My earliest recollection of any mention of beer in pop culture was in an early episode of Happy Days. Richie Cunningham was in a bar posing as someone much older and allowed to be there. When he ordered “a beer,” the barkeep asked him “What kind? Draft, bottle…”
It can be proposed that Richie’s wide-eyed naiveté, solid morals and firm – yet milquetoast – personality are allegory for a more hopeful and optimistic America… but that’s neither here nor there. We’re talking beer. Root beer.
Truly an American drink, root beer’s origins go back to somewhere in the 18th century. I can recall a history book I had as a youngster mentioning that Native Americans first introduced manifest destiny-minded palefaces to the beverage only to be rewarded with germ-riddled blankets and eviction notices, so to speak. Other online resources only mention that farmers brewed sassafras roots into a low-alcohol beverage for family get-togethers.
Commercial production of root beer came about in the 19th century as pharmacists began hawking pretty much any combination of roots and herbs as miracle snake oil. Prohibition saw root beer’s popularity soar as lager-deprived citizens pined for anything frothily similar to their now-illegal suds, among other liquids. Then, in 1960 it was determined by the FDA that sassafras root contained carcinogen earning it an immediate ban in foodstuffs. This caused producers to turn to alternative ingredients.
As far as natural ingredients go, there are 36 commonly-used herbs, roots and spices that can be employed in root beer production. Of course, many soda manufacturers rely upon extracts and artificial ingredients, but with craft brewing gaining credence there are many breweries dabbling in classic soft drinks, and no craft brewer worth their brew kettle would dream of using extracts when they’re simultaneously touting their artisanal ingredients.
Soda pop is all fine and dear… I mean, come on, who doesn’t like a good soft drink on a warm day? But what about something a little more grown up? Craft brewers are now beginning to offer “hard” versions of their sodas.
Mission Brewery out of San Diego, California is one of those offering a hard root beer. Theirs – alcohol content aside – takes me back to my childhood when root beer was my go-to soda. Except Mug, A&W, Barq’s… even Sioux City Sarsaparilla (yes, it’s a real soda, Lebowski fans) have nothing on this awesome root beer! Expect scents and flavors of vanilla, caramel, allspice, clove, wintergreen, birch and ginger when you finally try this excellent beverage. With so many candy-like callback-to-childhood flavors it’s easy to forget that this clocks in at 7.5% ABV, so be warned!
Mission Brewery… Bridging the gap between adulthood and our youths! Take that, Richie Cunningham!