Article

Hard Root & Ginger Beers

Unknown 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now you’ve probably become aware of the latest “adult” drink craze: Hard root beer. There are quite a few offerings out there these days, such as Sprechers “Not Your Grandfather’s Root Beer,” Old Town Brewery’s “Not Your Father’s Root Beer,” “Coney Island Hard Root Beer,” and Root Sellers Brewing Co. “Row Hard Root Beer,” to name a few. To a lesser degree, hard ginger beer is also popping up around the US on the shelves with the root beers. Of course, homebrewers don’t need to be told that what can be bought at the bottle store can probably be made at home, and hard root or ginger beer are no exceptions. Let’s explore how to make these “new” beverages in your own homebrewery.

Hard Root Beer

Interestingly, three of the United States leading hard root beer manufacturers, when contacted by Brew Your Own, declined to discuss anything about these beverages. But one upstart, Root Sellers Brewing Co. in Columbia, Missouri, was happy to help out — and perhaps it’s no surprise that Root Sellers started out as homebrewers who enjoyed experimenting with different beer styles and offbeat fermentations. There is also plenty of Internet babble, blog posts, and recipes concerning the non-commercial production of hard root beer. I also picked the brains of the whiz kids at my local homebrew shops, who, though desiring to remain anonymous, were more than happy to share some ideas on the subject of brewing hard root beer.

Root Beer Basics

First, to be clear, if you’ve ever made non-alcoholic root beer at home you’ve made hard root beer — only the root beer wasn’t hard enough to have an impact. Even the most basic root beer recipes create trace amounts of alcohol — generally less than 0.25–0.35% alcohol. The key here is to get those alcohol levels high enough to be noticeable. The two biggest factors in doing this are selecting the type and amount of sugar for your recipe, and then a proper yeast strain.

Raise your hand if you haven’t seen an old western movie where someone is orderin’ up a sarsaparilla? Sarsaparilla is just one of the many flavorings that can go into root beer. You can pick up a bottle of extract at the homebrew supply shop promising “Old Time Flavor” and use that in your homebrewed hard root beer, but you wouldn’t skimp on your double IPA ingredients right? The results of a from-scratch method are generally better — especially if the highest quality ingredients are used. So if you have the time and inclination, consider using real root beer flavorings: roots, bark, and herbs. There are plenty of options, and it all comes down to personal preference. A brewer can use all or some of these choices in varying amounts, picking out the flavor elements that suit the palate best. Wintergreen, clove, birch bark, vanilla, sassafras, sarsaparilla, ginger root, licorice root, anise seed, juniper berries, star anise, chirreta (andrographis paniculata), cinnamon, yerba mate, dog grass, wild cherry bark, roots of sarsaparilla, burdock, yellow dock, dandelion, and spikenard are but a few of the options. Although utilizing natural ingredients is preferred, and many can be found in natural food stores, oils of many of these options are commercially available.

A Brief History

Before going further, a brief look at root beer history — which seriously predates the Old West — is in order. It’s well-documented that beer’s creation was an accident (as were many fermented beverages). Beer came to be approximately 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamian times when grains mixed with water in a clay vessel warmed, causing natural yeasts to commence fermenting. As mentioned, alcohol is the fermentation by-product, and the first to try this accidental brew relished the effects and set out to create more.

Root beer, on the other hand, was developed specifically as the anti-beer, so to speak, so there would be something for children and other non-alcohol drinkers to consume. It is a decidedly North American beverage, and scholastic research targets the American colonies in the 1600s as the birthplace of root beer due to a lack of traditional beer-making ingredients. Brewers during this era experimented with many combinations of tree saps, honey sweeteners, flowers, herbs and bark.

Choices

There are two prevalent schools of thought when is comes to making hard root beer. One is to begin with a base beer — a clean California ale, or a dark lager — and then add the flavoring in the secondary. Typically, extracts yield the best results here, and Internet forums seem to back this up. And while it might be possible to create a strong enough “herb/bark/root tea” to add to the secondary, the flavors may not be as pronounced.

That leaves a second option, which also follows brewing protocol, but is less about making a “flavored beer” and more inline with a true root beer process. Instead, malt extracts and various sugar sources are combined with steeped herbs/roots/etc./ and then fermented.

Sweetening the Pot

If you look at the instructions on that “Old Time Flavor” root beer extract package you will see that cane sugar is recommended. Cane sugar is fine for making root beer — and some commercial root beer manufacturers swear by it — but hard root beer benefits from more “complex” sugars. My local sources told me one could use pure cane sugar alone, but so much would be needed that the resulting drink would be thin, lacking mouthfeel and head retention, not to mention high in alcohol without much sweetness left behind to balance if fermented dry. My sources’ recommendations: Use a light liquid or dried malt extract as the main sugar source, and incorporate dextrose and/or maltose into the recipe. Besides the obvious sweetening aspects, the malt extract and dextrose and/or maltose can add some body. You can also use beet sugar, candi sugar, corn sugar, molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave, etc., but keep in mind that they are all fermentable sugars. If your root beer is fermented to dryness these sugars will not add much to the sweetness of the finished root beer. The difference between homebrewed hard root beer and commercial stuff at this point is that most commercial examples are pasteurized before fermenting to dryness, which kills the active yeast and retains the sweetness of the beverage. At home you’ll need to inhibit fermentation before it is complete to retain sweetness, or back sweeten your root beer with an unfermentable sugar such as lactose.

This is something that meadmakers and cider makers work with all the time, and their examples can guide you. Bob Peak wrote a great story in the October 2015 issue of Brew Your Own about back sweetening hard cider, which you can read online: https://byo.com/story3282.

And for those wondering, yes you can make hard root beer starting with an all-grain beer base if you’d like, you’d just need to brew something that would be akin to making a very light, unhopped malt extract. Keep in mind that this will add hours to your hard root beer making experiment, as all-grain days are longer than extract brew days.

Hops

Some online recipes call for hops, others don’t. Though on the surface it seems like hops could balance sweetness as they do in beer. In the case of making root beer, hops are more likely a detriment to the flavor profile, masking or taking away from subtler ingredients. Really, it’s a matter of personal preference and you are welcome to experiment. After all, cider makers have found a way to do it, so you never know (https://byo.com/story2861).

Yeast

Just as selecting the right yeast strain for your beer is critical, the same can be said when brewing hard root beer. The difference is not so much in flavor — a neutral profile is preferred so as not to diminish the flavors of the roots and herbs — but in the levels of fermentation that can take place. Again, the idea is to choose a robust strain that can consume large amounts of sugar, thus creating higher alcohol levels. There are several beer and wine yeast strains that are suitable.

Those opting for the base beer method would do best to use a clean ale yeast, while many traditional root beer makers opt for Champagne yeast. In fact, the instructions for the Old Time Flavor extract recommend a Champagne yeast. This yeast ferments cleanly and won’t change the root beer’s potent flavors, and it is excellent for consuming most, if not all the present sugars, thus boosting alcohol content. The risk is that “it is a monster” capable of fermenting at colder temperatures — as low as 45 °F (7 °C). Conventional wisdom says put the finished product in the refrigerator to stop the carbonation process, but here’s the rub and risk with Champagne yeast: Even when storing the root beer in the fridge, some fermentation can take place increasing the explosive risk. Similarly, lager yeast, while having a dry, often neutral flavor, also can ferment at low temperatures and is not recommended. Both points are moot, however, if the root beer is to be kegged, but if bottling one could end up with cases of root beer bombs.

Those wishing to use beer yeast, Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), or Safale US-05 Ale Yeast are generally recommended as strong strains capable of driving up alcohol levels without imparting unwanted flavors.

Another, perhaps better, option is Lalvin ICV D-47, a lively white wine yeast often used in Chardonnay and rosé, that has a warmer fermentation temperature range of 59–68 °F (15–20 °C). Like the Champagne yeast, D-47 ferments clean and will eat up all the sugars present so a higher alcohol finish (this yeast is capable up to 14 percent ABV) can be obtained.

Root Beer Flavoring

It’s not a bad idea to experiment with different root, herb and bark ratios before going into full production. The easiest way to do this is to create small sample batches on the stovetop. Be sure to record all addition amounts so that once the proper flavor profile is achieved, it can be scaled up for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch.

The usual procedure is to boil (or simmer) the roots, herbs, etc. to extract their flavor. If using whole roots, barks and herbs, these can be boiled separately and then added to the sugar wort, or can be boiled at the same time. To make a flavor concentrate, boil them in less water, adding this near the end of the main boil. It’s important to note, herb/root boil times vary from a few minutes to several hours. A 30-minute boil/simmer is typical for many roots and herbs. In either case, using a grain bag will prevent sediment build up and make racking easier.

For the main boil, bring 5 gallons (19 L) of water to 160 °F (71 °C), turn off and add the malt extracts and sugars, stirring to dissolve. Bring the mixture to a vigorous boil for 10-15 minutes (longer if including the roots/herbs). If using a flavor concentrate, add in last five minutes. Cool the wort to yeast pitching temperature and rack to a 6-gallon (23-L) glass carboy. Aerate well by shaking, and monitor fermentation (much as you would with beer) at temperature suggested on yeast packet. Fermentation should be completed within a few days, however residual yeast will remain active.

As in any brewing endeavor, there’s no one single way to go about it. There are plenty of varied recipes to be found online that range from simple to extremely complicated. Start with a simple recipe with extract on the next page, shared by Kit Maxfield of Root Sellers Brewing Co.

Hard Ginger Beer

Ginger beer, alcoholic or not, while available in the United States, has never found a welcoming market comparable with England. Naturally, this makes sense given that historians have documented the beverage was first brewed in Yorkshire, England in the mid-18oos. Ginger itself has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes since 500 BC.

To be clear, how the beverage is made is what sets hard ginger beer apart from ginger ale for the most part (although not always). Non-alcoholic ginger beverages (ginger ales) are most often force carbonated like soda, while hard ginger beer is fermented, like any beer, to obtain both alcohol and carbonation (however there are artisanal/craft ginger ales that are fermented — just like hard root beer — they are just not as common, commercially, here in the US).

Like hard root beer, there are many recipes floating around the Internet for making hard ginger beer at home that range from simple to complicated. Typical alcohol content ranges between 5 and 9% ABV, making this an easy beverage for homebrewers to make. The key, as in making any hard soda-like product, is providing the proper sugar source for the yeast to fully consume. This ensures that as the yeast feeds on the sugar source, enough alcohol is produced.

Ginger Beer Ingredients

Most recipes call for basic cane sugar, though most unhopped light liquid malt extracts (or equivalent light dried malt extracts) will provide sufficient sugars to boost alcohol levels, along with some body and character (as if the ginger kick wasn’t enough!). Other good sweetener options include honey, agave syrup, and corn syrup — or a combination of all of the above.

Using fresh ginger, which takes a little more work, provides the best flavor. The ginger can be grated or sliced thin, with or without the skin. Powdered ginger is a reasonable substitute and can be found in health food stores, though frequently dried spices aren’t as fresh or potent, and more will be needed to get the proper “kick.” The grated ginger found in jars at grocery stores and Asian specialty markets is typically not recommended. This product usually has preservatives, but read the label to confirm. If it’s possible to find pure, unadulterated ginger, go for it. And be careful processing it! Maxfield said, “On our first batch of Pedal Hard Ginger Beer, we juiced over 900 lbs. (408 kg) of ginger by hand with two home kitchen juicers — we had to cut each piece of ginger into 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces in order to feed them into the counter top juicers. It took nine hours and almost cost Greg a fingertip.”

Many commercial hard ginger beer brewers — particularly those that have been operating for decades or more — use a starter called the Ginger Root Plant (GRP). This is not a plant in the conventional sense, but is more like a sourdough starter, that is, a live culture that’s con-stantly replenished to stay “alive” and active. Discovered in the late-1880s, GRP is listed in scientific terms as “a symbiotic colony of yeast and Lactobacillus” bacteria. This plant is somewhat gel-like (almost like a bread dough) and is used to activate the fermentation process in the basic brew of water, sugar and ginger. It is virtually impossible to find a “home” version of this carefully guarded ingredient, though you can try ordering some online from gingerbeerplant.net.

A note of caution: Using too much ginger can provide a big “burn.” Typical recipes call for as much as 2 ounces for 5 gallons (56 g for 19 L). For less heat, lower the amount of ginger. For a more assertive drink, add more. A teaspoon of vanilla or cream of tartar in a 5-gallon (19-L) batch can help cut the heat without sacrificing flavor. Start small with ginger and build up. It’s all about personal preference.

Lemons are also an important addition for the citric acid used as a counterpoint to the ginger. Again, the amount of lemon juice (fresh, of course, is best) varies so experiment to taste. Lime juice can also be used, or a combination of the two. Mix and match!

Most recipes call for a basic, clean yeast — some as basic as Red Star baking yeast — but since baking yeast is specifically grown to be packed full of glycogen to rapidly produce CO2 for baking, it is not well suited for alcoholic fermentation. A better bet is a clean ale yeast, such as Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), Safale US-05 Ale Yeast, or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale). Champagne yeast is also a popular choice that can boost both ABV and carbonation levels.

The basic brewing process is simple for hard ginger beer: Bring 5 gallons (19 L) of water to a boil, dissolve the sugars and add the ginger. Let that steep for one hour, then add lemon or lime juice. Cool to appropriate pitching temperatures and rack to your carboy for fermenting, which should last about five to seven days. Like hard root beer, ginger beer should be very dry if you don’t stop the fermentation before it is complete, so you will likely want to back sweeten it (see the link earlier for more information on back sweetening) before packaging.

Check out the recipe for a basic hard ginger beer, again generously shared by Kit Maxfield of Root Sellers Brewing Co.

Recipes

Hard Root Beer

(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.038 FG = 0.995 ABV = 5.5%

Kit Harrington of Root Sellers’ advises, “Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), is great for knocking the acidity down and a little goes a long way! You will need to add it 1 tsp. at a time to dial in the right amount of pH.”

Ingredients

4 lbs. (1.8 kg) pure cane sugar
1 tablespoon (15 mL) molasses
½ tsp. yeast nutrient
Root beer extract (quantities vary based on extract)
2-4 tsp. baking soda (added to taste)
Clean fermenting ale yeast (Champagne works well also)
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) sugar to backsweeten (added to cold keg)

Step by step

Bring sugar, molasses, and water to a boil for 15 minutes. At flame out add yeast nutrient. Once cooled to yeast pitching temperature, add the yeast and allow the temperature to rise naturally to the upper limit of the yeast’s range; you want a good and fast ferment. After 10 days, cool to near-freezing to drop out as much yeast you can. Transfer the clear finished beer into an empty corny keg and add in the root beer extract and baking soda to taste. Finally, add the sugar (dissolved in 1 qt./1 L boiling water) to backsweeten. Mix all this very well or the dense sugar syrup will drop to the bottom and make for an awkward first pint.This beer likes to be well carbonated — try 2.4-2.7 volumes — and will stay good for quite a while in a kegerator.

Hard Ginger Beer

(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.038 FG = 0.995 ABV = 5.5%

Kit Harrington of Root Sellers’ advises, “Start with the freshest ingredients possible, they really show when you make ginger beer. I recommend getting a cold press masticating juicer and juice the ginger yourself.”

Ingredients

4 lbs. (1.8 kg) pure cane sugar
1 tablespoon (15 mL) molasses
½ tsp. yeast nutrient
8 oz. (226 mL) lemon or lime (juiced)
8 oz. (226 mL) ginger root (juiced)
Clean fermenting ale yeast (Champagne works well also)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) sugar to backsweeten (added to cold keg)

Step by step

Bring sugar, molasses and water to a boil for 15 minutes. At flame out add yeast nutrient. Once cooled to yeast pitching temperature, add the yeast and allow the temperature to rise naturally to the upper limit of the yeast’s range; you want a good and fast ferment. After 10 days or so, cool to near freezing to drop out as much yeast you can. Transfer the clear finished ginger beer into an empty Corny keg and add the ginger juice, lemon (or lime) juice, and sugar (dissolved in 2 cups/500 mL boiling water) to backsweeten. Mix all this very well or the dense sugar syrup will drop to the bottom. Follow the same carbonation advice as the hard root beer recipe.

Packaging hard root and ginger beers:

Once the hard root beer or hard ginger beer fermentation has run its course, the next step is back sweetening and then bottling or kegging. If kegging, which is recommended for both brews over bottling, the root or ginger beer will be force carbonated. If you’re priming with corn sugar and bottling, do not use regular beer bottles as there will be more residual sugar than a normal beer, plus refermentation in the bottle, and this will likely result in exploding glass bottles, which are very dangerous and unpredictable. Instead, use bottles with thick, reinforced glass such as 750-mL bottles that are corked with a cage. Better still, use Champagne bottles. Store in refrigeration.