Until I was 13, I was convinced that root beer was alcoholic. I couldn't believe that my otherwise responsible dad would offer me sips of his root beer. Being a quite conservative child, I would always refuse. Then one day I heard the woman behind the counter at Swensen's ice cream parlor explain to another similarly deluded kid that root beer was just a soda. So I ordered my first root beer float and was immediately smitten. There was something a little naughty about the bold flavor that turned me into a root beer fanatic.
Many of the most delicious drinks got their start as medicinal tonics, so it's no surprise that the first commercial root beer was developed by a pharmacist in the late 19th century. I'm not sure if root beer is cleaning my liver or adding color to my cheeks, but I do feel better when I drink it. Perhaps root beer was a gateway beverage to the hard world of cocktails and spirits. But I'm not complaining.
What's Available to Buy?
Root beer in general isn't hard to find, of course, but some of the regional or small-batch brands can be tricky to track down. No two root beers are alike, so some will be cloying and sweet while others will be crisp and dry. Brands like Faygo and Barq's are on the stronger, more "rooty" side, while A&W and Henry Weinhardt's are on the sweeter, more "vanilla-y" side. (Serious Eats did a root beer taste test, rated on a scale from "mild" to "Holy Sarsaparilla!")
While there's a big beautiful world of root beer variety out there, root beer lovers tend to be pretty opinionated about what makes a good root beer. And really, there's no better way to express that love than to handcraft your own root beer, specifically calibrated to your taste. You'll need to track down a couple of obscure tree barks, but the actual brewing process is simple—just a little boiling and waiting.
Aside from being fun to say, sassafras and sarsaparilla are the roots that have the flavor we typically associate with root beer, but there's also a whole cast of roots, spices, and herbs that make up this bubbly treat. No two recipes are alike, but other common ingredients include licorice root, vanilla, star anise, and wintergreen.
I like my root beer earthy and with some bite, so I included some birch. If you like it sweeter, you could skip that or go with more vanilla. Before you add the yeast, the recipe is extremely tweakable. So you can taste the syrup to get an idea if you'd want to change up the recipe. I use plastic bottles just in case there's an explosion, but many people use glass bottles in a temperature-controlled (and safely enclosed) space. Homemade root beer has a slight alcoholic content (somewhere in the 1% neighborhood).
Besides drinking your homemade root beer over ice or in a float, there are a lot of creative ways to use it. Dark rum, root beer, and a little lime makes a variation on the Dark & Stormy that I like to call the Dark & Stormier. Root beer makes a great glaze on pork, especially for slow cooked or barbecued ribs. This root beer bundt cake is another way to get that root beer flavor into your food.