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If you live in North America or have spent a significant amount of time there, chances are good that you’ve tried or at least heard of root beer. This popular soft drink has quite an interesting history compared to other drinks, and many people love it. But before you venture into making your own or picking up a bottle at the grocery store, you’ll probably want to answer an important question: what does root beer taste like?
Table of Contents
- What Is Root Beer?
- A Brief History of Root Beer
- What’s the Nutritional Value of Root Beer?
- How Does Root Beer Taste?
- Does Root Beer Taste Like Beer?
- Culinary Uses for Root Beer?
- What About Bottled Root Beer?
- Interested in Making Your Own?
- Incorporating This Versatile Drink
- Root Beer FAQ
What Is Root Beer?
Though there are now many different varieties of root beer, the traditional beverage is a sweet drink made with a variety of medicinal herbs. It usually includes sarsaparilla vine, sassafras root bark, ginger root, wintergreen leaf, birch, licorice root, and sometimes other herbs. The mixture is then fermented with yeast and sugar.
You might sometimes hear root beer described as “adulterated sarsaparilla.” That’s because the natural sarsaparilla taste is altered with a variety of different spices and flavorings. In some cases, root beer or adulterated sarsaparilla recipe will call for cinnamon, honey, and other ingredients that enhance the taste. The result is a soft drink with a palate-pleasing sweet taste.
Though regular root beer has a very low alcohol content (to the point that it’s almost nonexistent), it tends to have a thick, foamy texture at the top of the glass. That makes it sometimes look like a draft pour of beer at first glance. If desired, you can add more alcohol to it to make a stronger alcoholic drink. There are also commercial hard root beers that have alcohol already added.
If you want to turn your root beer into a dessert, you can add vanilla ice cream to root beer to make a sweeter drink called a root beer float. Since some recipes for root beer call for vanilla, the ice cream helps bring out the sweeter notes.
A Brief History of Root Beer
The history of root beer goes well beyond that of other soft drinks. Native Americans were making medicinal sarsaparilla and sassafras drinks well before root beer was ever sold in stores. These medicinal drinks came with a host of health benefits, including the reduction of inflammation, the boosting of immunity, pain relief, and increased energy.
The first root beer (or at least an early version of it) was sold in stores as far back as the 1840s. And thus far, the oldest known written root beer recipes date back to the 1860s.
The development of root beer may be connected to a tradition of making low-alcohol beers that were much safer to drink than possibly contaminated water. Like root beer, many of these beers also included herbs that were thought to have medicinal properties.
Charles Elmer Hires, a pharmacist, was the first to mass market a commercially-prepared root beer. Hires’s version used sassafras bark as the main ingredient, but Barq’s, one of his first competitors, used sarsaparilla instead. In many cases, thanks to the health benefits of sarsaparilla and sassafras, root beer was marketed as a medicinal drink. In pharmacies, it was often sold as a syrup rather than as a beverage.
What’s the Nutritional Value of Root Beer?
Since every root beer recipe calls for a good bit of sugar, you probably won’t want to make this drink a daily staple of your diet. But compared to Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, root beer does actually have some benefits:
It’s an antifungal and antibacterial — Root beer may help to treat or prevent some kinds of infections.
It can ease digestive distress — The licorice root in root beer has been used for centuries to treat digestive issues, and it may possibly help with ulcers. Ginger root is also great for treating nausea.
It may have anti-cancer properties — Many ingredients in root beer are antioxidants that protect the human body from oxidative damage. Over time, this damage may lead to cancers. (Make sure you see below — some ingredients in traditional root beer may actually cause liver cancer.)
It contains anti-inflammatory ingredients — Several of the herbs found in traditional root beer have anti-inflammatory properties. Since excessive inflammation in the body can lead to a host of health issues, this can really make a difference!
Though many ingredients in root beer do have nutritional benefits, it’s important to note that we are just talking about the way root beer is traditionally made. Today, most companies that sell root beer (especially in soda form) lean toward artificial flavorings. While these flavorings aim to make the soda taste as much like the real thing as possible, they don’t have the same nutritional value as root beer made with the original herbs. As a bonus, traditional root beers tend to have better aromatic qualities, too.
Your dentist would likely tell you that drinking too much root beer is bad for your teeth, so remember to enjoy this delicious bark in moderation!
How Does Root Beer Taste?
So what does root beer taste like? The exact taste will, of course, depend on the root beer recipe being used. On the whole, root beer is generally sweet-tasting. But sarsaparilla root and/or sassafras used have a bitter taste that is somewhat minty. To compensate for that bitter flavor, root beer usually has sugar (high fructose corn syrup or molasses) added. Still, lots of root beers maintain that distinctive slight bitter taste.
In many cases, root beer seems to be made up of many different flavor notes. It’s somewhat like Dr. Pepper in that it contains several different ingredients that come together to create its signature flavor. Recipes that have cinnamon and cloves may have a taste reminiscent of mulled cider. Other recipes may have a vanilla-like taste. Some brands like A&W make regular and diet root beer with real vanilla extract.
You might sometimes hear someone say that root beer tastes like toothpaste or menthol. That’s because many recipes call for wintergreen. Wintergreen combines with the flavor of sarsaparilla or sassafras to create a slight minty taste.
Does Root Beer Taste Like Beer?
No, not really. Early promoter Charles Elmer Hires wanted to sell it as “root tea.” He didn’t drink alcohol at all and did not want to market a beverage that sounded alcoholic. Ultimately, he chose the name “root beer” in order to more effectively market to nearby Pennsylvania coal miners. And partially because the foamy head looks like that of beer, root beer became a popular alcohol substitute during prohibition.
Because of the name, many people wonder whether or not you could get drunk off of root beer. You usually can’t — commercial products have no alcohol at all. Homemade root beer brews may sometimes have small amounts of alcohol in them, but you would usually have to drink an absolutely massive amount to get drunk. When in doubt, always check the label or talk to the person who made the batch!
Culinary Uses for Root Beer?
We mentioned above that drinking root beer with vanilla ice cream is a great way to enjoy this soft drink. But did you know root beer is also useful in food? Professional and amateur chefs alike can harness root beer’s nutritional benefits and add some interesting flavor to their cuisine.
To get an almost caramel barbecue flavor, you can cook baked beans mixed with chili beans with some root beer mixed in. For some especially delicious beans, mix the following together and cook slowly for about 12 hours:
- Chili beans
- Baked beans
- Bacon (cooked and diced)
- Maple syrup
- Dijon mustard
- One bottle of root beer
You might be surprised to learn that you can also let this drink enhance your next vegan stir fry. If you’d prefer stir fry with meat over vegan stir fry, that will work too. Mix honey, garlic, root beer (or root beer sauce), and soy sauce and heat in a skillet until it thickens. Then mix in some pre-fried vegetables and cook for 10 minutes. As you’ll likely find, root beer’s sweetness nicely complements soy sauce’s saltiness.
And, of course, root beer makes a fantastic, if unusual, barbecue sauce. If you’re a fan of sweet and salty foods, you might want to try this one at your next cookout. To start, you’ll need to sweat some garlic, ginger, and an onion. Stir the extract with some ketchup and root beer, and you have an outstanding barbecue sauce that works with ribs, chicken, and more.
What About Bottled Root Beer?
Authentic root beer is made with sassafras bark and sarsaparilla. But the United States Food and Drug Administration banned safrole, a compound found in both, in 1979. Safrole has been found to cause liver cancer in rats, so the FDA prohibits its use in food or drink. That means you can’t sell root beer made with sassafras root or sarsaparilla.
You can still purchase root beer in just about any grocery store. But at least in the United States, both the regular and the diet versions of this popular drink use other flavorings instead of the authentic sarsaparilla. Some brands use a sassafras or sarsaparilla extract that has been modified to remove the harmful safrole.
Interested in Making Your Own?
If you try this soft drink and find that you like it, you may be interested in making your own version of root beer. Part of the art of creating your own is selecting or creating a recipe; there are as many recipes as there are root beers!
One common traditional recipe asks you to mix molasses and water to make a syrup. After cooling the syrup, you mix in a mixture of sassafras and/or sarsaparilla, wintergreen, and any other herbs you may want. That mix is then fermented with yeast for 12 hours before being prepared for the process of secondary fermentation.
Obviously, this is a very general guideline. But it should give you a general idea of what to expect if you choose to make your own root beer. This method usually includes some alcohol content, but it’s usually 2% or less. If you prefer, there are recipes out there that will have even less alcohol.
If you’re interested in making your own great-tasting root beer from scratch (or just want to know what goes into making it), check out this great video outlining how to make it.
Incorporating This Versatile Drink
Though drinking root beer might not be for absolutely everyone, incorporating this drink into sauces and dishes can be a great way to add some variety to your diet. And of course, if you want to venture into preparing root beer traditionally, you can make your own as well!
Root Beer FAQ
Still have some questions on root beer? Here are some quick answers:
What does hard root beer taste like?
Hard root beer tastes a lot like the soft drink version of root beer with alcohol mixed in. But there’s a range of tastes — some are very sweet and taste like candy. Others have a taste that’s more like vanilla, cloves, and caramel. And of course, some hard root beers have more alcohol than others, so that will have an impact on the taste, too.
Does root beer taste like tooth paste?
Some people say it does. And though it might sound odd, there’s a reason they can taste similar. That’s because traditional root beer is made with wintergreen. Wintergreen is often used in toothpaste. Some root beers formulations have more wintergreen than others, so some may taste more toothpaste-like.
Why does root beer taste like menthol?
The sassafras and sarsaparilla plants used in traditional root beer have often been described as having a minty, almost medicinal taste similar to that of menthol. Of course, root beers made without sassafras or sarsaparilla may not have this flavor.