There’s an old-fashioned charm to homemade root beer with its odd array of roots and bark, flowers, leaves and berries. It, like many other fermented beverages, once enjoyed position as a staple of American cookery. Water, as you know, was not always potable and raw milk, small beers, cider, perry and other fermented beverages were consumed as the drink of choice – even for small children. For a time, each community and each family enjoyed a closely guarded homemade root beer recipe.
While most home brewers now make their root beers from commercially sold root beer concentrates, there’s a certain undeniable charm of brewing root beer the traditional way – slowly simmering a concoction of roots, berries, bark and spices, dissolving a sweetener into the herbaceous brew adding a natural source of yeast, bottling and then simply waiting for the yeast to do its work. (If you’re reading this on email, be sure to click through to view the history of root beer, the safrole controversy, its use in folkloric remedies and, of course, the recipe).
While popular since the colonial era, when European colonists combined the brewing techniques of the old world with wild-crafted ingredients like sassafras. At the turn of the 20th century, an ingenious pharmacist named Charles Hire, developed a popular root beer mix featuring licorice, birch, juniper, sarsaparilla, hops, sassafras and ginger among other roots, herbs, bark, flowers and berries and through clever marketing and storytelling, his mix grew wildly popular. An 1891 pamphlet for Hire’s Root Beer, which you can see in the image above as well as in its entirety thanks to the University of Iowa, describes the inspiration for the drink in perfect Victorian-era fancy – detailing the story of Little Mabel who was given the recipe from forest gnomes and fairies.
Hire’s Root Beer was sold and resold before ending up as a holding of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and while the original version, much like my recipe for homemade root beer below, earned its complex flavor by natural means, the version most well-loved by the American public achieves its flavor, color and sweetness by artificial means.
The primary flavor found in any old-fashioned homemade root beer recipe is sassafras, a deciduous tree native to North America. The characteristic sweet flavor comes from the tree’s roots, thus giving us the name root beer. Incidentally, the tree’s leaves give us file powder which is the essential thickening agent in classic gumbo. Now of course, the primary flavor we associate with root beer is that of wintergreen, not of sassafras.
Wintergreen leaf, though almost always an ingredient in most traditional root beer recipes, replaced sassafras as the prominent flavor in root beer during the 1960s when a study conducted on lab animals implicated safrole, a naturally occurring polyphenol, in liver cancer. Of course, the lab rats were fed massive quantities of safrole – the human equivalent of consuming about 32 twelve-ounce bottles of root beer a day. After the study was released, the FDA required commercial soft drink makers to remove sassafras from their brews. Of course, cinnamon, nutmeg and basil also contain safrole but this seemed to escape the attention of the FDA.
Interestingly, while massive quantities of safrole caused liver cancer in lab animals, it seems that small doses may actually play a protective role for humans. Some studies indicate that safrole may actually stimulate the death of cancer cells, particularly oral cancers1,2 though it may also do so in lung3 and prostrate4 cancers.
Wintergreen, already an ingredient in root beer, offered a flavor profile strikingly similar to that of sassafras, and made a ready replacement. Most root beers made today contain neither sassafras nor wintergreen and are instead made with artificial flavors. Even wintergreen extract, the preferred flavoring for many home brewers, is difficult to attain and typically is made with propylene glycol – a petrochemical.
As for me, it seems that everything is a medicine and everything is a poison; it’s all about dosage. So when I make my root beer, I’ll take my chances with a tiny amount of safrole in natural sassafras and avoid the propylene glycol in synthetic flavorings.
Homemade root beer recipes, despite the safrole controversy, contain many herbs and spices considered medicinal in folkloric medicine. And while each homemade root beer recipe differs from the next, it is their consistencies that illustrate the power of traditional cooking and herbal medicine. Now more or less obsolete in natural and herbal medicine, sassafras was traditionally used as a diuretic and thought to cleanse the blood and promote skin health., which may account for Charles Hire’s claim that his brew purified the blood and made for rosy cheeks.
Sarsaparilla, similarly, was typically used to beautify the complexion and as a diuretic. Traditionally, wintergreen leaf was used as a carminative – that is, it was thought to prevent gas and to ease digestion, and it was also typically used to ease the pain of sciatic and epidydimitis. Licorice root, similarly, was used in folkloric medicine for its ability to ease digestive distress and some clinical evidence suggests it can be beneficial in the treatment of ulcers. Other herbs and ingredients typically used in homemade root beer: ginger, dandelion, hops, birch have also featured widely in traditional herbal medicine.
Sourcing Ingredients for Homemade Root Beer
Preparing a true homemade root beer from scratch is simple. You begin by steeping herbs and spices in hot water, and when it has cooled to blood warm – that is, it’s neither hot nor cool to the touch – you mix in sweetener, starter culture such as fresh whey, or a yeasty batch of ginger bug or, as I prefer, kefir starter culture which makes a superb base for homemade sodas and probiotic tonics and is blessedly convenient to store and keep. This mixture is then bottled and allowed to sit and ferment for a few days before its ready.
The work you put into your homemade root beer is minimal indeed, but finding the ingredients can prove challenging. Licorice root, sassafras and sarsaparilla aren’t readily stocked even by the best spice shops and natural food stores. I order my roots, spices, herbs and bark online in bulk at affordable prices from Mountain Rose Herbs – a reputable online source of organic and sustainably wild-crafted herbs and spices. Save wintergreen which I special ordered from our local health food store, they stock all the ingredients used for this old-fashioned homemade root beer recipe.
- ¼ cup sassafras root bark
- ¼ cup winter green leaf
- 2 tablespoons sarsaparilla root
- 1 tablespoon licorice root
- 1 tablespoon ginger root
- 1 tablespoon dandelion root
- 1 tablespoon hops flowers
- 1 tablespoon birch bark
- 1 tablespoon wild cherry tree bark
- 1 teaspoon juniper berries
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 cup unrefined cane sugar
- ½ cup ginger bug (get the tutorial), fresh whey or 1 packet kefir starter culture (available here)
- Bring two and one-half quarts filtered water to a boil and stir in sassafras, sarsaparilla, wintergreen, licorice, ginger, hops, juniper, birch and wild cherry bark. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and simmer the roots, berries, barks, leaves and flowers for twenty minutes.
- After twenty minutes, turn off the heat and strain the infusion through a fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth into a pitcher. Stir unrefined cane sugar into the hot infusion until it dissolves and allow it to cool until it reaches blood temperature. Once the sweetened infusion has cooled to blood temperature, stir in the ginger bug or fresh whey and pour into individual bottles (preferably flip-top bottles which are easy enough to find online, leaving at least one inch head space in each bottle.
- Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator for an additional two days to age. When you arere ready to serve the root beer, be careful as it, like any other fermented beverage, is under pressure due to the accumulation of carbon-dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation. Open it over a sink and note that homemade sodas, like this one, have been known to explode under pressure. Serve over ice