How to Make a Real Root Beer
Traditional root beers were easy to make, and super healthy do drink. Learn how to make your own real root beer at home to enjoy great flavors, probiotic counts and less sugar.
Root beer is yet another one of the commercial soda pops which can be made at home. Before it became mass marketed, root beer was made via the process of fermentation, and was an extremely healthy beverage. This is the reason why it is called root ‘beer’. Thanks to fermentation, traditional root beer is a probiotic containing beneficial bacteria, as well as the health properties from the roots and berries contained within the recipe. Interestingly, the first makers of root beer were no stranger to its beneficial properties, and in fact developed it particularly to serve as a ‘cure all’.
This is the reason why it is called root ‘beer’. Thanks to fermentation, traditional root beer is a probiotic containing beneficial bacteria, as well as the health properties from the roots and berries contained within the recipe. Interestingly, the first makers of root beer were no stranger to its beneficial properties, and in fact developed it particularly to serve as a ‘cure all’.
Note, for another home-made soda pop, read our guide on how to make your own home made ginger beer. I guarantee once you start making root beer and ginger beer, you’ll never buy another soda gain!
Origins of Root Beer
As far back as the Middle Ages and before, Europeans were drinking meads, ales and what they termed ‘short beers’ (because of their short fermentation times)in place of water. Water sources were often contaminated and it was believed that these fermented beverages were healthier and safer to consume. Some of these were brewed from infusions made from roots, herbs and berries. These are what can be truly termed as the first known root beers.
However it was not until the 19th century that the phrase was coined by Charles Hires, who marketed a fermented beverage made from roots and berries. It was supposedly an emulation of the ‘cure all’ syrup which was developed as a health tonic.
Unfortunately with the advent of soda factories, root bear suffered a loss of all of its probiotic value and other health benefits from its natural ingredients. Instead it morphed into another mass produced beverage containing additives and high levels of sugar. Definitely not a health tonic!
Fortunately however, making your own real root berry at home is simple to do, and does not require complicated equipment. In actual fact, just a few common kitchen items.
What to Use in Your Root Beer
Root beer can have a lot of variations as to what ingredients are used. To make things simple one can merely purchase a root beer spice pack, which will have a balanced blend to guarantee a traditional root beer taste. However if you want to play with the flavors a bit, you can make up the combination of spices yourself. Here is a list of the spices, roots and berries commonly used in homemade root beer.
Common Root Beer Ingredients
- Sassafras root bark
- Liquorice root
- Cherry tree bark
- Sweet birch
- Sarsaparilla root
Note: Contraindications of Sassafras Towards Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.
Sassafras has been found to be contraindicated to pregnancy and breastfeeding.
A study done in 1960 also showed that very large doses (the equivalent of 32 bottles of root beer per a day for a human) administered to rats upped their chances of liver cancer. The FDA then banned the use of sassafras in root beer making. While this would seem to pose as a definite indication not to use sassafras, on the other hand sassafras in small amounts has been shown to play a protective role in humans against cancers.
Whether or Not to Use Sassafras – and What to Use in its Place
Whether you want to use sassafras or not is your decision, however not advisable if pregnant or breastfeeding. If you do not want to use sassafras at all, then wintergreen is a good substitute. Often used in root beer anyway, it has a similar flavor profile to that of sassafras, and will do a good job to imbue your root bear with its signature taste.
Once you have decided what flavoring ingredients you wish to use in your root beer, before getting down to the brewing process the next step is to make a starter. But before we begin, let’s take a brief look at the common variation in starter making and fermentation techniques, which is whether or not to seal.
Sealed and Unsealed Fermentation Options
If you have looked at a few different recipes for root beer online, you might have noticed that the basic steps are all very similar – however there is one aspect which can often differ. And that is whether to ferment with the lid screwed on tight, or merely covered with a cloth and rubber band. This difference in techniques applys to the starter, or bug, as well. Here are a few different options which people use:
- Sealed starter and unsealed ferment
- Unsealed starter and sealed ferment
- Both sealed
- Both unsealed
So what is the difference? From what I know of fermentation, the unsealed stages have the advantage of allowing airborne yeasts to enter, which is of benefit as they aid in the fermentation process and help to produce good levels of carbonation. The sealed stages of fermentation have the advantage of being able to lock in carbonation.
In these guidelines we will be going with unsealed for making the starter, and sealed for making the root beer. This is based on the premise that during the time that the starter, or ‘bug’, is developing, carbonation is not necessary, however inclusion of naturally occurring strains of yeasts is. If these take hold during the making of the starter, then it is not necessary to open ferment when making the root beer. One can go ahead and do a closed fermentation which will lock in more carbonation.
Making a Starter for Your Root Beer
As with most other ferments, reel root beer needs a starter. Starter’s are basically concentrations of the bacteria and yeasts required for the fermentation process. If you have ever made ginger beer, a root beer starter is very similar to a ginger bug. Never made ginger beer but would like to check it out? Have a look at How to Make Homemade Ginger Beer.
Basically what you are doing when making a root beer starter, is creating a little colony of naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts which will do all the fermentation work. These guys are found on the surface of plants, floating through the air, and throughout the lining of our GI tracts. They are essential to many basic processes, in our bodies as well as out in the environment. This is why fermented products are so good for us, they are merely topping up the levels of life which are required inside of the body for vital functions.
So, seeing as these guys are all around us, making your own starter couldn’t be simpler! Before we begin however, there are two very important tenants to stick to, as these can be the make or break of your starter.
- Organic ginger powder (if you are using powder, fresh grated ginger is fine too)
- Filtered, non-chlorinated water
The reason why it is important to stick to these two guidelines is that because we are working with living organism, we have to make sure that they are just that, living. Ordinary store bought ground ginger is usually irradiated, and does not contain any naturally occurring microbes. You can also use fresh grated ginger, in which case it does not need to be organic, as there will still be microbes present, but you should peel it to get rid of any absorbed agrochemicals. Organic is always better, so if you can I would go for that.
Then be sure that the water which you are using is pure and does not contain chlorine or other harmful chemicals which will kill the bacteria from the ginger, or any freely occurring airborne yeasts which are trying to get in.
So, now that is out of the way, let’s get to it! The starter recipe below can be used interchangeably for root beer or ginger beer.
What You Need
- 10 – 16 teaspoons of the organic ginger powder or grated fresh ginger
- 10 -16 teaspoons organic cane sugar (white is fine)
- 1 1/2 cups of filtered, pure water
- 1 quart glass jar
- Cloth covering
- Rubber band to secure cloth
What you need to do is super simple, but it will take about 3-8 days to complete
Fill the your glass jar with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add in 2 teaspoons of ginger powder, and two teaspoons of sugar. Stir to combine and dissolve. Now cover securely with your cloth and rubber band, and leave to sit on your countertop for 24 hours.
After 24 hours are up, mix in another 2 teaspoons of ginger and 2 teaspoons of sugar.
Repeat step 2 for another 4 – 8 days.
The rates at which the microbes will proliferate and colonize the liquid depends on a few variables, of which temperature is major one. The way you can tell that your starter, or ‘bug’ as it is often termed, is ready, is by checking for bubble on the surface. When you can see tiny bubbles collecting, it is time to stop the starter developing. At this point all you have got to do is refrigerate it.
The starter is now available to use for either ginger beer or root beer – or even other kinds of fermented sodas if you want to experiment. All you need to do is to feed it once a week with the 2 teaspoon ginger, 2 teaspoon sugar routine.
If you do not have time for the daily addition of ginger and sugar, you can also use this recipe for making a bug from our ginger beer post.
How to Make Root Beer
As soon as your starter bug is ready, you can jump right into setting up your root beer ferment. In this recipe we are going to list two different spicing options. One is a generic packet of root beer ‘spice’, which will probably give a nice balance flavor profile. The other option is to use a simple combination of wintergreen and allspice. If you are struggling to source packets of nice root beer spices, and want to wing it, you can use this basic combo, and if desired add in any suitable spices you might have on hand which you like. For example vanilla pods, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg etc.
You can also choose between fermenting in a large glass jar, and possibly transferring to fliptop or other glass drinking bottles before refrigerating, or to simple do the whole ferment in the fliptop bottles if you have them. The recipe instructions go with using a 2 gallon jar in which to ferment – for those of you who do not have fliptops but want to get started right away. However if you do have a bunch of fliptops, feel free to simply pour the root beer infusion along with the starter liquid into these for the fermentation process.
- 2 gallons of filtered water
- 1/2 cups unrefined cane sugar
- 1 1/2 cups starter
- 2 lemons
- 1 packet of root beer ‘spices’
- 2 oz / 57 grams wintergreen & 1 teaspoon organic allspice
- Metal sieve or strainer
- Cloth for straining
- 2 gallon glass jar
- 16 Grolsch style fliptop bottles
Step # 1
Bring the water to the boil in a large pot. Add in the spices and sugar and stir until all is dissolved. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool slightly. While this is happening get out your glass jar, and line your metal strainer with a clean dishtowel or some other cloth.
Step # 2
Now Pour the mix into the jar, through your cloth lined strainer to remove all the bits and pieces. Allow to cool further for about 30 minutes, and then add in the juice of the two lemons. Continue to let cool.
Step # 3
Once the liquid has cooled to room temperature, you can add the starter. Make extra sure that the liquid is at room temperature, because if it is still too warm the high temperature can kill the microbes which you are introducing.
Step # 4
Once you have added in the starter, screw on the lid, and let the batch sit on your countertop for about 5 -7 days. With this sealed brewing method it is a good idea to crack the lid once a day (in home fermenting terms this is called ‘burping’) to release extra pressure. Because carbon dioxide is produced during the fermenting process, exploding ferments are not uncommon if pressure building up is not released.
Step # 5
When the root beer is at the level of fermentation which you like, all you need to do is transfer it to the refrigerator where the cold will halt fermentation.
When it comes to which day to stop the ferment on, take into account what the temperature is. If it is hot weather, then fermentation will be speeded up, and you will probably want to refrigerate on the fifth day. If is is cool or cold weather, you might even find that the ferment needs an additional day to really become mature.
Personal preference is another consideration. If you like your root beer a little milder, and more sweet than sour, opt for a short fermentation period. If you like the tartness which comes with longer ferments and want to have as little sugar as possible in your finished root beer, then give your batch an extra day or two.
Before transfer your root beer to the fridge, you can decant it into grolsch style fliptop bottles or some other kind a glass bottle. As mentioned above, another way to ferment is to merely pour your root beer mix straight into flip tops and ferment them like this. Feel free to play around and find what is most convenient for you.
Its really great to be able to replace a harmful beverage with its natural counterpart, and gain all of the benefits of fermentation, probiotic bacteria, and of course the medicinal ingredients which are used to impart root beer with its flavor. Making root beer at home really couldn’t be easier, and once one has the hang of it, it’s as easy as hanging out the laundry.
If one has kids or other loved ones who are crazy over soda, one of the best aspects to making your own fermented version is that you can provide them with a super healthy alternative, and in one foul swoop eliminate a source of dangerously high levels of sugar, as well as other harmful additives.
And hey, besides all of that – it just plain tastes good! : )