Ask anyone and 1920 is the year they will say Prohibition started. But in 1919, there was a temporary restriction called "wartime Prohibition."

While it wasn't a constitutional amendment, it shook up the United States' alcohol industry, sending breweries scrambling to find ways to salvage their business. Some turned to an invention going way back.

Ancient Native Americans had some medicinal and flavorful drinks that they partook in well before the arrival of Europeans. This drink was generally made from boiling roots, particularly of the sassafras tree, though perhaps also birch tree and others.

Europeans did have similar decoctions going back to the 16th century as well, but it wasn't until the 1840s that the drink became a commercial success when pharmacies served it in concentrated form to be mixed with water for a more mild beverage.

One of the early pioneers in the industry was pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires, a teetotaler in Philadelphia. A company with his last name still exists today. Hires initially produced what he called "root tea" for those who did not drink alcohol. But he couldn't quite get it to catch on with his main audience, the local miners, until he gave in and renamed it "root beer."

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When the wartime Prohibition started, breweries - like Hires - thought root beer could serve as an alternative to bolster their sales. There are at least three companies associated with that year.

One company formed from Griesedieck Brewery, National Brewing Co., Columbia Brewery, Gast Brewery and Wagner Brewing Company to produce a commercially agreeable root beer that was sweet with a sharp bite. They named their combined company the Independent Brewing Company and labeled their bottles IBC.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

The company passed from hand to hand for years before World War II spelled its end. They had many products, but when the company crashed, only their root beer seems to have survived when the Seven-Up company bought it. Today, the parent company is the Keurig Dr Pepper company.

Strangely, Keurig Dr Pepper owns at least one more 1919 root beer, and perhaps the most famous of them. This one is sweet and smooth, and unlike many, it lacks the licorice/medicinal flavor you sometimes get. Originally a pharmacy concentrate, Roy W. Allen and Frank Wright purchased the formula and began selling it through "tray boys" at food stands in California.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

This was the origin of the drive-in curbside "car hop" and the birth of not only the A&W brand of root beer, but also the restaurants, which were officially started in 1924, making it one of the oldest restaurant chains in the country.

Last but not least is a brew so popular that in college I held a glass bottle root beer tasting event and it came out the clear winner compared to 25 other root beers. Oddly enough, it was not originally invented in 1919, despite that being its name. The additional vanilla in IBC grants it a more defined, smooth, caramelly flavor.

Like IBC, 1919 was produced by a brewing company. And that company did have to make changes to make it through the Prohibitions, including producing nonalcoholic beverages.

Screen grab from
Screen grab from

But the August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm, Minnesota, didn't start producing a root beer with the name "1919" until 1965, to commemorate the hardships breweries faced during Prohibition. Owner George Marti had steered the company through Prohibition, but he died in 1934, a year after its end. It was his grandson, Warren, who introduced the company's famous root beer.

Homemade Old-Fashioned Bottled Root Beer

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Courtesy of

  • 1 1/2 gallons molasses
  • 5 gallons boiling water
  • 1/4 pound sarsaparilla root
  • 1/4 pound sassafras bark (read up on safrole as it might be a carcinogen)
  • 1/4 pound birch bark (yellow birch for a wintergreen flavor)
  • 1/2 pint fresh yeast
  • Additional water to make 16 gallons total
  • Optional additions: ginger root, vanilla, anise

Combine the first measure of water with the molasses and allow it to stand for three hours. Then add the roots followed by the yeast.

Allow this to form a mild fermentation for 12 hours before drawing it off for bottling. It will ferment more in the bottles, creating carbonation. Keep the temperature from 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit during fermentation and after bottling until the carbonation is done.

The alcohol level will be very low so long as the initial fermentation is short and the bottles are mostly filled.

Root Beer Syrup

(For pancakes!)

  • 4 of your favorite 16-ounce bottles of root beer
  • 2 tablespoons butter

In a saucepan, reduce the root beer from the bottles until it will coat the back of a spoon, then whisk in the butter. Beware, this syrup will be somewhat thin while hot, but it will thicken when cooled. Serve over pancakes with a vanilla whipped cream.

Root Beer Pulled Pork

  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder butt roast
  • 1 bottle root beer (or can, I guess)

Place the roast in a suitable slow cooker with the bottle of root beer and cook for 8-10 hours on low until the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a fork. Serve on buns with barbecue sauce.

Root Beer Barbecue Sauce

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Courtesy of

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup root beer
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch

Sautee the garlic in olive oil over medium low heat until golden brown, then stir in the liquids, ketchup and brown sugar. Bring this to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 6-8 minutes while stirring occasionally until it has reduced by 1/4. Whisk the cornstarch together with 1 tablespoon cold water, then add it to the saucepan along with the salt and pepper. It should thicken.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at