Root Beer: The Bacon of Beverages

Everyone likes root beer.  Its distinctive taste is comforting yet entirely mysterious and unique.  There are many kinds to purchase at the store.  A&W, Dad’s, Hires, and my favorite, Virgil’s, are all unique and delicious.  Buying root beer, like buying beer, is convenient.  However, it just doesn’t seem right that this king of non-alcoholic beverages remain a commercial product.  I, Justin Garrity and friend of Dave’s, decided to brew my own batch and tear down the wall that separates teetotaler mice from teetotaler men.

Homemade Root Beer, Soda and Pop by Stephen Cresswell

The Recipe

The first thing I did was search for the perfect Root Beer recipe.  This sounded easier than it turned out to be.  So many recipes included water, carbonation, and root beer extract.  It seemed like a joke.  Root beer from extract was not what I had in mind when I thought of making my own home brew.  I heard from Dave that a brewing store close to my house, Main Street Homebrew, in downtown Hillsboro, Oregon may have some recipes.  I found a great book there called, “Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop” by Stephen Cresswell.  The book has numerous root beer recipes.  The main ingredient called for is sassafras root bark.  The problem is, sassafras root bark is very hard to find.  So, while still in the store, I decided to purchase some extracts AND stop by New Seasons to purchase some herbs called for in the various recipes.  I figured the beverage would have my own unique herb twist on it this way and I wouldn’t risk ending up with something undrinkable.  So, I picked up some extracts and Main Street Homebrew and asked them if they sold any yeast for the carbonation process.

Root Beer Extract Trifecta

Making Bombs

When I asked them about the yeast, the man behind the counter gave me a dreadful warning that making root beer with yeast is like making bombs.  He said it was too dangerous as the bottles have a high likelihood of exploding.  He also said that they had a high likelihood of fermenting the root beer and so it was a very poor way to make root beer.  The method he suggested instead was carbon dioxide infusion.  This required a carbon dioxide tank and regulator (I borrowed this from Dave) and a cornelious keg, which I purchased from Main Street Homebrew.  It was used and set me back about $45.  With the extracts and the book, I spent about another $25. More on the carbonation technique later.

Cornelius Keg and Regulator for Root Beer Making

Herbs

I’ve always been mesmerized by the list of ingredients on the Virgil’s root beer packaging.  I’ve tried to let the root beer slowly pour across my tongue to see if I could taste each of the many ingredients.  I knew that I wanted my root beer to be just as adventurous and diverse.  I stopped by New Seasons on the way home and they had almost everything I was looking for.  I purchased dandelion root, licorice root, star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, juniper berries, and wintergreen.  This set me back about another $20.  Man, this better be some good root beer.

Weighing Star Anise for Root Beer

At home, I added all of the ingredients to a pot of water, brought it to a boil, and then let it simmer for an hour.  It smelled really good!  Even without the sassafras, it smelled like a rich, full bodied root beer.  After it had simmered, I added in raw sugar to sweeten it.  It tasted good.  It was very herbal but needed that root beer flavor.  I added in a half bottle of the Zataran’s extract, a quarter of the birch beer extract, and a quarter of the cream soda extract.  The mixture was thick and tasted great.  Now for the carbonating.

Root Beer Spices

Rock and Roll

I poured the root beer brew into the keg and then added four more gallons of water.  This filled up the keg.  I closed it off and then set it in a cooler filled with ice and salt.  I don’t have an extra refrigerator so this was the best way I could chill it down.  Once the mixture was quite cold, I hooked up the carbon dioxide tank, set it to 30 psi, and bled out the oxygen from the keg.  I closed up the keg and then set the regulator to 30 psi again, set the ice cold keg on my knees while sitting down, and rocked it back and forth.  This process is what carbonates the root beer.  After about 7 minutes, I tasted the root beer and it was PERFECT.

Justin Garrity, Root Beer Brewmeister

Rich, Creamy, and Frothy

My friends and I got together that weekend.  I brought over the homemade root beer and it was a hit.  The root beer poured great.  It was rich and dark, and created the perfect amount of creamy froth.  It tasted great as each herb could be tasted every so slightly while leaving a nice wintergreen finish.  The root beer lasted another few weeks as the keg provided a never ending supply.  I re-carbonated it a couple of times but it always had a nice pour.  Even thought I did use some extract, as the sassafras root is a bit elusive, the beverage was great and I dare say even better than Virgils.

Homebrew Root Beer

15 thoughts on “Root Beer: The Bacon of Beverages”

  1. You probably have had a hard time finding sassafras root as the FDA has banned their use in food products and food products containing sassafras derivatives due to them causing liver damage and various types of cancer.

  2. It is true that the FDA has banned their use in food products and as a prepared food substance, but it is still available as an herb in tea shops and other specialty stores. I just couldn’t locate one near my home. I’d still on the lookout though, so if anyone knows where I can get it in the Portland area, let me know.

  3. Everyone likes root beer.

    Most non-North Americans think root beer tastes like cough syrup. A fun game for American expats is to give your non-American friends a tall cold root beer and watch them spit it out in disgust.

    Instead of Sassafras could you use licorice root?

  4. Another option would be to make simple syrup, add your flavoring concentrate to it, then add this flavored syrup to sparkling water, either on a per-bottle or per-glass basis. I know, not as much fun.

  5. Germans tend to think root beer tastes like toothpaste. This made little sense to me until I went to Germany and realized all their toothpaste tastes like root beer! Needless to say: Awesome!!

  6. You don’t need to buy sassafras root, you can find it in the wild and truly DIY. Sassafras has a fairly distinct leaf: http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/Survival/Pages/sassafras.html If you pull a baby sassafras tree out of the ground you will recognize the smell of root beer, especially if you scratch the root a bit. I’ve had root beer made by simply steeping the roots of baby sassafras trees in water and adding sugar and it was delicious. With spices and a good procedure for extracting flavor you could make something incredible. From what I’ve heard the health risks associated with sassafras are grossly exaggerated.

  7. “When I asked them about the yeast, the man behind the counter gave me a dreadful warning that making root beer with yeast is like making bombs. He said it was too dangerous as the bottles have a high likelihood of exploding. He also said that they had a high likelihood of fermenting the root beer and so it was a very poor way to make root beer.”

    This is bunk. My family has been brewing wonderful, yeasty root beer since the dawn of time, and now I proudly carry on the tradition.

    It doesn’t take much. You need bottles, a capper, caps, yeast (lots of different kinds to play with), extract, and cane sugar.

    It’s true that fermentation happens. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any carbon dioxide in there! No fermentation = no fizz.

    The brewmaster needs to pull a bottle every day or so to see where they are as far as carbonation. When you pop the top at room temperature and about half the bottle fizzes out, they’re done.

    Also, if you let them go too long, the bottles will pop. But it’s not a violent explosion, and usually they just vent under the caps if they get overpressure.

    So you put them in a place where leaks are ok, and if some of them spray, it’s definitely time to get them refrigerated.

    And that’s the next point. When they’re done, they need refrigerating. As long as the yeasties are warm, they’ll keep eating sugar and pooping co2. Cold bottles stop fermenting and can be kept for six weeks or more.

    Also, you’ll want to only open them cold, as this brings down the fizz enough that you can open and pour them without getting root beer all over the place. It’s still best to open them over the sink or grass, though.

  8. And one last thing…

    If you really want root beer the way your great great grandfather had it when he was a kid, the yeasty way is the only way. It was brewed back then, and in the early days of sodas, tanks of co2 weren’t yet a commodity.

    Surely they wouldn’t have just infused it on the spot in 1830.

    The yeast adds a flavor to the root beer that some love and some hate, but it’s what real root beer is.

  9. Actually, Sassafras is pretty common (depending on where you live), and easy to identify. Its leaves are three different “mitten” shapes: 1, 2, and 3 “fingers”. Once you know what to look for, you’ll see saplings all over around trails and such. Collect the root, wash, and skin with a peeler to get the root-beer-tasting bark. As noted, though, you may not want to do this too much- it is listed as a possible carcinogen (though I’m not convinced an artificial substitute is really better for you :).

    http://forestry.about.com/library/tree/blsass.htm

  10. Cough syrup?? That is crazy talk! :) Oddly enough, I have that same book, and must say it is highly recommended. Great recipes and a great read, tho a bit short.

    -Bur.gr

  11. Making root beer from herbs and roots is something I’ve wanted to try for quite a while. Here are some things I’ve gleaned from my research:
    – Sassafras is indeed regulated by the FDA because it contains safrole, a known carcinogen. In 1960 when its use as a food additive was banned, most producers switched to using wintergreen as the primary flavoring ingredient, which is why many think root beer tastes like toothpaste or medicine. The reason sassafras root is somewhat prevalent anyway is that there now exists a safrole-free variety of sassafras with a flavor many describe as weak.
    – I’ve seen numerous suggestions for carbonation. Force-carbonating is certainly an option, but not ideal. Opening bottles as suggested by Jake above is a decent method, but somewhat of a hack. The best way I’ve heard is to bottle in PET (gah!). You can then tell when the carbonation has reached a proper level (the bottle becomes hard to the touch) and refrigerate it in the manner Jake described to prevent further fermentation.
    – Root beer has always been something of a kitchen sink brew. In that vein, you have an impressive list of ingredients (dandelion root, licorice root, star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, juniper berries, and wintergreen). A few more to add (some authentic, some my own): nutmeg, sarsparilla root, cherry bark, vanilla, birch bark, collinsonia root, damiana, echinacea root and chamomile, ginseng, hyssop, arrowroot, marshmallow root, rhubarb, valerian, wormwood and woodruff.

  12. I second the person who said the risks of sassafras are greatly exaggerated. That study was done on rats with a HIGHLY concentrated derivative of the whole plant and the FDA was no doubt under pressure by the flavor industry to pass that ban so they could sell a more patentable product. The cancer rate is lower in the southern US in rural areas where sassafras tea is traditionally consumed as a spring tonic.

    I’m from NW Pennsylvania where the sassafras was about at the top of it’s range, and used to collect the root and drink tea all the time. It is strictly an Eastern North America plant. There are no sassafras trees I am aware of in Portland, save a giant one the Washington Park Arboretum. Good if you want the leaves to make gumbo file powder, not so good for roots. You can use the leaves for flavor, but they aren’t a good root substitute. They taste a bit like the smell of fruit loops.

    Dried root is available at the Herb Shoppe on 33rd and Hawthorne, and probably at Limbo on 39th and Holgate which has a bulk wall of almost every herb you could imagine. Also at the little natural grocery at the top of the hill, on the right, if you’re on that road heading up out of Oregon City to 213.

  13. Oh, and I used to think the bottle exploding thing was an exaggerated risk, but I was making some non root beer, with ale yeast, that I bottled after only three days of bucket fermentation, and was intending to let ferment the rest of the time in bottle for a quick drink. They started exploding in the kitchen drawer I was keeping them in after a week or so. Shattered pretty well and made an awful racket. And were way too carbonated to drink even when chilled.

    So I can imagine that COULD happen with root beer, especially if you used champagne yeast, but I was making real alcohol. You would hopefully be putting it in the fridge much sooner than I did. So that ought to stop the bulk of the carbonation process. But hey a shattered bottle isn’t the end of the world as long as it doesn’t explode in your hands. Keep ’em in a cardboard box in case they make a mess.

  14. It makes me cry when I hear the price folks have to pay for cornies…I have moved to three different cities where Pepsi Bottle Co. has had several pallets of pre-mix kegs for about 3 bucks a pop…..But I imagine in brew rich OR the kegs are hot items….the pleasures of kegging are rich, may you all be blessed with a rich supply.

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