This Day in History (16-May-1866) – Charles Elmer Hires invents root beer

Root beer has its origins in what is referred to as small beers. Small beers are a collection of local beverages (some alcoholic, some not) made during colonial times in America from a variety of herbs, barks, and roots that commonly included: birch beer, sarsparilla beer, ginger beer and root beer. Charles Hires was a Philadelphia pharmacist. While on his honeymoon in New Jersey , he had some herbal tea that he really liked (the honeymoon was probably just on his parent’s farm in Roadstown). When he was back in Philadelphia, he experimented until he had something similar like herbal tea.

Charles began selling a dry version of the tea mixture. It was a dry extract in a packet, that you mixed at home with sugar, yeast and water to make up a gallonful of root beer yourself. You boiled the extract in water, strained it, then added sugar and yeast, let it ferment, then bottled it. At the same time Charles also began working on a liquid version of the same tea. The result of was a combination of over twenty-five herbs, berries and roots that Charles Hires used to flavor a carbonated soda water drink. Charles realized the word “beer” would appeal more to men than “tea.”  The Charles Hires’ version of a root beer beverage was first introduced to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition.

Charles had taken out a patent for the term “root beer” in 1879, but lost it the same year when Congress ruled that generic terms in the dictionary couldn’t be patented. Charles decided sales would be ever better if it were sold already brewed, so he started selling it that way, as a concentrated liquid extract that you then made it from at home; you still had to boil it, but it was less messy. It was sold as Root Beer Extract in glass bottles, on which the wording “Makes Five Gallons of a Delicious Drink” was embossed in raised glass letters. The Charles E Hires Company was established in 1890. In 1893 Charles first sold and distributed bottled root beer. Charles Hires and his family certainly contributed greatly to the popularity of modern root beer. The Hires Root Beer Company is now owned by Cadbury-Schweppes.