Saturday, December 2, 2017

DIY Fermented Root Beer: A Beneficial Beverage to Support your Health

By Candice Brunlinger, Herbalist


Herbal sodas have a very interesting history within the tradition of fermented beverages and are becoming more popular in microbreweries, small soda brewing companies, and households nationwide. Although the idea of making your own fermented soda seems intimidating, the process is quite easy and fun, so I wanted share a few delicious recipes to make old-fashioned herbal root beer. I will also include a quick and easy recipe from Rosemary Gladstar which is made by mixing tea with sparkling water to make a non-fermented root beer as well.

Keep in mind fall and early spring are opportune times to dig up some of those organic roots from your garden/yard and harvest any other goodies to make your own delicious root beer or other herbal sodas.

Why is it beneficial to make your own root beer or herbal soda?

·       You can make your own recipe to your personal liking and incorporate herbs that are specifically beneficial for you and your family.
·       You can receive the benefits of fermented beverages and beneficial microbes. When you make your own bugs (see ginger bug recipe below) you receive even more benefits by inoculating the cultures from your environment and wild yeast compared to using cultures made in a laboratory.
·       You can control the level of sweetness, as commercial sodas can be overbearingly sweet.
·       You can avoid the harmful ingredients of commercial sodas, including artificial flavoring, coloring, neurotoxic sweeteners, processed syrups, etc.
·       You can enjoy the "guilty pleasure" of soda without feeling guilty or receiving the harmful effects of soda consumption (when consumed in moderation, of course).
·       It makes great gifts and can be a delicious addition to a potluck or party.  
·       Root Beer Floats…..need I say more?

A brief overview of the history of root beer:

First, the term root beer derives from “small beers” or beers that were brewed from roots, barks, and/or berries, which would ferment into a beverage that could contain a small amount of alcohol depending on the conditions during the fermenting process. If there was any alcohol, is was usually a small amount, hence the name “small beer” or in case of the root based brews… “root beer”. [1] The root beers available now generally do not contain alcohol; however, the name stuck around.

Fermented beverages and sodas have a very long history, all over the world, dating back tens of thousands of years. Herbal sodas have been popular in America since the colonial era. In the 19th century, a pharmacist in Philadelphia named Charles Hires discovered a delicious beverage while traveling on his honeymoon and tried to replicate the herbs and spices of the drink, eventually resulting in the first commercially manufactured and distributed root beer.

His blend combined twenty-five different herbs, berries, barks and roots including sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch, juniper, licorice, hops and ginger. When he added it to soda water, it became a delicious and enjoyable beverage. He perfected his recipe and began distributing and selling his root beer in large quantities in 1893. As his root beer grew in popularity, more companies began to create their own version of root beer. (1)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of root beer is how Charles Hires used a lyrical story to market the beverage and increase its popularity. In the story, the little girl Mabel is gathering herbs, roots, barks and berries. She gets tired and upset and goes to rest. She falls asleep and has a dream where the fairies take her basket of herbs to the river and bring back a healing drink. When she wakes, she finds her herbs gone and a delicious medicinal drink there instead. Here is an excerpt from the story. You can click on the link below to see the entire pamphlet.

Herbs, to make the weak grow stronger;
Bark, to make the blood flow pure;
Berries strange, a perfect tonic;
Stirred the fairies this strange cure.

Soon ‘twas finished; dark as seaweed
Was the liquid, now complete;
Only add a little water,
Sugar, too, to make it sweet.

And a drink that rivals nectar,
Which the very gods thought good,
Is complete, all bright and sparkling
Rich and strengthening as food.

“Now, ere wakes the little Mabel,”
Said a tiny elfin dame,
“We must call this preparation
By a most appropriate name,”

“Why not call it,” said a fairy,
“By that name from whence it came
What think you of ‘Earth’s hid treasures?’”
Turning to the elfin dame.

But the owl, with voice of wisdom,
Raised a slight objection here:
“Earth’s too low – want something higher
What do you think of ‘Hires’ Root Beer?’”
Hires’ Root Beer was thus discovered
While the little Mabel slept;
But the recipe so wondrous
Hires himself has always kept.

Read the entire pamphlet here (2)

I personally love the idea that the forest fairies and spirits gave us the delicious and healing “Root Beer” and it was an ingenious marketing strategy to appeal to the general masses, especially children. It did not take long for everyone to want to drink this healing beverage and receive its benefits.

What are the benefits of the herbs commonly used to make Root Beer?

The primary flavors found in common old-fashioned homemade root beer recipes generally come from sassafras, sarsaparilla, and/or wintergreen. Other herbs such as dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, aralia root, birch bark, juniper, licorice, anise, fennel, hops, ginger and more are often included for a more complex flavor or medicinal brew.

Many of these roots and barks used to make traditional root beer contain nourishing minerals and vitamins. They tend to have alterative actions, meaning they help the body gently cleanse while rebuilding and restoring overall balance. Many of these herbs are known to stimulate the liver, kidneys, urinary system and overall digestive functions, which can then clear and brighten the skin (a claim Charles Hires made for his miracle drink!) Adding berries increases the nutritional profile and immune supporting actions by contributing flavonoids, anti-oxidants, and vitamin C. The wintergreen and other digestive herbs mentioned above stimulate appetite and digestion. They are thought to soothe digestive discomfort, easing gas, bloating and an upset stomach. All these benefits made this medicinal beverage a nice option to serve with meals and to drink as a daily tonic. Root beer and other fermented sodas were especially beneficial and even relied on when clean water was not as accessible.

Although Root Beer was originally made from plant-based ingredients, most commercial root beer is no longer brewed with the healing and medicinal benefits of herbs and its flavor comes from artificial ingredients, sweeteners, syrups and more. There are small brewing companies and artisan soda pop companies who are making old-fashioned root beer, but it is also easy to make at home and can be a fun project with family or friends. 

The Controversy of Sassafras or Safrole

Before we get to our recipes, let’s briefly talk about the controversy of safrole, a natural compound found in sassafras and other herbs including cinnamon and basil. Unfortunately, scientific studies are not always interpreted accurately, and we often find these “contraindications” or warnings about herbs based on study(s) that are not applicable or reflective of the way we traditionally use the herbs. In the 1960s, a group of researchers administered to rats extremely high doses of isolated safrole, a naturally occurring polyphenol found in sassafras, which resulted in the rats developing liver cancer. These results created a controversy around the use of sassafras, so the FDA mandated the soda manufactures to remove the ingredient. The root beer recipes evolved to include wintergreen as the primary flavoring ingredient instead of sassafras.  

However, these results on the safety of isolated, concentrated safrole were very misleading and simply not applicable to the question of the safety of consuming whole sassafras bark or crude extracts made from the bark. The rats were fed far more safrole than what the rats would have consumed had they been given the sassafras as an herb in whole form or as a crude extract, such as is found in root beer. The amount they were given would be equivalent to the amount a human would receive if they were to drink 32 x 12-ounce bottles of root beer in one day. (1) Yes, that would be 384 ounces or 3 gallons of root beer, which is significantly more than what a person would consume in a day.

On the other hand, other studies show that when we use plants that have safrole or when we consume small quantities of safrole, it can have a protective nature for the liver and body, specifically against cancer cells. For this reason, I personally find little to no concern using sassafras as a medicinal herb when used according to its appropriate and traditional uses and find it to be a delicious addition in my root beer recipes as well as my liver supporting and alterative blends.

Which culture is beneficial to use?

Champagne Yeast: This is probably one of the more commonly used cultures and yields a lovely traditional consistency and bubbly fizz, like what we expect from commercial sodas. This is what I would recommend for the conventional soda drinker trying to convert to natural sodas or for anyone who wants the most simplified process.

Ginger Bug: This homegrown culture from raw ginger root is my personal favorite as I love the subtle hint of flavor the "bug" can contribute. I have even added some of the pulp from the ginger bug into the soda, which enhanced the ginger flavor and turn the root beer recipe into a ‘ginger beer’ but with the added benefits of the other ingredients. Ginger bugs are easy to make at home and offer even more benefits from the live cultures, as you will be culturing wild yeast from the ginger (see recipe below). Your bug can take up to a week to grow to maturity, so plan accordingly.

Whey or Kefir Grains: Whey and kefir are lovely cultures, providing a different spectrum of flora. The whey can be easily purchased or inoculated from home if you make your own fermented dairy products. Dairy and water kefir grains are available online, or see if there is a source in your local community.

If you are not able to find cultures in your local community you can purchase them online.
Check out the following online sources:

·       Cultures for Health:
·       Etsy: there are many fermenters who sell their cultures through Etsy, which gives you an opportunity to see if you can find a shop close to where you live.
·       Champagne yeast can be purchased at brewing supply shops, some natural food stores or online. 

Ginger Bug Recipe

(Recipe is from Emily Han’s Wild Drinks and Cocktails)

Fill a pint-sized mason jar with ¼ cup of filtered, non-chlorinated water. Add 2 Tablespoon of freshly grated ginger and 2 Tablespoons of sugar and stir the mixture well. Cover the jar with cheese cloth, muslin or a towel, securing it with a rubber band. Allow it to sit at room temperature for 3-7 days, or until it is bubbly and yummy smelling. Every day, you will need to add an additional 2 Tablespoons each of ginger, sugar and water to continue feeding the culture, stirring it well 1-3 times daily. The starter bug will be ready when the mixture is bubbly or slightly foamy around the top and it smells mildly yeasty but pleasant smelling. At this point it is ready to be used in your soda making. If you are not going to use it all right away, you can cap it and keep it in your refrigerator until you are ready to use it. (4)

If you follow this ginger bug starter recipe, use ¼ cup of ginger bug per ½ gallon of your recipe. 

Fall Tonic Root Beer
(Influenced by Kim Gallagher’s recipe from HerbMentor) (3)

* A nourishing, healing and restoring tonic to support our body and immune system throughout the fall season. 
** I plan on adding wintergreen to this recipe for a more refreshing after note. Wintergreen can be hard to source, and I was not able to find any on the occasions I made root beer.

2 tablespoons sassafras root
2 teaspoons sarsaparilla root
1 tablespoon fresh burdock root, shredded (or use 2 teaspoons of chopped, dried root) 
2 teaspoons licorice root (I use 1-2 tablespoons of marshmallow root instead, as my family and I are sensitive to licorice)
¼ cup of shredded astragalus
½ teaspoon anise seed
½ small cinnamon stick (I sometimes use 1 small cinnamon stick for an extra cinnamon note)
½ gallon of filtered water
1 ½ cups of brown sugar (or use another unrefined sugar)
¼ cup of ginger bug OR ½ cup of kefir grains OR champagne yeast

Old-fashioned Root Beer (from Nourished Kitchen) (1)

¼ cup sassafras root bark
¼ cup wintergreen leaf
2 tablespoons sarsaparilla root
1 tablespoon licorice root
1 tablespoon ginger root
1 tablespoon dandelion root
1 tablespoon hops flowers
1 tablespoon birch bark
1 tablespoon wild cherry tree bark
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup unrefined cane sugar
A little more than ¼ cup ginger bug (see recipe below), fresh whey or ½ cup of kefir grains
10 cups (80 ounces) of filtered water

Instructions for Making and Fermenting Herbal Soda:

You can download a Step by Step PDF Guide from my ferment log at Herbal Living and Healing.
Scroll down to fermented drinks and Root Beer.

STEP 1: Make Herbal Infusion
Add all herbs and water into a large pot and cover with a lid to make the infusion. As soon as the mixture reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat to low and allow it to gently simmer for 20 minutes. I allow my mixture to steep for another 5-10 minutes and cool slightly before straining, but keep in mind the sugar added in STEP 3 will dissolve more easily in the hot infusion, so avoid over-cooling. If it does cool, you can re-heat the liquid again.

STEP 2: Strain
Strain the infusion through a fine-mesh strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth/muslin into a large jar or pitcher.

STEP 3: Inoculate
Stir the sugar into the hot infusion until it dissolves and allow it to cool until the mixture reaches “body temperature”. Stir in the starter of choice (ginger bug, fresh whey or kefir grains, champagne yeast). Mix well and clean the area around the mouth of the jar, if needed.

STEP 4: Allow to Ferment
Cover the jar with muslin cloth or a towel and secure it using a rubber band. For best results use a jar or pitcher that is just the right size for the volume of liquid, leaving about 1-2 inches of head space from the top.
Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature (ideally 72-75º), keeping in mind that it will likely ferment more quickly in warmer climates and may need more time during colder months or in colder climates. Longer ferments will result in more of the sugar to be fermented, more carbonated fizz and a stronger, more medicinal flavor. If you desire a sweeter root beer, consider a shorter ferment. You can use the taste method to determine the desired length of fermenting. Taste it after you see it bubbling and continue to ferment until desired flavor and fizz is achieved.

Made 3 jars of Root Beer & fermented each of them with a different culture: champagne yeast, kefir grains, wild ginger bug

STEP 5: Bottle
Once it is ready, pour the mixture into individual bottles, preferably with a flip top or cap. Make sure your bottles have been cleaned well with warm water and gentle soap or vinegar.

STEP 6: Age & Enjoy!
Transfer your bottles to the refrigerator for an additional 1-3 days to age. In cooler months I leave mine outside in an area where the temperature consistently stays cool, like the garage or back porch. Just keep in mind your root beer will continue to ferment even in the fridge; the process just slows down
significantly. When you are ready to serve the root beer, be careful when you open the bottle, as the liquid may burst out explosively to release the carbon dioxide, a natural by-product from the fermenting process which contributes to the natural bubbling fizz. Open the bottle over a bowl or sink to catch any overflow.

If your bottle explodes, which is known to happen, you can try to leave a little more head space in your bottles and/or reduce the amount of time you ferment it at room temperature. If you live in a very warm climate where your room temperature exceeds 75º, you may need to store your ferment in a cooler cupboard or pantry to regulate and slow down the fermenting process. 

I ended up doing a personal experiment, making 3 batches of the same recipe, each one fermented with a different culture: ginger bug, kefir and champagne yeast. My favorite was the root beer fermented with the ginger bug but I preferred the one fermented with champagne yeast for root beer floats. The one with kefir was also pretty tasty as well. I enjoyed it at pot lucks and with my meals.
Download a Step by Step PDF Guide from my ferment log at Herbal Living and Healing.
Scroll down to fermented drinks and Root Beer to access the link.

How to Make an Easy Non-Fermented Root Beer

3 tablespoons Sassafras bark
3 tablespoons Sarsaparilla root
2 tablespoons Birch bark
1 tablespoons Dandelion root
1 tablespoons Licorice root
1 tablespoons Fennel seed
8-10 Anise Star pods (handful)
1/4 tablespoon Ginger root (chopped, not powdered)
2 tablespoons Burdock root
1/2 teaspoons Stevia leaf (powdered) [If you adjust the recipe, keep Stevia at approximately 5% of formula]
4-5 cups Filtered Water
12-16 ounces Seltzer or Sparkling Water. [Use a third or more of your final root beer volume)
1/2 Lemon (sliced)

Add all herbs in a medium pot and add water. Stir well, cover and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat immediately to maintain a slow simmer for 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Strain through a fine stainless-steel strainer, muslin or cheese cloth into a half-gallon glass jar. Add seltzer or sparkling water according to your preference. Add lemon, put a lid on jar, shake well and serve. (4)

Go to Learning Herbs to see their post and Rosemary's step by step process making her favorite root beer. 

Candice Brunlinger has been studying and practicing herbal healing since 2004. Her interests include incorporating plant medicine as a way of living, making herbal remedies, cooking, growing herbs, gardening, teaching, writing and being a mom. She teaches for the Northwest School of Botanical Studies & Humboldt Herbals, has a small clinical practice and an herbal product line, Herbal Infusions. She also teaches tai chi and is working towards her fermentationist certification.

You can visit her Herbal Living and Healing website, Nourishing Herbs blog, or become a member of her facebook group Herbal Living.

Candice Brunlinger, Herbalist


1.     Nourished Kitchen – “Roots, Berries, Bark & Flowers: An Old-fashioned Recipe for Root Beer” by Jenny McGruther

2.     The University of Iowa Digital Library –  “Hires' root beer, ca. 1891”

3.     Herb Mentor – “How to Make Root Beer, Fermentation Method” by Kimberly Gallagher

4.     Herb Mentor – “Rosemary Gladstar’s Favorite Root Beer Recipe” by Rosemary Gladstar

5.     Wild Drinks and Cocktails – by Emily Han
“Ginger Bug Starter” Recipe; Page 162; Copyright 2016

[1]  ThoughtCo – History & Culture; “The History of Root Beer” by Mary Bellis; Updated April 19, 2017

No comments:

Post a Comment