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Root beer is made by fermenting a mixture of herbs with sugar and yeast. The fermentation process generates carbon dioxide, carbonating the drink and giving it an effervescent flavor. Many companies make this drink in a wide range of flavors, depending on what herbs they use; it is also fairly easy to make at home, for people who want to experiment with home brewing. Root beer made at home can turn out slightly alcoholic; the alcohol content is generally negligible, but if alcohol consumption is an issue for health or religious reasons, people may want to stick with commercially produced beverages.
Various mixtures of herbs, roots, and bark have been brewed into beverages that were consumed by people of all ages for centuries. In the 1800s, root beer in its modern formulation emerged, thanks to an herb known as sassafras, which is native to the Americas. The soft drink became popular in the United States and Europe, and its popularity endured; some people think of it as the original soda.
To make root beer, brewers mix herbs like vanilla, licorice, wintergreen, cherry bark, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, anise, and molasses. The herbs are blended with sugar and a small amount of active yeast before being poured into a fermentation tank, to which water is added. Typically, the beverage is ready in a few days, at which point it is refrigerated to stop the fermentation process. Most producers decant their drink into bottles for sale, although it can also be sold in kegs.
Sassafras is no longer used in root beer in the United States, because the Food and Drug Administration has determined that it is a mild carcinogen. It is possible to find it with this ingredient in some other parts of the world, or to add sassafras to home-made beverages, but this may not be a good idea due to the health risks. Many other herbs are perfectly safe, and these can create the desired flavor.
People who want to make this beverage at home will need a clean plastic bottle, a funnel, sugar, yeast, and herbs or root beer extract. The extract is simpler to use than the herbs, although it may not create the desired flavor; brewers may want to play around with a few brands to find one that works.
To make 1 gallon (4 liters) of root beer with herbs, the brewer should grind 0.5 ounce (about 14 grams) each of various herbs from the selection above; most recipes recommend using sarsaparilla, vanilla, and wintergreen at the very least. The herbs are simmered in a gallon (4 liters) of water, and then 1.5 cups (300 g) sugar and 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) of yeast are stirred in. The brewer should pour the mixture into a plastic bottle or bottles, and allow it to rest in a room temperature location for up to two days. The bottle should be checked periodically to see if it is hard.
Once it is firm to the touch, it's ready to drink. It needs to be refrigerated, and the bottle should be opened carefully. There will be sediment at the bottom of the bottle, so drinkers need to take care when pouring it out.
To make 1.2 gallon (2 liters) with the extract, the brewer should start by pouring 1 cup (200 g) of sugar into the bottle, and then add 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) of yeast, shaking the bottle to make sure that the sugar and yeast are well blended. He should then add 1 tablespoon (17.75 ml) of extract, and then pour in water up to the neck of the bottle. The root beer should then be allowed to ferment as in the herb-based recipe.
If it's so easy to make root beer at home, then why do people need to buy root beer kits? Do the root beer supplies in those kits make a difference in the quality of the root beer or something?
I can drink rootbeer by the keg, so this could actually be a big money saver for me if I could end up making a good quality one at home -- but I'm kind of wary about my root beer making skills.
How easy is it really, for someone who is absolutely not crafty and is pretty culinarily challenged?
I wonder how the taste of a canned rootbeer compares to that of the original sassafras rootbeer -- I've never had the original, though I do like a Virgil's rootbeer every now and again.
Is it even possible to find sassafras rootbeer in the States, or would you have to go overseas to try it? That would add some panache to your rootbeer consumption, I'm sure, if you only drank "imported rootbeer".
So many interesting things in this article -- thanks for writing it in so much detail!
I had no idea that so many herbs went into making rootbeer! I've always just gone for the cans of IBC rootbeer, and never even thought about making my own. Though it sounds like it wouldn't be too terribly hard -- I might just try it.
How much of each herb should I mix together? Should I just do it "to taste," or are there specific measurements to follow?
Or should I just buy a root beer making kit, and cut out all the guesswork?