I love root beer. I really do. But it's not a love I readily express or, for that matter, publicly display. In fact, a friend of mine refuses to believe me, exclaiming, "I've never even seen you drink a root beer!" But I believe root beer--rich, sweet and highly caloric--is a drink best poured in private. It's not a gregarious sort of soda, the kind that improves with a crowd, like Coke. I can't, for example, imagine a root-beer maker mounting a campaign to "give the world" a root beer or touting its drinkers as "the root-beer generation." Root beer and its fans are too private and, well, too quirky for that. (Root-beer ad campaigns, when staged at all, tend to be more idiosyncratic than inclusive. Remember the old Barq's "Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale" ad campaign?) Even my disbelieving friend admits she is a loner sort of root-beer lover: "I'll usually have a root beer by myself when I get home from work, the way other people might make themselves a martini."
There are people I've known for years before finding out they too have strong feelings for root beer. (The moment of discovery has invariably played out like a blind date on which two people realize they share a passion for Erté or polka dance music, with a conspiratorial whisper, "You love root beer, too?") Offbeat, a bit dorky, perhaps, but something that seems as if it could bond you for life. And root-beer drinkers really do need to stick together. After all, we're only a measly 2 to 4 percent of the soft-drink market.
I think the reasons root beer lacks group appeal are the same reasons it has groupies--namely, its assertive flavors and oddball ingredients. The latter have historically included such stuff as would make a naturalist's heart soar--birch bark, dandelion, dog grass and, above all, sassafras root. As any true fan can tell you, the first nationally advertised commercial root beer, Hires, was originally marketed as an herb tea. It became a beer only after a friend of Charles Hires's pointed out that no manly man of the time (1876) would be caught drinking something called a hesalth-giving tea. Sassafras remained root beer's central ingredient until federal regulators in the 1960s determined that safrole, a component of oil of sassafras, was toxic. Brewers scrambled for substitutions, and although many small companies sought natural alternatives, like honey and vanilla, most of the large manufacturers resorted to flavorings and colorings similar to those in Pepsi and Coke. A&W Root Beer, for example, lists these as its primary ingredients: carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup and/or sugar and caramel color. Yet, somehow, even in commercial concoctions, root beer is transformed into something foamy and rich, piquant, distinctive.