Eight roots, two barks, one leaf, and one seed pod make this one true root beer. Start with a root tea, sweeten and carbonate it, it’s as easy as that. True root beer has been around for millennia, but gathering roots and berries is too time consuming for the commercial producer–hence the renaissance of artificial flavor and color.
True root beer flavor can be tweaked to an infinity of preferences. Large portions of sarsaparilla and birch bark make a classic base. To this you add sassafras and wintergreen to establish the distinctive high notes. In between can be as many interesting and subtle flavor layers as you like.
The results will resemble the pop-shop stuff you remember. But as with crafted versus commercial beer, the flavor will surprise you with its complexity. It has been rumored to transport maidens into sublime repose.
There are two parts to the root beer tea brewing process. First, simmer the roots and bark for 20 minutes and remove them from heat. Then steep the herbs for another 20 minutes. Strain the decoction/infusion into a pot, then add sugar. Heat the syrup to 70C, add vanilla pod, cool to room temperature, and freeze 150 ml in each 500 ml bottle. Top up with club soda.
Traditional home made root beer relies on baker’s yeast, with its low alcohol tolerance, to create the carbonation and umami taste of classic examples without fermenting out all the sweetness. It is true that yeast in the beverage provides a real roundness and fullness.
The problem with this method is that the carbonation results are very unpredictable. Gushing out of the bottle is almost inevitable, as baker’s yeast continues to slowly ferment over time, even under refrigeration. It does produce a great creamy root beer head though!
The club soda top-up method yields a mildly carbonated drink in the English style, with a minimal head. On the other hand, there’s no surprises when it’s time to crack open a bottle.