Root beer: It’s an American tradition as beloved as apple pie. But have you ever thought about making your own? Because a homemade root beer recipe isn’t the sugar bomb that most people think. Instead, it’s a spice-filled beverage “rooted” in tons of history.
A Brief History of Root Beer
Historians tend to believe that the root beer recipe was first invented by a pharmacist in 1870 who was experimenting with a mix of different roots, berries, and herbs. But the drink was quite bitter and “medicinal” tasting, and it didn’t exactly take off – even as a promised “cure-all.”
Meanwhile, another pharmacist, Charles Hires, had also begun to batch a drink of similar herbs into a fermented root tea. But he cleverly adopted the name “root beer” as a marketing ploy. The teetotaling Hires hoped that people would enjoy his drink as an alternative to alcoholic beverages.1
Hires’ batch was well received and quickly took off. Interestingly, Hires’ alcoholic beverage alternative technically would’ve still had a small alcohol component because it was a fermented (brewed) drink – much like kombucha today.
What is Root Beer, Really?
It’s a name that rolls effortlessly off your tongue, so you’ve probably never stopped to wonder about what the “root” in your favorite drink actually is. Well, it’s right to the point, actually – there are a lot of plant roots and spices involved in making root beer.
While there is no one true root beer spice recipe, all of these ingredients have existed in the recipe over time:
|Ginger root||Hops||Burdock root|
|Dandelion root||Guaiacum chips||Spicewood|
|Wild cherry bark and bitters||Wintergreen and wintergreen oil||Yellow dock|
|Prickly ash bark||Sassafras root||Sarsaparilla2|
Today, commercial root beer is likely to contain a mix of artificial flavorings and sweeteners (it’s certainly sweeter than it once was.) But, thankfully, a large number of roots, bark, and berries still remain.
A Question of Sassafras
Sassafras root became one of the key ingredients among root beer spices over the years. But today, root beer doesn’t contain any real sassafras root. This is because in 1960, sassafras was banned by the FDA due to potentially negative effects from a compound called safrole.
However, it’s important to note that this research was limited, and one would have to consume a mammoth amount of safrole. For comparison’s sake: Nutmeg and cinnamon also contain safrole, and all alcoholic drinks rank higher on the HERP carcinogenic index than the safrole found in spices.3,4
But today, the sassafras in commercial root beer has been replaced with either artificial sassafras or sassafras that’s had the safrole completely removed.
How To Make Root Beer At Home
As promised, here’s your traditional, homemade root beer recipe. It’s just one of many potential recipes out there in a very long line of root beer concoctions. Most of these lesser known ingredients can be found online, on sites like Amazon.
Root Beer Recipe Ingredients
- 4 quarts of filtered water
- 1 tablespoon sarsaparilla root
- 1 tablespoon ground up sassafras leaves
- 1 tablespoon birchbark
- 3 Star anise
- 2 vanilla beans, scraped
- ½ teaspoon flaked (cracked) ginger
- 5 sprigs mint
- 1 ½ cups sugar (turbinado is best)
- ½ cup molasses
- ⅛ teaspoon brewer’s yeast
Root Beer Recipe Instructions
- In a saucepan, combine 2 quarts of water with ground sassafras leaves, sarsaparilla root, birch bark, mint, star anise, ginger, and vanilla. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, and cover for about 2 ½ hours.
- Pour the liquid through a cheesecloth strainer into a larger pot, and discard the roots and herbs.
- Add the remaining water, sugar, and molasses, and stir over low heat until well combined.
- Cover, and let cool to 75° F.
- Stir in brewer’s yeast, and let the mixture sit for an additional 15 minutes.
- Pour the liquid into empty bottles, and screw on bottle tops, leaving about 2 inches of space at the top for carbonation.
- Keep the bottles at room temperature for 36-72 hours, or until the desired carbonation has been reached (you can check this every 12 hours by opening a bottle).
- Once you’re happy with the carbonation, place the bottles into the fridge (this will slow the carbonation as well).
Note: Your root beer can be kept in the fridge for up to a month. It will have a small percentage of alcohol due to the fermentation process.
If you’d like to know this amount precisely (e.g. for children or pregnant women) when making your root beer recipe, you can always use a brewing hydrometer.
Rooting For Your First Root Beer Recipe!
When it comes down to it, there’s nothing like a great homemade root beer recipe. After all, a commercial recipe can never compete with the small-batch goodness of brewing your own.
And, what better way to embrace your love of spices than by brewing a drink “steeped” in spice history?
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