The Mouthful: The Roots Of Root Beer

Ty Bannerman
3 min read
Share ::
Root beer has been an important part of American refreshment since colonial times. Back in those days, old-timey settlers would take a break from fighting off bears and resisting British taxation to boil mixtures of sassafras root and other herbs. They were making "small beers," fermented beverages that contained minimal amounts of alcohol. This literal “root beer” was so popular that in 1876, a guy called Charles Hires tried to sell it as a miraculous cure-all potion. Since then, of course, the drink has evolved into yet another mass produced soda pop, with sarsaparilla root and anise replaced by artificial flavorings and yellow no. 6. Oh, weep for this debased age.

True, there are smaller soft drink companies that sell something like the original stuff (
Virgil’s Root Beer is my particular favorite), but if you’ve got a hankering for the real deal, why not take part in the great American tradition of brewing your own? You can use an extract if you want to take a short cut (homebrewing supply stores like Victor’s Grape Arbor sell a variety of flavors), or if you’re feeling adventurous, make it from scratch.

Root beer is a bit more complicated than most beverage recipes. But then again, the British slunk off 250 years ago, and chances are you won’t have to fend off any bears while you’re cooking, so what are you complaining about?

Classic Root Beer (adapted with permission from
Marcia Simmons’ recipe originally published at

1 gallon filtered water

1 tablespoon sarsaparilla root bark *

1 tablespoon sassafras root bark *

1 tablespoon birch bark*

3 star anise pods*

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped *

1/2 teaspoon crushed ginger

4 sprigs spearmint

1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup molasses

1/8 teaspoon ale yeast **

1. Combine ingredients except for molasses and brown sugar with 2 quarts filtered water. Bring to a boil in a medium saucepan, then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, and let steep for two hours.

2. Strain liquid through cheesecloth into large pot. Add remaining water, brown sugar and molasses. Stir until mixed, then cover.

3. When mixture is cool, stir in ale yeast. Wait 15 minutes, then pour into bottles (plastic works best) with 2 inches of space left at top. Keep at room temperature for 36 hours, then refrigerate for 2 days before drinking. Please note that this root beer will be slightly alcoholic (less than one percent ABV).

Enjoy, and don’t forget to act all superior the next time you see a friend of yours clutching a can of A&W.

* Available at the
Herb Store (107 Carlisle SE)

** Available at Victor’s Grape Arbor (2436 San Mateo Place NE)
1 2 3 193