Kiss My Sassafrass - Notes on Root Beer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 5, 2012 05:42pm | Post a Comment

"Rally at Dandelion Hill" by Charles Wysocki, 2001
"Rally at Dandelion Hill" by Charles Wysocki, 2001

I really didn’t know what to blog about today. No milestones, holidays, events, birthdays, &c interested me so I meditated for a few seconds and thought “Root Beer.” It is, after all (to paraphrase the Fresh Prince) “just a little somethin' to break the monotony of all that heated political rhetoric that has gotten to be a little bit out of control.”

From a young age I loved root beer and at some point when I must’ve been about nine or ten, I started collecting root beer cans from as many makers as I could find. I specifically remember A & W, Barq’s, Best Choice, Dad’s, Fargo, Faygo, Hires, Hy-Vee, IBC, and Schnuck’s were represented, although there were others. Most were represented by both diet and regular options. Root beer almost never has caffeine -- in fact, it more often contains natural mellowing agents.

I also had the video game Root Beer Tapper for ColecoVision, adapted from the arcade came, Tapper, in which the player was originally a bartender sliding dizzying numbers drinks at demanding patrons. For much of my time in California I rode a root beer brown ’72 Raleigh Sprite 27 (until I put it to pasture). Because of its  paint job, I named it "Root Beer." Since I'm an adult, I rarely drink soda anymore, although when I do, it's occasionally root beer.

Image source: seriouseats

In some ways, the world of soda is sort of like American politics – a depressing two party system dependent on unquestioned and mostly arbitrary brand loyalty. If you like colas, you’ve got Coke or Pepsi (if you drink RC, Coke and Pepsi drinkers will mock you for throwing away your vote or attack you for somehow hurting their brand in the soda wars). If you're in the mood for Lemon-Lime, there’s Sprite or 7-Up (although I preferred Slice – RIP – to them both). Root beer, however, is different - there are choices. As Colin Quinn noted (of American politics, not soda), “In fascism you only have one choice. That's great. We have one more choice than the worst form of government.”

According to Wikipedia, “There are hundreds of root beer brands in the United States, produced in every U.S. state and there is no standardized recipe.” Root Beer World lists 2568 root beer manufacturers (although some are no longer active). 

Even though Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and the UK all have their own brands, in the world of root beer at least, the USA is number one. Of the 50 root beer-producing states, Illinois leads, having given rise to 163 brands. The rest of the top five is rounded out by New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Wisconsin.

Nick Swardson in a Barq's Commercial

Although root beer production is often manufactured by well-heeled doctors (e.g. Dr. Brown's, Dr. Chandler's, Dr. Cronk's Sarsaparilla, Dr. DeAndries Sarsaparilla Bitters, Dr. E. R. Palmer's Sarsaparilla, Dr. Graham's Sarsaparilla, Dr. Guysott's, Dr. Henry's Sarsaparilla, Dr. Kilmer's Sarsaparilla, Dr. Long's, Dr. McGillicuddy's, Dr. Murphy's, Dr. Mutch's, Dr. Nut, Dr. Root Beer's, Dr. Smith, Dr. Stearn's, Dr. Stearns, Dr. Swett's, Dr. Tima's, Dr. Townsend's Sarsaparilla, Dr. Wells, and Dr. Wood's Sarsaparilla), it's also something that 99%/Joe Sixpack-types like our uncles can make (e.g. Uncle Ben's, Uncle Dan's, Uncle Jake's, Uncle Jo, Uncle Joe's, Uncle John's Non-Alcoholic, Uncle Scott's, Uncle Smilie's, and Uncle Tom's).

Root Beer has been celebrated by all kind of genre-spanning performers including André Kostelanetz, Babelshack, The Beach BoysBilly Joel, Brendan Wires, Candor Jones, Charles Bronson, The Chosen Few, Daddy a Go-Go, Dave Hogan, David Syme, Drifting Sand, Floyd Cramer, George Jones, Harmonic Brass München, The Insomniacs, James Last, Jeff Wahl, John Egniz, The Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra, Johnny Lingo, Lars Schurse, Linda Gentille, Mel Henke, N-Tyce, Pat Surface, Paul Bisaccia, Red Line Creek, Richard Clayderman, Russell Gates, Safety Orange, Schwump, Silvan Zingg, Sonnet Cottage, Stan Ridgway, Steve Sternberg, Steve Trovato, Tammy Lee, Theo Parrish , Thomas Rheigans, Three Bits of Rhythm, Wise Guys, Wolf Colonel, and Wolfgang Zinke. Jimmy Somerville even released an entire album titled Root Beer.

I remember looking up "root beer" in the dictionary as a curious kid (this was pre-internet) and was surprised that the base flavor is derived from sassafras roots and bark, and various other barks and resins (or, likely, artificial imitations). I was probably incredulous too. To settle an argument about what "pigs in a blanket" were (I came down on the wiener-wrapped-in-biscuit dough whereas some claimed it was a sausage wrapped in a pancake. The dictionary said it was a turkey gizzard wrapped in bacon or some such nonsense).

I never attempted to make root beer. I probably had to look up sassafras and then got sucked into a bottomless research spiral. Silver Lake's Monkeyhouse Toys sometimes stocks a brew-it-yourself root beer kit from Copernicus Toys that I’m tempted to buy. They're sold out right now but the owner informed me that more is on the way. For those un-inclined to make their own batches, it's a safe bet that Galco's, in Highland Park, carries 57 varieties. So instead of fighting, lets take a moment to enjoy a frosty, frothy mug of the root beer of our choice.


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Relevant Tags

Root Beer (1), Soda (1), Sarsparilla (1), Sassafrass (1)