Root beer is delicious. Whether it’s in a frosty mug, buoying up a scoop of vanilla ice cream or straight from a can, it is undeniably the king of soft drinks. Pepsi pales in comparison, Coke cowers before it and Dr. Pepper destroys it. Ginger beer is pretty good though…
One thing all these mass-produced beverages have in common is an insane amount of sugar and not even a hint of a natural ingredient descended from their original recipe. My love of root beer and my desire for a more healthy lifestyle led me to attempt brewing my own. This may come as a shock to some people (it blew my wife’s mind and continues to astonish her with each bottle) but root beer is actually made from roots!
The key ingredients, like many roots and herbs, have reported medicinal properties which of course are absent in the “artificial flavour” additives in cans. Sarsparilla (Smilax spp.) is a tropical plant found in the jungles of South America, the Caribbean and West Indies. The root from this plant provides the signature flavour of root beer and has been used to treat psoriasis and arthritis. It has also been shown to have anti-cancer as well as liver and kidney healing abilities.
Wintergreen is another plant known for its pain-reducing properties since the compound responsible for the minty taste breaks down into salicylic acid, an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) similar to aspirin. Although one would have to drink barrels of root beer to combat severe pain, the benefits of small doses of aspirin have been widely reported.
Burdock root grows commonly in many places including North America and has a range of apparent health effects although many have not been medically confirmed. Everything from reducing fever and joint pain to “detoxifying blood” and treating diabetes, cancer and anorexia have been reported. Again, in the small amount found in root beer, it won’t be a miracle cure but it is also unlikely to do any harm.
The recipe is fairly simple; combine all the herbal ingredients in a pot and boil for 45 minutes then dissolve the sugars. The tricky part is the natural carbonation which requires our good friend, yeast. Once the brew has cooled to about 25C (I plunk the pot into ice water in the kitchen sink), strain it into bottles and cap them tightly. Regular pop bottles work better for this task since they can be squeezed to assess carbonation progress. Drop in a small pinch of any brewing yeast into each bottle, cap them tightly and place them somewhere warm. Try to put the same amount of yeast into each bottle so they ferment at about the same rate.
As the yeast works its magic, the bottles will become rigid. The key is to catch them before they over carbonate and explode. When the bottles are so stiff that they can’t be squeezed at all, put them in the fridge for at least 2 days before drinking to allow the CO2 to dissolve into the liquid.
When drinking, slowly open the cap and be ready for an explosion of suds if your fermentation went too long.
Like any good scientist, I need to quantify everything, including my fermentation. After several batches of root beer exploded in my face, decided to measure the pressure in my bottles. I purchased a cheap gauge from ebay and consulted with an engineer friend for a solution. He came up with a simple series of fittings to attach the gauge to a bottle cap and I got brewing!
The pressure gauge worked great once I got it to stop leaking. Teflon tape and tight fittings are essential here. Even the smallest leak will ruin your day as pressure builds up and allows CO2 to escape. After a few false starts, I discovered that about 25psi produced ideal fermentation.
- 5 TBSP dried sarsaparilla root
- 2 TBSP dried wintergreen leaf
- 2 TBSP chopped dried burdock root
- 1 TBSP chopped dried licorice root
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 1 TBSP birch bark
- 1 vanilla bean cut into pieces
- 4L water
- 1 CUP white sugar + 1 CUP brown sugar
- 50mL juiced ginger root
- Small pinch of brewing yeast
-Combine all herbal ingredients in 4L of water and boil for 45 minutes.
-Turn off heat and stir in sugars.
-Once sugar is dissolved, cool to about 25C by placing pot in a sink full of cold water.
-Strain root beer into bottles and add a small pinch of yeast to each bottle. Cap securely.
-Leave at room temperature until bottles are hard from pressure buildup (or about 25psi if you have a cool pressure gauge).
-Transfer bottles to the fridge and allow carbon dioxide to dissolve for at least 2 days before drinking.
-Enjoy the best root beer ever!