Homemade root beer is a throwback to the long-ago origins of an enduring American classic. Before plastic bottles, vending machines and mega-doses of high-fructose corn syrup, root beer was flavored with easily-sourced natural ingredients: berries, bark, flowers, herbs, and…roots! In this recipe we’re going to explore how to make root beer from home.
This root beer recipe calls for an array of those complex flavors, as well as filtered water, a bit of sugar, and a natural starter like kombucha or “ginger bug.”
What is Root Beer?
An American tradition dating back to the Colonists. Back in Britain, the newly arrived colonists were used to brewing beer at home—low-alcohol or “small beer” was safer to drink than water because the fermentation process eliminated any bacteria. Their new country, however, didn’t have the wheat, barley or grains that they were used to, so they had to adapt to new ingredients.
Without hops for flavor, they tried to echo beer’s bitterness with herbs and roots that they could gather in the wild, using natural yeast fermentation and sugar or molasses to create a fizzy drink. The original root beers were strongly herbal, only slightly sweet, and actually quite healthy.
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Herbs to Use
We’re talking about a real deal root beer recipe: simmered herbs, a touch of sugar, and the patience for natural fermentation. There are five principle herbs used in this recipe, all of them with traditional or proven health benefits.
Sarsaparilla root: a trailing vine that gives root beer its slightly medicinal vanilla and mint-but-not-quite-mint flavors. Sarsaparilla was once used in traditional medicine for gout and skin diseases.
Licorice root: adds an anise-like flavor and earthy sweetness to root beer. It has known anti-inflammatory properties and is very commonly used for sore throats and skin irritation.
Birch bark: this has a woody, wintergreen flavor, and it’s included in almost all root beer recipes. Birch bark has been used for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
Ginger root: gives root beer its “bite.” Ginger has been shown to aid in digestive health and is the reason that people reach for root beer or ginger ale to settle an upset stomach.
Dandelion root: an ingredient you can easily gather for yourself, as long as you can be confident that it’s free from pesticides. It’s been traditionally used to support liver health and may help to lower cholesterol. In root beer, its roots give a pleasant touch of bitterness.
Other optional additions include cinnamon, wintergreen, cloves, or coriander.
A historic ingredient that is not called for in this recipe is sassafras root. Sassafras is native to North America, and for many years was considered to have medicinal properties. However, in the 1960s researchers found that high doses of sassafras were carcinogenic and the FDA banned its commercial use.
Many home brewers continue to use it, and the small doses found in root beer are unlikely to have any health effects, but most current recipes allow sarsaparilla to provide the main “root beer” flavor. If you want to add it to this recipe, add a few tablespoons of sassafras root bark just as you reduce the heat to a simmer.
Other ingredients mentioned in old recipes include ginseng, juniper, dog grass, pipsissewa, prickly ash, birch, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, spikenard root, and burdock.
Like all fermented beverages, homemade root beer is ever-so-slightly alcoholic, but not enough to be noticeable.
How to Make Root Beer at Home Step by Step
Think of it as a large batch of particularly complex herbal tea. It isn’t difficult, and there are just a few tips to adhere to.
Start with cold, filtered water. And add your herbs before turning up the heat; heating them gently will help them give up the best flavors and most nutrients.
Once brewing is complete, wait for the mixture to cool completely before adding your starter. The heat would kill the yeast and bacteria that create the fermentation.
Consider the temperature: the starter will work just as well if your home is on the cooler side, but the fermentation process may take a little longer. It will just take a little trial and error.
Don’t seal completely! Leave an inch or two of space at the top, or lids may pop off or bottles may burst
– Feel free to try a different sweetener. This version uses cane sugar, but any sugar with calories, such as honey or maple syrup, will work.
– This recipe calls for kombucha, which is easy to find, and will provide the bacteria and yeast necessary to get the fermentation process started. You can find it just about anywhere these days. If you want to get a little more ambitious, you can try making “ginger bug.” This is a fermented starter based on ginger, sugar and wild yeast. You can make it yourself in about a week.
This homemade root beer recipe isn’t going to be the sugary drink you’re used to. This is probiotic-filled, flavorful, healthy and endlessly adaptable. You can’t but enjoy this delicious drink. Filled to the brim with goodness and so refreshing you’ll wish you had made more.
Pour it over ice, leaving the cloudy dregs at the bottom of the bottle, and enjoy! Let us know in the comment below how you get on with making this for yourself.