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.
Note that teaching children basic cooking skills like how to make tasty, healthy fermented beverages such as root beer is extremely important before they leave home.
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)
2 gallons filtered water
2 oz/57 grams sassafras root bark (sources)
1.5 cups unrefined cane sugar (sources)
1 teaspoon organic allspice (sources)
Glass bottles with wirestoppers (sources), optional
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
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