Steep History: The Origins of Licorice

Steep History: The Origins of Licorice

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When people hear the word licorice, they often think of the sweet, chewy candy available in red and black varieties. The licorice root is actually 50 times sweeter than regular sugar, though not as popular due to the distinct, sometimes overpowering flavor. However, before it took the spotlight as a delicious treat on store shelves, licorice served many other purposes.

licorice-root-tea

From medicines to fire retardant, licorice has found popularity thanks to its natural ability to support the respiratory support as well as digestion. For this session of our ongoing “Steep History” series, we delve into the past of this miraculous root.

What is Licorice?

Licorice comes from the licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, a member of the pea family native to southeastern Europe. Though similar in taste to the spices anise and tarragon, as well as fennel seeds, the only relation between licorice and the others is the sweet compound anethole. In order to make licorice extract, the dried licorice root is boiled in water until most of the water has evaporated. Licorice has been used to flavor teas, liquor, and soft drinks.

Tracing Back Roots

ancient-egyptian-glyphs

Documented use of licorice goes back as far as 3,000 years ago, starting with the Ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians would use licorice to make a popular beverage of the time, still enjoyed today under the moniker “mai sus.” In addition to use among Egyptian commoners, large quantities of the root were found in the tomb of King Tut.

In fact, a surprisingly high number of powerful societies and rulers have developed a fancy for the root over the years, including the troops of Alexander the Great and the Roman legions. The Caesars advocated licorice as a health remedy, as did Napoleon Bonaparte some 1800 years later. Napoleon’s use of the root to quell his ongoing digestive complications, while helpful, eventually resulted in the blackening of his teeth.

While used throughout history, licorice truly cemented its status around 1500 when crusaders brought it back with them from the Holy Land. Monks at the time advanced licorice root’s medicinal history through its continued homeopathic use, resulting in widespread approval during the Renaissance. Licorice has continued to expand across the world, eventually becoming the treat we know today.

Election to Confection

While licorice history shows that it continued to be used for its medicinal properties, the root’s chewiness and appealing flavor when accented with honey skyrocketed it to iconic candy status. Licorice took on a role as a standard candy manufactured in the Industrial Revolution. Today, licorice is found in many forms including ropes, jujubes, twists, jellybeans, and more. Sugar-free varieties exist for those who crave the taste of the treat without the added sweetness. The uses of licorice expanded even further than candy though, making its way into incredibly useful tools.

colorful-licorice-candy

In the past, beer makers would use licorice as a part of their brews in order to give it a foamy head. The foaming properties of licorice made it a perfect fit for fire extinguishers. Licorice fire extinguishers created oxygen-free foam that served to fight off oil fires prior to the invention of chemical extinguishers.

Great Expectations

At Buddha Teas, we hold licorice in such high regards that we made one of our signature teas after it. Rich in flavor and naturally sweet, licorice root tea provides a warm cup of pure ecstasy to those who drink it, and is frequently included as an ingredient in tea blends. Whether you enjoy your licorice as a tea, medicine, or candy, rest easy knowing that the roots of this plant go very far back, standing the test of time.

production-of-licorice

About The Author

Joe Clark is a firm believer that anything strange is worth trying at least once. Western medicine’s lack of interest in the remarkable properties of tea and herbs stands out in that respect and has sparked his interest in all that tea can be. As he embarks on a pilgrimage to drink every tea he can get his hands on (especially those with funny names), he’ll write articles for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!