Root Beer

Two things can be called "root beer". One is the modern root beer which used to be flavored with sassafras but now is flavored with wintergreen (see What about sassafras root? below for further explanation). This page deals with that kind of root beer. The other is any ale made from roots.  Instructions on how to make an ale or beer from roots are here. Of course, they are very similar ,as the modern drink we know as root beer is descended from the medieval ale they called root beet, but I choose to call  the more alchoholic beverage "roots beer" to distinguish between the two.

To make a simple root beer, peel a beetroot and discard peel. Chop up into small pieces. Put into a slow cooker and add a quart of water, a quarter-cup of sugar and a tablespoon of pickling spice or any mixed spices. Cover and simmer for 1 a day. Let cool, strain out chopped beetroot pieces and spices and put into a 2-quart plastic soda pop bottle. Add a quarter cup of yeast starter, screw on cap tightly and in a few days when the bottle is firm to the touch, transfer to fridge and drink within a few days.

Meanwhile, back at the point where you strained out the chopped beetroot pieces, put them back in the slow cooker and add another quart of water and quarter-cup of sugar and repeat the whole process. In fact, you can keep repeating the process and keep getting a fizzy drink/carbonated soda for as long as the beet root and spices keep flavoring and coloring the water, which will be a reddish brown on the first batch, medium brown the second time and successively paler for each batch.

As with all ale recipes, after you make the first batch, you can decide what you want to increase or decrease in terms of ingredients or time of processing. You can start with more beetroots at the beginning to make more as you go along. If you want to make a stronger alcoholic beverage, add more sugar and let it brew under airlock for 3-7 days before putting in plastic soda pop bottles.

Brown sugar, molasses and other sugar syrups have also been used. Popular mixed spices for root beer have included juniper berries, star anise, cloves, cinnamon and sassafras, but many others have been used. If you have any aromatic herbs growing in your garden, try those in various combinations to see if you can come up with a root beer that is distinctly your own.

Some of the Basic Root Beer Spices:
1 ounce burdock root
1 ounce dock root
1 dandelion root
1 handful white birch twigs
1 star anise
1 juniper berry
1 licorice stick
1 clove
1 inch piece of vanilla bean
1/2 cup  brown sugar

Put roots, herbs and spices in water. Bring to a boil, simmer for 30 minutes and then keep on low heat (slow cooker at low setting) overnight, covered. Add water if necessary to maintain 4 1/2 quarts. Strain and replace liquid in baked enamel saucepan. Add sugars and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve,
Remove from heat, cool to lukewarm and transfer to glass or ceramic crock.
Add yeast and stir well.
Cover crock securely with a loosely woven cloth that will allow liquid to breathe but will keep out bugs.
Leave in a warm place to ferment.
When first signs of fermentation begin to appear (tiny bubbles or foam around top of crock) pour into clean plastic soda pop bottles and cover tightly.
Bottle and store in a cool place. Makes about one gallon.

 Using dry yeast and store-bought flavoring extracts to make one gallon of soda:

dissolve 1 teaspoon of yeast in a cup of warm water for about 5 minutes

Mix together:
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of flavoring extract, or follow directions on extract.
2 1/2 cups sugar syrup
3 quarts water + 1 cup of water with yeast dissolved

Pour liquid into plastic soda bottles, leaving a few inches of headspace at the top.
Cap tightly and wait 4-6 days, or until bottle is firm to the touch and cannot be squeezed.
Refrigerate and drink.

.My Root Beer Recipe
2 ounces or 50 grams of raw beet root
an ounce or thereabouts of dandelion roots
1 stick of licorice root [or: a drop of licorice flavoring, or a licorice candy)
1 clove (if you have it) [1]
1 juniper berry (if you have it) [1]
1 star anise [2]
1 gram of fennel, a teaspoon of fennel tea or a fennel teabag
1 tablespoon of malt extract  [3]
 3 ounces of sugar syrup (or 6 tablespoons of sugar) [4]
1 heaping tablespoon of brown sugar
1 teabag, regular or decaffeinated
3 1/2 cups of water

  Preparations, or things to have on hand.

 Preparing the dandelion root
Soak dandelion root(s) in water to loosen dirt.
Remove any green part of the dandelions (see Edible Dandelions for ways to use dandelion leaves), wash and peel the roots.
You can either weigh the dandelion root to get an idea of how much you have,or you can use a handful, or you can use whatever you have.

Preparing the Beet root

Weigh 2 ounces or 50 grams of raw beet root
Wash, peel and chop beetroot. Cut the dandelion roots into small pieces (a good-quality kitchen scissors will make it a lot easier to cut dandelion root than trying to cut them with a knife.).

Put a cup of water into a blender with beet and  dandelion roots. Blend on high for a minute until both roots are pureed and liquid is smooth.

Add 1 tablespoon of malt extract to the beet and dandelion root blended liquid and stir.
Put the beet and dandelion liquid with the malt extract in it into a glass jar and cover the jar with a loosely-woven piece of cloth through which air can pass but bugs can't get into it. And let it sit over night.
 Make the tea with spices

Measure 1 pint of water
And 1 heaping tablespoon of dark brown sugar. (If  you are using table sugar rather than sugar syrup in the ingredients, add the 6 tablespoons of table sugar at this point. [4])
Put the pint of water into a baked enamel saucepan and add the brown sugar. Put it over high heat and bring to a boil.
Put the anise, clove, fennel, licorice and teabags into a ceramic teapot. Pour the hot water & brown sugar over them and put a cover on the teapot.
Cover the teapot with a quilt, tea cosy or blanket to keep it as warm as possible for as long as possible. Then put it in a warm place, if possible, and let it sit overnight.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Making the root beer

The next day:

Pour the liquid with beetroot and dandelion root through a fine mesh strainer. Discard the pulp or add it to the sauerkraut.
Pour and strain the tea that had been steeping with spices into the strained beet and dandelion liquid. Discard the spices and teabag or re-use them to make more tea for whatever purposes you make tea for. (See Tea)
Add 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) of sugar syrup. [4]
Add a yeast starter or a pinch of store-bought yeast  to the liquid [5]

(See Harvesting Wild Yeast if you would like to use wild or airborne yeast for your fermentation. You will need to begin culturing yo
ur wild yeast about 10 before starting to make this beverage.)
Add half a cup of water, or enough water to bring it up to about 3 1/2 cups.
Put in a plastic soda pop bottle and screw cap on tightly.
When bottle is firm to the touch and cannot be squeezed, soda is carbonated and ready to drink. . 
This bottle is not ready.
This bottle is not yet ready to drink.
Put in refrigerator to cool and drink within a few days [6]
And how did this root beer taste, you might ask? Well, to paraphrase Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, it tasted almost entirely, but not completely, unlike root beer. That is the problem with making root beer. I didn't have sassafras root, which is the genuine flavor of root beer to Americans who are used to sassafras or its imitators to flavor root beer, and I won't use wintergreen, which is the modern knockoff flavor of root beer, so I could not approximate anywhere near the flavor we expect of root beer. It tastes good. I drank the whole thing, it's got good body and nice flavor, and it's made with raw beet root so it's good for you and for your liver, not to mention it technically is made of roots so it's more a root beer than what passes for root beer these days.
[1] All the ingredients followed by "if you have it" are things that I did not have on hand when I made this sample root beer and took the pictures, but I would have used if I had them. Original root beers were always made this way, with whatever was available to make them with, and not to a precise recipe. Use what you have available and you may discover your own, special proprietary root beer.

[2] If you didn't have a star anise, you could probably use a Canadian Wintogreen mint instead, but it probably has chemicals in it, not to mention wintergreen, which is the flavoring of modern root beer but personally I am none too sure of how good/bad it is for you.

[3] Instead of 1 tablespoon of malt extract, I use 2 tablespoons of a mixture of malt extract and water that I had mixed half and half with hot water previously. I do this so it will be easier to pour. A side effect/benefit is that once the water is added to the malt extract, it begins to take on a slow fermentation. I have to keep it in the fridge because of this, but it means whenever I use it I get the advantage of having this natural airborne yeast to add to the ferment.

[4]Standardizing the amount of sugar added to these recipes has always been the most challenging part of writing them down, as I need to include different forms of sugar, dry sugar or syrup, and different measures, tablespoons and cups and quarts or liters and milliliters, in a recipe designed for people all over the world, than what I use at home.

The measure I use for fermented beverages that I make at home is this:

100 milliliters of sugar syrup to 700-900 milliiters of liquid.

To do this, I make a sugar syrup with 1 part liquid (water or tea) to 2 parts sugar. The resulting syrup comes out to a little bit more syrup than there was water in the first place, so a tablespoon of syrup comes out to almost 2 tablespoons of dry sugar. Having this syrup on hand makes it a lot easier to make all my beverages. I then add 100 milliliters of this syrup to between 700 to 900 milliliters of liquid; 700 if I am making something I need more sugar in, such as kombucha or wine, and 900 if I am making a sweet soda pop or small beer.

[5] In my case, I don't need to add any yeast because the malt extract I mix with water begins to ferment (I have to keep it in the fridge), so the airborne yeast that has already started in the malt extract liquid is sufficient to start the fermenting.

[6] Fresh home-brewed soda is a real food and like any real food will not keep after a few days.

 .What about sassafras root? 

Sassafras root used to be used as the main flavoring ingredient of root beer. If you have ever sniffed a sassafras root, you will know why, as it has an exquisite taste and aroma. The US government then outlawed it on the grounds that massive quantities of it caused cancer in rats, and commercial root beer is now flavored with oil of wintergreen, a known toxin that is deadly in high doses. Personally, I prefer sassafras root, which you can't buy but you can pull up saplings under a mature sassafras tree, but I cannot recommend it here because it is illegal and it would probably violate the terms of service of this website. (Read my disclaimer.) There is, however, sassafras root bark for sale that claims to use only the bark of the root and not the inner supposedly cancer-causing pith of the root, and this can be used for home-brewing. File (pronounced "fee-lay", as in file gumbo) powder is also for sale that is the ground-up leaves of the sassafras tree. This, too, can be used in home brewing to impart something of the original flavor of the root beer at less cost than the much scarcer root bark. 

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harr Buhner
Food Enzymes for Health & Longevity by Dr.Edward Howell
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

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