Brew Backyard Root Beer

With a little experimentation, you can learn how to make your own version of this historic, herb-infused soda using foraged ingredients.

| August/September 2018

  • root-beer
    Root beverages have been around for centuries, but Charles Hires came up with the first marketable recipe.
    Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2
  • birch-bark
    You can forage many of the ingredients in herbal root beer, such as white birch bark.
    Photo by Susan Verberg
  • ginger-root
    Ginger root can be purchased or grown at home; either way, fresh grated ginger gives root beer a delicious kick.
    Photo by Susan Verberg
  • stir
    After carefully measuring the ingredients, combine them in a large sauce pot, heat, and stir.
    Photo by Susan Verberg
  • pour
    Let the herbal root beer cool and grow strong overnight, then pour into flip-top bottles.
    Photo by Susan Verberg
  • root-beer
    After adding a pinch of dry yeast, cap each bottle and allow the root beer to ferment for a few days in a warm place.
    Photo by Susan Verberg

  • root-beer
  • birch-bark
  • ginger-root
  • stir
  • pour
  • root-beer

After moving to an area where microbreweries pop out of the ground like mushrooms in wet weather, our European family couldn’t help but encounter the uniquely American experience of homemade root beer. Although we already enjoyed the bounties of our homestead in the forms of fresh goat’s milk, pressed cider, and a wonderful tea garden, our kid’s favorite beverage is now root beer. So, when Simon needed to pick an item for show and tell, of course he asked to learn how to make root beer from scratch. And in the end, I figured that a little botanical scavenger hunt and some basic brewing skills could do the kid a world of good.

Today, we know root beer as a sugary soda, but it wasn’t always that way. Botanical infusions have likely been concocted since the invention of fire, but as sassafras is native to North America, root beverages with sassafras aren’t often encountered overseas. Europeans had a tradition of making “small beers” — fermented drinks with a very low alcohol content. When they arrived in North America, they applied those techniques to the culinary and medicinal sassafras beverages of many Native American tribes, and that combination slowly evolved into the commercial root beer we know today.

Initially, root beverages were one of many low-alcohol options in Colonial America, all of which were considered safer to drink than the often-polluted surface water, and deemed healthy because of the addition of medicinal herbs. While these root beverages had been around for centuries, the 19th-century pharmacist Charles Hires is generally credited with the creation of root beer, as he came up with the first marketable recipe. He sold packages of dry “Hires Root Tea” in his store. When the Centennial International Exposition of 1876 occurred in Philadelphia, Hires changed the name of his product from “root tea” to “root beer” to appeal to the working class. He later developed a liquid concentrate, and finally began bottling the finished soda to sell.

In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of real sassafras in commercial root beer and other foods, as studies found a prominent compound in the root bark, safrole, to be carcinogenic. With a flavor similar to that of sassafras, wintergreen made a ready replacement. Today, most root beers contain neither sassafras nor wintergreen, as neither is very shelf-stable, and the drink is made with artificial flavorings instead.

But back to our homestead: The root beer our family likes to make is a low-alcohol, fermented infusion of herbs, barks, and berries, both homegrown and wild-harvested, and is more like historic small beer than modern commercial root beer. For the first two weeks or so after refrigeration, it’s perfectly safe for kids to drink. After sitting longer than that (which rarely happens in our household), the alcohol levels begin to rise. Simon’s Root Beer recipe, below, does not include sassafras or sarsaparilla; we opted to substitute with spicebush and black birch, as both grow in our backyard and have scents and flavors similar to those of the more traditional plants. 

Simon’s Root Beer

  • 0.6 ounce black birch bark or wintergreen leaves
  • 0.6 ounce spicebush bark from young twigs
  • 0.3 ounce dandelion root
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger root
  • 0.3 ounce white birch bark
  • 0.3 ounce wild or black cherry bark
  • 0.3 ounce licorice root
  • 0.3 ounce juniper berries
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon packed hops flowers
  • 21⁄2 quarts water
  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 package top-fermenting ale yeast (or commercial bread yeast)
  • 4 to 5 flip-top bottles

Now comes the fun part! Simon and I went on a scavenger hunt to gather as many ingredients as we could from our backyard and the surrounding property. Simon made name cards to label each baggie and keep our ingredients sorted. We dug up dandelion roots; scraped bark off white birch trees; gathered hops; hunted down fresh black birch twigs (and had them as a snack) and young spicebush twigs; and braved the goats to pick a handful of juniper berries.

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