As far as sodas go, root beer is an old fan favorite that works well by itself, with ice cream or mixed with other beverages. However, the name root beer does bring up a question: “does root beer have alcohol?” Generally speaking, no, root beer is not an alcoholic drink. That said, some varieties may contain trace amounts of alcohol, with some having up to two percent by volume or less.
This question got us thinking, and we decided to dig a little deeper. Here’s what we discovered.
Does Root Beer Have Alcohol?
If you’re talking about root beer varieties that you can find in the store, none of these contain alcohol. At least, not enough for them to list it as an active ingredient. The primary reason root beer doesn’t have alcohol is that it doesn’t ferment long enough for the sugars and yeast to become alcoholic.
To understand this question better, let’s take a closer look at how root beer is traditionally made.
The first step to brewing root beer is to source ingredients like sasparilla root, vanilla, licorice, wintergreen, and others. These herbs are mixed with sugar and active yeast then placed in a tank to ferment for a couple of days. During the fermentation process, CO2 bubbles form, which gives root beer its fizzy consistency.
To stop the fermentation process, brewers refrigerate the concoction. From there, they decant the mixture before putting it in bottles or cans. While commercial root beer factories stop fermentation to prevent any alcohol from developing, small-batch brews may contain some alcohol.
A Brief History of Root Beer
The origins of root beer date back to the native Americans, who used sassafras root to make medicinal beverages. It’s unknown when this process started, but it was well before Europeans arrived in North America. After discovering the sassafras drinks, Europeans began to make their own using Old World techniques.
As early as the 1840s, root beer was sold in confectionary stores. However, at that time, individuals would buy root beer syrup, which they’d mix with seltzer to create their own soft drink at home.
Sassafras root does have some medicinal qualities, so druggists at that time often marketed root beer as a medical treatment for various ailments. The natural herb elements helped cement the idea.
The term root beer came from one of the first commercial brewers, Charles Elmer Hires. He developed his own recipe in 1875 and marketed the beverage at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Originally, Hires wanted to call the beverage root tea but switched to beer to appeal to blue-collar Philadelphia workers.
By 1886, Hires was able to bottle and mass-produce his root beer, and by 1893, the drink was widely available from coast to coast. Two other root beer brands started around this time. In 1898, Barq’s root beer came to the market, and A&W began in 1919. A&W’s signature flair was to serve root beer in cold, frosty mugs.
Are There Root Beer Varieties With Alcohol?
Yes, you can find root beer with at least some alcohol. The traditional brewing and fermentation method can often yield alcohol concentrations of about two percent. However, brewers can adjust their mixture to have a higher percentage if they like.
Another option is to get “hard” root beer. Any beverage with the term “hard” in its description is alcoholic. Typically, the alcohol content is between five and six percent by volume.
Is Root Beer Healthy?
While root beer was marketed as a general health tonic in the old days, its benefits are relatively dubious. In modern times, root beer often has too much sugar to be considered a “healthy” drink. However, home-brewed or small-batch varieties may offer more health benefits than the cans and bottles you can find at the store. Overall, if you brew your own root beer, you can remove excess sugar, chemicals, and other preservatives.
How to Make Your Own Root Beer
Before commercial soda was widely available, people made their own root beer. Fortunately, the process is relatively easy as long as you have the right equipment. Here are the steps necessary to brew your own root beer. You can also decide how long to ferment your beverage if you prefer a higher or lower alcohol content.
Step One: Gather Your Herbs and Flavors
The traditional herb used in root beer is sassafras since this is what the native Americans used in their beverage. However, in the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration banned raw sassafras in commercial root beer, thanks to a somewhat flawed study that showed high amounts could cause cancer in lab mice. However, you can still use raw sassafras in your home brew – the amount of safrole (the primary carcinogen from the study) is negligible. Also, the rats were fed well over the amount you’d get from drinking root beer.
Other herbs included in root beer recipes are:
- Anise seed
- Ginger root
- Licorice root
- Vanilla extract
- Cherry tree bark
You can find most of these ingredients online at natural health food retailers. You can also choose to mix and match your own herbs, such as wintergreen and dandelion root.
Step Two: Decoct Your Herbs
Making a decoction is when you boil the herbs to release their flavors and chemicals. When doing this, be sure to add the sassafras last, as it is very aromatic and can break down much faster than the other ingredients. Boil all of your herbs in water, then simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the sassafras and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn off the burner.
Step Three: Add Sugar
You can use any type of sugar you want, but raw or brown sugar can give it an extra bold flavor. Just make sure not to add too much, or it will overpower the other ingredients. Stir the sugar until it dissolves, then let the mixture cool. Usually, it’ll take about two hours to reach room temperature.
Step Four: Add Yeast
Carbonation occurs when the brewer’s yeast interacts with the sugars. Basically, the yeast eats the sugar and belches out carbon dioxide. So, you get natural carbonation without any specialized methods or chemicals.
For best results, you want to mix the yeast into the beverage and bottle it immediately. Doing this traps as much carbon dioxide as possible, leading to a foamier and creamier drink. Also, remember that the longer you ferment your root beer, the higher the alcohol content. Realistically, you should refrigerate your bottles after two days.
Again, feel free to create your own recipe with various herbs, spices, and sugars. Who knows? You might strike a good recipe and become the next A&W.
Top Root Beer Brands
If you have a craving for some root beer, there are many varieties available. However, some are much more well-known than others. Here are the top-selling brands in the United States:
Mug – This root beer began in San Francisco in the 1940s. However, its original name was Belfast Root Beer. By the mid-1950s, the Belfast Brewing Co. changed the name to Belfast Old-Fashioned Mug Root Beer. It didn’t take long for the name to just get shortened to Mug Root Beer.
Barq’s – If you’re familiar with Barq’s, you know it’s “the one with bite.” The slogan isn’t just a catchy play on the adage (Barq vs. bite) but refers to the fact that Barq’s actually has some caffeine. Since most root beers are non-caffeinated, Barq’s has a unique selling point. As we mentioned, Barq’s has been around since 1898, when creator Edward Barq Sr. purchased the Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works in 1897. A year later, he had developed his root beer recipe, and he and his wife sold and bottled the beverage themselves. Barq’s became one of the most popular root beers in both the south and the rest of the United States. By the mid-1950s, there were over 200 bottling plants in the country.
A&W – Roy Allen founded the A&W company in 1919 when he started handing out frosted mugs of root beer at a WWI victory parade. Since the event was hot (in Lodi, California), the root beer went like gangbusters, and people started paying attention. However, it wasn’t until 1922 that the company would have its signature name. That’s the year Roy Allen partnered with former employee Frank Wright, creating A(llen) & W(right). From the beginning, A&W was more than just root beer. The duo franchised restaurants and were actually the first ones to do so. Before then, the idea of turning a restaurant into a franchise was unheard of.
Dad’s – This company is more recent than the others, starting in 1937. However, the tasty beverage quickly took the country by storm, becoming one of the most popular brands by the 1940s. The company was founded by partners Barney Berns and Ely Klapman. The name Dad’s Root Beer stemmed from the fact that many fathers would brew root beer at home. So, here was a drink “as good as your dad makes.” Dad’s also became notable as one of the first beverage companies to use the six-pack bottle holder.
As you can see, root beer is a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage with a rich and vibrant history. If you love the taste, you can make your own at home, so feel free to experiment and try new flavors. Bottoms up!