Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Homemade Root Beer

When a spot opened up on the annual "Botanical Walk" at Ramapo College, offered to our garden club by the fascinating Dr. Susan Petro, I decided to go again, and once again, became intrigued by the Sassafras albidum plant that she showed us.  Sassafras, which grows wild in my backyard, used to be used to flavor root beer.  However, large amounts given to rats were found to cause cancer, so its use as a flavoring was forbidden by the FDA in 1976.  File powder, used to make gumbo and other cajun dishes, is made by drying and grinding up the leaves, which are not as toxic.

The roots smell amazing!

Of course, nothing more needed to be said to make me slightly obsessed with breaking the rules and trying a brew from this "forbidden" root that was so conveniently growing 20 feet from my back door.  Why? Why even bother with it when it could be so dangerous?   Well, I did some research and nothing I read convinced me that I'd be taking my life into my hands by introducing a small amount of sassafras, just this one time, to my already embattled liver.   However, please consider this a warning and imbibe at your own risk. 

You can recognize sassafras by the leaves, which have 3 shapes - triple lobed, double lobed or "mitten" shaped, and unlobed.

Anise Hyssop
Since I was going to use only a small amount of sassafras, I thought I should probably flavor the root beer with a few other things:  anise hyssop leaves - also very easy to find in my yard, since it re-seeds so prolifically, star anise, chai tea (mostly for color), brown sugar, vanilla and molasses.  Other possible additions to a custom root beer brew could include ginger, clove, orange or citrus oil, wintergreen and cinnamon.

Star anise
Root Beer Recipe
20 inches of cleaned sassafrass root
20 anise hyssop leaves, washed
1 chai teabag
1/4 cup star anise
2 tsp. vanilla
1.5 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp molasses
carbonated water

Start by making the brew:  cover the sassafras root, anise hyssop leaves and star anise with 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil.  Add the teabag and steep until the brew is a nice brown color (about 10 minutes), then remove the teabag.  Cover the brew and allow to steep and cool overnight. 

The next day strain out the solids.  Add 2 t. of vanilla, 1.5 cups of brown sugar, and 2 Tbsp. of molasses.  Stir well to dissolve and heat the mixture to boiling.   Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or until the mixture is reduced by half- you will have a sweet, root beer flavored syrup. 

The syrup can be added to carbonated water in any proportion you like. (If you have a Penguin or SodaStream, add the syrup as you would any of the other flavorings - you can play with the carbonation and proportions to suit your taste.)  I used about a cup of syrup to 3 cups of carbonated water.  

I always like to see the results of the taste tests done over at Serious Eats.  Here's the one they did for root beers.  What's your favorite kind of root beer?


The Sage Butterfly said...

Interesting...we have a lot of sassafras trees in the woods in the backyard. It is nice to know there is something I can do with them.

Ashling said...

Oh my...that sounds so delicious & tempting for a hot, humid day. Good for you, tackling such an ambitious project!

Malay-Kadazan girl said...

Home-made root beer must taste very delicious. I think taking something in small amounts is not harmful. Even taking too much vitamin supplement also cause not good side effect. I guess everything has its balance.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

I had some home made root beer at a beekeepers' event earlier in the spring. It made me change my attitudes on store bought root beer. (Well, maybe it didn't. That stuff is vile.)

Who knew that sassafras was a danger to mice and men?

home tome said...


My favorite root beer included a dollop of ice cream and was ingested in the late 70's at an A&W rootbeer stand in the midwest where the waitresses still came to your car, and hooked the tray over your window :)