Ask Why, The Root Beer Guy (Frequently Asked Questions)

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Sassafras leaf - courtesy Montgomery County (OH) Public Library

Sassafras bark - courtesy Montgomery County (OH) Public Library

Sprecher Root Beer Syrup

Root Beer Syrup

Gnome Root Beer Extract

Root Beer Extract

 

Sassafras bush - courtesy University of TennesseeWhat is root beer?  Sassafras plant photo right courtesy University of Tennessee

Root Beer is a sweetened, carbonated beverage originally made using the root of a sassafras plant (or the bark of a sassafras tree), with sassafras as the primary flavor.

Who invented root beer?

See The Timelines of Root Beer History.

 

 

What's in root beer?   

In addition to sassafras flavor, root beer often has other flavorings, including anise, burdock, cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, juniper, spikenard / sarsaparilla, vanilla, wintergreen, and / or yellow dock and sweetened with aspartame, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and, most commonly sugar.  Although originally carbonated with yeast, most modern root beer brands are artificially carbonated.  Most brands of root beer contain sodium benzoate as a preservative. - photo of full grown Sassafras tree courtesy Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library

Does root beer have caffeine?

Unlike tea, coffee and chocolate, root beer does not naturally contain caffeine.  In recent years, many brands advertised "caffeine-free" prominently on packaging to avoid comparison with colas, which normally contain caffeine.  However, at least 2 currently available brands, Coca-Cola's Barq's and Skeleteen Beverage's Rat Bastard have added caffeine.

Does root beer have salicylates?

Many brands of root beer contain flavorings that are listed on the Fibromyalgia Treatment Center's One Thousand of the Most Common Natural Salicylates to Avoid including anise, cinnamon, clover, corn syrup, ginger, honey, sarsaparilla, sassafras (the main flavoring in root beer), vanilla, wintergreen, and yucca.  HOWEVER, since sassafras was declared to be carcinogenic, an artificial flavoring was developed that is now commonly used in most root beer. Usually, but unfortunately not always, if a brand of root beer contains one of these other ingredients, the label says so.

There appear to be 2 issues with salicylates: salicylate sensitivity and fibromyalgia (are these, in fact, the same?). According to the same Fibromyalgia Treatment Center, these 1000 items, "if not concentrated, will be eliminated in your digestive system" when eaten.  But, according to The Feingold Program, "Those who are extremely sensitive to salicylates, or who exhibit signs of eye muscle disorder may need to restrict benzoates." MOST carbonated beverages, including root beer, use sodium benzoate as a preservative.  All of these things combined make root beer (and most soft drinks) a good candidate for relatively high salicylic content.

Does root beer cause cancer?

Most likely, no. In 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sassafras oil in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs (like root beer) after laboratory animals (rats) that were given oral doses of sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contained large doses of safrole developed permanent liver damage or various types of cancer. As a result, root beer makers switched to artificial sassafras flavorings. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act eliminated the ban on sassafras oil as a dietary supplement. Microbrewers might still use sassafras, but it is not known to be used in any commercial brands.

Does root beer cause thrombocytopenia (decrease in blood platelets)?

Also in 1994 (a coincidence - or a root beer conspiracy?), the FDA published a study that implicated quillaia as a "causative agent" in thrombocytopenia. Quillaia has been used as a foaming agent in some brands of root beer and other carbonated beverages and in low-alcohol beers, as well as a skin treatment, in some laundry detergents, dandruff shampoos, frozen dairy desserts, candy, baked goods, gelatins and puddings. However, in 2005, the FDA stated that normal levels of quillaia are safe.

Sarsaparilla - courtesy Wellesley.edu Is sarsaparilla different from root beer? (sarsaparilla photo right courtesy Wellesley University)  

Since sarsaparilla (botanical Aralia nudicaulis, Spanish sarza - bramble or shrub, parilla - vine, also called Smilax), also called sassparilla (sassafras & sarsaparilla) and sas'parilla, is almost always flavored primarily with sassafras, and the additional spice of sarsaparilla (and very few people can taste any difference between sarsaparilla and root beer made by the same company), Root Beer World considers sarsaparilla to be root beer.  For a different view, see Sarsaparilla vs. Root Beer.

 

Nova Scotia sarsaparilla photo left courtesy of www.blupete.com

Is birch beer different from root beer?

Birch beer is similar to root beer, but is flavored with the bark of the birch tree and does not contain sassafras.  Birch beer is popular from eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to New England, but is more difficult to find elsewhere.  Although some accept a wider definition of "root beer" that includes any carbonated beverage made with any roots, bark, etc., including birch beer (sometimes called "red root beer"), Root Beer World stands by the definition that the primary flavor in root beer is sassafras.  Thus birch beer is different from root beer.  For more information on birch beer, see Anthony's Root Beer Barrel

Reed's Root Beer CandyWhat else is made with root beer?

All kinds of products have been made with root beer or root beer extract:  candy, popcorn, cough drops, even shampoo.  Check out The Root Beer Gourmet for recipes for homemade root beer, entrees, side dishes and deserts - full meals can be prepared with root beer but don't overdo it - everything in moderation...

Why does root beer taste funny?

Probably the tooth paste you used before trying root beer!  Seriously, though, people respond to different tastes in different ways.  Don't assume that all brands taste like medicine or bubble gum because one brand does.  The variety of flavorings and sweeteners used in root beer increases the range of different tastes as well as responses to those tastes.

What makes root beer frothy?
Although sassafras roots and bark may contain natural foaming agents, additional foaming agents such as yucca or quillaja extracts, are often added to increase root beer's froth, head or foaminess. 

How do I carbonate root beer?
Root beer may be carbonated naturally or artificially.  Natural carbonation occurs when yeast eats sugar, creating carbon dioxide gas.  Modern methods frequently inject carbon dioxide gas into an root beer mixture or carbonated water is mixed with root beer syrup (as with a soda fountain).

Where can I get root beer in kegs?

Many microbrewers who make root beer in addition to beer and serve draft root beer will either keg root beer or sell it in "growlers" - half gallon glass brewer's bottles.  If you want to make your own root beer, you can also buy or rent keg equipment and keg your own..  Check out a local homebrew supply store or an online retailer like Northern Brewer.

Zatarain's Root Beer ExtractWhere can I get root beer extract?  
Find root beer extract at local markets and home brew supply stores or order it online from The Cajun Connection, Northern Brewer, Northwestern Extract

Where can I find <brand> root beer?

Although many brands are available nationally (and some internationally), most are regional and even more are local or single location.  Those in search of new brands should look in grocery stores and gas stations, liquor stores and specialty markets.  Most brewers list availability on their websites and will also ship, usually by the case and only domestically (it's quite expensive to ship beverages internationally).  Soon, the Yellow Froth Pages brand database will begin to include availability for individual brands, if known.  Eventually, we'd like to provide availability by state or country.

A&W "Rut Bir" from MalaysiaCan I get root beer in <country>?

Check the Yellow Froth Pages brand database for brands by country.  Although Cadbury Schweppes, based in England, owns the distribution rights for four of the most well-known US brands (A&W, Hires, IBC and Stewart's), none of these brands is currently available in the UK.  In fact, Coca-Cola has the international distribution rights for these brands.  Both A&W and Dad's have been found in Asia.  In addition to searching for additional international brands, we're hoping to hear from the major beverage distributors on their brands' international availability.

Do they still make <brand> root beer?

Many classic brands are still being made, including A&W, Dad's, Frostie, Hires, Mason's and others.  Others have disappeared.  We hope to add availability information to the Yellow Froth Pages soon. 

How much is my old root beer <fill in the blank> worth?

At any give time, hundreds of root beer collectibles can be found on auction sites like eBay.  Unless the brand or item is extremely rare, its value is largely determined by the type and condition of the item and its logo.  We do no appraise the value of specific items - feel free to research an item's history on various auction sites to determine its true value.

 

 

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