You've probably already figured out the first half of the above question before even taking a look at this article. I imagine you have already guessed that the popular drink was originally made from roots.
And guess what? You're right! But why "beer"?
Charles Hires (1851-1937) was a Philadelphia druggist. At the age of 12, he worked as a drugstore boy. At the age of 16, he moved to Philadelphia and found work in a pharmacy. With $400.00 he had saved, Hires started his own drugstore.
While honeymooning in New Jersey in 1875, he tasted an herbal tea containing juniper, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla. Root and berry drinks had been around for a long time, but this tea was different.
Upon returning from his honeymoon to his pharmacy's soda fountain, he worked on creating a similar-tasting carbonated drink. He came up with a mixture of sassafras roots, barks, herbs, and flowers. He was soon marketing an selling it and it became the first commercial brand of root beer.
Hires originally sold his new beverage in boxes. He only sold it to housewives and proprietors of drugstores. Those who purchased the product had to mix in their own water, sugar, and yeast.
But Hires originally sold it as “Hires Root Tea.” Hires, a Quaker, tried to sell his "root tea" to the heavy-drinking Pennsylvania coal miners. The rugged miners, however, weren't interested in any drink called "tea.” So, to make his beverage more appealing to them, he changed the name to “Hires Root Beer."
Hires began bottling and promoting his root beer and by 1892 more than two million bottles had been sold. Ironically, Hires fell afoul of the Temperance Movement in 1895.
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union called for a boycott of Hires Root Beer, which they thought contained beer. The boycott lasted until 1898, when a laboratory analysis persuaded the misguided do-gooders that Hires Root Beer contained no alcohol.
One of Hires’ chief competitors was Roy Allen. Allen opened the world's first root beer stand in Lodi, California, in 1919.
Allen also contributed to the evolution and popularity of the drink by serving it in cold, frosty mugs. In 1922, he partnered with Frank Wright. Combining the initials of their surnames, they dubbed their brand of root beer “A&W.”
Edward Barq got into the root beer game in 1898. Barq's company also sold several other beverages, but their root beer became their bread and butter. Barq's Root Beer was different than other brands, in that it was made from sarsaparilla and did contain caffeine (most brands of root beer do not). Also, Barq's Root Beer did not have the frothy, foamy head customary on most other brands.
Root beer soon became immensely popular all over the globe.
Interestingly, although the drink does contain no alcohol, it became especially popular during Prohibition. (Charles Hires was a devout prohibitionist.) We all know how much guys like to fantasize and perhaps they just like to imagine they're drinking "beer,” when they consciously know they're not.