The History of Root Beer


Matthew Gross

Barques. A&W. Mug. IBC. Sprecher. Although these brands may seem like they all have different tastes and flavors, they all specialize in one thing: root beer. One may be more bitter or more sweet than the other, but they all have the same backstory.
From a soldier turned monk turned brew master, to pilgrims who couldn’t farm, to the addition of a carcinogenic ingredient, to modern day root beer, our quest to find out the history of root beer begins in the town of Soissons, France around 1080 AD, where a young St. Arnold of Soissons served under King Henry I of France, faithfully fighting against his enemies in multiple campaigns. Until one day, he decided that he was done being a soldier and went into the Benedictine monastery of St. Medard, located in Soissons, France. After being a hermit for almost three years, he was named abbot of the monastery, and then became the Bishop, head religious leader, of Soissons. A feud ensued between Arnold and another Bishop, and ultimately led to Arnold’s retirement, after having his position of Bishop being taken from him, by the other Bishop. Thankfully, he settled down in his home country of Belgium, in a little city called Oudenburg, earning his role as an abbot, head monk, of yet another monastery in Oudenburg. It is said that his interest in brewing beer may have started before he went into the monastery, as early as when he was a soldier, but regardless of when it started, it really took off when he was an abbot in Oudenburg. The clean water situation was less than satisfactory, given that the water was generally contaminated by the product of the citizens toilets. Therefore, Arnold decided that he would do what any great businessman of a lowly feudal city would do: capitalize on the suffering of others, and make beer. The beer he made, usually called small beer because of its low alcohol content, was sold and given to peasants. From this point on, he took more to brewing beer than anything else, and was, rightfully so, canonized (35 years after his death) as St. Arnold of Soissons, patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers.
Beer was and still is brewed with a variety of different hops– specific plants that give beer different flavors– roots, fruits, and other consumables, in order to make it not taste like yeast water. However, the sweetness of beers and drinks of that nature can be partially accredited to the pilgrims, who settled in America, in 1400 AD. Given that the soil was generally not ideal for planting staple crops for beer, like barley and wheat, and the fact that they didn’t’ really know how to farm crops of that nature, they had to improvise what sweet things to add to their brews. As a result, they used honey, molasses, and cane sugar. As a result of the yeast not having any sugar from grains to convert into alcohol, a sweet and relatively nonalcoholic drink was formed: an early version of root beer.
Over the years, different roots and spices, like sarsaparilla root, dandelion root, birch bark, allspice, and vanilla bean, were added to root beer during the brewing process to give it different flavor profiles. However, there was one root that gave this great drink its signature bite: sassafras root. However, sassafras contains safrole, a carcinogen, and the FDA determined that it was probably a bad idea for kids and adults alike to be drinking something that could lead to cancer, and they banned the root in the late 1970s. As a result of the creative minds of the scientists at root beer companies, an artificial sassafras flavor that gave close to the same root beer flavor, without the carcinogenic properties, was created.
All in all, root beer has developed into a make or break drink, some swearing by it and others swearing at it. However, there is one thing that we can all agree on, root beer has had a long history. It was started by a monk, built upon by pilgrims, had a cancerous ingredient removed, had other ingredients added to it, and finally, it finished in our cans, bottles, and hearts.
Fahrendorf, Terri. “Root Beer History.” Bulldog Root Beer, Accessed 7 Oct. 2020.
Millar, Rupert. “Beer Saint’s Day: Arnold of Soissons.” The Drinks Business, 14 Aug. 1970,