Brew Your Own Root Beer: Traditional and Homemade

by Sarah Fermented Beverages, RecipesComments: 28

homemade root beer in bottles

A favorite fermented beverage in our home is homemade root beer.

Root beer is a healthful and very traditional North American beverage brewed with sassafras bark (Sassafras albidium) or sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata). If you like hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, you will find sassafras trees growing wild nearly everywhere you go. A handful of sassafras root bark is shown in the picture above.

Of course, modern versions of this traditional beverage don’t contain any beneficial herbs let alone the enzymes and probiotics like brews from centuries past.

Benefits of Homemade Fermented Beverages

Investigation of traditional cultures from around the world reveals that all of them utilized various types of fermented foods and beverages to assist digestion and keep immunity strong. Of course, these cultures did not understand the science behind it; they only observed that by eating these foods regularly they weren’t as likely to degenerate at a young age or contract infectious diseases.

Fermented food and drink were also a very practical method of preservation by ancestral cultures without the benefit of modern refrigeration.

We now know that traditional ferments contain an abundance of beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and nutritional co-factors not present in the unfermented versions of the same food. Regular consumption of these foods makes it far more likely that you and your family will sail through flu season with nothing more than a mild sniffle for a few days if that! These foods also encourage optimal digestion and assimilation of nutrients.

You aren’t what you eat; you are what you digest!

Traditional ethnic beverages are a fun way to begin the process of incorporating fermented foods into your home. Kombucha was the first traditionally fermented beverage I started with nearly 15 years ago and it is still a regular fixture in our refrigerator. Other fermented beverages I make regularly are listed below at the end of the article.

Root Beer using Sassafras

The sassafras tree is native to a wide area of  North America primarily east of the Mississippi river. It is a medium-sized, moderately fast growing, aromatic tree that is little more than a shrub in northern areas like southwestern Maine, New York, and southern Ontario. In the south and particularly in the Great Smoky Mountains, the sassafras tree grows largest (25-39 feet/6-12 meters) providing an important food for wildlife. Deer can be seen browsing the twigs in the winter and the leaves during spring and summer.

Sassafras has historically provided a variety of commercial and domestic uses for humans as well. Sassafras tea is brewed from the bark of roots, while the leaves are used in thickening soups. The spongy, orange-brown colored wood has been used in centuries past to construct barrels, buckets, fence posts and furniture. The oil is considered of value for adding fragrance to soaps and perfumes and flavor to candy.

Agriculturally, the sassafras tree is considered beneficial for restoration of depleted soil for farmland. In Indiana and Illinois, it was considered superior to black locust or pine trees for this purpose (1).

Sassafras tea has been a popular beverage for over three centuries in the lower Mississippi valley. It was first introduced to the explorer Ponce de Leon in 1512 and later to pioneers by the Cherokee people. Native Americans used sassafras as a natural blood thinner, blood purifier, and to treat skin diseases, rheumatism, and other ailments.

Root Beer using Sarsaparilla

Root beer has also been traditionally made using sarsaparilla, a perennial trailing vine with prickly stems that is native to Mexico and Central America. It can grow to over 50 yards (46 meters) in length!

Like sassafras, sarsaparilla was valued by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal properties including gout, wounds, arthritis, cough, fever, hypertension, pain, and indigestion.

While sarsaparilla can be used to make homemade root beer, sassafras is arguably the more popular herb for this purpose in North American heritage.

From Herbal Tea to Modern Root Beer

With sassafras tea popular for so many centuries, it is easy to see how fermentation of the tea into root beer came to pass with the simple addition of sugar and a probiotic starter. With the Industrial Revolution so came the artificialization of root beer, starting with the pharmacist Charles Hires.

Hires apparently discovered the herbal tea base for his commercial root beer creation while on his honeymoon. It blended over twenty-five herbs, berries and roots. This proprietary root beer beverage using carbonated water in leiu of natural fermenation was first introduced to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. The Hires family manufactured root beer for decades and introduced and distributed bottled root beer beginning in 1893.

Root beer has no standard recipe, but common ingredients for modern commercial versions include sugar (GMO in North America) and artificial sassafras flavoring. Hormone disrupting soybean protein is sometimes used to create a foamy quality. Caramel coloring, a potential carcinogen, is used to make the beverage artificially brown.

You can see why the trend to homemade root beer is making a comeback with such nasty ingredients! While homemade versions can be made with processed extracts made in a factory, it is more healthful to make it the traditional way using unprocessed herbs and roots. The result can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic, carbonated or not.

The recipe I am sharing with you below is the very simple one I use that is non-alcoholic and mildly sweet with only slight carbonation from the natural fermentation process. If you wish a more bubbly beverage, you can do a secondary fermentation using sealed bottles to further enhance enzyme and probiotic activity.

Starter for Homemade Root Beer

The first thing you must have before brewing your own homemade root beer is a starter “bug”.  The starter is the beneficial bacterial culture used to inoculate the fermentation and cause the brewing process to begin. You only have to make a starter culture one time, then all you have to do is save a bit of each root beer batch which serves as the starter for the following batch.

This article plus video demonstration details how to make a root beer starter.

Homemade Root Beer Recipe

Once you have your soda starter ready, you can brew your own healthful root beer.  This recipe makes approximately 2 gallons (7.6 liters)

Ingredients

2 gallons filtered water

2 oz/57 grams sassafras root bark (sources)

1.5 cups unrefined cane sugar (sources)

1 teaspoon organic allspice (sources)

2 lemons

Glass bottles with wirestoppers (sources), optional

Instructions

Bring one gallon of filtered water to a boil with the sassafras root bark.

Once boiling, mix in sucanat. Add allspice. Once completely dissolved, remove pot from heat and strain with a mesh strainer (stainless steel not plastic) lined with a white cotton dishtowel into a 2 gallon glass jar (sources).

Add one more gallon of filtered water and stir. Wait for the mixture to cool slightly (about 30 minutes) and then stir in the juice of 2 lemons. Wait for the mixture to cool to 118 °F/48 °C or lower and then add 1 1/2 cups of starter.  Note: if the mixture is too hot, the heat will kill the starter culture so be sure to wait until it is only warm to the touch. If you let the mixture cool and sit too long on the counter, however, you introduce the chance for mold. So be sure to add the starter at the appropriate time.

Cover your container with a white, unbleached cloth secured with a large rubber band. Leave on the counter for 5-7 days depending on the weather (the warmer the weather, the shorter the brew time).

When the initial fermentation is complete, the root beer is ready to drink as is.  If you desire enhanced carbonation, proceed to the bottling step.  Fill your soda bottles (sources) and cap them. Leave some room (I leave 2 inches) at the top of each bottle to allow for carbonation.  This video how-to shows you how I do it.

Leave at room temperature for a day or two longer to carbonate. Then refrigerate and enjoy!

Note: only open the root beer bottles in the kitchen sink and when the bottle is very cold to prevent messy explosions!

This homemade root beer is particularly hydrating and is very refreshing after hot, summer yard work.

*Please note that sassafras is contraindicated for pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

 

Other Probiotic Beverages You May Enjoy

Hindu Lemonade

Homemade Orangina

Switchel: Nature’s Healthy Gatorade

Homemade Ginger Ale

Comments (28)

  • crystal blue

    what an exciting recipe! i’m on the gaps diet and was wondering about the use of chicory powder, maybe either as a substitute or in addition to the organic sugar. Also was wondering how to work in some molasses. Any thoughts on this?

    April 14th, 2016 12:54 pm Reply
  • Robin

    I have made a thriving Ginger Bug, then made the Root Beer on Friday evening, almost 3 days ago. I halved the recipe because I don’t have a 2 gallon jar. I’m concerned that I may have added the bug too soon, I checked the temp. and it was below 118 degrees, but I don’t see anything happening yet, no bubbles or anything, just the sediment of the bug at the bottom of the jar in the sassafrass tea. I still have the other half or my bug and there is no mold. Would you suggest I leave it alone or should I add something to stimulate it?

    April 4th, 2016 11:15 am Reply
    • Sarah

      It wouldn’t hurt to add the rest of the bug to try to get it going better. How cool is your home? This would affect things quite a bit.

      April 4th, 2016 11:20 am Reply
      • Robin

        Thank you, Sarah, for your quick response!
        I think my home temp. is usually around 75 degrees.

        April 4th, 2016 1:11 pm Reply
  • Bernadette

    Sarah, will the bark work just as well as the rootbark?

    April 2nd, 2016 3:53 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Not sure .. I’ve never tried it.

      April 2nd, 2016 5:39 pm Reply
  • Rachel

    I’m curious as to why Sassafras is contradicted in pregnancy/breastfeeding. I feel like then I may not get to try this for years!! :( It looks wonderful!

    March 30th, 2016 9:36 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Probably because sassafras is a blood thinner which could cause internal bleeding or increase the risk of postpartum hemmorrhage.

      March 30th, 2016 9:53 am Reply
  • Debbie B.

    I’m from Southern Illinois and every winter my dad goes out and digs up a little sassafras root to make tea out of. It is easy to find the roots growing out of the creek banks. The bark and leaves are pretty distinct and easy to identify. It has a wonderful flavor.

    March 22nd, 2016 1:59 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Sassafras smells just like root beer!

      March 22nd, 2016 6:23 pm Reply
  • Melissa

    Hi,

    Did anyone else have issues with their going moldy?

    May 20th, 2015 6:29 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      If you leave it on the counter to cool for too long before adding the starter and initiating the fermentation, the chances of mold are much much higher.

      March 21st, 2016 12:47 pm Reply
  • Emily

    Would the Nourishng Traditions recipe work too?

    June 7th, 2014 6:32 pm Reply
  • Tyler

    I am making half of the batch in the instructions. I was wondering if I should reduce the amount of time to wait to 2-3 days?

    April 7th, 2014 7:36 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Still ferment the same length of time if making a half batch.

      March 21st, 2016 12:47 pm Reply
  • Lee

    I was really excited to try this, as my mother-in-law used to make it, and it was going to be a treat for my husband. Sadly, I do not find sassafras bark root in the source you listed. Neither, am I very encouraged to see that questions and problems posted here, seem to be ignored. I will watch for responses now that I have subscribed. I do hope this changes, as I would like to refer my friends.

    March 23rd, 2014 7:09 pm Reply
  • Georgia

    We just finished our first batch of this and it was TERRIBLE. Literally undrinkable. It was SO bitter. We followed the directions as best we could but some parts seem kind of vague so I don’t know if we did it wrong? Maybe it would help if you answered some of the questions others have asked about the details?

    January 31st, 2014 5:30 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      It is mildly sweet. Don’t expect supermarket root beer taste. Did you do a second fermentation to add more carbonation?

      March 21st, 2016 12:48 pm Reply
  • Kay C

    Does these drinks taste more like beer or soda?

    December 10th, 2013 3:02 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      It does not taste like beer at all.

      March 21st, 2016 12:48 pm Reply
  • kathy Fizer

    Do you have to bottle it when it done? Or can you just put a lid in the gallon jar, put in the frig and drink it once it is cold?

    March 7th, 2013 11:49 am Reply
    • Sarah

      You don’t have to bottle it. You can drink right away after the initial fermentation.

      March 21st, 2016 12:49 pm Reply
  • Marie

    Anyone had success with this recipe? My started came alive then died out by day 7. Not sure what happened.

    February 16th, 2013 3:21 pm Reply
  • Colleen

    Hi! Just to be clear, do you use the actual bark or powder? I’m new at this and would love to give it a try! Thank you.

    December 7th, 2012 10:38 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Use the bark, not a powder. See sources linked to above.

      March 21st, 2016 12:49 pm Reply
  • Mrs. Mac

    I got the sassafras, organic ginger & allspice. Will make the starter tonight. Have to get the 2-1/2 gal jar and bottles. So excited to make this. Thanks for the recipe. It has to be better than the stuff I made with commercial yeast last year!

    June 22nd, 2010 11:36 pm Reply
  • Candace

    Hi, Sarah: You say that you should leave the root beer on your counter for 5-7 days, and then bottle it up "when fermentation is complete." How will I know "when fermentation is complete"? Are there any signs to look for?

    I look forward to trying this. It sounds delicious. Thank you for sharing your recipe!

    Thanks again,
    Candace

    September 13th, 2009 3:19 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Much of home fermentation is trial and error as the weather and home temperature affect it a lot! Perhaps try a half batch to experiment to determine the length of time that is right for your home and climate. For me, I look for some bubbles on top and then proceed to the secondary fermentation. If you leave too long, it will become bitter and not as tasty.

      March 21st, 2016 12:55 pm Reply

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