I don't know about you but one of my greatest pleasures growing up in a hot and humid mid-western town was going to the A & W Root Beer stand on a summer night. Everybody was there and the carhops came out to your car and the huge mugs were frosty and the liquid inside them sublime.
My grandmother wouldn't drink it, though. "It's beer," she said. She was a teetotaler.
"But Grandma," we said, "it's not beer. It's just a word."
Never mind. She was stubborn and she was adamant. We didn't know any better but back in the day and probably her day root beer was actually beer and a little bit alcoholic. It was known as "small" beer. Very little alcohol but alcoholic none the less. So Grandma was not far off.
I did a little research and found that in the days when water was so filthy as to be toxic some people started wondering why the rich were so healthy compared to the poor. It turns out that rich people never drank water but always wine or beer. Water was all poor people had to drink for the most part. So a movement began in Belgium to create a cheap beer that poor people could afford and had a low alcohol drink so children could drink. This as known as "small beer".
Small beer is less than 2% alcohol. The alcohol in it acts as a preservative and germ killer. Boiling to blend the flavors further kills bacteria and germs. It is then cooled and fermented with yeast. The yeast is what creates the alcohol and the bubbles.
I decided to try a purist approach and go from scratch without the benefit of store bought extract. The process turns out to be easy but I wasn't sure how it would turn out. Will it taste anywhere near like A&W? My guess is no but that isn't going to stop my experiment. I decided to use kefir culture to ferment the beverage because I had it. It might turn out that I've made a good probiotic beverage. We'll see. But I'm not sure my husband will be willing to try it if it doesn't have the characteristics he's used to. No matter. Dang the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
I found all my herbs at The Herb Room in Santa Cruz, California. I was able to buy small amounts so if the experiment fails I won't have pounds of herb leftover.
Makes about 2 liters
• 1/4 cup sassafras root bark
• 1/4 cup winter green leaf
• 2 tablespoons sarsaparilla root
• 1 tablespoon licorice root
• 1 tablespoon ginger root
• 1 tablespoon dandelion root
• 1 tablespoon hops flowers
• 1 tablespoon birch bark
• 1 tablespoon wild cherry tree bark
• 1 teaspoon juniper berries
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 cup unrefined cane sugar
• 1 packet kefir starter culture
1. Bring two and one-half quarts filtered water to a boil and stir in sassafras, sarsaparilla, wintergreen, licorice, ginger, hops, juniper, birch and wild cherry bark. (I use our well water. It has been tested to be bacteria free and, of course, it has no additives.) Reduce the heat and simmer for twenty minutes.
2. Turn off the heat and strain the herb liquid through a colander lined with cheesecloth into a clean pitcher. Make sure you use a pitcher that won't break when you pour the hot liquid in it. (For my next batch I think I am going to source a large stainless steel pitcher. I broke my glass pitcher even though I pre-heated it.) Stir the sugar into the hot liquid until it dissolves. Allow it to cool to room temperature. Once the sweetened liquid has cooled, stir in the kefir starter culture. The kefir culture will make the liquid "milky" so don't be disturbed. Then pour into individual sterilized bottles. Mason jars that have a glass lid with wire fasteners would be good. (Just don't boil the rubber gasket.) Leave at least one inch head space in each bottle. Don't fill it to the top. There needs to be room for the fermentation gases.
3. Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature, then transfer it to the refrigerator for an additional two days to age.
Here's my final result 5 days later. Definitely fragrant milky brew. No effervescence to speak of. Tasty vanilla sassafras quality. But not a keeper.
Back to the drawing board in Part Two. In Part Two I'm going to use a ginger bug instead of kefir culture. I'm also going to try a different configuration of ingredients.
Just think of how interesting it must have been when people were discovering something new. What new thing have you discovered recently?