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Root Beer: The Beloved Beverage

DSC03352~ A sweet indulgence with a complex story ~

 

 

Once called Sassafras Tea or simply “root tea,” the popular, even beloved, beverage known to us as root beer is hard to pin down. Exactly what is this stuff? We know it as a brown drink, usually sweet, sometimes carbonated and best served in an ice cold mug. But the recipe can vary quite a lot, and the modern products you and I buy have strayed quite far from the original concoction that was made from the root of certain bushes or trees.

 

Root beer is a caffeine-free, all-natural beverage, or at least it began that way. There is no set formula for root beer and in fact different companies use a variety of ingredients. In addition to sassafras flavour, root beer often has ginseng, vanilla, anise, burdock, cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, juniper, or wintergreen. It can be sweetened with cane sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and, most recently aspartame.

 

Commercial root beers nowadays are generally carbonated, and though carbonation was originally achieved with yeast; modern fizzy root beers are artificially carbonated. Those found on store shelves will list artificial sassafras among the contents and sometimes contain caffeine. They all contain some kind of preservatives, generally sodium benzoate.

 

The beverage was invented by Native Americans who used the root and or bark of sassafras and sarsaparilla trees for both medicinal purposes and refreshment. Sarsaparilla was known to stave off winter coughs and bronchitis. Sassafras provides the primary flavour while Sarsaparilla by itself is less interesting in flavour. In fact, it has been compared to a weak tea made from cardboard.

 

Once European settlers discovered the drink, they loved it and learned to make their own versions. In time, they began to mass produce it. At this point, the ingredients inevitably changed and some bottlers turned the caffeine-free all-natural beverage into what is basically a soda pop.

 

Yet despite all that change, the legend of root beer remains strong. It is a popular drink and available in many stores on St. Maarten. Found in glass bottles, aluminum cans or even at some fast food soda dispensers, its unique flavour is craved by many diehard fans, and often celebrated when unexpectedly found on the shelves. However, to savour the true root beer taste, with no artificial flavours or preservatives, you will have to try to make it yourself (good luck with that) … or in your North American travels, you may get lucky and happen to cross paths with a mobile homemade root beer stand going by the name of Zemer’s. That, in fact, is just what I did during my trip to Texas last month.

 

Christopher Zemer is an outgoing character, ready to spin tales at the drop of a hat. This day, he was set up in the parking lot of The Spring Fair in Polk, Texas. He is passionate about his recipe which is calls “the real deal.” As a root beer connoisseur, I knew I had to try it. One taste and it was obvious, this was something far more flavourful and rich than any other root beer I had ever sampled. “You see,” Christopher smiled and nodded, “you never tasted anything like that before!” With wide eyes, I nodded back and smiled.

 

The born salesmen began his spiel: “Zemer’s root beer is a family tradition, starting out in the 1800s. Great-grandfather Fredrick Zemer patented his unique recipe in 1926.” Christopher is the fourth generation to run the family business of keeping the public supplied with homemade root beer.

 

Today, Zemer and wife Joy live the life of Riley, traveling from festivals and fairs all over the country, selling their great tasting homemade root beer. They have two mobile root beer stands and are home based in Texas but often travel to the surrounding states. “We make the absolute best homemade root beer, root beer floats and root beer slushies you will ever taste,” said Christopher with a big smile and a cold glass of root beer in his hand.

 

The Zemers have a loyal following of dedicated natural root beer lovers and they keep up with each other on facebook at “Zemer’s Homemade Rootbeer Company.” Christopher posts where he will be each weekend and encourages his followers to post their best root beer drinking photos. Many fans will even give suggestions as to other venues he should visit.

 

“It’s kind of funny,” said Christopher. “I was actually the black sheep of the family. I was the one always getting in trouble growing up. But when it was time for my daddy to pass on the business, I was the only one that wanted it.”

 

Root beer has a surprising history and the same brand names we see on the store shelves date back to the 1800s and early 1900s. It was sold in small quantities in stores as early as the 1840s. Back then, it was usually sold as a syrup and the buyer then added his preferred choice of ingredients. There was even a time when you might find root beer with a slight alcoholic content. Considered by some as a “true root BEER” it was fermented, but it didn’t catch on like the purer versions.

 

By 1876, pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires decided to try bottling the beverage. He was one of the first ever to try to sell it in mass quantities. Hires get the credit, or blame, for changing the name from “tea” to “beer.” It was done strictly for marketing purposes. Hires Root Beer is still a big brand name in the business.

 

Sassafras-based root beer was commercially distributed widely across the United States by 1893. In 1898, Barq began selling a sarsaparilla-based root beer. It was called, as it still is today, “Barq’s Root Beer.”

 

Fast forward to 1919 when Roy Allen opened a root beer stand in California. His trademark is still valued by lovers of root beer: He served his homemade brew in ice-cold, frosty mugs. His business grew into the famed A&W Root Beer. The genius idea of dropping a scoop of vanilla ice cream into the frosty mug of root beer came from an A&W root beer stand, and the root beer float was born!

 

Zemer’s is not likely to get bottled and mass-marketed, so it will likely never make it to the Friendly Island. “I don’t want to bottle this stuff,” insisted Christopher vehemently. “Once you do that, you have to add all kinds of chemicals to it and that would spoil it.”

 

So if you’re in the Texas area or nearby states, check Zemer’s Facebook Page and you might get lucky and have a chance to try some of the “real deal.” How can you pass up Zemer’s recipe? It’s “the absolute best homemade root beer, root beer floats and root beer slushies you will ever taste.”

 

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