Long before Coke, Pepsi, or any other soft drink, people were brewing their own small, (less alcoholic), beers for the “Pause that refreshes.” Shakespeare was noted to have drunk small beer and a recipe for it is found in George Washington’s notebooks. In Colonial America these small beers were generally brewed from herbs, berries and bark, with each individual having their own recipe. They were originally brewed for celebrations and family reunions. They were never intended to be stored away in casks or bottles. Early American industrialists, ever greedy for new products to sell, substituted forced carbonation for natural fermentation, longer shelf life, and marketed these beers as Birch Beer, Sarsaparilla, Ginger Beer and Root Beer. This article will show you how to brew an original simple root beer using roots, herbs, spices, and/or using a commercial extract. I’ve fucked up these recipes a few times (as well as exploding a few bottles), so I’ll list any mishaps I’ve had in each step, so that you can avoid repeating my mistakes.
To create 5 gallons of Root Beer:
Before starting, I can’t emphasize the importance of having all of your equipment clean. Bacteria can easily contaminate your root beer and make it really nasty. Scrupulously wash all of your bottles, pots and other equipment and rinse with hot water, unless you want your root beer to taste like old socks.
If you’re using commercial root beer extract, (obtained from your local brewing supply store or off of the internet), proceed to step #4, substituting lukewarm water for the root-beer tea. Be sure to add the commercial extract to the sugars before dissolving them into the water.
One of the primary ingredients in all of the following recipes is sassafras root bark, which contains safrole. Safrole is listed as a carcinogenic by the Food and Drug Administration because it causes cancer in laboratory rats. However, those of you who view the FDA’s pronouncements with a bit of skepticism might note that Sassafras root bark was commonly used by the Native Americans and is still brewed as a tea and tonic in the Southern United States. The fact that Safrole can be used as precursor to synthesize several Hallucinogenic drugs might have also have something to do with the continuing ban.
Step #1 Start by gathering the roots, herbs and spices for brewing a root beer tea. You can buy these from your local herbal supply and/or health food store, but a better way is to harvest most of them yourself.
Sassafras root-bark in particular should be foraged. The brew tastes much more flavorful and less woody than that made using the dried root bark sold in stores. Sassafras has a wide distribution range throughout the eastern United States and is commonly found in scrub woods, abandoned playing fields, and along roadsides. In fact, you can even find it Central Park in New York City. But you shouldn’t forage the roots from road-sides because of lead contamination. Also avoid harvesting any root bark in the late spring, unless you like the taste of brewed tree sap.
I’ve made a tasty brew using just Sassafras, Sarsaparilla Wintergreen, and a little bit of allspice.
Sassafras root-bark, 5 oz / 5 Gallon
Sarsaparilla, 5 oz / 5 Gallon
Wintergreen 5 oz / 5 Gallon
Whole Allspice 1 1/4 oz / 5 Gallon
Below is a list of common flavoring ingredients I’ve compiled from a number of different recipes. The final root/herb mixture should be about 3 ~ 4 oz / Gallon. The spices should be adjusted to taste.
Hops (go light on the hops it’s pretty strong and can easily overwhelm the other flavors)
Prickly Ash bark
Wild Cherry bark
Yellow Dock, Yellow Dock root
Step #2 Add a few handfuls of raisins to 5 gallons of cold water and bring to a boil. Add the herbs, roots and spices, just like making a tea. Then immediately reduce the heat and simmer for the next twenty minutes or so.
I find it a lot easier to wrap the herbs and roots in a pre-boiled large undyed cotton bag rather than placing them directly to the boiling water. This makes the next step, (filtration), much easier.
Do not continue to boil the water after you’ve added the root/herb mixture or it’ll taste like tree bark!!!!
Step #3 Filter the mixture into a second container. You can accomplish this by pouring the mixture through a several layers of boiled cheese cloth or boiled flannel placed in the bottom a large sieve. As an alternate method, you can just use a standard coffee filter and a lot of patience.
Do not skip this step. If you have particulate matter in your root beer, the finished product will erupt from the bottle. When I opened a bottle once, the resulting geyser splashed against a twelve-foot high ceiling.
Step #4 Dissolve 4 pounds of cane sugar into the tea. Substitute brown sugar, molasses, malt and/or honey for part or all of the cane sugar.
Be sure NOT to use honey as only sweetener. Honey ferments very slowly and you probably don’t want to wait the months it will take to drink your finished product (See the “Drink Mead” article in Slingshot issue #69).
Step #5 Wait until the tea has become lukewarm, (about the temperature of a nice but not too hot bath). Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup of lukewarm water, then stir and let sit for a few minutes. Add this yeast mixture to your root beer tea and mix thoroughly. You can use bread yeast, but the yeast greatly effects the final flavor so my suggestion is that you experiment with the many different brewing yeasts available.
Most ale yeasts ferment fairly quickly and become inactive once your root beer is refrigerated (no exploding bottles). Champagne yeast works slower, but the bubbles are also smaller and produces a fizzier brew . However, champagne yeast, (as well as bread and lager yeasts), continue to work even after refrigeration. So you don’t want to leave the bottles in the refrigerator for three months if you’re using these yeasts.
Step #6 Cover the container and wait for at least a day. The yeast will start eating the sugar and huge amounts of carbonation and foam will result and then subside. After the foaming subsides, is time to bottle.
The resulting beverage will contain between 2% and 5% alcohol. If you don’t want to consume alcohol or are just in hurry to drink this, you can skip this initial fermentation and proceed directly to bottling. While there will still be alcohol in the finished product, it will be a very minimal amount (less than 1%). Most people’s bodies metabolize alcohol so quickly that you’d have to drink a gallon at once in order to feel any affect..
Step #7 Bottle it. You can buy a bottle-capper and caps from your local brew supply store and recycled glass bottles that don’t have twist-off tops. As an alternative, you can use plastic screw-top bottles. Plastic screw top bottles are an increasingly popular choice because they minimize the potential of exploding bottles. However, recycled plastic bottles will always retain some of the flavor of their original contents, they don’t get as clean as glass, and there are limited number of times you can reuse the plastic bottles.
If you’re one of those non-alcoholic folks that skipped step #6, I suggest you bottle your brew with the plastic instead of glass bottles. Your brew will ferment in the bottles much faster than the alcoholic stuff and give the nasty bacteria less time to to reproduce and dominate your brew and there will be a much higher possibility of exploding bottles. (Once, I forgot that the root beer I was brewing was supposed to be non-alcoholic and left the brew outside for three weeks. Almost all of the glass bottles and the top of the picnic cooler they were stored in exploded. An incredibly sticky mess and I’m still finding shards of glass.)
Whether you using glass or plastic bottles, fill each bottle to within about 1 ½ to 2 inches from the top.
If you are planning to serve your root beer at a large party you might try fermenting your root beer into one of those stainless steel beer kegs instead of bottling it. I’ve never tried this method, but it should work.
Step #8 Place the bottles on their side in a cool dry place. This should take approximately two to three weeks for the standard root beer and two to four days for the N/A, (if you’re using the plastic bottles, the sides of the bottle should feel hard after a forceful squeeze), and refrigerate for twelve hours. If the drink is not bubbly enough, simply let the remaining brew stay outside until it is.
Step #9 Now, you can’t drink all 5 gallons of root beer by yourself. So, throw a big party!