Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

March 18, 2013

Frontier Beer


Root Beer:

Simmer 1 oz. sassafras root bark in 2 q water for 25 min.
Remove from heat
Stir in 1¾ cup brown sugar ‘til dissolved (or more, up to about 2½ cups?)
Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 pinch cinnamon
Let cool ½ hour.
Awaken ale yeast (gently mix a packet of yeast into warm water with a little sugar for 15 min.)
Bring sassafras brew to 1 gallon volume w/ cold water
Add awakened ale yeast, mix.
Pour through small, fine sieve and funnel into plastic pop bottles
Cap tightly
Let ferment 16-48 hours, squeezing the bottles to feel the pressure.
When the bottles are almost totally firm to the hand, refrigerate or pasteurize to cut off fermentation.

(adapted from BethTN’s recipe, and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book “Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers.”)

This is a frontier beer, distinctive of America. You can make it this way to create a soda pop, or you can ferment it fully like beer (for example, ferment for 10 days in a jug under a fermentation lock, then bottle with priming sugar.)

To remind everyone, alcoholic fermentation is what happens when yeast organisms consume the sugar in a watery mixture and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, you can ferment for alcohol only and let all of the carbon dioxide escape (to make a non-sparkling wine), or trap some of the carbon dioxide in the bottle for fizziness (champagne or beer), or you can let the yeast just barely get started in a sealed bottle to make carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (the tiny amount of alcohol created compares to the alcohol in “non-alcoholic” juices and pops you would buy at the store, perhaps about 0.5%.) Some people simply mix carbonated water into the recipe, or you could use a whipped cream whipper to crack open a pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge and carbonate the pop mechanically.

Root beer can also include wintergreen or birch sap, sarsaparilla, molasses, spikenard, or whatever you like. (If I were to make one tweak to this recipe I would add wintergreen, perhaps 1 oz. of the fresh green.)

A beer glass full of dark amber rootbeer with a light head.

Here’s to the wilderness and the wild people!

This creative beverage is part of a tradition of herbal beers for fun or medicine, which was almost stamped out in Europe by prohibition laws, but which flourished among free American settlers. Another famous formula is ginger ale, made of ginger, water, and honey. Besides the fun of herbal pop and beer, beer is pretty useful as medicine. Medical plant essences typically dissolve better in water with at least a touch of alcohol in it, and beer keeps for a long time, so herbal beer is an elegant and low-tech drug delivery system (or “dietary supplement” delivery system if you don’t do drugs.) Some beers carried specific remedies but others supported health in a more general way: dandelion greens were brewed to reinvigorate the body in Spring, spruce branch tips were brewed to ward off scurvy in Winter, and sassafras seems to be one of those rare herbs that just makes people feel better, whether they are healthy or ill. Hops is a sedative, makes you pee and blocks male sexual response, and it is a very weird choice of medicine to be included in every standard beer.

All beer must start from sugar. Apples were an option on the frontier, having enough sugar and flavor in them to make hard cider with no additions, although that’s more of a wine than beer. Perhaps you have heard of making beer from malted barley, but that was no option on the fringe. The pioneers came from Europe’s brewing tradition, where “maltsters” developed sprouting, drying and roasting barley into an intricate art form. Americans were generally intimidated away from the specialty. Malt also requires long soaking in hot water (for an enzyme in the sprouted barley grains to finish its job of converting seed starch into fermentable sugar), a “required” step that intimidates some away from brewing.

Root beer generally starts with brown sugar, and sometimes molasses, as its yeast-feeding sugars. Brown sugar and molasses were fairly cheap commodities across much of frontier America, or a family could make their own from sorghum, a sugary cane that grows in the temperate zone. White sugar is not recommended for brewing beer, but it’s probably fine if you are just brewing pop. Birch or maple sap is acceptable — apparently, wintergreen in modern root beers is sort of a substitute for the flavor of birch sap. Birch sap was convenient to people who were “handy” and lived in the woods, but if you are purchasing ingredients in today’s marketplace, wintergreen is going to be a lot easier to come by. Honey is a good source of sugar, with its own distinctive flavor and medicinal action, too. A certain Roger Beverly described America’s home-cobbled beer scene circa 1700: “The richer sort of Americans generally brew their small beer with malt, which they have from England, though they have as good a barley of their own as any in the world, but for want of convenience of malt-houses the inhabitants take no care to sow it. The poorer sort brew their beer with molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted by drying in a stove, with persimmons dried in cakes and baked, with potatoes, with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised…”

My pop-style root beer is good, but not as sweet as commercial pop. It is frothy and sweet with candy and clove herbal flavors, but on the other hand, it’s not that sweet, lacks body, and it’s a little bit astringent. It tastes like… it tastes like… it tastes like freedom!

Once, America banned all brewing, and the result was a terrible degradation of our brewing culture. Hucksters sold inferior homebrew malt that resulted in a mud-like product, the OTC “bath salts” of beer. Underground brewers stretched their product to the thinnest and cheapest possible, counting on steady black market profits, thus creating America’s anomalously thin style of commercial beer. Many herbal beers were forgotten or survived only as pop. Due to “clerical error,” homebrewing remained illegal from the beginning of Prohibition all the way up until 1978. Since then — since people were once again allowed to develop their brewing skills independently and cheaply at home — our brewing culture has much recovered, and even Coors and Budweiser are selling richer beers these days.

Still, sassafras is illegal to sell as food or drink in its natural form. In 1960, FDA found that the sassafras oil content in root beer is carcinogenic — almost as carcinogenic as the alcohol content in any beer. Genuine root beer is a sort of gray-market thing, something you can pass around at family gatherings but never sell at the farmer’s market. Your average corporate root beer would be artificially flavored for cheapness anyways, so the regulators have no concern about the liberty lost by restricting sassafras. They can’t hear any money complaining at all.

It’s sad that the root beer at the store is sassafras-free or chemically stripped of its best molecule (safrole), but the silver lining is that this restrictive FDA policy inspires some productive explorations by those skirting the law. Reed’s, a California company, makes “Virgil’s Rootbeer” organically, approximating the flavor of sassafras root beer with a combination of many herbs including sarsaparilla and wintergreen. Another response to FDA is seen in the conscientiously patriotic American exploring herbs, pop and beer at home. One can legally homebrew beer containing wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, or medical marijuana (if you are duly licensed), and fall outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA and its various superstitious anti-witchcraft regulations. You don’t even need to know how to make proper beer, if you are willing to experiment with pioneer-style sugar-and-syrup-based hooch. Hazards of crafting your own pioneer beer may include a hypomanic state characterized by euphoria, brief moments of ego inflation and a sudden undue interest in aspects of science, culture and history one had been ignoring until now…

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2 Comments »

  1. Love that last sentence.

    We truly enjoyed your root beer. It was very different from commercial root beer, but it was tasty and refreshing.

    Now how about artisanal distilling of fruit wines into eau de vie?

    Comment by estraven — March 18, 2013 @ 6:51 am

  2. I will not pretend to enjoy sassafras … but I appreciate you’re sharing it and am happy you enjoy it … Now, work on tons of Mead for ME!

    ♡♥♡

    Comment by Tamara Noel — April 4, 2013 @ 5:19 pm


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