There’s an old-fashioned charm to homemade root beer with its odd array of roots and bark, flowers, leaves, and berries. Fortunately, this old-fashioned herbal root beer recipe is easy to make at home.
You'll need aromatic herbs, a little bit of sugar, and a starter culture like ginger bug or kombucha. And within a few days, you'll have a naturally fizzy, bubbly brew.
What is root beer?
Root beer is a distinctly American drink with a sweet, herbal flavor that's been made since the colonial era. Traditionally, brewers made the drink by fermenting an herbal decoction made with sassafras bark, sarsaparilla root, and other herbs with sugar and yeast to make a naturally bubbly, probiotic soft drink. In this way, it joins the ranks of other traditionally fermented drinks such as kvass and tepache.
In the 20th century, the traditional herbal recipe fell from favor, and soft drink manufacturers began making it with artificial flavors. Moreover, they stopped culturing root beer and, instead, carbonated it.
While most homebrewers make their root beers from artificially flavored root beer extracts, there’s a certain undeniable charm of brewing root beer the traditional way. Slowly simmering a decoction of roots, bark, and spices, adding a touch of sugar, and then stirring in a starter.
Then all you have to do is bottle the brew and wait for those beneficial bacteria and yeast to do their work.
Sassafras, sarsaparilla, ginger root, and birch all give the brew its distinctive flavor, but without the additives.
- Sassafras gives root beer its distinctive, slightly mint-like flavor. And it's traditionally used to purify the blood in folk medicine.
- Sarsaparilla is traditionally used as a renal tonic and for the complexion.
- Ginger gives this root beer recipe a rich, fiery note. Herbalists use ginger to support cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as for nausea and stomach upset.
- Licorice gives the recipe a subtle, anise-like sweetness that pairs well with sassafras. Licorice also supports adrenal health, and may be helpful in addressing hormonal imbalance in women.
- Dandelion Root adds the subtlest bitter note to the brew. Dandelion root also supports liver health.
Where to find herbs
You can find fresh ginger at your local grocery store; however, medicinal herbs can be harder to find locally. We recommend Mountain Rose Herbs because they stock a wide assortment of organic and ethically wildcrafted culinary and medicinal herbs.
Sassafras is the dominant flavor in traditional root beer recipes. It also contains safrole, a naturally occurring polyphenol that you can also find in nutmeg, cinnamon, and other herbs.
In the 1960s, a study conducted on lab animals implicated safrole in liver damage. 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.
As a result, wintergreen came to replace sassafras in commercial root beer recipes.
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.
And the small amounts of safrole in your homemade root beer are likely just fine.
How to Make Root Beer
There are three basic steps to making homemade root beer. First, you'll start by making an herbal decoction by simmering the herbs in water until they release their aromatic compounds and other constituents. Then you'll sweeten the brew and add a starter culture so that it ferments. Lastly, you'll bottle the root beer and let it culture.
As it ferments, all the microbes in your starter culture will consume the sweetener. As a result, your root beer will be fizz and bubble. And it's a great source of probiotics, too.
Homemade root beer is easy to make and is just about as simple as boiling water or making tea. But, there are a few things to keep in mind as you make this recipe.
- Start with cold water. Tossing herbs straight into hot water may cause proteins in the herbs to seize, preventing the full release of their aromatic compounds and phytonutrients. Cold water eases this process.
- Add the sassafras last. While most woody herbs need time to release their flavor, sassafras is deeply aromatic and its aroma dissipates quickly with prolonged cooking. So toss it into the pot toward the end of simmering for best flavor.
- Switch up the sweetener. This root beer recipe uses unrefined cane sugar, but you can you can also try maple syrup, maple sugar, coconut sugar and honey. Just make sure you use a caloric sweetener so that the root beer ferments.
- Add your starter only once the herbal mixture cools. If you add your starter to the hot herbal decoction, the heat will kill the wild bacteria and yeasts. So add the culture only when the decoction cools to room temperature.
- Use flip-top bottles. Flip-top bottles effectively capture all the carbon dioxide that builds up during fermentation - which means a fizzy brew for you.
- Pay attention to temperature in your kitchen. Homemade root beer will ferment faster in a warm kitchen, and more slowly in a cold one.
Root Beer Recipe
- Fill a large stock pot with 10 cups water, and then spoon in the sarsaparilla, ginger, licorice, dandelion, birch, and star anise.
- Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 30 minutes, and then stir in the sassafras bark, and continue simmering a further 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Next, allow the decoction to cool to room temperature - about 2 hours.
- Strain decoction, discarding the herbs. Stir in the ginger bug, and pour into flip-top bottles - allowing at least 1 to 2 inches of headspace in each bottle.
- Ferment the root beer at room temperature about 2 days, allowing more time during cold weather. Transfer to the fridge for 3 days to allow the bubbles to set, and serve cold over ice.
Swap the sugar. You can use an equivalent amount of maple syrup, maple sugar, honey, coconut sugar, or any other caloric sweetener.
Make it milder. Traditional root beer recipes incorporate many medicinal herbs which can give a bitter edge to the brew. If you prefer a more modern-tasting root beer, eliminate dandelion root from the root beer recipe and consider adding mint in its place.
Make it more complex. Hops and juniper are good additions to homemade root beer but may give the brew a bitter or medicinal edge.
If you don't have time to ferment the root beer, consider making a sweet-tasting syrup. Mix the herbal tea with 1 ½ cups sugar, and then boil it until it reduces and forms a fine syrup. Mix 2 tablespoons of this syrup into sparkling water.
Try these other fermented drinks next:
- Fleming, T., et al. (ed) (2000) The Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine. Medical Economics Company.
- Armanini, D., et al. (2004) Licorice reduces serum testosterone in healthy women. Steroids.
- Liangliang, C., et al. (2017) Purification, Preliminary Characterization and Hepatoprotective Effects of Polysaccharides from Dandelion Root. Molecules.
- Yu, et al. (2011) Safrole induces cell death in human tongue squamous cancer SCC-4 cells through mitochondria-dependent caspase activation cascade apoptotic signaling pathways. Environmental Toxicology.
- Yu, et al. (2011) Safrole induces apoptosis in human oral cancer HSC-3 cells. Journal of Dental Research.
- Du, et al. (2006) Safrole oxide induces apoptosis by up-regulating Fas and FasL instead of integrin beta4 in A549 human lung cancer cells. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry.
- Chang, et al. (2006) Safrole-induced Ca2+ mobilization and cytotoxicity in human PC3 prostate cancer cells. Journal of Receptor & Signal Transduction Research.