Real (or as real as it’s going to get) Root Beer

I’ve been making my own sodas for a while now. I started off cheating, which, by the way, I hear is all the rage right now. It seems like a lot of people are buying those SodaStreams and mixing the soda water they make with different flavorings. I have nothing against that, in fact, I’m planning to one day get my own CO2 tank and rig up my own version of a SodaStream so I can make seltzer. But ever since I perfected my real ginger ale recipe, I’ve been hooked on really making soda. In addition to ginger ale, I liked making root beer and birch beer, but I was daunted by the prospect of looking for roots and for a long time stuck to using extracts. The sodas I made from the extracts tasted fine, but I knew that couldn’t go on forever. I’m just not an extract kinda gal.

So I bought Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop by Stephen Cresswell. Now, I really like this book and it has a lot of great recipes I’m looking forward to trying, but nearly all of the root (and birch) beer recipes call for, well, roots. And while I’m not an extract kinda gal, I’m also not the gal who knows where to go to find these roots, how to identify them, and how to dig them up unobstrusively, and the book doesn’t go into that. One day I fully intend to make root beer from roots I have dug up, and birch beer from birch trees I have accosted (the latter seems easier, frankly), but in the meantime, I turned to my friend the internet and ordered myself some roots. The main root you need is sassafras. I bought it from Amazon, but that is way, way, way more sassafras than you need. Later I found it in smaller quantities at American Spice Company and Mountain Rose Herbs, the latter from whom I have ordered before (get the bark, not the bark powder). Sassafras is slightly hard to find, I think because the FDA thinks it’s a carcinogen or something. Don’t be alarmed: a glass of root beer every now and then is not going to give you cancer. Maybe don’t drink a gallon of it a day, but then again, don’t drink a gallon of anything a day, other than water.

I also call for sarsaparilla, though you can omit it (I made my first batch without it and it was very good). Sarsaparilla is actually a little easier to find than sassafras. I bought my sarsaparilla from Jay’s Brewing Supplies, because they are a local business, but you may find it in your own local brewing store, where you may also want to purchase bottles. (Jay’s does mail order, and I’ve ordered from them back before they had a storefront, and I can recommend them for that.)

You need champagne yeast. Stephen Creswell of Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop prefers ale yeast, but I haven’t tried that yet. Technically you can even use bread yeast, but I absolutely do NOT recommend it. I tried it ONCE the first time I made soda and it was nasty, nasty, nasty. I’m sure I did something wrong, but I’ll always use a beer or champagne yeast from now on. It’s sold in packets just like bread yeast, and you won’t need a whole packet. Just store the unused portion in the refrigerator and it will be good for a while.

Finally, you need bottles. The recipe makes about a gallon, which is 8 16-oz bottles. I strongly recommend you use swing-top (aka EZ cap or Grolsch-type) bottles. You can drink Golsch and save the bottles, or buy them. Jay’s has them. They actually hold more than 16 oz, so I always end up filling fewer bottles than I expect to. You can also buy or save non-twist-off-cap bottles and buy caps and a capper, but the reason I strongly recommend the EZ caps is I have found root beer in particular to be unpredictable in the amount of time it requires for carbonation and I like to be able to close bottles that aren’t ready yet and reseal them. I also don’t always drink 16 oz+ of soda at a time and like to be able to reseal them for that reason too.

This recipe was lightly adapted from Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop, and I’ve more or less used his technique. The author calls for mixing the sodas in a one-gallon glass carboy. I have three of these: I have two from beer brewing kits, and one that is from a gallon of apple cider. They are the exact same thing; I can’t tell them apart. Jay’s sells them too, but I paid less for the apple cider than they charge, so if you want a jug, just buy some cider. You don’t need a jug though. The jug makes it easy to shake the soda really well, but before I had jugs, I just whisked everything together in a pot.

OK, FINALLY, here’s the recipe!

Real Root Beer

1/4 oz dried sassafras root bark
2 tsp dried sarsaparilla (optional)
scant 2 cups sugar
1/8 tsp champagne yeast
about a gallon of water, divided

This is my measured sassafras and sarsaparilla.

Put the dried roots, sugar, and two quarts of water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes.

Then remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for another 25 minutes.

Strain the liquid. This is only half of it – I wanted to decant it into a clear container so you could see the color. You might be able to make a second batch from the roots – I haven’t tried that.

If you have a gallon jug, pour the liquid into the jug through a funnel. If you don’t have a jug, skip this step and just put the liquid in a 6-quart pot.

Add two more quarts of cold water, cap jug, and shake. (Or whisk well in a pot.) You want to cool the overall temperature of the soda to 70 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. You can do this by just letting it come down to room temperature naturally (if you are patient), by putting it in the refrigerator, or by setting it in an ice bath. Whatever floats your jug. Just make sure it cools down to room temperature (you don’t even really need a thermometer) so you don’t kill the yeast when you add it.

Add the yeast to 1/4 cup lukewarm water (about room temperature) and whisk. Let sit for a couple of minutes.

Add the yeast to the soda, cap the jug, and shake vigorously for a minute or two (or add to pot and whisk very well).

Use a funnel to pour the soda into the bottles and close or cap the bottles. Leave about 1″ head space at the top of the bottles.

Put the bottles in a cool, dark place – not a refrigerator, but maybe a basement. I’m not going to lie to you: explosions are possible and I’ve had root beer explode, so what I do is put the bottles in my laundry room and cover them up with a giant trash bag so I can contain the mess if disaster strikes. I haven’t had one explode since I’ve been doing that, so I think maybe it subdues them into submission. After 48 hours (maybe sooner if it’s really hot in your house), check the carbonation by opening one of the bottles. You can generally tell by how fizzy it seems when you open it, but you’ll also want to take a sip to judge it. If it’s as fizzy as you want it, move the bottles to the refrigerator. If it’s not, keep testing it every 12 to 24 hours. Every recipe I’ve ever read has made it seem as if it’s usually ready right around 48 hours, but I’ve had some sodas that have taken up to a week to be fully carbonated. If it takes that long, I usually put it in the refrigerator anyway and let it finish carbonating slowly.

Refrigerate the bottles for at least 24 hours. I’ve found that sodas really taste best after about a week of refrigeration, but bear in mind, although refrigeration greatly slows down the fermentation, it does not stop it, and your sodas will build up more and more carbonation if you leave them in the fridge. If you aren’t drinking them fast enough, open them periodically to release the pressure…although I wouldn’t keep doing that or you’ll have the reverse problem and they’ll go flat. You’d be wise to open your bottles over the sink regardless how long you’ve had them. I don’t know what it is about root beer, but some bottles in the same batch just seem to have different levels of carbonation, so I don’t trust any of them to not geyser all over me.

After it’s chilled for at least 24 hours, it’s time to drink! This is a little 8-oz bottle I saved from some commercial soda that I bought just for the bottles. I had a hard time choking down that soda, I’ll have you know. But I like to make a few small bottles to use when checking the carbonation, and also 8 ounces is about how much soda I really want to drink at a time.

Pour into an icy mug and enjoy!

Root beers and other sodas were originally created as health tonics. I’m not going to tell you that something with this much sugar is a health drink. I don’t drink that much of even my homemade soda, although it’s far less sweet than commercial soda (and the yeast consumes a lot of the sugar; it’s not as sugary as it sounds). But there is something about this homemade root beer that makes me consider it a restorative. I like to drink a bottle after a long, hard morning of working with raccoons. I come home exhausted and make a quick meal that I serve with my homemade root beer and suddenly I feel refreshed. And I came home tonight with a headache but a glass of root beer has given me the strength to go put together this baker’s rack that arrived today…which I’d better get working on!

This post is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, who I remember making root beer in his basement when I was a kid. He died years ago and unfortunately my father doesn’t know how he made his root beer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used an extract, as I don’t recall him tramping around the woods collecting roots, but making root beer reminds me of him and I think that’s nice. Wish you were here to share a mug, Granddaddy!

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