Indie Root Beer Makers Go Big by Staying Small - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Indie Root Beer Makers Go Big by Staying Small

A century ago, a Kansas newspaperman named William Allen White famously called Coca-Cola “the sublimated essence of all that America stands for”—and to this day, the brand’s curvy glass bottle and crisp red logo remain synonymous with the U.S. the world over.

Root beer pour
A pour of Faygo root beer. | Photo by Kipp Schorr

But with all due respect to Mr. White, careful students of soft drink history beg to differ. From its DIY beginnings to its mass-market heyday, and full circle to the thriving regional revival of today, the dark, fizzy drink that best epitomizes the American spirit—ingenious, ever-evolving, and fiercely independent—is, and always has been, root beer.

Where did root beer get its reputation as a maverick’s brew? Maybe it’s the tart botanical edge that thrums beneath its sweetness—or the fact that, in contrast to the global behemoths that dominate the rest of the soft drink market, the root beer industry remains largely small-scale and local. In the past few decades, for many craft beer brewers—like Saranac in New York, Steelhead in Oregon, and Abita in Louisiana, whose bread and butter are complex lagers and bitter IPAs—house-made root beer has emerged as a natural side hustle, and a convenient no-alcohol option to make and serve in their taprooms.

No other soda seems to inspire such loyalty—or geekery—among fans of all ages. Hop into Reddit message boards and Facebook groups like the “Root Beer Hunters of America” and you’ll find connoisseurs regaling one another with tales of tracking down esoteric bottles, debating their appeal, and enumerating their idiosyncrasies. “People have this notion of ‘root beer’ flavor, but to me that’s so strange, because all root beers are a mix of different elements; it’s like saying something is ‘ice cream’ flavored,” says Carlin Anderson, the second-generation proprietor of The Root Beer Store in Sandy, Utah, and, home of their Root Beer of the Month Club.

“Everyone asks, ‘What’s the best root beer?’ And my response is always, ‘Which category?’”—Carlin Anderson, The Root Beer Store

“Everyone asks, ‘What’s the best root beer?’ And my response is always, ‘Which category?’ There are so many subcategories—vanilla root beer, maple root beer, licorice, molasses—and there are single-root root beers, like sarsaparilla, birch beer, ginger beer. Even ginger ale is technically a root beer. The variety is what we want to educate people about, and it’s the rich history of root beer and the American story that we would like to preserve.”

Passing through Columbus, Ohio? Be sure to grab a bottle of old-fashioned Frostop—tagline: “Nothing tops it… but the foam!” Headed to Richmond, Illinois? Roll down your window at one of the last remaining original outposts of the midcentury roadside stalwart Dog N Suds, where carhops are still taking orders for foot-long coney dogs and frosty mugs of root beer. Stopping in for a clam pie at Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut? No meal there would be complete without a bottle from Foxon Park, the family-run soda firm that’s been bottling root beer, birch beer, and more at their headquarters down the road in East Haven since 1922.

Carlin Anderson, owner of the Root Beer Store in Sandy, Utah. | Photo by Kipp Schorr

“Every root beer is unique, and every person has a root beer story,” says Reed Andrew, founder of the Museum of Root Beer in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, which debuted in May. Andrew is also owner of Root Beer Revelry, in Galena, Illinois, a specialty shop where the menu includes not just floats and draughts, but root beer tasting flights arranged by brand and flavor. His own root beer journey started early and was launched by an unlikely influencer: Snoopy, Charles Schultz’s cartoon canine flying ace with an unquenchable thirst for the suds. By the time he was in college, Andrew began collecting regional brands and unusual bottles. “There’s just so much about root beer brewing and marketing and bottling to explore—no matter where you go, there’s always something to discover,” he explains. “If you plotted a root beer map of the country, it would light up all over.”

Root beer’s origins not only predate cola’s—it also predates the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Root beer’s history stretches back to the traditions of Indigenous tribes like the Algonquin, Timucua, Choctaw, and Cherokee, who used berries, barks, and roots like sassafras, sarsaparilla, juniper, dandelion, and wild cherry in their medicine.

Sassafras—a deciduous tree whose roots and bark produce one of the compounds most responsible for what we recognize as “root beer flavor”—had an ancient reputation for treating skin ailments, digestive problems, and arthritis, and was among the first native plants that explorer Ponce de León was introduced to in 1512, during his conquest of what is now Florida. (The powdered mitten-shaped leaves of the sassafras tree are also the base of another quintessentially American seasoning, the Cajun-Creole spice known as gumbo filé.) Sassafras’ dominance took a hit in 1960 when safrole, a component of its essential oil, was ruled carcinogenic by the FDA and banned from use in commercial food and beverages. Though many critics questioned the validity of the research, the ban has held—and since then, most makers have tweaked their recipes to highlight alternative ingredients like Indian sarsaparilla, anise, clove, or wintergreen.

Root beer Sprecher float
A root beer float featuring Sprecher. | Photo by Matt Haas

In the 17th and 18th centuries, British colonists adopted these novel botanicals into fizzy, low-alcohol, yeast-carbonated home brews, or “small beers,” that were household staples and considered nutritious drinks for women, children, and seniors before the widespread availability of clean drinking water. An old-world antecedent to these proto-root beers: the English drink dandelion and burdock, a lightly sweetened brew made of dandelion leaves and burdock root that’s believed to date back to the Middle Ages, and is produced by the British brand Fentiman’s today.

As homestead products, early root beers were as diverse and varied as the tastes—and the resources—of the people who made them. Besides sassafras and sarsaparilla, birch bark, spruce, juniper, wild mint, hop flowers, ginger root, and yellow dock were all common herbal elements in the brews, and sweeteners ranged from cane sugar to honey to molasses. And, like putting up preserves, baking bread, and making cider, batching up root-based “small beers” became just one of the many tasks that made up the rhythm of life for American farm families, with the recipes passed down through the generations.

So, just when did these sweet, bubbly botanical brews make the jump from cottage industry to capitalist juggernaut? While documentation is scarce, according to Andrew Smith’s Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, one of the earliest recorded recipes for “root beer” appears in the 1869 edition of Dr. Chase’s Recipes, a wide-ranging pharmacist’s companion that was a bible in the boom days of the 19th-century American soda fountain, when mineral water and other flavored “tonics” were marketed primarily for their medicinal, not pleasure-giving, properties.

Root beer Sprecher bottles
Sprecher root beer on the bottling line. | Photo by Matt Haas

But the man who really put root beer in prime time has a name even the most casual follower of soft drink lore should recognize: Charles Elmer Hires. The story goes that Hires, an abstemious Quaker pharmacist from Philadelphia, sampled a particularly fine homebrew from an innkeeper while honeymooning with his wife in New Jersey. Hires requested the recipe, which he then used as the foundation for a convenient powdered “root tea” that could be easily combined with water, sugar, and yeast to make a refreshing temperance drink. (One 25-cent packet produced 5 gallons of root beer: think of it as 19th-century Kool-Aid.)

In 1876—after a re-branding from “tea” to “beer” to attract a more “manly” audience—a wildly successful exhibit at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition raised the product’s profile and helped Hires take it national. By 1884, Hires had switched to producing kegs and a liquid concentrate to sell to soda fountains, and in 1890 he introduced small glass bottles—perfect for “people on the go.” By 1891, he claimed to have sold more than 1 million of them.

“It’s possible that the art of making traditional brewed root beers would have died out … if not for the advent of that social experiment called Prohibition.”—Author Stephen Cresswell

Why didn’t Hires manage to keep an iron grip on the root beer industry the way Coke and Pepsi did for cola? Ironically, the very thing that inspired his venture—temperance, and specifically, the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919—may have been the monolith’s ultimate undoing. “It’s possible that the art of making traditional brewed root beers would have died out, or nearly so, if not for the advent of that social experiment called Prohibition,” Stephen Cresswell explains in his book Homemade Root Beer, Soda, and Pop. “This led to a strong citizen interest in the illegal hobby of home brewing, and a vast number of American families laid in supplies…. With all that investment it paid to get the most out of these purchases. If Grandma or Grandpa were making homebrew beer, why shouldn’t Mom make an occasional batch of root beer?”

Or, as Andrew put it to me: “During Prohibition, some people made booze in their bathtubs, and some people made root beer. You know whose side I’m on.” This is also the same era that launched dozens of small regional soft drink companies that are still a defining presence in the root beer landscape today, like Yacht Club in Rhode Island, Norka Beverage Company in Ohio, Dublin Bottling Works in Texas, and Avery’s Beverages in Connecticut. 

At the same time, with the growth of the automobile, entrepreneurs around the country were waking up to a booming new market—motorists—and before long, the drive-in restaurant was born. In June of 1919, a hotelier named Roy Allen launched a roadside joint specializing in root beer and hamburgers in Lodi, California; in 1922, he partnered with Frank Wright, renamed the business A&W ( for Allen and Wright), and in short order opened dozens more branches across California, Utah, and Texas. In addition to a closely guarded root beer syrup recipe, the franchises were known for their innovative style of service featuring carhops known as “tray boys,” who ferried food and drinks to customers waiting in their cars. By 1941, there were 260 A&W stands nationwide.

But it wasn’t just drive-ins and soda bottlers getting into the root beer racket: When Prohibition pulled the rug out from under them, many heritage breweries—like Schell’s in New Ulm, Minnesota, and Saranac in Utica, New York—also pivoted from strong brews to soft drinks in order to survive. “When Prohibition started, we began making root beer under the label Utica Club, and that in part kept us going,” explains Fred Matt, Saranac’s current president and great-grandson of the company’s founder, FX Matt. Though the product was initially a short-lived placeholder—ending after repeal, when beer production resumed—the mild, creamy recipe was resurrected in 1965 as a special at the tasting room, where it proved so popular that in 1995 it was added to the brewery’s permanent bottling lineup, and has remained one of the company’s leading sellers ever since.

Root beer Sprecher on draft
Sprecher root beer on draft. | Photo by Matt Haas

Though it hasn’t been around as long, at Sprecher Brewing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, root beer has been an integral part of the company’s roster nearly since the doors opened. One of the first microbreweries launched during the early craft beer wave of the 1980s, Sprecher was founded by Randy Sprecher, a former Pabst employee, who was inspired by the beers he got to know while serving in the military in Germany in the 1960s. A huge name among root beer enthusiasts, especially in the Midwest, Sprecher is beloved for their traditional methods and the rich, balanced flavor of their brews.

As Tom Aslin, the chief commercial officer at Sprecher explains, “Because we started as a brewery, unlike other soft drink makers, our kettle equipment allows us to really ‘brew a batch’ of root beer—not just take a concentrate and water and carbonate it.” That process, which the company still calls “fire-brewing,” imparts a robust, old-fashioned flavor that appeals to discerning beer drinkers and kids alike. And by packaging their suds in 16-ounce pint bottles, Aslin says, they hope to reinforce the relationship with the higher proof end of the Sprecher lineup—and the idea that the root beer is a real treat.

Like Sprecher, at Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs, Colorado, a craft brewing sensibility has been at the heart of root beer production since day one. Nowhere is that more evident than in their unique choice of sweetener: a mix of cane sugar and pure maple syrup. Why? “When we launched in the early ’90s, we quickly became known for our maple nut brown ale—it was all natural, and dark and earthy, and people felt adventurous when they were drinking it,” explains Steve Indrehus, director of brewing operations. “So when we started making root beer, it felt right to incorporate the maple syrup, because it was an ingredient that was already the backbone of our beer lineup.”

Another thing that Indrehus believes sets them apart: 100 percent of the soft, clean water used for their brewing comes from a single source in the nearby mountains, and literally runs downhill into the plant in Idaho Springs. But above all, it’s about attention to detail. “It’s a dynamic thing,” he says. “Just like the hops and grain in beer, the quality and the subtle flavors of vanilla and sarsaparilla and other botanicals changes from year to year, so we have to be constantly aware, and adjust our recipe to find that balance.”

New Creation Soda Works
Located in a former turkey hatchery in Bishop, Georgia, New Creation Soda Works makes Root 42, an old-fashioned-style root beer. | Photo by Amanda Greene

Indeed, if there’s one thing that unites the modern guard of root beer makers—and links them to the drink’s beginnings—it’s a commitment to whole, natural botanical ingredients and a thirst for complex flavors. In 2015, when Paul Kooistra and his wife, Carla, founded New Creation Soda Works in Bishop, Georgia, just 20 minutes outside Athens, they were inspired by the farm-to-table ethos of the local food industry and staunchly committed to high-quality, old-fashioned, hands-on production methods.

“When I was a kid, at Christmastime my grandfather would take us to a pop shop near his house and get these great old retro sodas, and they were all so fascinating. He’d put them down in his root cellar to get cold and it was just magical to me,” Kooistra recounts. “So when we started, it was important to me to make a real old-fashioned root beer, and to spend time on the recipe and sourcing really good ingredients—whole vanilla beans, birch root—not cheap ingredients that are gonna taste that way.”

“So when we started, it was important to me to make a real old-fashioned root beer, and to spend time on the recipe and sourcing really good ingredients…”—Paul Kooistra, New Creation Soda Works

After much tinkering, the couple found what they were after in a recipe with lots of vanilla warmth, and a unique sweetness from caramelized sugar. Dubbed Root 42—an amalgamation of Route 66 and the year that Kooistra’s mother was born—it outsells every other soda in their lineup by more than 30 percent.

It was family tradition that inspired Jonathan Echeverry to get into the root beer biz, too—but in his case, the lineage was a circuitous one, involving coffee, not cola. A fifth-generation member of a Colombian coffee-growing family, Echeverry founded Paper Plane Coffee Company in Brooklyn in 2015 (and now located in Montclair, New Jersey) after going to culinary school and working for years in restaurant beverage programs. “It started to dawn on me that something was missing—these amazing chefs were finishing off meals with run-of-the-mill coffee and espresso, and I saw an opportunity there,” he explains.

But with his background in cocktails, Echeverry was also interested in pushing the boundaries of what craft coffee could be. As a fan of coffee tonics, he wanted to see what he might be able to bring to that idea, and root beer was a natural fit. “I tried a bunch of failed experiments mixing coffee and root beer—but when I realized I could carbonate cold brew instead of water, that was a eureka moment,” he says. The result, Root Brew—a gently fizzy combination of light, chocolatey Scandi-roasted coffee with notes of sassafras, spice, and vanilla—is now a centerpiece of the Paper Plane roster, available for purchase in stylish cans, and a café staple on draft.

root beer float
A root beer float made with Root 42 at Farm 44. | Photo by Amanda Greene

Clear across the country, that same mad scientist ethos—and a frustration with the anemic state of non-alcoholic options on restaurant menus—motivated Dan McLaughlin and his partner, Chris Onstad, to found Portland Soda Works in 2013 (now branded as Portland Syrups). “There always seemed to be this gap where you could either get really nice cocktails or an RC Cola or water, and we wanted to see if we could come up with something better,” McLaughlin says. “We didn’t set out to create a root beer necessarily, we just wanted something delicious.”

Early R&D efforts involved piles of Mason jars, dozens of different herbs and spices, and a notebook packed with scribbles documenting hundreds of recipes and permutations. “Because we gravitated toward a lot of winter warming spices—star anise, clove, sassafras, sarsaparilla, allspice, nutmeg—we kept winding up with flavors that were in the root beer family, so eventually we decided to just be deliberate about it and go all in on a real, organic, old-school throwback to 1800s-style root beer.” To this day, the only extract the company uses in its root beer syrup is vanilla; everything else is brewed the old-fashioned way, directly from the roots.

For McLaughlin, it’s an approach that just makes sense—and honors both root beer’s past and speaks to the potential of its future. “I grew up in Georgia, and root beer and sweet tea were really popular, but you sort of age out of that at some point because most of it is so sweet,” he says. “It really wasn’t until we started tinkering that I realized how unique root beer could be, and how local in flavor. Now I try it wherever I go, and no two are ever the same.”

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