Root beer is one of America’s most beloved soft drinks. Yet, there are many people who don’t like its flavor! It seems like you are either a die-hard fan or you turn the other way just at the mention of it.
What many people don’t realize is that root beer has a multitude of flavors as virtually every manufacturer’s root beer has a different recipe. So, just because you don’t like product A, doesn’t mean that you won’t love product B!
But, what does root beer taste like? Root beer is sweet with hints of salt and a bitter undertone. Mint is a noticeable flavor, but it’s more of a menthol-type, refreshing flavor. Other typical flavor notes include vanilla, licorice, anise, cherry bark, nutmeg, cinnamon, acacia, and sweet birch.
Today, we will explore this complex drink and narrow down exactly what you can expect from this popular soda. We will also look at what affects the flavor and how it changes when made differently.
What Is Root Beer?
Everybody has heard of this refreshing drink. Odds are (depending on where you are located in the world) you likely drink it on a weekly or monthly basis. But, like most things, you either like it or you don’t.
With root beer especially, the flavor can be quite controversial. Some people are obsessed with this beverage, while others think it tastes like mouthwash! So, needless to say, what it tastes like (exactly) is up for debate.
Nevertheless, let’s first have a look at what root beer is. This drink originated in North America. It is technically classified as a soft drink, meaning it has been carbonated, sweetened, and artificially flavored.
Traditional root beer was made with the root bark of a sassafras tree or sarsaparilla. But as we have mentioned earlier, most of the products made today will only contain root beer syrup, extract, or essence — all artificial flavors.
Another thing that makes root beers unique is their foamy head — just like real beers! However, it doesn’t taste at all like beer and usually is not alcoholic.
This drink is usually non-alcoholic, caffeine-free, and heavily carbonated. The combined flavor and fizziness of root beer give you a satisfying and uber-refreshing gulp on a hot summer’s day!
How Is Root Beer Made?
The process of mass-producing root beer today is fairly simple and not unique to other soft drinks. After all, the flavor is completely artificially developed.
However, root beer was originally a handmade beverage. In fact, loads of people still use these techniques to make authentic root beer today!
First, a mixture of molasses and water is cooked and cooled. Then, the cooled syrup is combined with sassafras root and bark, and occasionally wintergreen.
Yeast is also added to the mixture before it undergoes two fermentation stages. This does result in a low alcohol percentage of 2% at the most. However, some people do modify their recipes so that the drink comes out more alcoholic.
As you can see, this method doesn’t include any carbonation. But, the bubbles that the yeast creates during the fermentation process do make the drink fizzy.
Check out this video from Glen And Friends Cooking on YouTube if you want to give homemade root beer a try!
What Does Root Beer Taste Like Today?
The flavor of root beer is very complex and much debated since most manufacturers use completely different recipes to make root beer. Unlike cream soda or ginger ale, which have set recipes, root beer is very versatile.
That is why some people absolutely hate it, while others cannot get enough. As we have already said, it is a flavor you are either going to love or hate.
So, what it actually tastes like is almost impossible to say. But, there is still a general guideline.
To start, root beer is very sweet, but it also has a noticeable salty and bitter flavor coming through.
The bitter flavors come from sarsaparilla. So naturally, you will only pick up on this flavor if you buy homemade root beer.
The salty flavor comes from (you guessed it) added salt. It is meant to help create a more balanced flavor while acting as a natural flavor enhancer.
One prominent flavor that almost all root beers contain is mint and wintergreen.
Other flavors that some manufacturers may use are vanilla, cherry bark, licorice, nutmeg, anise, cinnamon or acacia, honey, and sweet birch.
If you buy an alcoholic root beer, even if it only has a low percentage, you will note more yeasty flavors as well. However, it shouldn’t have an alcoholic or beer-like flavor.
Does Root Beer Taste The Same For Everyone?
As you can probably guess from the list of ingredients above, root beer does not have one specific flavor. So no, root beer will not taste the same for everyone.
First, the recipes and ingredients used by different producers are completely different, so we can’t truly compare the flavor of different root beers. Person A might like the first one and not the second, but person B might like the opposite.
This difference in opinion could simply be because there was one ingredient in a root beer that they generally don’t like the flavor of. We’ll never know.
The second major factor that plays a role in what root beer tastes like for different people is their taste buds.
You know how some people taste papaya and describe it as rich, sweet, and tropical? Yet others describe it as tasting like vomit? Well, root beer is kind of the same.
People taste ingredients differently, even if they taste the exact same product. This goes for any food or drink.
While there is a general agreement on the flavor, taste buds are unique. Root beer will always taste different to people even if the ingredients are the same.
Are There Other Sodas That Taste Like Root Beer?
There are of course many manufacturers of root beer, but root beer in general is considered to be one type of soda or soft drink. And, because of its very unique flavor, there truly aren’t many other drinks out there with a similar flavor.
With sarsaparilla soft drinks, the vine is used as the primary flavor. As sarsaparilla is also used to make root beer, the two beverages will have similar flavor profiles, while carbonation helps slightly hide some small differences.
There’s also birch beer. From our lesser-used list of ingredients above, you will see that sweet birch is added to some root beer recipes. For that reason, some people will be able to make a comparison between root beer and birch beer.
Surprisingly, Dr Pepper is another soda that many people say resembles root beer. These two are not made from the same base ingredients.
Dr Pepper does contain vanilla. It also contains other spices that some brands of root beer may include. So again, it depends on which brand of root beer you are referring to.
There are a variety of “root beer-flavored” drinks, but these cannot be considered to be a type of soda on their own. They are more of a specific product, i.e., root beer flavored seltzer is more seltzer than root beer.
History Of Root Beer And How The Flavor Has Changed
It is believed that root beers were originally similar to small beers. We aren’t takling size here — these are alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages made from a mixture of berries, herbs, and bark.
The exact recipe for small beers was extremely diverse. Ultimately, whatever they could find, they used. Naturally, sassafras and sarsaparilla were among these.
That is what ultimately helped narrow down a specific flavor that we call root beer. But, while the base ingredients remain the same, the accompanying flavors and production methods changed throughout the centuries.
In the 1800s, root beer was originally sold as an extract or syrup. There were a few different forms available then, but all of them were mixed at home with sugar, water, and yeast.
Eventually, people started making their own root beer drinks by mixing root beer extract with soda (you can too).
The first commercially branded root beer was sold in 1875 by Charles Elmer Hires, an American pharmacist.
He originally wanted to sell it as “root tea”, but the name “root beer” did much better among coal miners.
The Hires root beer was then marketed in 1876 by Keurig Dr Pepper. To date, it is said to be the longest continuously made soft drink in America.
However, sassafras was banned and labeled as carcinogenic in 1976. This led to manufacturers having to find an alternative, yet similar source of this unique flavor. And in comes wintergreen!
Wintergreen is arguably the main flavor most people taste. While many manufacturers will still try and replicate the sassafras flavor, some just use plain wintergreen extract.
Are All Root Beers Safe To Drink?
Many people don’t know that sassafras root was illegal to use in the United States for a while because it contains a toxin called safrole. Safrole is still illegal to use in commercial root beer production.
While sassafras root was illegal, root beer manufacturers and homemade producers started using cherry bark instead. Sadly, it was then found to contain traces of cyanide.
So, at the end of the day, people argue that everything is poisonous in one way or another. Even the sugar and artificial ingredients we ingest could be considered “poisonous.”
You just have to make a conscious decision for yourself. Always read the label and decide what is best for you.
Substitutes For Root Beer Flavor
Unfortunately, there isn’t one true substitute for root beer flavor since it is so complex . It also mainly depends on which form of flavor you are using.
If you are incorporating root beer soda into a recipe, your substitute will naturally also have to be some type of soda. But if you would be using an extract, the substitute can be an extract.
Before looking for an alternative substitute for root beer extract, try to find root beer-flavored syrup, concentrate, or essence. These are all used as flavoring ingredients that won’t change the consistency of the recipe that much.
The best way to find a substitute that works for you is to experiment. We usually don’t make root beer substitutes at home since it is simply too much effort. But if you want to give it a try, here are some ideas to play around with!
Vanilla bean paste has a very prominent vanilla flavor which is often found in root beer sodas. You can also try using licorice, or a similarly flavored ingredient. Star anise, anise, and aniseed all have licorice-like flavors.
Orange blossom water (this one’s our favorite) is also a common option we see many professional bakers use, as well as ginger juice. We have a theory that cherry extract would work, too, as many manufacturers use it in their recipes.
All of these can be combined with some mint to give the flavor that refreshing bite!
If you are looking for a soda substitute, you can either mix some extracts into carbonated water or tonic water. Or, you can choose a root beer-flavored beverage instead.
Who Makes The Best Root Beer?
We obviously have to ask the competitive question: which commercial root beer is the best? Who wins the flavor war with their own unique recipe? Answer: your vote is as good as ours!
Since the flavor of each manufacturer’s root beer is dependent on their unique recipes, and no one has the same taste buds or taste preferences, it is impossible to declare a best root beer.
However, there are some brands that have been around for quite some time. So that should say something!
A&W is arguably the world’s most famous root beer manufacturer and we must say, it is exceptionally good.
Other popular brands include Barq’s Root Beer, Sprecher Root Beer, IBC, and Virgil’s Handcrafted Root Beer.
What does a root beer float taste like?
A root beer float, like most floats, is made by adding some cold soda in a (preferably chilled) glass and topping it with a scoop or three of vanilla ice cream!
The flavor of the actual soda remains the same for the most part: a minty, zesty, vanilla-like flavor with licorice and cherry undertones.
Of course, the ice cream naturally adds creaminess and a stronger vanilla flavor. Once the ice cream starts melting, the root beer soda becomes creamier and gradually loses its fizziness. So, you better drink it up quickly!
Does root beer contain any beer or alcohol?
Not all root beer beverages contain alcohol. In fact, very few do! Root beer soda or soft drinks are almost always completely free of alcohol (and caffeine).
Those homemade root beer drinks that do contain alcohol almost never contain more than 2%. However, there are people who do like to make their root beer with a higher alcohol percentage.
Why does root beer foam on the top?
While the foam on root beer looks almost exactly like beer foam, they are not the same. The foam on some root beer is due to the natural properties of sassafras. If your root beer is made with wintergreen, it is unlikely to foam in a similar way.
If you have a root beer float, the soda will start foaming once it comes into contact with the ice cream and releases the carbon dioxide bubbles trapped in the dairy. This forms a frothy, foamy head.