My first batch of homemade root beer was back in 2014, and every season I give it another shot. I don’t love soda but I do love sassafras! Since that first batch I’ve tweaked my method, honed my technique, and learned to find additional wild food that adds great flavors to the brew; the spicebush and juniper really add some nice, interesting flavors.
By request (here ya go, Eric!) here is the recipe for my most recent batch.
Early spring sassafras:
- 5-6 entire sassafras saplings (roots and branches but no leaves). There is no real substitute for real sassafras! Don’t feel too bad about taking the entire plant. From what I’ve read, sassafras are connected in an underground network of roots and stuff, and thinning out some plants can actually help the colony.
- 8-10 spicebush branches (each about a foot long). You could substitute with some cloves and allspice from the spice aisle. Don’t take too many from any one plant.
- 6-10 juniper berries. These are available in the spice aisle, but juniper / eastern red cedar are pretty ubiquitous in West Michigan
- 1 (6″) stick canela (Mexican cinnamon)
- 4-5 green cardamom pods, cracked open
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon wine yeast. You could use wild yeast, bread yeast, or any other kind of yeast; all will add different flavors. You could even let it spontaneously ferment.
- About 36oz water (fills up my stock pot about 1/3 of the way)
- A pinch of salt
- Wash the foraged items well. You don’t want dirt in your root beer!
- Cut or snap the sassafras and spicebush branches into 6-8″ pieces
- Add everything but sugar and yeast to a pot and bring to a boil
- Boil for 20-30 minutes. The liquid will turn a beautiful dark shade of red/brown and your kitchen will smell amazing
- Turn off heat, let steep for another 30 minutes. Basically you’ve made a woodland tea. Even without fermenting it it’s probably full of vitamins and minerals
- Strain out solids, discard, then pour liquid back into pot
- Add sugar, heat liquid if needed to dissolve
- Let cool to body temperature
- Add yeast, stir well to distribute
- Pour into plastic (safer, easier) or glass (careful!) bottles, cap
- Shake bottles well to incorporate lots of air and bubbles into the liquid (the yeast like it!)
- Put bottles somewhere not too cold, where it wouldn’t be the end of the world (or dangerous) if they exploded
- Wait 12-24 hours, checking the bottles every 6 hours or so (this is much easier with plastic bottles)
- When the plastic bottles are rock hard with very little give, move to fridge
- Wait 3-6 hours before opening (over a sink just in case!)
This is just a basic recipe. Most root beer recipes call for wintergreen, which is also found in our local woods but I didn’t happen to have any on hand. Most recipes also use molasses, but I forgot it. I’m not a huge molasses fan anyway. I like to add whatever I have available; sometimes I’ll add roasted dandelion root, burdock root, black cherry bark, wild ginger, hops, yarrow, or even dandelion leaves.
I highly recommend using plastic bottles, and fermenting in a place where if they explode, nobody could be hurt and cleanup would be easy. I ferment my stuff in a big, thick old icebox. One time I fermented ginger ale on the kitchen counter, and two two-liters exploded early in the morning, covering all surfaces with sticky ginger liquid. I wasn’t even home, and my father in law cleaned it up!!! You have been warned!
The root beer is carbonated by the yeast; the yeast eats sugar and farts carbon dioxide. In a sealed vessel, the C02 has nowhere to go so it gets absorbed into the liquid. Yeast are living things, and they are most active in warmer temperatures. In other words, the higher your ambient temperature, the more frequently you should check your bottles because they may ferment more quickly.
If you don’t want to ferment, you could just make a syrup and add it to soda water. Personally I like the fermented version, but your mileage may vary!