A few years ago I first tried to make a root beer using native plant ingredients. I didn't have access to any sassafras roots nearby, so I based it around black birch. I guess the intent was a birch beer. With the addition of some spicebush and a few other goodies, I had a pretty dynamite brew in an old ginger ale bottle - for a day. The day after the first tasting, malodorous sulphurous fumes belched from the bottle...
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I've always liked root beer - as a kid growing up in a pretty much soda-free household, it was a rare treat. At 13, when us eighth graders were let loose to buy our own lunches on the streets of Manhattan, it was a frequent complement to pepperoni pizza from "Famous Famiglia".
The holy grail of root beer for me came much later, however. It was an incredibly creamy draught I bought at a roadside stand in Michigan about a decade ago. Rachel and I were working in Detroit, curating a historical exhibit [i] for the main branch public library there. We were living in a sleepy and dull subdivision in Clarkston, Michigan -- a house we rented from the kindly family who owned a soul food place on the main drag. I regularly drove right past the house when we returned from work -- that's how cookie-cutter the place was, I couldn't distinguish one house from another.
One day, in a quest for culture and diversion, we headed north for the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Wow, if you want to see mid-westerners really cutting loose... I had to defend Rachel from several overly chivalrous blokes who wanted to assist her in walking down the steps from the tavern (gigantic roast turkey legs, one fed us both) to the axe-throwing range.
At any rate, somewhere on the route from Clarkston to the Festival was a modest roadside operation, a counter service restaurant with a big sign out front advertising root beer. We split one cup. We always used to joke that some day we'd be able to afford to purchase two beverages when we went out to eat. I think we had almost reached that level of affluence two years ago, then we had Beren, and... maybe someday.
The cup they gave us was a giant white styrofoam one, topped with copious foam like a fine German beer at an outdoor bar in Munich. It was thick, rich, and... somehow natural tasting.
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The second time I made root beer, I figured out what that "natural taste" was. For someone so interested in wild plants foods, it took me until just this summer to dig sassafras roots. As soon as I lifted one from the ground, I was struck by a wonderful scent, the smell of root beer, natural root beer, as distinctive and delicious as ginger or cinnamon or chocolate or any of the other great natural aromatics of the world.
I already like sassafras -- a beautifully formed small tree, pretty in bloom, fiery in autumnal blaze along old farm hedgerows. Even dead, they're great trees, the punky wood easy pickings for woodpeckers and full of creatures - flying squirrels for example - that use old woodpecker holes.
After digging some sassafras roots, it became even more elevated in my esteem. A distinctive palette of aromas or a medicinal use always gives me extra respect for a plant, making it even more distinctive and powerful a being, giving me some insight beyond its physical appearance into its chemistry.
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The second time I made root beer, I also figured out how to avoid the sulphurous belches of batch #1. A long video on YouTube recommended "seven grains" of yeast per bottle of brew. Well, I must have heaped a teaspoon or more into my first batch -- the more the better, no?
The second batch turned out well. Enough friends complimented it that, in the interest of root beer science, I share my native plant-based root beer recipe below. Still not as dynamite as that root beer stand in Michigan (or the root beer with milk that was free at the Wisconsin State Fair, courtesy of some local politician, but that's another story...) but still quite good for foraged soda!
Native Root Beer
makes about four quart-size Mason jars worth
14 cups water
1/2 pound honey (might replace some with brown sugar next time, it kinda dominated the flavor)
1/4 tsp salt
several ounces of cleaned sassafras root
1 oz. spikenard root
a fistful of fine black birch twigs
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
5 dried spicebush drupes
I embellished the above with some ginger, nutmeg, and dates -- optional
Boil sassafras in 6 cups water for one hour. You'll have an intensely red decoction, richly aromatic.
Take off the boil, and stir in all the other ingredients. Let sit 30 minutes. Add 8 cups cold water. Strain, and when the temperature is down to somewhere between 60-95 degrees, fill clean bottles nearly to the top. I used Mason jars.
Drop seven grains of yeast into each bottle, fasten on the cap. Shake each bottle vigorously for 30 seconds. Store in the dark, at 60-80 degrees, for three or four days. Open one, check carbonation. If sufficiently fizzy, put all the bottles in the fridge.
Sassafras, black birch, spikenard, spicebush root beer-- starting to fizz!
Note: The FDA considers one chemical constituent of sassafras (safrole) to be a carcinogen. So, you can't buy root beer made with whole sassafras anymore. The risk of moderate quantities of home-brewed root beer or sassafras tea seem to be extremely minimal, but... you can make that decision for yourself.
Drawing Power: Motor City Ad Art in the Age of Muscle and Chrome, believe it or not. One of three exhibits we curated for the National Automotive History Collection -- in a former life. Here's an article about it from the New York Times...