MUENSTER — Though he doesn’t technically reside in North Texas, a familiar face at Germanfest said he feels at home at any festival where he can serve a drink that’s near to his heart.

Chris Zemer, whom many visitors to festivals around the country know simply as “that root beer guy,” poured gallons upon gallons of home-made rootbeer to concession stand-goers at an outdoor stand during Germanfest over the weekend.

Zemer, a mustachioed, middle-aged man with many tattoos who often sports a trademark derby cap, will serve up to 8,200 gallons in a spring season, with servings given to customers in a handled, plastic mug.

“It’s the sole survivor of the old root beer stands,” Zemer said, pointing to his roaming place of business.

Zemer, 53, said root beer is in his blood — not because he drinks so much of it (which he does) but because the business, Zemer’s Root Beer, is a family tradition dating back to the 1800s. He inherited the business in 1991, continuing a four-generation family enterprise.

Zemer’s great-grandfather, Frederick Zemer, patented his drink in 1926, after his foray into the movie theater business went flat.

Money wasn’t exactly growing on trees, but Sassafras oil, the main ingredient of root beer, did. The Zemer family went right to planting Sassafras trees at their home in Ionia, Mich., northwest of Lansing.

Bark from the roots of the Sassafras tree, according to Food Reference.com, was the typical flavor in root beer historically, and gave root beer its primary flavor. However, Sassafras bark was banned by the federal Food and Drug Administration due to the carcinogenic properties of its main chemical, safrole, in 1960. A safrole-free variety is now used, which is more difficult to produce. About 800 gallons of Sassafras oil is required per year to keep up with the production of 8,000 gallons of drinkable root beer, Zemer said.

In 1982, Sassafras trees were planted at the Zemer home in Tyler, and the oil from the tree is still used today to give the root beer its distinctive flavor. The details are part of the secretive family recipe.

Though native to the eastern portion of the U.S., Zemer said he hasn’t had trouble keeping them in East Texas.

“When you pull up a Sassafras tree out of the ground, five more will sprout,” he said, with a chuckle.

To market the product, Zemer’s great-grandfather purchased a stand, which featured a root beer carbonation machine powered via a belt-drive hooked up to a Studebaker’s engine.

His great-grandfather ran the business until 1940 when his son Norman, a carpenter and Chris Zemer’s grandfather, took over running the stick joint-style stand. Norman Zemer replaced it with the current stand, an arched, stainless steel trailer, in 1945. The trailer does not contain a counter, as one has to be set up around the trailer separately.

The stand is hauled on a separate trailer to keep wear and tear to a minimum, and Zemer takes the stand back home to Michigan once a year to its “ancestral home,” he said.

“Growing up, us seven Zemer kids — six boys and one girl — all had to take our turns running the root beer stand,” he said of his memories of what was then his grandfather’s business.

In those days, he said, the kids would also sell grape drinks, orange soda and cigarettes.

Zemer’s latest contribution was a row of marquee lights and a sign atop the classic carnival trailer. In the days when such trailers were common, festivals were not as common as county fairs and exhibitions, which made for the bulk of the Zemer’s Root Beer sales.

Root beer was the most popular soft drink in the late ’40s, he said, but customers still line up for the beverage eight years into the 21st Century. The advent of ice cream to make root beer floats added a new dimension to the product during the ’60s, he said, and the stand will expend about 50 buckets of ice cream on a single weekend.

Profits aren’t enough to earn Zemer and his wife, Joy, a luxurious living, he noted, but he said he isn’t in it for the money, but to continue a family tradition.

“There’s not a lot of money in this, but to me it’s a legacy,” he said.

To keep the family root beer stand going, though, requires a certain degree of salesmanship — which Zemer said is not a problem for “talkers” like him. Talking up the crowds have made for a feeling of extended family, he noted.

“During the winter, we’ll go out to Arizona for festivals and run into people from Texas” he said. “We’ll say ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ and they’ll say there’s no way they stick around Texas in the summer!”

Alan Schmidtt, a customer of Zemer’s at Germanfest Saturday night, said his son, Andrew Schmidtt, asked his father to be on the lookout for “the root beer man.”

“He’s an iconic root beer salesman,” Schmidtt said. “Truly one of a kind.”

The bond strengthens whenever he runs into an older customer who was a patron of his grandfather. Sometimes getting those stories out of his patrons takes a bit of verbal skill, he said, and other times customers gladly volunteer to share their memories.

During a still moment at a festival, Zemer will holler at a passer-by and urge them to try a mug.

“I still cackle,” Zemer said. “You’ve got to be friendly if you want them to keep coming back for refills.”

Regarding the mugs: They were once the classic, handled glass variety that Zemer said frosted well and added to the overall experience and taste of buying a fresh root beer. The threat of a law suit and subsequent pressure from an insurance company caused Zemer to revert to modern, plastic mugs that won’t shatter.

According to Zemer, a patron went off to a local tavern following a non-alcohol community festival with a mug, and later fell on the broken shards of the mug during a brawl. The incident cost Zemer’s Root Beer their insurance policy temporarily and nearly the family business.

But Zemer said he doesn’t let such disappointments hold him back, and even sue-happy drunks can’t keep the root beer barker from entertaining his customers.

“The world today is so (expletive) up in many ways,” he said. “So it’s just great to have people leave the stand with smiles on their faces. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at andyhoguegdr@ntin.net.

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