Handcrafted root beer is almost a lost art these days, which is a shame. Complex and layered, these earthy flavors combine with whey to create a naturally fizzy drink that is good for your well-being and your gut. Homemade root beers are probiotic by nature, and have been revered for their beneficial powers for centuries. (source)
Fermenting your own drinks is a wonderful way to incorporate good bacteria into your diet. Plus, kids love it. They love to help make it, and they love to help drink it when it’s done. What’s not to love about homemade soda?! Root beer has always been my favorite, and now I feel quite justified in preferring it above all else!
Root beer making may be a lost art specifically, but making probiotic foods in general certainly is! Fortunately, we are seeing resurgence in handcrafting probiotic and lactofermented foods. People are buying local food from farmer’s markets, they are becoming aware of where their meats and dairy come from, and they are even discovering the beauty of
Me and root beer go back a long way, ever since I was a little girl playing softball every summer in California. But root beer is especially good when you taste the difference between homemade and store-bought, although I can totally admit that even a commercial brand from a microbrewery is so much better than the stuff you can buy from the mainstream grocery store. One of my favorites is this one, though I usually order it from my co-op or find it at the health food store.
When artificial flavorings and two liter bottles are so much easier to come by, it can be easy to get complacent. Here’s an ingredient list for a bottle of root beer flavoring:
Caramel Color, Water, Corn Syrup, Wild Cherry Bark Extractives And Other Natural Extractives, Natural And Artificial Flavors, Methyl Salicylate (Flavoring Agent), Vanillin, Gum Arabic, Gum Tragacanth, And Sulfiting Agents. (source)
History of Root Beer
I remember going on family vacation when I was little and drinking sarsaparilla with my sister in the quintessential amber-colored bottles. I imagined then, and now, that like Doc Brown or The Stranger, sarsaparilla was borne out of the idea that even cowboys that don’t drink hard liquor like to sit in a saloon and be a part of the culture of “having a drink”.
Sarsaparilla is usually made with a blend of roots and spices similar to root beer, but it always includes the herb sarsaparilla, of course! Very similar to root beer, sarsaparilla is sometimes referred to as “the grandaddy of all root beer”. Birch beer is another variation on root beer, and always is made from birch bark which has a sharp, sweet, minty flavor.
When you look at my recipe, you’ll find that this version of homemade root beer includes not only root beer flavors like orange peel, wintergreen leaf, and sassafrass, but also includes sarsaparilla and sweet birch essential oil flavors from root beer’s forebears: sarsaparilla and birch beer! It’s perfect!
Medicinal Uses for Root Beers:
First of all, did you know that there is a such thing as a “beer anthropologist”? I had no idea, but I want to be one. Anyway, I found out about beer anthropology in a recent book find of mine, Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation.
People have been using roots, berries, herbs, spices, seeds, and peels for centuries to craft unique healing brews to help support their health. Knowledge about natural medicine has been accumulated and passed on from parents to children, from the medicine man to the village.
As certain plants have proven effective and others have not, the evolution of humanity has built medicinal wisdom layer by layer, and I do not believe it’s wise to ignore it. The experience of the ages is built into the combination of roots and spices found even in old-fashioned root beer. Too often we dismiss beautiful simplicity of traditional foods and opt for Western medicine alone to solve our health woes. I suggest instead that we integrate them together and learn from the past as we weave it together.
According to the book:
…plants are considered to possess intelligence, awareness, and a soul. They are experienced with being able to speak with human beings and convey information about how they may be used as medicine.
Benefits of Root Beer Ingredients:
Wintergreen Leaf: rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat and various aches and pains (source)
Sassafras: analgesic, antiseptic, fungicide, dentifrice, rubefacient, diaphoretic, perfume, carminative and sudorific, and to treat: scurvy, skin sores, kidney problems, toothaches, rheumatism, swelling, menstrual disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, bronchitis, hypertension, and dysentery (source)
Sarsaparilla: decrease joint pain and itching, reduce bacteria, combat pain and swelling (inflammation), and protect the liver against toxins (source)
Orange Peel: cholesterol, cancer, heartburn, digestion, respiratory conditions, and vitamin C (source)
Dandelion Root: mild laxative, increasing appetite, and improving digestion (source)
Burdock Root: diuretic, diaphoretic, and a blood purifying agent (source)
Licorice Root: antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, laxative, anti-diabetic, immunomodulatory, antitumour and expectorant, and useful in preventing neurodegenerative disorders and cavities (source)
Juniper Berries: diuretic, appetite stimulant, a remedy for rheumatism and arthritis (source)
Cinnamon: anti-viral, diabetes, antioxidant, alzheimer’s disease (source)
Star Anise: digestion, rheumatism (source)
Sweet Birch Essential Oil: antiseptic, rubefacient, analgesic (source)
Vanilla: intestinal gas, fever, and to increase sexual desire (source)
Okay, now that you know the why of root beer, it’s time for the recipe!
Note: Use this link to find all your spices and herbs for making root beer (and cocktail bitters, but I digress!). It’s a company called Mountain Rose Herbs, and I love them. They have almost everything under the sun. If you can’t find something there, look at a local herb shop or health food store where you live.
Another note: This recipe gives the option of using unbleached organic white sugar instead of whole cane sugar. This is because the sugar in fermented drinks gets mostly used up in the fermentation process. Plus, it’s just sugar. Live a little! (White sugar doesn’t hurt you when your metabolism is healthy.)
Lacto-Fermented Root Beer
1 gallon (16 cups) filtered water (get water filters here)
1/2 cup wintergreen leaf
1/4 cup sassafrass bark
1/4 cup sarsparilla root
3 tablespoons dried orange peel
1 1/2 tablespoons dandelion root
1 1/2 tablespoons burdock root
1 1/2 tablespoons licorice root
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 1/2 cups whole cane sugar OR unbleached organic white sugar (find whole cane sugar here, organic white sugar here)
1 teaspoon sweet birch essential oil (find sweet birch oil here)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (find good vanilla extract here)
3/4 cup ginger bug OR fresh whey (see how to make whey here)
- In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the herbs, roots, spices, and berries: wintergreen, sassafrass, sarsparilla, orange peel, dandelion root, burdock root, licorice root, juniper berries, cinnamon stick, and star anise. Simmer for 15 minutes, covered.
- Remove from heat and let steep for up to four hours, but at least one hour. Remove the lid and strain the mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, pressing to push all the liquid out. Discard the solids.
- Whisk in the whole cane sugar until dissolved, heating the mixture briefly if needed. Add the sweet birch oil and vanilla extract. Stir in the ginger bug or whey.
- Pour into Grolsch-top bottles, whisking the mixture each time you pour to keep the birch oil incorporated and each bottle of root beer equally flavored with it.
- Put a little root beer into a small plastic water bottle with a screw cap, so you can squeeze the sides of it to test for the fermentation progress.
- Cap glass Grolsch-style bottles tightly and let ferment at room temperature for 2-4 days. Test the water bottle by squeezing the sides: when you can’t press them in anymore, the fermentation process is complete!
- Transfer the bottles to the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process. Root beer is best after 1-2 days aging time in the refrigerator.
- Best served in a chilled, frosty beer mug