Back to the Roots of Root Beer
By Chris Colby
Brewing root beer is an age-old practice that preserves the fresh taste of summer in a bottle, and it’s easy to do at home.
Back in 2015, you might have noticed a new product in the beer aisle called Not Your Father’s Root Beer. This was an alcoholic beer, 5.9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), that tasted like root beer soda. Depending on your father’s age, the name was likely appropriate. In recent decades, “root beer” has typically referred to a sweet, nonalcoholic (or “soft”) soda. But if you asked your grandfather or great-grandfather, their root beer probably was alcoholic.
Drinks based on root extracts are found in almost every culture. Early North American colonists made beverages from the roots of sassafras (Sassafras albidum), sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata), licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), and other plants. Beverages made from birch bark (Betula lenta), wintergreen leaves (Gaultheria procumbens), vanilla beans (Vanilla planifolia), and other botanical extracts were also popular.
Home production of root beer has declined over the years. In the mid-1800s, root beer could be purchased inexpensively from soda fountains. Hires Root Beer was first bottled in 1876 and is the second-longest continuously produced soda (after Vernors Ginger Ale) in the United States.
In the 1960s, scientists determined that the main essential oil in sassafras root (safrole) was carcinogenic and banned its use in processed foods,* so commercial soft root beer producers changed their formulations to make wintergreen the primary flavor. Later, artificial sassafras flavors were introduced, and some sodas are flavored with them today. So, your root beer, your father’s root beer, and your grandfather’s root beer may have been three different, although similar, beverages.
* Based on studies in which rodents were fed very high doses of safrole — much higher than any person would reasonably ingest — scientists believe this essential oil, found in sassafras, may be a mild human carcinogen. In the U.S., safrole is banned from use in processed foods and beverages, although buying and selling sassafras is legal. Many commercial root beers use wintergreen or licorice flavors instead of sassafras. You’ll have to make up your own mind with respect to the risk.
Paths to Root Beer
You can make root beer in a few different ways. To make it from scratch, you assemble roots, bark, leaves, or other plant parts for your spice mix and boil them to make a flavor extract. Then, you add sugar and water and ferment the mix. Alternatively, you can simply buy root beer extract. As you might expect, making root beer from actual roots is more flavorful, while batches from extract are more consistent.
Little specialized equipment is needed to make root beer. You’ll need a pot large enough to boil the roots; its volume should be adequate to boil half of your intended yield. The recipes here produce 3 gallons of root beer, so you’ll need at least a 2-gallon pot. To make hard root beer, you’ll also need a fermentation vessel. A large, stainless steel pot with a relatively tight-fitting lid will suffice, or you can use a fermentation bucket or carboy.
Commercial soda comes in 2- or 3-liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles that can be reused for packaging homemade root beer. Finally, you’ll need a way to transfer the root beer from one container to another. A 5-foot length of 5/16-inch I.D. (inside diameter) food-grade plastic tubing, such as Tygon, will do. (If you’re a homebrewer, you’ll already have a racking cane.) Supplies mentioned in this article are available at most homebrewing and winemaking shops.
Common root beer flavorings include sassafras root, sarsaparilla root, wintergreen leaves, licorice root, vanilla beans, ginger root, birch bark or twigs, juniper berries, cinnamon sticks, hop cones, anise, burdock root, yellow dock root, and dandelion root. In general, the flavors at the beginning of this list are more commonly used and in greater amounts. Some recipes contain a laundry list of flavors, while others feature only two or three.
Root beer also contains sugar, usually sucrose (table sugar), but also brown sugar, molasses, caramel, or others. Soft root beer generally contains 1 pound of sugar per gallon of liquid. In fermented root beer, the yeast consumes the sugar to make alcohol. Hard root beer can be relatively dry, or it can be sweetened with lactose — a sugar that brewer’s yeast can’t ferment.
The Root of the Matter
Whether you’re making soft or hard root beer, you’ll start by boiling your flavoring ingredients, or by adding root beer extract to hot water. Usually, the combined weight of the flavorings is around 1 ounce per gallon of root beer expected. The roots and other ingredients are typically boiled for 15 minutes in roughly half this volume. Withhold highly aromatic ingredients until the final minute or two of the boil.
If you’re new to making root beer, it’s probably best to follow these recipes and boil the flavorings in 1-1/2 gallons of water to make enough extract for 3 gallons of root beer. Near the end of the boil, add any sugar the recipe calls for. The best practice is to stir it in, a little at a time, for the final 5 minutes. Also, near the end of the boil, place the lid loosely over the pot. This will let the steam sanitize it.
After the sweetened root solution is boiled, it must be cooled. The easiest way to do this is to place the covered pot in a sink filled with cold water. Change the water every few minutes until the side of the pot is cool to the touch. Then add ice to the water — about 2 pounds of ice per gallon of root beer extract to be cooled — and cool until the ice is mostly melted.
Soft root beer can be carbonated by packaging the sweet mixture in a sealed bottle, adding some brewer’s yeast, and allowing a little fermentation to occur. This creates carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the bottle and gives the beverage its fizz. You need to carefully monitor the fermentation and refrigerate the bottles promptly when they show signs of being properly carbonated.
Bottles need to be clean. To clean and sanitize 2- or 3-liter PET soda bottles, rinse the empty bottle with hot water, and then add some bleach solution. Shake a few times to coat the interior walls of the bottle, then rinse with hot water until the bottle no longer smells of bleach. A mixture of 1 fluid ounce of bleach per gallon of water will work as a sanitizing solution.
You can transfer the cooled root extract to the bottles in a couple of ways. The best way is to siphon it with a length of food-grade plastic tubing (or a racking cane). This allows you to fill the bottles with minimal splashing. Alternatively, you can place a sanitized funnel in each of the bottles and pour the solution into them that way. A length of tubing extending from the bottom of the funnel to the bottom of the bottles will help you transfer with less splashing. Once the bottles are filled, sprinkle a little dried yeast — slightly less than 1/8 teaspoon per 2-liter bottle, or slightly more than 1/8 teaspoon per 3-liter bottle — into the solution. If you want to measure it out, sanitize and dry a set of measuring spoons. You’re better off adding a little more than is needed.
Remember that the volume of extract you boiled was only half your expected batch size, so fill each bottle halfway with water before adding the extract. Once the soda is bottled, store it somewhere warm for a few days to let fermentation begin. After the first 24 hours, check a bottle every 12 hours or so for signs that it’s pressurized. If it is, refrigerate the whole batch immediately. You can check for carbonation in PET bottles simply by squeezing them. Once they’re carbonated, they’ll feel as hard as unopened commercial soda bottles. Fermentation produces a small amount of ethanol, but the concentration will be around 0.25 percent ABV — about half that of a “near beer.”
Controlling the level of carbonation is difficult with this method, and continued fermentation will occur slowly during refrigeration — not a problem if you make a batch that’ll fit in your fridge and be consumed within a few weeks. If you bottle in PET bottles, you won’t have to deal with broken glass from exploding bottles, which can happen if the soda is left too long. Finally, you’ll notice a thin layer of yeast at the bottom of every bottle. Live yeast will make you flatulent, so pour carefully so as not to disturb it.
Making hard root beer follows the same steps used to make beer from malt extract, but with (mostly) different ingredients. You begin by making your root beer extract and boiling the roots and other ingredients, and stirring in one or more types of sugar. The sugar you add won’t add sweetness, as it does in the soft root beer. Instead, it serves as fuel for the fermentation. In my recipe, I add some lactose — a type of sugar not fermentable by brewer’s yeast — to the mix of sugars, which adds a very slight sweetness to the beer. I also use some dried malt extract to give the yeast a more balanced food source than straight sucrose.
Once you’ve boiled your solution, cool it at least to the point that the outside of the pot is cool to the touch. The cooled root beer extract is combined with water to make the full batch size in a sanitized fermenter. Homebrewers tend to use food-grade plastic buckets or glass carboys, but a large stainless steel pot with a heavy, snug-fitting lid also works well. The fermenting vessel needs to cleaned and sanitized before use. The yeast is then added, and the root beer is left to ferment, ideally at 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, for about a week. To prevent airborne contamination, resist the urge to peek. The lid will rattle a bit at the peak of fermentation, as gas is given off. You do want air to get into the pot, so — when the fermentation has mostly wound down — put a ring of petroleum jelly around the rim of the pot, where it contacts the lid, to mostly seal it.
Chris Colby is an avid gardener who lives in Bastrop, Texas, with his wife and cats. His academic background is in biology, but his main interest is in homebrewing. Buy his latest book, Methods of Modern Homebrewing, in our store.
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