Sunday, January 3, 2010

The First Root Beer

I laid in bed, tossing and turning. I couldn’t sleep, so I arose and came to my computer to work on this column. When I fired up my Mac, and opened Firefox, my Google home page gadget, “Today in History” touted - May 16,1866: Charles Elmer Hires invents root beer.

As a lover of root beer since I was old enough to remember, I decided to research the story a bit and see what I could learn this week about root beer. As it turned out – quite a bit. First I learned that Charles Elmer Hires (August 19, 1851 – July 31, 1937) was an early promoter of commercially prepared root beer, but hardly the “inventor” of root beer.

At the age of 12 he worked as a drugstore boy. When he was 16 he moved to Philadelphia and worked in a pharmacy, saving his money until he had nearly $400. Using this money, he started his own drugstore. Later, he would attend medical school and he eventually became a pharmacist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I did learn that although various websites state that “Hires Root Beer was created by pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires on May 16, 1866,” this is doubtful. First, no documentation is given on any of the websites as to where the date came from. And second, given that Hires was born Aug. 19, 1851, that would mean he was 14 years old. The 1866 date is rendered all the more doubtful in light of the lore that his recipe for root beer was based on one for an herbal tea which he secured from an innkeeper in New Jersey while he was on his honeymoon. All very strange.

Hires is one of many brands owned by the British giant Cadbury Schweppes. Their brands include Dr. Pepper, Seven Up, A&W Root Beer and many others. The company states that:

“Hires Root Beer, America’s original root beer, is more than 120 years old and the oldest continuously marketed soft drink in the United States. Created by pharmacist Charles E. Hires, it began as a delicious herbal tea made of roots, berries, and herbs. After perfecting the recipe in his drugstore, Hires decided to call his drink ‘root beer’ because a friend thought it would be more appealing than ‘herbal tea.’ ”

Other stories tell how Hires “discovered” root beer on his honeymoon in New Jersey where the woman who ran his honeymoon hotel served root tea. Hires was originally going to call his drink "root tea" also but thought that "root beer" would be more appealing to the working class.

Another story states that Hires was a young medical student at the Jefferson medical college when a friend, the Reverend Dr. Russell Conwell, founder of the Temple university, asked Hires to assist in concocting a beverage for sale to Pennsylvania miners in the interest of a temperance movement. With two other professors, they made the drink out of root, bark, and berry ingredients.”

The drink was slow to catch on, but Conwell persuaded Hires to present his product at the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. To make it stand out, he called his drink "The Temperance Drink" and "the greatest health giving beverage in the world". Because of his role in the temperance movement it is believed that Hires wanted root beer to be an alternative to alcohol.

What is known is that Charles Hires began marketing “Hires’ Improved Root-Beer Package,” a powdered substance from which a consumer could make root beer in 1877. Hires was packaging the mixture in boxes and selling it to housewives and soda fountains. They needed to mix in water, sugar, and yeast.

The wording use of “Improved Root Beer” is key here, because root beer had been established for at least 40 years before Hires began marketing his product. American colonists drank root beer - sometimes slightly fermented, sometimes not - which was then called “small or short beer.”

Published references of root beer as a drink were plentiful as can be attested by these newspaper articles:

July 28, 1840 - The Southport (Wisconsin) Telegraph: “The editor of the Rahway [N.J.] Herald spent the fourth [of July] in the following manner:—Forenoon, feasted on cherry pie and root beer; afternoon on root beer and cherry pie; evening partook of both. Nothing like variety!”

October 13, 1843 - The Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Democrat, published a report from New York reflecting on “celebrating the ‘glorious fourth [of July],’ in parading the dusty streets, rejuvenating in the oyster shops, or in drinking root-beer (that abominable compound) in the Park....”

July 14, 1847 – Watertown (Wisconsin) Chronicle: “While in New York, President [James K.] Polk visited Fulton market, and was presented with a pine apple, a glass of root beer and a paper of tobacco. He received them all with a ‘low bow.’ ”

June 15, 1849 – The Star and Banner (Gettysburg, PA): “Five persons have lately died at Blairsville, Pa., by drinking root beer, made by mistake from wild parsnip instead of roots of sweet myrrh and sarsaparilla, and some 16 or 18 persons are still suffering from ill effects.”

June 22, 1849 – Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Sentinel and Gazette: An ad titled “Temperance Beverage” read, “You that are thirsty—and who is not, this hot weather?—go and drink Hopkins’ Root Beer and Sarsaparilla Soda manufactured by him at the corner of Martin and Main Streets. We drink it daily and think it nothing inferior to the nectar of the gods.”

June 11, 1853 – Hornellsville (New York) Tribune: An ad for Dr. Green’s Celebrated Root Beer ran stating it was manufactured locally and “furnished to village and country dealers on liberal terms.”

September 18, 1858 – New York (New York) Times: “Fair Haven oysters, ice cream, and the more substantial fares of roast beef and boiled are to be had in plenty, and may be washed down with pop, root-beer, or soda-water, at one’s pleasure.”

September 4, 1869 – Port Jervis (New York) Evening Gazette: “The fashionable drinks in Boston just now, are root beer, New England root beer, old fashioned root beer, Ottawa beer, Chippews beer, and several other kinds of beer.” It added: “Lager beer [is] prohibited by the prohibitory law.”

Prior to “inventing” root beer, Hires was selling an herbal tea, a cough medicine and cough drops at his pharmacy in Philadelphia. It’s been speculated that the serving of the root beer at Hires’ drugstore stemmed from carbonated water at the soda fountain being added to Hires’ herb tea. This is unlikely, implying as it does the chance discovery of something new, while root beer was by then a common beverage.

The most reliable source lists 1895 as the date when bottled Hires Root Beer went on the market. According to a 1932 United States Board of Tax Appeals decision, it was in 1895 that the Charles E. Hires Company “added to its former products carbonated root beer put up in bottles ready for consumption.”

Those “former products,” according to the decision, were “Hires’ Improved Root-Beer Package,” inaugurated in 1877, which was “a dry preparation known as from which root beer was obtained by a simple process,” and “Hires’ Root-Beer Extract,” introduced in 1878, “from which, by the addition of water and yeast, root beer was easily made, ready for consumption.” Neither product constituted a “root beer”—they were the makings for root beer.

Whichever date is right, it was much later than May 16, 1866. There were carbonated soft drinks in bottles in 1885, but Hires Root Beer was not listed at the time. And soft drinks in cans didn’t come about until 1938 when Cliquot Club Ginger Ale first appeared in tin containers.

So, there you have the “rest of the story!” For my money, I prefer A&W Root Beer as a drink!