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Brew your own root beer

By Tim Murphy

 

Issue #130 • July/August, 2011

Ah, root beer! That sweet, dark elixir of kidhood, majestically topped with a beige pillow of foam. It's the perfect companion to Bazooka bubble gum, baseball cards, wiffle ball, and hot summer days. I grew up quaffing Canfield's, Hires, A&W, Faygo, Frostie, Dog & Suds, and Dad's. Today you'll find Barq's, Mug, IBC, and Henry Weinhard's in my fridge. Just like in the nineties for beer, today there is a growing home "root brew" movement.

Variations on root beers and sassafras teas have been made for centuries. Its origins go back well before our country was founded, but it wasn't until 1876 that Charles Hires produced the first national brand. "Hires Root Beer" was unveiled at the United States Centennial Exposition. His was the first drink to use the name "root beer" and it was sold in bottles, at drugstore soda fountains, and as an extract to mix at home.

There are hundreds of recipes out there today, from the very simple to the complex. Root beer ingredients are as varied as alcoholic beer components. Flavorings include vanilla, sarsaparilla, licorice, anise, ginger, birch bark, dog grass, wintergreen, sassafras, burdock, juniper, spikenard, and dozens of others. In the early 1960s it was discovered that safrole, a component of sassafras (a major root beer ingredient), was carcinogenic. Root beer manufacturers dropped it from their recipes and scrambled to find substitutes. This altered the drink's "old-fashioned" taste. However, if you've ever wondered why Barq's Root Beer (the one with "bite") is so distinctive from most national brands, here's the secret: They use sassafras with the safrole removed, retaining a closer tie to those original root beers.

Brewing your own is quite easy for the beginner and the price can be equal to or cheaper than the popular brands. A 2-ounce bottle of extract costs me $6.99. Depending on the recipe and strength of flavor, this will yield 3½ to 4 gallons. I use a brand called Old Fashioned Homebrew Root Beer Soda Pop Base made by Rainbow Flavors, Inc. in Osage Beach, Missouri. Here are three of the simplest recipes to get a beginner started.

Super-kwik super-cooled root beer:

6 cups sugar
3¼ gallons cold water
2 ounces root beer extract
4 pounds dry ice

In a large cooler or tub, mix sugar and water together until sugar dissolves. Stir in the extract. Gently put dry ice into the liquid and cover with a lid, loosely. Don't tighten it down or pressure may build up. Let the mixture "brew" for about an hour, then serve. Store the remainder in gallon jugs or bottles.

Home-brewed root beer:

3 Tbsp. root beer extract
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. dry yeast
1 gallon warm water, divided

Pour root beer extract over sugar and add enough water to dissolve. Add yeast to ½ cup warm water to dissolve. Add both mixtures together and pour into gallon jug. Top off jug with warm water and let set for 6 hours uncapped. Tighten lid and refrigerate. After 24 hours, it's ready to drink.

1-2-3-4 Root Beer:

2 cups sugar
1 tsp. yeast
2 Tbsp. root beer extract
1 gallon warm water, divided

Put dry ingredients in a one-gallon jug and pour in one quart of warm water. Stir, or cap the jug and shake until well mixed. Finish filling the jug with warm water, cap, and store in a cool, dry place. Let sit for two days to two weeks, then refrigerate.

The first recipe is by far the easiest and is the most fun for kids to make. So good luck, hoist a frosty mug, say cheers, and enjoy!




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