Sassafras is the “root” in root beer. However, in the mid-60’s, the FDA discovered that a chemical in sassafras called safrole caused cancer in rats, and proceded to ban its sale for edible uses. This sent the root beer industry into a frenzy trying to find a replacement flavor (they eventually came up with something that’s a combination of licorice root – that’s not anise, and doesn’t taste like it – and wintergreen).
Many people (myself included) believe that safrole is only dangerous when extracted from the sassafras root itself (there is a common theory is in herbal medicine that there are other chemicals present in the plant that cancel out the harmful effects of things like safrole). Thus, I don’t mind drinking a little “real” root beer – if it does happen to be harmful, the small amounts that I drink won’t be that bad for me (couldn’t be worse than something like alcohol).
After scouring books and the web for a good traditional root beer recipe, and failing to come up with something really good, I eventually merged several recipes together to come up with the following, which has a lot of the taste of a traditional root beer, but also includes some wintergreen to make it more compatible with the modern palate.
First, put about 5 quarts of water into your favorite brew pot, and then add:
- 1 oz sarsparilla root
- 1 oz sassafras root bark1
- 1 oz cherry bark
- 1⁄2 oz licorice root
- 1⁄2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- 1⁄8 oz cinnamon (about half a stick)2
- 2 to 4 oz raisins (you can add more if you like their flavor)
- 1⁄2 tsp salt
- 3 cups honey
- 1⁄2 cup molasses
- 4 lb sugar
Simmer this mixture for an hour or so, until you have a 5 quarts or so of syrup left in your pot (remember, adding all that stuff increased your volume by a couple of quarts).
Once this is boiled down, strain your mixture into another pot and add:
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp wintergreen or birch extract, or 1⁄2 tsp pure essential oil 3
Stir a bit, and then bottle in 1-quart jars. Due to the high sugar content, this should keep fairly well, but you could always use a plastic jar or bottle and store it in the freezer (do not put glass into the freezer). To make the root beer, just mix 1:4 with water (one part syrup + 4 parts water) and carbonate4. Depending on your taste preference, variations in cooking times, and/or the spices you used, you may find that the ratio needs to be adjusted for your batch, so don’t hesitate to use more or less syrup to get the flavor just right.
1 Sassafras root bark (not plain old bark) is illegal for sale as a food product in the US because it’s been shown, like many things, to cause cancer in lab rats. However, many brew stores carry the Brewer’s Garden brand of sassafras “potpouri”, or you can get it directly from one of several bulk herb suppliers online. Please see this article for a more in depth explanation about the ban.
2 What you buy in stores is actually cassia, not cinnamon. If you can’t get ahold of “true” cinnamon, you might want to use a smaller amount than the one listed in the recipe. However, “true” cinnamon can usually be found in the Mexican section of the grocery store as “canela”.
3 I initially tried wintergreen oil, but it doesn’t dissolve well. I did eventually find a good all-natural wintergreen extract (made by Boyajian) at a local fruit market, though you’ll also have luck buying it from cake-decorating supply places (as it was a frosting-flavor additive). Since then, I’ve learned that you can use gum arabic as an emulsifier to allow the oil and sugar solution to stay mixed. Just mix the oil with a tsp or so of gum arabic, and then add a tbsp or two of water as you quickly stir. Once this is mixed, you can just add it to the recipe like you would an extract.
VERY Important: If you use essential oil, make sure that you are using food grade ingredients. This means that you want 100% pure essential oil and food grade gum arabic (do not get it from an art supply store). There are many herb and health food shops online that sell both ingredients.
4 If you don’t want to spend the money on a carbon dioxide tank and injection system, you can “cheat” and just mix the syrup straight into carbonated water from a can or bottle. If you do this, compare the different flavors of plain carbonated versus “soda water” or “club soda”. The latter two usually have baking soda added to counteract the mild acid generated during the carbonation process, which some people think gives carbonated water an unpleasant tart flavor (but which contributes to the flavor of many carbonated beverages).
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