Homemade root beer hits the spot

January 13, 2014
Nothing beats a delicious homemade root beer float. Nothing. BY DENISE CLEMONS

Editor’s note: As a holiday present to Denise, this week’s column was written by her husband, Jack; she took the picture and gained an appreciation for the challenges of food photography.

One summer morning long ago, my mother searched throughout the house for a five-gallon jug she “knew” she had, so she could brew some homemade root beer for my sister and me. Sadly, she couldn’t find the missing container that day, and the moment passed. I’ve thought about that root beer many times since then, about the treat we missed out on, and about how she would go about making that much of it. It seemed like a lot of work. (On the other hand, my mother made home-brewed beer in a bathtub during Prohibition.)

In my imagination, that hoped-for root beer grew more flavorful as the years went by. I must have mentioned it to Denise from time to time, because this year she gave me a home-brew root beer kit for Christmas. Since I’d offered to write a Cape Flavors column for her, and the use of this kit seemed to fall within my limited culinary skills, I selected it as the topic for my contribution.

Although drinks using plant roots are common worldwide, root beer is a uniquely American drink with origins in Colonial days. It was one of an assortment of so-called “small beers” (meaning very low alcohol content) that were brewed by early farmers so as to be suitable for serving at family or community get-togethers. The essential ingredients of root beer are sugar, carbonation from fermentation and flavoring from root-bark of the sassafras tree, which grows principally in the eastern United States.

Other small beers were made from a variety of herbs, tree barks or roots, and included ginger beer and sarsaparilla beer. Another popular small beer, particularly in the dairy farm region of southeastern and central Pennsylvania, is birch beer. Although similar in taste to root beer, this carbonated drink uses extract from the bark of the black birch tree.

Charles Hires sold the first commercial packages of root beer ingredients, with instructions to add water, sugar and baker’s yeast. Initially, Hires called his product “root tea” and sold it to soda fountains and housewives. Hires didn’t indulge in alcohol himself, so when the temperance movement gained in popularity he saw an opportunity. He renamed his drink “root beer” to appeal to working men and marketed it as an alternative to alcoholic beverages.

Though sassafras provides the distinctive flavor, there is no standard recipe for root beer. Online sources cite ingredients as varied as allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, dandelion roots, vanilla beans, molasses, licorice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and chocolate.

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration identified safrole oil, found in the sassafras root, as a potential carcinogen and banned its use. Sassafras root extracts from which this oil has been removed are now used in root beer sold commercially.

One of the most popular ways to serve root beer is over a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. This is called a Root Beer Float, reportedly because the first person to put one together tried floating ice cream in a glass of root beer. Anyone who’s made one knows how well that went. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, an ice cream soda made with birch beer and vanilla ice cream is called a Birch Beer float, while mixing chocolate ice cream and birch beer makes it a Black Cow.

So what is the secret of creating the beautiful and delicious root beer float shown in the photo? For the culinarily challenged like me, root beer home brew kits have made the process relatively simple. My kit included root beer mix, dry yeast and some additional flavorings, plus bottles, gaskets, caps and “easy-to-follow” (though frankly time-consuming) instructions. My contributions were water, sugar, an empty one-gallon milk carton (no kidding) and time. Three days in fact, all in.

For more ambitious brewers, you can visit the website “Making Root Beer at Home” by Dr. David B. Fankhauser, professor of biology and chemistry at U. C. Clermont College in Batavia, Ohio. Professor Fankhauser’s technique is definitely for the purist, and you will get a science lesson in the process. Or you could go to the grocery store and buy some Hires root beer and a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. We’ll never tell.

Root Beer Float

1-2 scoops vanilla ice cream
1 C root beer

Place scoop of ice cream in tall, wide-mouthed glass. Slowly pour root beer into glass, allowing foam to recede before adding more. Serve with a spoon (and straws, as desired). Yield: 1 serving.

For a lighter version, use ice cream with a lower fat content, available from several popular brands. If making root beer from a kit, do not reduce the amount of sugar called for in the directions, as the sugar must balance the yeast for proper carbonation and taste.

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