What Is Root Beer?
Now, if you love root beer, you can tell that it is a sweet and ordinarily carbonated drink – just like your bottle of Coca Cola. However, did you know that it also comes imbued with extracts from roots, like sarsaparilla, sassafras and others? If we take a look at root beer’s history, Charles Hires created the beverage and introduced it to the public in 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibitions.
So, what is a root beer? It’s a non-alcoholic beer, pretty much like birch beer and ginger beer. Back in the day, the root was brewed to make a tea and take the extract. The root beer extract is mixed with sugar, water and yeast.
So, How Do We Brew Root Beer at Home?
There are a lot of different root beer recipes with a lot of different flavors. The primary ingredient to make root beer is still sassafras root, but since the U.S Food and Drug Administration banned it due to the carcinogenicity, most commercial recipes don’t contain the actual sassafras root; most use an artificial sassafras flavoring.
The commercially produced version of root beer is often sweet, carbonated, foamy, non-alcoholic and flavored with artificial sassafras. Methods may include vanilla, cherry tree bark, molasses, anise, cinnamon and honey.
The traditional method for making root beer involves molasses syrup. You should let it cool for three or four hours and then combine it with the root’s ingredients. After that, yeast was added and allow to ferment for 12 or 14 hours, and then it was put through secondary fermentation.
This recipe ended up having 2% alcohol content, and it was often modified to produce more alcohol. The ingredients in the traditional root beer used to include allspice, juniper, wintergreen, hops, spicewood and liquorice. Even some added dandelion root, spikenard, and guaiacum chips.
There is no standard root beer recipe, and a lot of the methods start in the same way. The first step is to boil the sassafras or sarsaparilla root into a strong tea. Once the decoction or extract is done, it’s time to season it with vanilla extract, cherry tree bark or cinnamon.
Some like to add natural honey instead of sugar because it makes it taste a lot better.
The next step in any root beer recipe is carbonation. Carbonation is the word used to talk about carbon dioxide reactions to carbonates, bicarbonates and carbonic acid. Carbonation is what causes the fizziness and bubbles in drinks like soda or beers.
The carbonation in root beer can be done by fermentation, adding yeast to the batch before bottling, or making a syrup—usually with a strong flavor—and slowly mixing it with icy carbonated water. The cold often helps retain the carbonation.
Once you bottle the batch, it comes: the time for fermentation. The fermentation is a metabolic process that occurs in the yeast; it basically converts the sugar into acids and gases, highly similar to carbonation.
Remember that, when it comes to making homemade root beer, carbonation is somewhat optional. There is always the option of substituting sassafras root with sarsaparilla root.
What are the ingredients for Root Beer?
To DIY root beer, you use the following main ingredients:
- Artificial sassafras root bark
- sweet sarsaparilla.
- Hoja santa
- wild sarsaparilla
- Black birch or sweet birch
- Black cherry
- red, black or Sitka spruce.
- Burdock root
- dandelion root.
To create a foamy root beer, you may use cassava, manioc or yucca root, or soapbark.
To spice your root beer, you can season it with:
You can make root beer at home using processed extract or roots and herbs not yet processed. You can also create both alcoholic and non-alcoholic root beer. The traditional ones always make a thick and foamy head when poured thanks to the yucca extract and other thickeners.
Is Root Beer Healthy?
Commercial root beer is as harmful for you as any other soda.
Commercial root beer often has high-fructose corn syrup or sugar, and both of these ingredients are directly linked to diabetes and obesity when consumed in large amounts.
Commercial root beer contains a lot more than the healthy amount of sugar a person should be consuming daily. The scariest thing is that high-fructose corn syrup has been put to the test recently, and these studies have found that 50% of the samples contain mercury. This metal can damage your immune system, brain and other vital organs.
The ingredients contained in commercial root beer can cause decay in your tooth enamel, quality of sleep and mood. It can make you irritable, and give you anxiety and depression.
Root beer, if not made at home, it’s loaded with preservatives, chemicals and way too much sugar.
To give root beer its typical brown color, caramel coloring is often used. Caramel coloring has been added to the list of chemicals known to promote cancer, and it can also increase your blood pressure and make your white blood cells count go down.
Also, if you are allergic to gluten, you shouldn’t be drinking root beer; it’s mainly because caramel coloring could cause an allergic reaction to people who have a gluten allergy.
All the preservatives include in root beer can mess around with your health as well, mainly because you can find sodium benzoate in root beer. This ingredient prevents the high fructose corn syrup from spoiling. When the manufactured version of this ingredient is used in root beer, it can cause DNA damage, and this can lead to liver problems and Parkison’s disease.
All of this is scary, but it’s also what a lot of commercial sodas can do to your body, so it isn’t a new danger.
Some people will tell you to change this drink for more natural and healthy ones, like kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that’s very much like soda, but it has a different taste, and it is actually good for the digestive system. You can even change to drinking sparkling water.
But if you are a root beer fan and you are looking for a better and healthier root beer alternative, you can always make it at home; you can take out all the harmful ingredients. Many people in America make their own root beer at home as a tradition.
We have to remember that root beer, as others drinks, started in pharmacies.
Back in the day, there were a lot of pharmacists trying to come up with a cure-it-all drink. That was the case of Charles Hires: he came across his recipe for a good-tasting tea. Back in the day, customers would buy the root beer syrup from the pharmacist and take it home to mix it with seltzer water. Charles Hires refined it into a root beer with more than 25 herbs, and this elixir was brewed by consumers at home.
This traditional root beer was very healthy and good for the body. Sarsaparilla was used as a diuretic and wintergreen leaf was often used to prevent gases and ease digestion. Other herbs used in the making of root beer were widely used in herbal medicine, so this was a potent tea in its time. Even liquorice was used in folkloric medicine to ease digestive distress and treat ulcers.
As such, root beer has excellent qualities when it’s made natural and at home. The commercial root beers actually have to take a very different path. It’s highly recommended to stop consuming these types of drinks if you want to leave a long and healthy life without all the problems that sodas and other similar beverages can promote on your body.
How to Brew Homemade Root Beer?
Now it’s time to explore some methods to make root beer at home. With brewing beer, you can choose between extract and allspice.
Root beer needs sweetener; you can use table sugar, corn syrup, beet sugar, brown sugar, or honey. Honey is one of the best options to use.
The rule to use sugar is to use 1 pound of sugar per gallon of homemade root beer. Of course, you dial it down if you want less sweetness than commercial root beer. If you are going to use table sugar, 2 cups per gallon of root beer are excellent. If you are using honey, 1.25 cups per gallon of root beer are perfect.
For the typical non-alcoholic root beer you’ll need:
- 1.5 cups of sassafras or sarsaparilla root bark.
- 1.5 teaspoons of wintergreen leaf.
- 1 pound of sugar or honey.
- 1 cups molasses.
- 1 ounce of vanilla extract.
- Around 2.5 gallons of water.
If you want to do bottle carbonating;
- Neutral ale yeast
- 3 or 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon of liquorice roots
- 0.2 teaspoon of coriander and allspice
- And 0.2 teaspoons of nutmeg
To prepare, it, add your sassafras root, the wintergreen, vanilla extract and any optional herbs to the water. Bring to boil, and once reached, reduce the heat. Add the molasses and sugar and stir entirely. You need to allow the mix to simmer for 30 or 35 minutes.
Once that is done, cut the heat, and allow it to cool. Add yeast, stir gently and bottle immediately. It’s best if you store the bottle at room temperature.
To pull this recipe, you need to remember to store carbonated bottles in cold temperatures to avoid potential bottle bombs. Plastic soda bottles are the best option for this reason. Do not use baking yeast.
Once your bottles have reached proper carbonation, they are ready to be refrigerated, and your homemade root beer will be drinkable for about five weeks.
If this recipe seems too much for you, you can do this easier one. You’ll need:
- Root Beer Extract.
- 2 pounds of sugar or honey.
- 3 pounds of water.
- Neutral ale yeast.
You just need to follow the same instructions and replace the spice boiling with the root beer extract.
Does homemade root beer have alcohol? Only if you brew it that way.
So, if you prefer hard root beer or root beer with alcohol, you need to start with a simple dark ale recipe; you can find one here.
Keep it simple and make sure it has low bitterness. You can also use a small amount of black or chocolate malt to add color and flavor. Add the spices, and if you are using root beer extract add it during bottling. Adjust the sweetener to desired taste up to 1 pound. Then, all you have to do is condition and drink it.
For making hard root beer, here is another recipe. You’ll need:
- 5 lbs of light DME.
- 20 oz of sugar.
- 1 lb of lactose.
- Neutral ale yeast.
You just need to brew it as you would brew any other batch of beer.
As explained before, homemade root beer is a very healthy option. You can use unprocessed herbs and roots and add sugar to taste. You can make excellent root beer without complications.
There is a long list of ingredients you can use to make your own unique and fun root beer, from vanilla and chocolate to liquorice and mint. There are endless combinations to try and create, carbonated or not, alcoholic or not.
How is Root Beer made at a big company?
Root beer, when made in big companies, is very industrialized. Machines are doing all the work for long periods until the beer is packaged and delivered to your favourite shop or restaurant.
Some big companies, like A&W, make their root beer fresh every day at their restaurants.
Making beers in big companies is almost always the same. This process is one of the most difficult ones in the food industry. The first step of beer production is preparing the must. The barley malt is crushed and smashed without being made into a homogeneous mass. Then it’s filtered, and clear liquid starts to seep through the layers of grains.
Then it’s time to boil the mix or must. Once the must is boiling, the hops are added depending on the recipe and beer type.
When that is done, it is time for fermentation. The must flows through pipes to fermentation tanks which are usually called cylinder-conic tanks. After the mix is fresh, yeast goes into the mixture. The temperatures are adjusted to reach top fermentation. The must spends a day laying there. A thick head of foam is formed on the surface of the fermentation tank. This means that the yeast is successfully beginning to convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
During the fermentation, there is a lot of heat being produced. Because of this, the mix requires constant cooling for a stable temperature.
While the fermentation is happening, brewers monitor the density of carbon dioxide in the tanks, and once this reaches the maximum level, gas is released through pipes.
This process stops once all the sugar contained in the beer has been processed by the yeast.
Some beers go through a process called maturation.
For this process, large stainless steel tanks are necessary, and it last from a few weeks up to four months. While maturation is happening, it’s very important to maintain a stable temperature and pressure in the tank. These parameters cannot be changed without damaging the process, so ensuring the quality of your product during this time is best done by professionals.
One of the last steps is filtration. Right after maturation, the beer passes two filters, different from each other, designed to remove large or small particles. Once that is done, the last step is bottling.
Bottling is the final stage for the production of beers. Beer is poured into different containers, and before filling bottles, everything is washed carefully. Everything should be clean and sterile to preserve the beer correctly.
How is A&W Root Beer made?
In the process of making root beer in big companies, they add a lot of sugar and additives to the mix to create their final product. Yes, it is tasty, but the ingredients often can cause a lot of damage. It’s the same as with any other soda or beer that has been made this way.
One more time, the best option when it comes to root beer is homemade. Yes, it’s quite some work but it is not as hard as it seems, and once you get a hold of it, you can make it every weekend for you and your friends. This way, you get to skip all the dangerous ingredients you will find on commercial root beers.
Both options taste amazing, but only one is really healthy. The best part about making your own root beer is that you can play with all the different flavors you can make.