At some point, you may look at your brewing equipment and wonder what else you can do with it besides making beer. Some homebrewers branch out into other fermented beverages such as cider, mead or wine. However, you can also take a cue from many commercial breweries — including Tommyknocker (Idaho Springs, Colorado), Sprecher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Abita (Abita Springs, Louisiana), Old Dominion (Washington, DC), Millstream (Anama, Iowa), Stevens Point (Stevens Point, Wisconsin), Goose Island (Chicago, Illinois) and Saint Arnold (Houston, Texas) — and make a non-alcoholic brew, root beer.
The basic idea behind brewing root beer is that you choose your flavorings, sweeten the beverage and then carbonate it. Just as with real beer, making homemade root beer can be an easy or complex process. Beer brewers may choose either extract or all-grain methods of making beer. When making root beer, you have a similar choice. There is a simple method in which your flavors come from root beer extract. Alternately, you can boil various roots, barks, herbs and spices to obtain your flavoring. You also have options with regards to your choice of sweetener and how to carbonate.
For my first batch of root beer, I took the easy route and used an extract promising “Old Time Flavor.” I used conventional granulated sugar and standard Red Star baking yeast and in about 20 minutes I had 1 gallon (3.8 L) of root beer ready for bottling. So why go the extra mile and make the product from scratch? The root beer brewers contacted for this article agreed that the final results of a from-scratch method are generally better — especially if the highest quality ingredients are used. The nutty, natural flavors stand out and remain truer to the earthy nature of the drink, when it truly earned the name root.
Getting to the root of root beer
So where did this drink come from? Beer, it is widely believed, was accidentally invented during Mesopotamian times more than 5,000 years ago when grains sitting in some liquid fermented in a warm clay pot. Gradually, the process was refined into a (more or less) calculated product suitable for popular mass consumption. Root beer, in contrast, required a conscious effort from the start and was in part developed by brewers out of the need for a non-alcoholic beverage that was suitable for children when drinking water was potentially a risky proposition. (Homemade root beer that gets its carbonation from fermentation in the bottle generally has less than 0.25–0.35% alcohol. Force carbonated root beer is entirely non-alcoholic.) Other scholars believe root beer has its genesis in the early American colonies, initially developed because of the lack in traditional beer-making ingredients. Adventurous brewers blended herbs and barks with sweeteners like honey and tree saps to make root beer. Root beer gained in popularity during Prohibition, when many breweries turned to making this soft drink — instead of “hard” beer — to stay afloat.
Choosing your water when making root beer is easy. You can use bottled spring water or filtered tap water. As long as it tastes good, you’re good to go. Water treatments can be applied, just as in beer making, but make sure any additives dissolve completely. Avoid high levels of calcium or magnesium.
When making root beer with the extract, there is no “root wort” to boil, so any particles might find a way into the finished product. However, the water will be boiled for most “from scratch” versions of this soft drink.
There are numerous sweetening options when it comes to making root beer: cane sugar, corn sugar, corn syrup (including the favorite of commercial soft drink makers — high fructose corn syrup), malt extract (maltose), brown sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup (use grade B for better flavor), honey or molasses. You can even use low-calorie sweeteners such as Splenda.
Working with the extract, the directions do not seem to play a favorite, simply calling for “sugar or sweetener.” One brewer tossed out the possibility of mixing in some lactose for a creamier finish and increased mouthfeel. And, he hypothesized, this might also decrease the formation of alcohol in the final product, as lactose sugar is non-fermentable. Each of these sweeteners will impart a distinctive, though subtle, flavor and level of sweetness.
Steve Indrehus, head brewer at Tommyknocker Brewery swears by maple syrup as the perfect sweetener for his “1859 Root Beer,” while Heath Greenwald owner of Palisade Brewery and Jackson Hole Soda Company in Palisade, Colorado will use nothing less than pure cane sugar in his root beer. “Only pure cane sugar,” Greenwald explains. “It has a real rich, thick, creamy flavor. It makes all the difference.” Fans of Mexican Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper from the original Dr. Pepper bottling plant, in Dublin, Texas — both of which use cane sugar in place of the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup — also claim that cane sugar makes for a better soft drink.
Nutritional labeling reveals that most commercial sodas contain around 36–46 g of carbohydrate per 12-oz. (355-mL) serving. This translates to 10–14 °Brix (SG 1.040–1.044). Translated to homebrew-scale production, 1 pound of sugar per gallon (0.12 kg/L) yields a 12 °Brix (approximately SG 1.048) solution. However, the main reason some people make root beer (or other sodas) at home is to make a version that is less sweet.
There are two ways to carbonate your soda — force carbonation or bottle conditioning. To force carbonate root beer, just rack it to a Cornelius keg, refrigerate and apply carbon dioxide pressure. Most commercial sodas are carbonated to around 3.5 volumes of CO2, higher than most beers excepting certain Belgians. At 40 °F (4.4 °C), standard refrigerator temperature, you would need to apply 22–24 PSI of pressure. You may also wish to have a longer dispense line to get a good pour at this pressure, which is elevated compared to the pressure beer is typically stored under. Force carbonated root beer has no alcohol in it.
The second way to carbonate root beer is to transfer the sugary solution to bottles and add yeast. The yeast will begin to consume the sugar, making carbon dioxide and a small amount of alcohol. When the proper amount of carbonation is reached, the bottles are refrigerated and consumed quickly, before dangerous amounts of carbonation build up.
Just like in making beer, the selection of yeast is also very subjective. Many root beer extracts call for using bakers yeast. Bakers yeast is grown aerobically and is packed full of glycogen. However, once this glycogen is expended, it is a poor fermenter. As such, it is the safest choice for bottle conditioning soda as it would likely be the slowest to reach excessive levels of carbonation. Add the yeast at a rate of around 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon per gallon.
Many brewers, however, may want to use beer or wine yeast and the one you use can make a big difference. The difference is not so much in flavor (you wouldn’t want to use a spicy Belgian ale yeast for root beer anyway), but in the levels of carbonation and temperature that fermentation can take place. A neutral ale yeast, like Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) are generally recommended.
“From my beer-making experience I’d say you want a low attenuation, low temperature tolerant yeast so it doesn’t have a lot of impact on the flavor,” Indrehus says. “A low attenuation yeast that is a highly flocculent yeast so it isn’t cloudy is good too.”
Fermentation with ale yeast generally all but ceases once the bottles are in the refrigerator. If left out, even at room temperature, the high volume of sugar in root beer allows fermentation to continue unimpeded and the bottles may explode. It is recommended that fermentation take place at room temperature. Open one bottle every day (or perhaps even one every 12 hours) and then refrigerate all the bottles once your desired level of fizziness is reached. Bare this in mind when deciding what size batch to make.
Champagne yeast is recommended in many recipes and provides more than ample carbonation, but it also ferments at colder temperatures — as low as 45 °F (7 °C). This means caution must be used as the explosive risk increases. Even when storing the root beer in the fridge, some fermentation can take place. Similarly, lager yeast, while having a dry, often neutral flavor, also can ferment at low temperatures and is not recommended.
Although many sources recommend using thick glass beer bottles — such as German wheat beer bottles — when bottle conditioning root beer, Brew Your Own recommends that you use plastic soda bottles. Gas pressure from yeast activity can easily cause glass bottles to explode and this is a fairly common occurrence when the bottle-conditioning method of carbonation is used.
Plastic bottles can also rupture if enough pressure builds up, but they can generally withstand higher pressures and will not give off “shrapnel,” as a glass bottle would. As an added benefit, you can squeeze the bottles to get some idea of the level of carbonation building up.
The root of the matter
The most fundamental difference in methods of root beer production is how the flavoring is obtained. Brewing root beer from extract is very quick and root beer extract can be found in most homebrew shops.
Brewing a root beer from scratch takes more time and some effort — especially in finding some of the less common ingredients if there isn’t a well-stocked natural foods store nearby. If you can’t find an ingredient you want locally, a search of the internet almost always yields multiple sources. There are a wide variety of ingredients possible for root beer, depending on which recipe you follow. The main ingredient in most modern root beers is wintergreen, often accompanied by vanilla. A popular ingredient in chewing gum, wintergreen has a fresh, lively flavor and pungent aroma. When mixed with the additional ingredients in the soda, the wintergreen also provides a nice balance against the sweetness.
The traditional flavor of “old time” root beer came from sassafras root, often paired with sarsaparilla root. However, in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras in processed foods — including commercial root beer — after it was found to cause cancer in laboratory rats. It is still legal to sell the root and bark. Many recipes still call for this ingredient, but don’t despair; there are now extracts available with the safrole (the carcinogenic substance in sassafras root) removed that will still impart the proper flavor. Other possible root beer ingredients include vanilla, ginger, licorice root, anise seed, birch bark, juniper berries, star anise, chirreta, yerba mate, dog grass, wild cherry bark and roots of sarsaparilla, burdock, yellow dock, dandelion and spikenard. Hops are also found in many recipes and are used to balance the sweetness with a touch of bitterness and the bark of a South American tree called Quillaia saponica is sometimes used as a heading agent. If there is a particular commercial root beer you enjoy, take a look at its label. Most simply list “natural and artificial flavors,” but a few — including the German “gourmet” root beer, Virgil’s — give all their ingredients.
With ingredients in hand, the usual procedure is to boil (or simmer) the ingredients to extract their flavor. You may boil the ingredients in a volume of water equal to your batch size, or you can make a flavor concentrate by boiling them in less water. Boil times vary from a few minutes to several hours. You can always take a small sample — cooled and perhaps sweetened — and taste it to assess your progress during the boil.
When finished, the solids are strained out of the liquid, sugar is added and the solution is cooled and transferred to a keg or bottles. The recipes on this page give the amounts and boiling procedures for many of the most common root beer ingredients. In addition, numerous recipes can be found on the internet or in books on soda making, such as “Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop,” by Stephen Cresswell (1998, Storey).
Note that it is easy to make small-scale test batches of root beer. Even uncarbonated, a cooled and sweetened sample will tell you if you are on the right track. You can even boil individual roots and bottle each extract in sanitized bottles (without any sugar). You can then use these extracts to concoct your root beer. Most root beers are colored with caramel coloring and you can use this, or molasses, to give yours a darker color.
As when making beer, you need to clean and sanitize your equipment when making root beer. After kegging root beer, your keg will need to be cleaned thoroughly before using it for beer again. Although the stainless steel itself can be cleaned (and perhaps soaked in a baking soda solution overnight) to remove any flavors, the rubber O-rings will need to be replaced. If you can keep a dedicated root beer keg, you can avoid accidentally producing a root beer Kölsch.
There you have it, the basic knowledge to make root beer. Heck, it might just be the thing to keep the significant other happy and obliging in your beer pursuits. Now bearing that in mind, isn’t it worth at least a try?
Glenn BurnSilver wrote “10 Clones from the Dark Side” in the September 2005 issue of Brew Your Own.
Once you understand how to make root beer, it’s immediately obvious how to make any kind of soft drink. All you need to do is combine some flavorings, sugar and carbonation. Colas are usually flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, lemon oil and orange oil, with caffeine from kola nuts and color from caramel. Many popular soft drinks are citrus flavored, incuding lemon-lime drinks such as 7-Up or Sprite. Mountain Dew is flavored with concentrated orange juice. (The color comes from FD&C Yellow #5.) Most grape sodas, such as Grape Crush or Welch’s Grape Soda, feature the flavor of Concord grapes. Recently, “energy drinks” such as Red Bull or Crunk!! have become popular and these contain a variety of ingredients, including guarana, ginseng, vitamin B, ginkgo biloba . . . and lots of caffeine. Exact formulas for commercial products are closely guarded secrets.
The amount of carbonation greatly effects how the beverage is perceived and often is tailored to match the type of soft drink. Fruity soft drinks may have as little as 2 volumes CO2 whereas ginger ale can have up to 4 volumes. Higher levels of carbonation can lead to a “carbonic bite,” which may or may not be appropriate, depending on the other flavors.
In many soft drinks, sweetness is offset by some acidity. In most varieties of soda, especially those with a citrus component, citric acid is added. In colas, phosphoric acid is used instead. Malic acid is used in sodas with a berry-based flavor. All of these acids can be found in homebrewing or winemaking shops. Citric and malic acids are sold as white crystals. Phosphoric acid is usually sold in a 10% solution. For 5 gallons (19 L) of soda, use 0.15–1.0 ounces (4.3–28 g) of citric acid or around 0.75 ounces (21 g) of malic acid. If you are making a cola, use 2.1 ounces (60 g) (by weight) of
10% phosphoric acid. (Coke has a pH of 2.5.) For root beers, citric acid is preferred.
Caffeine is a popular ingredient in many kinds of soft drinks. It does not add any flavor, but is present for its stimulant effects. The concentration of caffeine in soft drinks varies quite a bit, with the average being near 40 mg per 12 oz. serving. This translates to 2,133 mg per 5 gallons (19 L). Ten
200 mg caffeine pills, available at many stores that sell excercise supplements, would work for this. Jolt cola and many energy drinks have around twice this amount. A small amount of citric acid (roughly equal to the amount of caffeine) helps the solubility of the caffeine. Root beer, as well as most lemon-lime soft drinks, typically do not have added caffeine.
— Chris Colby
None of the root beer brewers contacted for this story would divulge their secret ingredients, nor provide a recipe. That’s OK; there are plenty on the Internet to choose from that range from simple to extremely complicated. Here are a few that will get you going. Most of the herbs and roots can be found at natural food stores.
Extract Root Beer
4 fl. oz. (117 mL) root beer extract
5 lb. (2.3 kg) cane sugar
1/2 pkg (~5 g) ale yeast (optional)
Step by Step
Add 2 gallons (7.6 L) of water to your brew kettle and begin heating it. Gradually stir in sugar and bring solution to 160 °F (71 °C), add root beer extract and hold for 15 minutes. (This will sanitize the solution.) Cool the solution by placing your brewpot in a sink full of cold water. (Don’t risk staining and flavoring your copper wort chiller for this.) Let cooled solution sit for 5 minutes to let any particles settle out. Siphon to a keg and add water to make 5 gallons (19 L). Or, add water in your brew kettle to make 5 gallons and stir in yeast. Siphon directly to plastic bottles. (As with your wort chiller, don’t risk a permanent root beer flavor by using your bottling bucket.) Cool keg and force carbonate or let bottles condition at room temperature until carbonated. To make only one gallon (3.8 L), divide all ingredients by five.
Half and Half Root Beer
(5 gallons/19 L)
Half of the flavor — (artificial) sassafras and vanilla, plus spruce and birch — in this recipe comes from root beer extract. The other half comes from boiling various ingredients. The licorice root and anise lend a licorice-like flavor (not unlike that in IBC), while the star anise and hint of wintergreen round out the flavor profile.
2 fl. oz. (59 mL) Zatarains root beer extract
2 oz. (56 g) licorice root
1.5 oz. (43 g) anise seed
0.5 oz. (14 g) star anise
0.25 oz. (7 g) dried wintergreen leaves
4.4 lbs. (2.0 kg) cane sugar
up to 2.5 tsp. citric acid (to taste)
1/2 pkg (~5 g) ale yeast (optional)
Step by Step
Heat 2 gallons (7.6 L) of water to a boil, turn off heat and add licorice root, anise, star anise and wintergreen. Let this solution simmer for 30 minutes, then strain out as much of the solids as is feasible with a kitchen strainer. Stir in sugar and check that temperature is at 160 °F (71 °C) or higher. Let sit for 15 minutes, covered, then cool brewpot in your kitchen sink. Siphon cooled root beer to keg and add water to make 5 gallons (19 L). Taste root beer and add citric acid, if desired, to taste. Cool root beer overnight and force carbonate to 3–3.5 volumes of CO2. Alternately, add yeast and bottle.
Old Prospector Root Beer
(5 gallons/19 L)
4 oz. (113 g) dried sarsaparilla root
2 oz. (57 g) dried burdock root
2 oz. (57 g) dried yellow dock root
2 oz. (57 g) dried spikenard root
1 oz. (28 g) hops (your choice)
8 cups sugar 12 fl. oz. (355 mL) molasses
1/2 pkg (~5 g) ale yeast (optional)
Step by Step
Simmer herbs in water for 30 minutes. Add sugar and molasses, stir to dissolve, and let sit for 15 minutes above 160 °F (71 °C). Cool root beer, siphon to keg and add water to make 5 gallons (19 L) . Force carbonate. (Or, add yeast and bottle.)
Birch Bark Canoe Root Beer
(5 gallons/19 L)
4 oz. (113 g) birch beer extract
2 inches (5.1 cm) cinnamon stick
3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) corn sugar
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) honey
1/2 pkg (~5 g) ale yeast (optional)
Step by Step
Boil cinnamon stick for 15 minutes, add sugar, honey and birch beer extract and let sit for 15 minutes. Cool, add water and either keg or bottle condition.