Root Beer Recipes
Local ingredients account for the variety of root beer flavors and recipes around the country. The primary flavor found in any old-fashioned homemade root beer recipe is sassafras, a deciduous tree in North America. The characteristic sweet flavor comes from the tree’s roots, giving us the name root beer. Now, the primary flavor we associate with root beer is wintergreen, not sassafras.
As the pilgrims came to America they had to have liquid to drink and water stored in wooden kegs spoiled too quickly. Therefore, beer was often the beverage consumed. The colonists did not have barley or other grains for brewing at first, so they used the ingredients that were available: berries, bark and roots. The alcohol was the preservative. The beer was boiled and brewed like tea to blend the flavors and kill the germs. It was then cooled and fermented with yeast. Root beer was made one of three ways: from the leftovers of the strong beers, with small amounts of grain, or was consumed during its early stage, while still sweet, before fermentation was complete.
There are now hundreds of root beer brands in the United States, produced in every state and yet there is no standardized recipe. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras oil as it was found to be a carcinogen causing cancer. The root beer industry quickly started experimenting to find a replacement, while preserving the flavor. Inventors discovered that sassafras could be treated prior to the removal of the oil, keeping the flavor and eliminating any risk. Today artificial flavorings can be used.
Common Root Beer Ingredients
Sassafras is a genus of three living and one extinct species of deciduous trees in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America and eastern Asia. Sassafras is commonly found in open woods, along fences, or in fields. It grows well in moist, well-drained, or sandy soils and tolerates a variety of soil types, but does best in southern and wetter areas of distribution.
Wintergreen Leaf also goes by the common names of Canada tea, hilberry, checkerberry, boxberry, grouse berry, deerberry, partridge berry, mountain tea and redberry tea. It is commonly found from the northeastern parts of North America all the way down to Alabama.
European settlers learned to use wintergreen from Native Americans, who made the herb into a tea, as well as to freshen breath. During the American Revolution, wintergreen tea was an alternative to imported tea, which was heavily taxed by the British.
Sarsaparilla Root is native to South and Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It has been used over the years to treat many different ailments. It was primarily used to treat syphilis in the 1800s and was exported to Europe for this express purpose. Health tonics were manufactured and sold with the claims that they were useful as diuretics, blood purifiers, and general health boosting agents. Although it is not used as frequently for syphilis anymore, the other health claims still stand up, and many make tea using the roots of this plant to help detoxify and strengthen the body.
Licorice is the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra that a somewhat sweet flavor can be extracted from. The licorice plant is a legume (related to beans and peas) that is native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. It has been cultivated in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In recent years, it has been commercially grown in northern India and has had some success in the United States.
In addition to flavoring candy, gum, and soft drinks, it is used for many ailments including asthma, athlete’s foot, baldness, body odor, bursitis, canker sores, chronic fatigue, depression, colds and flu, coughs, dandruff, emphysema, gingivitis and tooth decay, gout, heartburn, HIV, viral infections, fungal infections, ulcers, liver problems, Lyme disease, menopause, psoriasis, shingles, sore throat, tendinitis, tuberculosis, ulcers, yeast infections, prostate enlargement and arthritis.
Ginger or ginger root is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale. It is consumed as a delicacy, medicine, or spice. Ginger cultivation began in South Asia and has since spread to East Africa and the Caribbean.
The traditional medical form of ginger historically was called Jamaica ginger. It was frequently employed to disguise the taste of medicines. Tea brewed from ginger is a common folk remedy for colds. Ginger ale and ginger beer are also drunk as stomach settlers.
A juniper berry is the female seed cone produced by the various species of junipers. It is not a true berry but a cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance. The cones from a handful of species, especially Juniperus communis, are used as a spice, particularly in European cuisine, and also give gin its distinctive flavor.
There are between 50-67 species of juniper, widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. The juniper is an evergreen tree native to Europe, Asia, and the northern parts of North America and it is especially abundant in central Texas and Eastern Oregon.
Juniper is frequently used by herbalists for urinary tract and bladder infections and inflammations. Nibbling a few juniper berries or sipping juniper berry tea one hour before meals is often recommended to those troubled by indigestion.
Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum. Cinnamom verum accounts for 7,500-10,000 tons of the spice produced, with the remainder produced by other species. In Sri Lanka, only C. verum is cultivated; Sri Lanka still produces 80-90% of the world’s supply, and this species is also cultivated on a commercial scale in Seychelles and Madagascar. Global production of the other species averages 20,000-25,000 tons, of which Indonesia produces around two-thirds of the total, with significant production in China. India and Vietnam are also minor producers.
Many ancient societies used cinnamon to treat bronchitis. Additional folk or traditional uses include gastrointestinal problems, loss of appetite, and control of diabetes, as well as a variety of other conditions.
Vanilla beans are the fruit of the vanilla orchid, the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit. Because of its shape, and because the Melipone bee, historically responsible for the pollination of the orchid, is found only in Mexico, the orchid needs assistance in order to produce fruit. Today, the orchids are grown in Mexico, the Bourbon Islands, Tahiti, Indonesia, India, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea. They are hand pollinated, hand harvested and hand cured by farmers in a process that takes anywhere from 13 to 14 weeks.
Vanilla extracts have reportedly been used to help alleviate toothache. Vanilla pods have been used as an antispasmodic and to treat fevers. Vanilla is added to various foods and beverages as a flavoring. It is also used in various body care products and aromatherapy for its purported relaxant effects.
The Dr Pepper Museum is located at 300 S. 5th Street in downtown Waco. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM and Sunday from Noon until 5:00 PM, last ticket sold at 4:15. For more information, visit us on the web at drpeppermuseum.com. To purchase your own Dr Pepper memorabilia, visit the Museum’s online gift shop.