So, following my recent visit to the Root Beer Store, I did a little research during which the two most interesting things I found were (1) its creator back in 1876 first called it Root Tea, which I (being a teetotaler) like much better and think I'll adopt, and (2) I've probably never had any real root beer.
Turns out that back in 1960, the government banned the use of sassafras roots, the main ingredient, after some testing suggested it might be a carcinogenic. The general consensus now, looking back, seems to be that this was overreacting* (a person would have to imbibe massive doses daily over a long period to suffer any harmful effects),** but on the better-safe-than-sorry basis the FDA ban is still in place. Which means that all root beer is brewed with substitutes, either artificial sassafras flavor or similar roots that take their place.
Given that I was only a little over a year old at the time, it seems likely that all the root beer I drank growing up falls on the artificial-sassafras side of this great divide. And checking the labels of all the ones we'd picked up in Puyallup (eleven different varieties from ten different brewers) it seems that they all use the substitutes as well.
This makes sense of something else that's puzzled me ever since I moved up to these parts. I used to love sassafras tea when I was in scouts, digging up my own and brewing it when on camp-outs and sometimes at home as well. When I moved out here and discovered tea shops -- whole shops devoted entirely to selling different varieties of tea, esp. The Tea Cup on Queen Anne Hill (gone but not forgotten) -- one of the first things I did was try to buy sassafras tea, with no success. I could sometimes find sassafras tea bags, but they brewed up a very weak and unsatisfactory tea. Eventually I was able to find some places that sold sassafras directly, not in tea-bags (e.g., down in Pike Place Market), but every time it turned out to be chopped up bark, not roots (the roots being where all the flavor is, and the bark having an unpleasant aftertaste) -- which is kind of like eating corn silks rather than corn.
Now I finally understand why I haven't been able to find good, tea-worthy sassafras, and why the chopped bark substitute is so ubiquitous.
But then I thought: there's this thing called the internet. Maybe there are folks out there who live down south and sell the real thing, sassafras root?
And the answer turns out to be: why yes, there are.
So I've now ordered a small batch of sassafras roots. If they're the real thing I'll know it by the sight (and smell) of them.
When they arrive there will be much tea-making, and either joy, great joy or lamentations bitter and heartfelt. We'll see.
tonight's cup: organic Yunnan Black from The Silk Road tea company (all organic, all artisan teas)
tonight's music: The Art of McCartney (on vinyl). tonight's song: Eleanor Rigby, by Alice Cooper.
*see, for example, this little bit on the subject by Dr. Weil, who believes it harmless in moderation:
**one online source estimated you'd have to drink twenty-four gallons of root beer a day to match the dosage that produced ill effects in lab rats in the 1960 test. Needless to say, that ain't happening.
concert review: San Francisco Symphony
2 days ago