I’m not much of a soda drinker. I’ve been known to drink (and make) ginger beer, but even those drinks are reserved for special occasions. I’d much rather drink a lime-flavored seltzer water or (honestly) a good beer than a mass-market soda.
I have, however, always loved a good ice cream float. And as anyone with a taste for such things, the float par excellence is made with root beer. Not just any root beer, either — small-batch root beers are always better than A&W and homemade versions are the best. DIY root beer also makes a great holiday gift. Make a few bottles for your float-loving friends.
Homemade root beer isn’t difficult. The hardest part is finding the namesake roots, which you can order online or purchase from an herb store like Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley. I use a classic mix of Indian sarsaparilla and sassafras, but some like to add other aromatic roots like licorice, dandelion, and wild cherry bark. To each her own.
Other key elements to my root beer are fresh mint, star anise, cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger, which I grate to smithereens for ultimate ginger flavor. Feel free to play with your own aromatic mixture. Whole cloves, juniper berries, allspice, coriander, and cardamom are all good ideas.
I combine all of the roots and aromatics with two quarts of water in a large saucepan. I bring the mixture to a boil and then quickly remove the pot from the heat. Cover the pot and let it steep, like a strong tea. Two hours is long enough for the mixture to become fully flavored.
Now strain out all of the solids using a fine mesh strainer. The vanilla bean seeds will likely stay behind, but that’s no biggie. Transfer the mixture to a bigger bowl or pot if necessary and stir a couple of sugars. I use a mix of brown sugar and molasses for caramelly flavor with a touch of bitterness. Sugar is necessary here — it is the food for the yeast, which will carbonate the soda. I like to use a fairly low proportion so the final soda is not super sweet.
Keep on stirring until the sugar is dissolved. If the liquid isn’t warm enough to dissolve the sugar, you can set the pot over low heat and gently warm the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Don’t get it too hot, though, or you’ll just have to wait around for it to cool before bottling.
Finally, stir in another quart of water. (I save this for the end to bring the temperature of the mixture down.) Take the temperature of the liquid. You’re looking for a warm room temperature around 75°F. If it’s too warm, let it cool for 15 minutes and check the temperature again. Repeat until you’ve hit that temperature target.
Now, a word on carbonation: You have many choices here. I’ve written this recipe using champagne yeast because it produces the most consistent soda, especially when the ambient temperature in my kitchen is cold. This method is also the quickest; it’ll only take a few days until you’ve got root beer ready to drink.
However, you can also go a wilder route. I carbonated my homemade ginger beer using natural fermentation care of a “ginger bug.” You can choose to use a ginger bug to carbonate your root beer as well. Follow the first two steps of that recipe as written. Strain out the fermented ginger solids and measure ½ cup of liquid. Add that liquid to the cooled root beer mixture. You can also try fermenting the root beer using whey drained from yogurt. You’ll need ½ cup; follow step one of this recipe, doubling the amount of yogurt used. Add the whey in the same way as the ginger bug. Both of these methods will take longer. Expect the root beer to take at least a week, if not two, to fully carbonate.
If you choose to use yeast, wait to add it until you’ve divided the soda mixture between bottles. That way, you’ll guarantee that all the yeast makes it into the bottles and doesn’t end up at the bottom of the mixing bowl.
Speaking of bottles, I like to use a mix of glass and plastic. Here, I’ve used two leftover kombucha bottles, one swing-top bottle, and one large plastic soda bottle. I recommend using at least one plastic bottle; you can use it to monitor carbonation with a quick squeeze. Once the soda is fully carbonated, the bottle will be very stiff. Whatever you use, you’re looking for a total capacity around 3 quarts. Fill the bottles so that there’s at least one inch of headspace.
Divide the yeast between the bottles — you’ll use around a pinch per bottle, a little more for larger bottles and a little less for smaller ones.
Now just let the soda sit at room temperature. I place the bottles in a paper bag and fold over the top to keep them in the dark. You can also use a cardboard box if you’ve got an extra one sitting around. Place the bag in an out-of-the-way place, preferably one that isn’t too drafty, and let the bottles sit for 3 to 4 days. Check on the plastic bottle once a day to monitor carbonation. Once the bottle is stiff, transfer all of the root beer to the refrigerator to chill before serving.
Recipe: Homemade Root Beer
Makes about 3 quarts
Note: You will need assorted clean glass and plastic bottles to store the root beer. I used 3 16-ounce glass bottles and one 1.25-liter plastic soda bottle. I recommend using at least one plastic bottle as it makes it easier to monitor carbonation (see step 8). Sarsaparilla and sassafras are available at Lhasa Karnak Herb Company in Berkeley or online at Mountain Rose Herbs. I have written this recipe using yeast to carbonate the root beer. If you’d like to use wild, natural fermentation to carbonate the soda, you can substitute ½ cup drained whey from yogurt or ½ cup ginger bug liquid. Stir the whey or ginger bug into the pot of soda mixture before bottling. Carbonation will likely take a week or two, depending on the ambient temperature of the room. The root beer will also be less carbonated than when made using yeast.
3 quarts filtered water, divided
¼ cup (¾ ounce) Indian sarsaparilla root
¼ cup (½ ounce) sassafras root
3 sprigs fresh mint
3 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
2 inches fresh ginger root
1 vanilla bean
1 cup (7 ounces) brown sugar
¼ cup (3 ounces) molasses
⅛ teaspoon champagne yeast
Combine 2 quarts water, sarsaparilla, sassafras, mint, star anise, and cinnamon stick in a large saucepan. Grate ginger into saucepan. Slice vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Scrape vanilla seeds into the saucepan using the back of a knife. Add vanilla bean pods.
Place the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cover the saucepan and remove from the heat. Let steep for 2 hours.
Strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl or pot. Discard solids.
Stir in brown sugar and molasses until dissolved. (If you find that the sugar is not dissolving easily, place pot over low heat and gently warm the mixture until the sugar dissolves.)
Stir in remaining quart of water. Let mixture cool to 75°F.
Transfer root beer mixture to a large liquid measuring cup with a spout. Use measuring cup to pour mixture into bottles, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace in each bottle. Divide yeast between bottles. Cap bottles.
Place bottles in a box or a large paper shopping bag. Cover the box or fold over the top of the bag to create a dark environment. Place the bag in an out-of-the-way place.
Let root beer ferment until carbonated, 3 to 4 days, at room temperature. Check the progress of carbonation by squeezing the bottle. When fully carbonated, the bottle should be quite stiff.
Transfer the bottles to the refrigerator for at least 12 hours to chill before drinking straight or topping with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.