Unearthing Real Root Beer

love root beer for its thick, creamy essence and herbal-infused sweet taste. Root beer surpasses lemonade as my go-to summer beverage. Root beer also fascinates the gastronome and forager in me. Most people associate foraging with the finding of mushrooms and berries. Those ingredients are but the tip of the iceberg. The roots, bark, leaves, and sap of many trees and plants have intriguing gastronomic values that unfortunately have been overlooked. Root beer is a prime example of such gastronomic oversight.

There are many, many root beers available to us today—over 800 by some estimates. Most all of them are commercially produced and readily available in markets across the country. The problem with most of them is that they don’t actually contain any roots. Very few are brewed in the classical sense that merits the use of the word beer. Instead, they contain a myriad of “natural” and artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and caramel and artificial colorings. This begs one to ask, “Why is this delicious beverage called root beer?”

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Beer is an ancient beverage. Archaeological evidence of its production and consumption dates back more than 9,000 years, and many scholars believe we’d been imbibing for millennia before that. Classically speaking, a beer is any beverage that is brewed from starchy (sugary) ingredients with the aid of fungal organisms. Some beers are low in alcohol, while others have higher alcohol content. Traditional root beers were very low in alcohol—they merely contained enough to inhibit pathogenic microbes, as to make water safe to drink.

Traditional root beers came to North America by way of European and Asian settlers. These root beers were made from everything from the sap and bark of birch, to spruce needles, to the roots of dandelion and sour dock. Early settlers knew little of the indigenous flora and relied on the native peoples to show them what could and couldn’t be eaten. Two of those plants were Sassafras albidum and Smilax ornate—sassafras and sarsaparilla, respectively. When the roots and bark of both of these plants took the place of the traditional spruce and birch, root beer as we know it was born.

By the mid-1800s, root beer had begun its transformation from a low-alcohol carbonated beverage to a minty, herbal, creamy syrup added to soda water. These root beers were prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists to cure and prevent a wide variety of ailments. In 1960, root beer became further removed from its origins when the active flavor component in sassafras—safrole—was banned due to its potential carcinogenic effects. These effects have since been soundly disputed due to the unrealistic dosage given to lab rats, not humans, and now sassafras can be used in its whole form without being purified as long as it’s not in a commercial setting.

Foraging for the ingredients needed to make root beer is an utter joy, partly because of the availability of local and seasonal ingredients. Just as with any culinary preparation, the ingredients used and their quantities vary considerably from one producer to the next. I like a root beer that is both earthy and herbal, yet crisp and somewhat minty. So I always include the following ingredients:

Sassafras is a fantastic native tree that can be found in abundance. While its root is the most aromatic, the bark, twigs, and even leaves harbor safrole. Crack open a root from sassafras and smell it. You’ll immediately say, “This smells like root beer!” The great thing about sassafras is that suckers, or tiny trees, pop up off a much larger tree’s root system. Over time these suckers can divert enough nutrients from the main tree that the main tree eventually dies. To prevent this from happening, simply pull up the suckers. You’ll get the roots you need and keep a tree alive.

Shagbark Hickory Bark. This bark lends a wonderfully rich earthy and woodsy flavor that can best be compared to something that’s been smoked with hickory. The bark is easy to harvest sustainably since it often is found scattered on the ground below the tree.

Wintergreen is a tiny evergreen plant grows along the forest ground. It is not related to mint but has a similar fresh minty flavor that I find to be better than mint. Be careful harvesting wintergreen so that you don’t overharvest it and destroy the plant. Take one leaf per plant, and then move on.

Oak cellulose is high in a compound called vanillin, which is also found in vanilla beans. Industrially produced imitation vanilla extract is most often produced from oak wood pulp. I use fallen dried oak leaves in my root beer to give it that sweet and floral vanillin boost. Simply gather the leaves once they’ve fallen and turned brown.

Birch is a must in my root beer. It is high in methyl salicylate—the same compound that gives wintergreen its fresh minty flavor and aroma. In the early spring, I tap black birch trees and save the sap to make root beer. Once my reserve of sap is exhausted, I use the bark, twigs, and leaves. Any species of birch will lend you the flavor you’re looking for in a good root beer, but Betula lenta, or black birch, has the highest concentration and best flavor.

Fennel is a plant that we all are used to seeing in the grocery store, but there are a few swaths of feral fennel that have established themselves in Cuyahoga County. I specifically forage the tiny yellow flowers that the plant produces for my root beer. These flowers are referred to as fennel pollen. This pollen adds a sweet floral note to root beer that brings it to the next level.

Spicebush is a native tree that grows in dense stands all over the Great Lakes region. Its flavor and aroma are strikingly similar to allspice, but not as potent. I harvest the leaves, twigs, and berries to use in my root beer to give it a warm spiced profile to balance out the minty freshness of the birch and wintergreen.

Aside from these main ingredients—foraged from Northeast Ohio—I also add cinnamon, star anise, and clove to my root beer. Feel free to add or subtract from these ingredients to suit your individual tastes. I make a root beer syrup and then mix it with seltzer water to make my root beer. You can easily pitch a lighter syrup with yeast, ferment it, and bottle it if you are looking for something more archaic. I feel that fermented root beers develop yeasty and musty notes that I don’t enjoy in this beverage.