Brew Backyard Root Beer

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Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2
Root beverages have been around for centuries, but Charles Hires came up with the first marketable recipe.

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.

Back in the kitchen, while I read the recipe out loud, Simon scraped the bark off the wintergreen and spicebush twigs. He chopped the dandelion root and grated the ginger root. He broke the birch bark, the cherry bark, and the dried licorice root into little pieces. He picked the juniper berries from their branches and crushed the cinnamon stick flat.

After measuring each wild-harvested ingredient on our scale, Simon added them one by one to a big sauce pot. Then, he measured and added the water. I turned on the stove, and we brought everything up to a rolling boil. Once the infusion was boiling, we lowered the heat and let it simmer for 20 minutes with a lid on. We then turned off the heat, and left the infusion to cool down and grow strong overnight.

The next day, we carefully strained the botanicals from the liquid. We added 1 cup of raw sugar to the filtered liquid and stirred until everything was dissolved. Simon carefully poured the infusion into recycled flip-top soda bottles, and we added a pinch of dry yeast to each bottle before capping. Before filling your bottles, don’t forget to sterilize anything that will come in contact with the infusion, to avoid contamination. Run all your equipment and containers through the extra-hot cycle of a dishwasher, soak them in iodine or grain alcohol, or boil them for 10 minutes.

After capping, leave the bottles in a warm place for 2 to 3 days to start fermentation. When you’re satisfied with the amount of fermentation, refrigerate the bottles to slow down or stop the yeast activity altogether. 

There were a few ingredients we couldn’t find, so we purchased them at our local health food store. We substituted some ingredients as well; for instance, no sassafras grows in upstate New York, but there’s plenty of spicebush, which has a similar flavor. And while we don’t have the common European juniper, our property came with some healthy specimens of Virginia juniper. Though much different in size, both juniper varieties have small blue berries (technically called “cones”). This is all to illustrate that what you can use for your homemade root beer isn’t set in stone; you can and should tailor your recipe to your locally available plants and your taste.

That’s exactly what happened in the past as well: Many regions had their own favorite root beer recipe, with secrets passed down through generations. Now, you have the building blocks to make your own family recipe and see it become part of your homestead history!

Ingredients to Forage

Below is a list of delicious ingredients you can use to make your own root beer. Find what grows nearby and experiment, using the amounts in the recipe for Simon’s Root Beer (above) as guidelines, until you find what tastes great to you!

    Roots and Herbs

  • Black or sweet birch (Betula lenta): sap, syrup, resin, and bark
  • Black cherry (Prunus serotina): bark and resin
  • Black spruce (Picea mariana)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): root
  • Greater burdock (Arctium lappa): root
  • Jamaican sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii)
  • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): root
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens)
  • Vera Cruz pepper (Piper auritum)
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): roots and bark
  • Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): bark
  • Sweet sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla)
  • Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
  • Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens): leaves and berries
  • Spices

  • Allspice (Pimenta dioica)
  • Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
  • Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum): bark
  • Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum): bark
  • Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum): seeds
  • Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale): stem and rhizome
  • Hop (Humulus lupulus): bells
  • Juniper (Juniperus communis): berries
  • Mint (Mentha spp.)
  • Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
  • Star anise (Illicium verum)
  • Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): seeds
  • Tolu balsam (Myroxylon balsamum)
  • Other Ingredients

  • Barley (Hordeum vulgare), malted
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Sugar, raw
  • Top fermenting ale yeast, or commercial bread yeast

Susan Verberg is a brewer and homesteader located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. To read more about her forays into medieval brewing, visit Medieval Mead and Beer.