By Josh Perilo
"Oh my gosh," Natali said as she looked up from her glass. "It tastes like root beer! It really tastes like root beer!"
I nodded and smiled as I took a draw off of my own pint, savoring the commingling of carefully selected ingredients. I had finally done it. I had mastered homemade root beer!
I have a bit of an obsessive personality, and I'm okay with that. When I informed my wife that my latest project was going to be making home-brewed, fermented-style root beer completely from scratch, I think she was okay with it because she didn't realize the time, effort and frustration that would be involved in the endeavor. And neither did I.
But I'm glad I did it! Aside from learning how to concoct a tasty beverage from a handful of strange and exotic ingredients, I've been reintroduced to some valuable and simple life lessons. I call it "Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Making Root Beer."
Be patient. There is no single other project I have undertaken where this is more directly critical to the end result. Like most Americans, I want my reward right away-this is not how fermented root beer works. Once you have finished steeping the ingredients, you must wait until the liquid is cool enough to add the yeast. Jump the gun and you've killed the yeast and your root beer will be fizz-less. Then, once you've added the yeast and bottled it up, you have to wait. Sometimes for up to four days. Even then, if the room the bottle sat in was cool, it may still not be ready!
You get what you pay for. You know what cheaply made root beer tastes like? Cheaply made root beer. If you skimp on the ingredients in your brew, you will taste it. What is the point of making the ultimate root beer if you aren't going to spring for the best stuff available and use the ultimate ingredients? Vanilla beans are expensive, but if you want it to taste otherworldly instead of simply okay, you have to suck it up and shill out some extra cabbage.
Life isn't fair. Sometimes, even when you've done every single thing correctly, added the perfect amount of yeast at the right temperature, sterilized the bottles and kept the fermentation temperature constant, it can still not work. Why? Who knows. There's no way to control every single element in your given surroundings, and sometimes something slips by. You have to be okay with the fact that no matter what you do, it may not work out. It just makes the successes all the more satisfying.
Hard work will be rewarded. If you stick to your plan, pay attention to what you are doing and learn from every batch you make, the long-term result will be a delicious success.
If anyone out there is masochistic enough to try this at home, below is the recipe that I honed over five trial-and-error batches. Just because this worked best for me does not mean this is the be all end all of root beer recipes-experiment and see for yourself what works best!
Combine 4 tablespoons sarsaparilla root, 1 tablespoon licorice root, 1 teaspoon burdock, 1 teaspoon wild cherry bark, 1 split vanilla bean, 1 ½ cups blackstrap molasses and 2 quarts of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and lower heat to a simmer for 10 minutes. Add 2 ½ tablespoons sassafras root bark. Simmer for 30 more minutes.
Strain the mixture through cheesecloth into a clean saucepan. Combine ½ teaspoon wintergreen extract with 1 tablespoon gum Arabic in a separate bowl. Slowly whisk in 2 tablespoons of water until incorporated. Add the slurry to the root beer. Cool the mixture to under 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Add 1/16 teaspoon ale yeast. Mix thoroughly. Using a sterilized funnel, pour the mixture into four sterilized, 1-pint, swing-top beer bottles. Close the bottles securely and let ferment in a warm room for two days or four days in a cool room. Chill and serve in a pint glass.