When I think that, as a young adult on my break from work, I would down a Pepsi and Snickers bar in a matter of minutes, I almost get nauceous. Today, because I was once counted in their lot, the habits of the young and foolish never shock me. I am just grateful to have been enlightened to the dangers of sugar. And I presume that you have, too, and that is why you are reading up on how to make root beer for yourself. Well, read on for Chris’s wonderful recipe that uses traditional methods.
The first time I made root beer there were no roots involved. But there was an explosion. And a big sticky mess that splashed down the back of my fridge and splattered the wall paper. It left glass embedded in the wall for months. I didn’t realize that the top of the fridge in July wasn’t the best place to proof the root beer. I had read a warning not to put the bottles under a bed because of the possibility of just such an explosion. It took almost as long to repaint the kitchen as it took me to venture into fermented pop a second time.
Roll forward 30 years, and my root beer actually contains roots. I no longer place my root beer on top of the fridge to cure. I’ve never had another exploding bottle. (Touch wood.)
Root beer is what our ancestors drank
Root beer is a traditional summertime beverage that is not only sweet and flavorful but also tonic. Traditional recipes for root beer generally contain herbs, plant roots, bark, some sugar, and a starter culture. Sassafras root bark, sarsaparilla root bark, and wintergreen make up the familiar taste profile of root beer, although today commercial root beer is made with artificial flavors. In this recipe birch bark offers the wintergreen flavor.
First, Gather Containers
You’ll need bottles that can be closed tightly, or capped, in order to capture the carbon dioxide and create a fizzy beverage. Some people just use 2-quart plastic pop bottles with twist caps. At our house we have a case of 8-ounce vintage Pop Shop™ bottles reserved just for homemade root beer and ginger ale. We cap them with a bottle capper and tin crimp caps, the old fashioned way. These caps and the gadgets to apply them are still available at beer and wine supply stores. Capping pop bottles is a fun job for kids, and gets them involved in the process. Swing top bottles are also suitable for capping naturally carbonated beverages. You may already have some of these around if you make fizzy kombucha.
How to Make Root Beer–The Traditional Way
Yield: 3 quarts
- 3 tablespoons sassafras root bark
- 3 tablespoons sarsaparilla root bark
- 2 tablespoons birch bark, shredded
- 1 vanilla bean, sliced and scraped
- 3 quarts cold water
- 1-1/3 cups organic cane sugar
- ¾ cup ginger bug starter
Place the herbs, vanilla, and cold water in a 1 ½-gallon stock pot. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow the temperature to reduce naturally until it is around 90°F. Strain out the herbs, retaining the decoction.
Stir the sugar and the ginger bug into the liquid. Pour the mixture into sanitized bottles. Cap tightly. Place in a cool spot, where you’ll remember to check on them a couple times a day.
The fermentation is complete when the root beer fizzes up with fine bubbles when you move the bottle gently. Don’t try to shake it hard. A gentle movement will show you fine bubbles when the root beer is ready.
It will reach the desired carbonation in 48 to 72 hours. When it has the amount of fizz that you like, place all the bottles in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation.
Where to get the herbs?
Herbs for root beer can be purchased from health food stores, on-line herb stores like Mountain Rose Herbs, Amazon, and Star West Botanicals. A quarter pound of each herb will give you enough ingredients for three to four batches of root beer. Purchase whole herbs rather than powdered herbs. Powdered herbs are difficult to strain from the decoction.
If you are familiar with the herbs in your area, you may also be able to wildcraft some of the herbs for this recipe. Making root beer is a good excuse to take the kids on a hike and talk to them about the natural world, plants, and the goodness that’s all around us.
Other fun, probiotic rich summer beverages you can make
You aren’t limited to root beer when considering lightly fermented, probiotic summer beverages. These are all more healthy than pop or Kool-Aid™ drinks. They are enjoyed by adults and children alike. Note that the fermentation process makes them lightly alcoholic. These are not suitable for those who must abstain from all forms of alcohol.
- Ginger ale
- Fizzy Kombucha
- Water Kefir
- Fermented Lemonade
- Probiotic Grape Soda
- Fermented Crab Apple Cider
Skip the pop
Now that you have the tools and recipes, make this the summer to toss the Kool-Aid™, soda pop, and sugary ice tea and embrace probiotic-rich thirst quenchers. Your body will thank you.
To make your fermented beverages in a Mason jar, use the Fermentools kit, complete with airlock. This will keep the bad stuff out and the good stuff in. And to make a big batch that lasts a while, check out our 12-pack.
Chris is a teacher, author, gardener, and herbalist with 30+ years’ of growing herbs and formulating herbal remedies, skin care products, soaps, and candles. She teaches workshops and writes extensively about gardening, crafts, scratch cooking, fermentation, medicinal herbs, and traditional skills on her blog at JoybileeFarm.com. Chris is the author of the The Beginner’s Book of Essential Oils, Learning to Use Your First 10 Essential Oils with Confidence and Homegrown Healing, from Seed to Apothecary. Her newest book is “The Beeswax Workshop, How to Make Your Own Natural Candles, Cosmetics, Cleaners, Soaps, Healing Balms and More” with Ulysses Press (2017). Chris is a contributing writer to The Biblical Herbal Magazine, The Fermentools Blog, and the Attainable Sustainable blog. Her books are available on Amazon. Chris lives with her husband Robin in the mountains of British Columbia on a 140 acre ranch where they raise lamb. They have 3 adult children and 3 grand daughters.