Getting to the Root of Homebrewed Root Beer

I don’t have to tell you about the stunningly wide variety of beers you can create at home. You’re here on Homebrew Supply, after all. You already know.

But what about root beer? It has “beer” in its name, but we don’t often think about it in homebrewing discussions. After all, most of us don’t think about it as “beer” at all, since it’s most widely consumed as a non-alcoholic soda beverage.

A Bit of History on Root Beer

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The thing is, historically, root beer was an alcoholic beverage, albeit one with a very low alcohol content. Native Americans brewed Sassafras root-derived drinks centuries before the Europeans arrived, but they were probably closer to a tea than a beer.

By the 16th and 17th centuries they began to incorporate European brewing techniques into their own, inching us closer to the beverage we have today. Soon, European settlers picked up on the idea. By at least the 1840s, a form of root beer close to what we know today began to appear in American confectionery stores, often as a syrup to be diluted into a drink at home.

As best as we can tell, when brewed root beer began as somewhat analogous to so-called “small beer,” beer brewed to extremely low alcohol content and consumed as an everyday beverage. The details would have varied, but historically it’s believed that most small beers were about 2.5% ABV. Early root beers would have been about the same.

In 1875, Charles Elmer Hires developed and sold the first commercially successful brand of root beer (and in this writer’s opinion, Hires is still one of the best mainstream root beers on the market). It was initially called “root tea,” but in an effort to market the drink to gritty blue collar mine workers, he began calling it “root beer” instead.

The temperance movement was on the upswing at this time and Prohibition was just a few decades away, so non-alcoholic versions of root beer became the go-to version of the drink for millions. That’s the form of root beer that became popular. It still is today.

Root Beer Today

These days, root beer remains a popular soft drink – and thanks to the recent (passing) success of drinks like Not Your Father’s Root Beer and Coney Island hard root beer, alcoholic versions are back in fashion, too. That means homebrewers are interested in how to make their own.

With that in mind, let’s explore a few methods to make root beer at home, both with and without alcohol. As with brewing beer, you can choose between extract and all-grain (though in this case “all-spice” is probably more accurate). Here are a few ways to go about it:

First Thing's First

All root beer needs a sweetener. Basically, this is your malt bill, except you most likely won’t be using malts. In many cases, you can use something as simple as table sugar. Other options include corn syrup, beet sugar, brown sugar, molasses, and even maple syrup or honey – and yes, you can even use light malt extract if you want.

Your general rule of thumb will be to use 1 pound of sugar per gallon of root beer. Dial that slightly down if you want something less sweet than a commercial root beer. For the ideal soda, use pure cane sugar. Also remember that different types of sugar measure out a little different. Here are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind (numbers are approximate):

Rough Weight to Volume Conversions

Type of Sugar
1 Pound Equals
Table Sugar 2 Cups
Brown Sugar 2.25 Cups
Confectioner's Sugar 3.75 Cups
Molasses 2 Cups
Honey 1.25 Cups

The other key will be your spicing. It all starts with sassafras and wintergreen. Other spicing options will impart different characteristics to your root beer. Some common options are listed below in the recipes section.

Homemade Root Beer Recipes

root beer spices

ATTENTION KEGGERS: You CAN force carb your root beer! In that case, skip the yeast Altogether.

Non-Alcoholic Version 1: These ingredients are based on a standard 5-gallon homebrew batch, however, one word of caution: 5 gallons of root beer is a lot. Consider cutting all amounts in half and brewing 2.5 gallons instead. Note that this recipe is designed to be a little less sweet than commercial root beers. Dial it up to 4 pounds of sugar, plus the molasses, to get closer to commercial sweetness.

Non-Alcoholic Root Beer #1

What You'll Need
Optional Add-ins
  • 3 cups Sassafras Root Bark
  • 3 teaspoons wintergreen leaf
  • 3 pounds sugar (unrefined organic cane sugar or brown sugar preferred)
  • 2 cups molasses
  • 2 ounces vanilla extract (adjust to 1 ounce if desired)
  • 5 gallons water
  • A neutral ale yeast (if bottle carbonating)

Add your Sassafras Root, wintergreen, vanilla extract, and optional herbs to five gallons of water. Using a cheesecloth or herb sack is recommended.

  1. Bring to a boil.
  2. When boil is reached, reduce heat and add sugar and molasses. Stir thoroughly.
  3. Allow mixture to simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Cut heat and allow to cool, or cool as you would a wort.
  5. Pitch yeast, stir gently, then immediately bottle, leaving about two inches of head space at the top of each bottle.
  6. Store bottles at room temperature, ideally around 75 degrees or so. If bottling into glass (which I recommend you avoid), check after two days for carbonation, then check every six hours until your desired carbonation is reached. Once reached, immediately refrigerate (colder temperatures preferred). If bottling into plastic, after 48 hours squeeze bottles to check carbonation. Repeat every 12 hours. When the bottles are firm with little to no give, they have reached proper carbonation. Refrigerate immediately.

Important: Remember to store carbonated bottles immediately in cool temperatures to minimize further fermentation and avoid potential bottle bombs. Plastic soda bottles are highly recommended for this reason. Avoid glass if at all possible.

Some older recipes suggest using champagne yeast. This is no longer recommended. Champagne yeast can continue working at lower temperatures and puts you at increased risk for exploding bottles. Avoid baking yeast as well, despite some recipes calling for it. It imparts a yeasty flavor and is slower to work. Use a neutral dry ale yeast instead.

Your root beer should be drinkable for about five weeks.

Non-Alcoholic Version 2- Extract: Extract soda brewing is easy – even easier than extract brewing in beer. You can easily brew this with a small child. I’ve done it! And remember, the below is based around a standard 5-gallon batch. In truth, however, you’re better off doing half that amount.

Non-Alcoholic Root Beer #2

What You'll Need
Optional Add-ins
  • Optional: Replace some of the sugar with molasses or honey

Follow the instructions from version 1, replacing the spice boiling with the root beer extract and enjoy.

That’s pretty much it. Some versions will call for no boiling, only high heat (around 170 degrees). I’ve done both methods and found no appreciable differences, but prefer to bring it to a brief boil for safety/sanitation reasons.

Making Hard Root Beer

root beer fermenting

Since the debut of Not Your Father’s Root Beer a couple of years ago, homebrewers everywhere have been scrambling to make their own alcohol-infused root beers. This is a tricky topic, with just about every method under the sun attempted by homebrewers. No one method is correct, and in both my hands-on experience and in doing further research, no one seems to have the one true method that everyone agrees on.

In other words, there are a sea of options available to you, if you’re willing to experiment. The method that seems to get the most success and is easiest to incorporate into your brewing routine is as follows:

Start with a simple dark ale recipe. Keep it simple and ensure it has low bitterness, no more than 15 IBU. As little as 1oz of bittering hops will suffice. A basic amber ale kit will do in a pinch, perhaps with a small amount of black or chocolate malt (about ¼ to ½ a pound) for color and flavor. NOTE: For hard root beer, extract beer recipes yield better results than all grain because of the lower attenuation.

Add spices at flameout OR, if using a root beer extract, add extract at bottling.

At bottling add ½ pound of lactose to sweeten. Adjust upwards to taste if desired, up to 1 pound. Condition, drink, and enjoy.

A note on sweetening: Some homebrewers have reported success backsweetening with Stevia, Truvia, or Splenda, none of which ferments. Be aware that it is VERY easy to over-sweeten with products like these. Be wary of liquid extract versions, too, which are HIGHLY potent in their sweetness. Also be aware that the taste of Stevia gets mixed reactions. Some people believe it sweetens just fine. Others are highly put off by the taste. All that said, these products have been used successfully to backsweeten ciders and other fermented beverages.

Recommendations on how much to use vary from several teaspoons for a full batch to up to a ½ cup.

Another method that has gotten success for some brewers is a hybrid between starting with a standard ale kit and the pure root beer brewing outlined above. Here is a sample recipe:

Hard Root Beer #2

What You'll Need
Optional Add-ins
  • Optional: Adjust and add spices to your personal preference

Brew this as you would any other batch of beer.

Closing Remarks on DIY Root Beer

root beer float

The trend towards hard sodas has stabilized but shows no sign of receding – and no wonder. These tasty drinks offer a great alternative to beer. You can make amazing floats with them, too!

And going without the alcohol can be a lot of fun for homebrewers as well. Ginger beers, cream sodas and more are all relatively easy to make at home and are a fantastic way to introduce younger family members to the fun of homebrewing. Happy brewing!

For more fantastic root beer recipes, try browsing our soda making forum for ideas.

by Eric San Juan
Eric San Juan is a freelance writer, former craft beer columnist for the Philly Weekly, and author of several books, including “Stuff Every Husband Should Know” (Quirk Books 2011). His musings on beer, life, nerd stuff and more can be found at ericsanjuan.com. You’ll often spot him drinking good beers on his nerd nostalgia Youtube show, https://www.youtube.com/user/SneakersAndSoul. Eric thinks gardening is a logical extension of homebrewing and urges you to plant some fruits and veggies this year.

Sources
Fermenting root beer image - Mikey Lemoi

written by Eric San Juan

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One comment on “Getting to the Root of Homebrewed Root Beer”

  • Allen

    As far as extracts go, Zatarain's is excellent and what I use for my draft root beer at home. It is on the spice shelf in most southern stores.

    Reply
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