Is Root Beer Really Beer?

Posted on 10 Sep 2012 23:41

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The answer to the question posed in the title is yes, or no, or maybe. Nah, you know what, let's go with yes. Today's root beer is simply a flavored soda. However, root beer was originally made much like a grain based beer. And some recipes even called for hops. Root beer was a brew, just like a beer, but whether you think it can correctly be called beer may depend on how you view the origins of the word.

To me, that is silly. The origins of the word beer may be based on the typical base used: grains. However, that does not mean that a later brew using different ingredients but the same basic method should not also be called a beer.

Mind you root beer wasn't always called root beer. Depending on the predominant flavor and the preference of the individual it may have been called Sarsaparilla, Birch Beer, or even Sassafras.

The method for making a grain-based beer or a root based beer are essentially the same, except for one small (or large) difference. But I'll get into that.

Yet, if you do a quick search, you will find many sources that tell you that root beer is a soda and it was only called beer because of the color being similar or some other nonsense.

How do these myths get started? People don't research or they don't research the right thing. If your only source of root beer history is Hires, for instance, you might get the idea that root beer was a soda syrup invented by some guy who decided to call it beer for some reason.

The other misconception is that a beer must always be alcoholic. Again, not true. A beer is something that is brewed and then fermented.

However, let's consider the origin of the word beer, first. It isn't easy to be sure. It could be based on the Jewish word for grain, which is bre. The Jews used to make their own brews and they are pretty important in the history of beer. The word may have also come from the Saxon word for barley, which was bere. More simply, it may have come from the Latin word for drink: bibere.

Root beer in soda fountain glass with straw

Soda Fountain Root Beer
Image by Renee Comet

Root beer in soda fountain glass with straw

Soda Fountain Root Beer
Image by Renee Comet

Although home brewing has enjoyed increasing popularity since good old Jimmy Carter legalized it (for home use), it used to be typical. Beer is a funny thing. It is so simple you can make it in a cabin in the middle of the woods. It is so complex you can spend a lifetime perfecting it.

One thing the home brewer used to know (the Women, usually) was that you could make different kinds of beer by controlling the amount of fermentation.

Nowadays we think of beverages as either alcoholic or nonalcoholic but in earlier times people didn't make such a big deal out of this. Any brewed beverage that uses fermentation will produce some amount of alcohol. That is because the yeast used to ferment the brew produce alcohol as a by-product of their metabolism. However, it is easy to control the amount of alcohol that is produced.

So, a colonial farmer might make a small beer, low in alcohol, or a table beer, a little stronger for everyday drinking, or a strong beer, for a celebration, perhaps. How was this done? You simply stop the fermentation when you want to by cooling the brew. For just a trace of alcohol, you would put in the yeast and then cool the ferment after only a few days. This was how root beer was done.

Let's say you're an early colonist in America. You know how to make a brew but you don't have barley or other grains to make beer. What you do have is a lot of wild plant life to forage, and yeast for making bread, etc. You want to make beer, you look for anything you can to flavor it. Now, being that you don't have the sprouted barley to really get the yeast hopping for an extended ferment, you might not be able to make a truly high alcohol brew, but you can make a nice refreshing and tasty beverage that will last you through the winter. That's how root beer was invented. It was an extension of the beer making process. Hence, a beer made with wild roots.

Here is the basic method. First you make a wort. Let's say you take about two gallons of water in a big pot. To that water you add roots and other ingredients: sarsaparilla, sassafras, burdock, and birch roots. Even dandelion, yellow dock, and other roots might be added. Maybe a little licorice root would be good. You could add ginger as well. Since you splurged on some cinnamon, you add a bit of that as well. You're particular choices might be based on availability (what you can scavenge), as well as prior experience. You wash and bruise the roots (pound them to mash them up a bit) before adding them to the water.

Now you heat the root and water mixture and steep them for 30 minutes to an hour, maybe more depending on your preference. Now, if you steep them too long you'll start drawing out undesirable flavors, so don't overdo it!

Bottle of Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer

The Classic Dad's Root Beer

Bottle of Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer

The Classic Dad's Root Beer

Once you're done steeping, strain the mixture into a big clay jar or other vessel and let it cool but not too much. You want the liquid to be warm enough for the yeast to work but not so hot it kills the little buggers. A good average is around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. You might then add some essential oils if you happen to have some on liven up the flavor. And you add a pound of sugar or so. Then you add your yeast. I don't know exactly how much, what am I, a colonial housewife? Say about 8 tablespoons powdered or one cake. Stir well. Cover with a cloth and set it aside for about four hours or so in warm place. The yeast will start to metabolize the sugar.

After several hours, up to about twelve, until your mixture gets real bubbly and frothy. This bubbly frothy stuff is caused by another thing the yeast produce besides alcohol: carbon dioxide. How did you think they got the bubbles in? Of course, the carbon dioxide is escaping right now, but don't worry.

Now, you can go ahead and bottle the stuff. You can place the bottles in a cool place, say the root cellar (hah!). When you bottle it, you will either filter it off or at least avoid getting much of the yeast solids in the bottles. But this old brew will not be anything as clear as a bottle of root beer is today. Once you seal the bottles and place them in a cool place, the yeast in the liquid will slow down their activity but they won't stop completely. The magic is that yeast can only thrive in a certain amount of pressure. Since there is so much active yeast, the carbon dioxide will build up inside the bottles which will build up pressure. Once enough pressure is built up the yeast will be shut down and this will happen well before all the sugar is metabolized. Remember, you didn't give them much time to eat the sugar in the first place. The get a nice bubbly root beer that produces a head when you pour it out. And there is some alcohol in it, but nothing like you'd have if you were making a strong beer. You also might end up with a few exploded bottles.

If you had wanted to make a strong beer, using grains, you would have allowed the yeast to ferment the beverage for much longer, up to weeks, so that most of the sugar was metabolized, producing much more alcohol and much less sweetness.

Now, this colonial root beer would not taste much like the quintessential root beer flavor of today. It would be much more complex, and perhaps even a bit medicinal. And today, you would be much more precise and sanitary, to avoid bacterial contamination. You'd also use a special kind of yeast, probably ale yeast.

You wouldn't use most of those roots and there is one other I didn't mention that you might use if you wanted the quintessential root beer flavor of today: wintergreen. This is where Charles Hires, of the aforementioned Hires Root Beer, comes in. While I doubt very much that he really invented the recipe, he brought it to the masses, and it was the wintergreen that really produced the distinctive flavor we know today.

The home brewer can get root beer extracts to mix with sugar and water. You can also easily order some roots to make you're own homemade root extracts. Unless you are a big time brewing hobbyist, you probably would not want to bother. You have to assemble a lot of equipment, and bottles, etc.

If you are interested in doing it, it is not the most complicated thing in the world, but it does require some attention to detail. I've brewed my own beer, and it turns out great every time so I imagine your root beer will turn out great as well. You know why? Anything you go to the process of making yourself (through the ART) will always be fantastic to you. Even if your friends don't like it! But I'll bet they will.

There are two ways you could go about it. You can go to the Homemade Soda Company website, where you can get root beer kits with everything you need to make your own brew (except for the bottles). If you want the kind with yeast, that will cost 50 to 70 bucks. Or, for a less expensive option, there is the Mr. Root Beer Kit which runs only about 23 dollars. Those are the same folks that make the Mr. Beer kits and they make a good product. However, this only makes two gallons instead of five, as in the first kit. Taste wise, I'll bet you'll be pleased with either one. The Mr. Root Beer comes with 4 one-liter plastic bottles. Personally, I'd prefer bottling it in individual twelve ounce glass long necks. For that you'd need the bottles, crimp caps, and bottle capper.

Now, if you want to try a root beer made with real ingredients and which has more bite and character to it, rather than today's root beers with taste more like a cream soda with a bit of root something or other, try some Virgil's Root Beer, which you can get from a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods Market. And the cool thing about Virgil's? You can get it in a keg!

If you want to buy a pretentious root beer at an exorbitant price that is higher per bottle than a good craft beer, try a Weinhardt Root Beer, which runs about 3.50 a bottle. Don't ask me if I've tried it. What, I don't know the value of a buck? It's root beer, not wine! Virgil's runs about $1.00 to $1.20 per bottle, which is quite reasonable for a "gourmet" root beer, similar in price to Thomas Kemper Root Beer.

Root Beer with Alcohol

And, if you want an alcoholic "Root Beer" look no further than Not Your Father's Root Beer by Small Town Brewery. They describe it as an "ale brewed with spices," but it tastes like a very sweet root beer. The reviews of this product shows the confusion over "root beer," with many drinkers being surprised that it tastes like a root beer, and that it is sweet. Those who don't like it suggest that mixing root beer soda with some liquor would be better.

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