Homebrew Your Own: Root beer, that is

A frothy, cold mug of root beer in the summer is something we take for granted. The beverage’s history is simple yet complex, much like the soda itself. The first root beers were homebrews made with burdock, sassafras and dandelion roots. Barks and spices from field, forest or grocer were also tossed into the same pot to simmer then ferment.

Modern root beers have no semblance to these rustic and homey brews of yore. Instead, present-day beverages, with their rich vanilla and honey flavors, are more akin to cooling cream sodas than spicy, aromatic colas. There are hundreds of recipes for old-fashioned root beer, which differ from region to region. However, the adventurous root beer-lover can create tailor-made, earthy suds at home with ingredients from the store and the great outdoors.

Sassafras, a tree native to southern Missouri, once gave root beer its signature flavor. Unfortunately, it’s been long absent in modern brews because of safrole, a possibly carcinogenic compound present in sassafras roots and bark. For safety’s sake, manufacturers yanked this sassy additive from their recipes and replaced it with birch bark and wintergreen leaves. Personally, I find the roots have a bite that’s unbeatable. Safrole-free sassafras tea concentrate can be substituted for roots, but I prefer the real deal.

Sassafras is the quintessence of root beer, but wintergreen is a close second. Each has a cooling, candy-like essence, and each is strong but not robust. Licorice and anise have a tingling quality similar to wintergreen, but they can easily smother other ingredients. Sarsaparilla root has a delightful aroma and faint vanilla flavor, which is highly complementary. Orange peel adds a citrus note and boosts most spices. Juniper berries have a sweetness and clarity that can enrich a recipe’s complexity. With their bitterness, hops and horehound can add balance.

When developing a recipe, remember that everything should meld, balance and have character. My first batch of root beer had an identity crisis from excessive and disjointed flavors. It was my Frankenstein batch, but I still pitched in some yeast so it could ferment for fizz.

Naturally carbonating drinks with yeast can be tricky. The same critters that produce nose-tickling bubbles in homebrews can also drown out flavor or alter it unpredictably. Modern soda makers force-carbonate their products because the subtle, bready flavor of yeast can be a turn-off for consumers.

I use lager yeast from a winemaking supplies store for my root beer. I’ve tried several yeasts (champagne, ale, lager, even baker’s yeast) for nonalcoholic homebrewing, but ale and lager varieties yield a tamer, less bready aroma and flavor. Champagne yeast is mild tasting as well, but the lil’ critters are spirited. So much so, they keep fermenting even at low temperatures and can make bottles explode, which means mopping root beer off the ceiling for days.

When it comes to bottling root beer, the process is only as expensive as you want it to be. I’m thrifty, so I use recycled plastic soda bottles. If you’re a stickler for tradition, bail-top bottles are a good, if pricey, alternative. With plastic, I can tell by feel when the bottles are done fermenting and need to mellow. If I can squeeze a bottle, even slightly, it needs more time. If the bottle is rock hard and could cause bodily harm if thrown, it’s time to cool the yeasts in the fridge before they go boom.

Two weeks in the fridge blends a root beer’s flavors. It changes from hopped-up syrup to sophisticated soda after chilling out. But keeping the brew for longer than a few weeks, or storing it on the counter in the hopes that it’ll mature into some higher beverage, will result in failure and disappointment. Either the bottles will explode, or the yeasts will dominate the brew and ruin the flavor. I don’t wait that long to down a good homebrew, however.

ROOT BEER RESOURCES

Safrole-free concentrate: Shop ’n Save, select locations, 314.984.0900.

Licorice root, whole nutmeg and dried orange peel: Jay International Foods, 3172 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.772.2552.

Sarsaparilla, wintergreen, hops, juniper berries, brewing yeasts, maltodextrin and bail-top bottles: St. Louis Wine & Beermaking, 251 Lamp & Lantern Village, Chesterfield, 636.230.8277.


When she’s not freelance writing, Rachel Bigler stays sane by experimenting in her kitchen and tending her Tower Grove South garden. When she’s feeling wild, she blogs about Japanese food and pop culture on her Web site www.theanimeblog.com.