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.
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