About Root Beer Ingredients

If you’re curious about what goes into your favorite mass-produced or craft root beers, here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What ingredients are in A&W Root Beer?

A&W Root Beer contains both natural and artificial flavors. The primary flavors come from wintergreen oil, vanilla, birch bark, sarsaparilla, licorice, nutmeg, and anise. It uses both cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup as sweeteners.

Do modern root beers still contain sassafras root?

Most major root beer brands no longer use real sassafras. A&W Root Beer relies on safrole-free sassafras extracts along with other flavorings. Some smaller brewers like Virgil’s or Fitzgerald’s use authentic sassafras in moderation.

Is root beer healthier than cola drinks like Coke?

Root beer is slightly healthier given its natural flavorings and spices like cinnamon, vanilla, and licorice root that provide nutrients. However, commercial root beers can still contain high sugar and calories like regular soda.

Is root beer suitable for children?

Non-alcoholic root beer is safe for kids to consume. The carbonation and sweetness is appealing. However, parents should still limit intake due to the high sugar content.

Why was early root beer banned?

The original root beer recipes contained unregulated amounts of sassafras root, which contains the carcinogenic compound safrole. This led the FDA to ban sassafras, before safer limits were introduced.

Why does root beer taste like toothpaste?

The wintergreen and methyl salicylate used to flavor root beer also provides the minty taste in toothpastes. This is why root beer’s cool, medicinal flavor profile might remind you of brushing!

How does root beer differ from Dr Pepper?

While both sodas are brown-colored and flavored with syrups, Dr Pepper has more of a cherry-cola flavor and lacks traditional root beer’s herbal qualities.

Making Your Own Root Beer at Home

Once you get a taste for real root beer’s delicious flavor, you’ll want to try brewing your own homemade batch using natural ingredients.

To craft your own root beer, you’ll need:

  • Sassafras substitute – Use birch bark, sarsaparilla, or wintergreen instead for safety. You can also purchase sassafras extract that has the safrole removed.
  • Spices and herbs – Crushed anise, licorice root, cinnamon sticks, juniper berries, ginger root, and vanilla beans.
  • Sugar – Cane sugar or natural sweetener like honey or molasses for sweetness.
  • Yeast – Brewer’s yeast to ferment and add carbonation.
  • Water – Plain water or ginger ale for base of soda.
  • Flip-top bottles – To naturally carbonate through fermentation.

Here is a simple root beer recipe to try at home:

  1. Simmer spices, roots, and herbs in a gallon of water for 45 mins.
  2. Strain and dissolve sugar into the infusion.
  3. Add yeast once cooled and ferment for 3-4 days.
  4. Transfer to flip-top bottles, allow to carbonate for 1 week.
  5. Chill and enjoy your fresh homemade root beer!

When brewing your own, experiment with ingredients like burdock root, spruce tips, and other roots. Tailor the flavors to your liking and enjoy the process of crafting your ideal root beer taste.

The Appeal of Root Beer Endures

For centuries, people have cherished root beer for its comforting taste and arousing aromas. While modern root beers have changed, they carry the essence of this old-fashioned botanical brew. The availability of real brewed sassafras may be limited, but the signature wintergreen and licorice flavors live on.

This historic soda continues to hold nostalgic value for many. So for your next beverage craving, consider going back in time with a frosty mug of authentic tasting root beer – maybe even homemade! With its sweetly complex and refreshing flavor profile, root beer remains a classic.

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