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I have already noted this question about making root beer, but I wanted to explore further, so I hope you'll indulge me.

I want to make a home made root beer that is similar in taste to the A&W brand. Obviously, I want to make something different, or I could just buy A&W... but that's my starting point. If I can approximate that, then I can experiment from there.

There are some points that I am stuck on:

  1. Most online recipes suggest either using "root beer extract", or "sasparilla", or "sassafrass extract". I understand sasparilla and sassafras are different roots, but is "root beer extract" another way description for either of the roots, or is it a catch all term for pre-mixed root beer flavouring?

  2. Is there a noticeable flavour difference between sassafras and sasparilla? Should I really try and hunt down sassafras without the carcinogenic ingredient, or is it not worth the effort?

  3. Where can I find a reliable supplier of the key ingredients that ships internationally? A lot of suppliers have either unclear web sites or their stock seems to come and go. Recommendations would be really welcome!

  4. What I like about A&W over, say, Barq's, is that it seems thicker. The foam holds longer and the mouth feel is creamier. What would be the ingredient or method that would steer a root beer brew towards being thicker?

Thanks for any tips!

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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I have long kept a copy of an old usenet posting on my web server that addressed the flavorings issue. There are alternatives to sassafras, and sarsaparilla plus dried burdock may get you most of the way there, and I always like the drink called sarsaparilla a little more than most mass market root beers. Birch beer has its charms, too. I think you can experiment with a few different barks and roots. Wintergreen and some of the other ingredients are used for other reasons; I'm pretty sure they were present in earlier forms of root beer as well.

See http://www.jagaimo.com/bistro/rootbeerfaq.html for the old discussion I kept a copy of (circa 1995). The same posting covered some suppliers but they may or may not be relevant 16 years after I collected that posting.

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Maltodextrin can be bought pretty cheap at a brewer's store. It doesn't really add a taste, at least you're not supposed to notice it, but it gives it a thicker creamier feel. I know Sprecher uses it.

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1  
Is this meant to address point no. 4 of the original question? If it is, saying so directly will make it more clear what you are responding to. –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 7 '13 at 23:20

I've been blending herbal teas for years for a coffee shop in my area. I've also made my own root-beer from scratch several times. The recipe I've used for making root-beer naturally included sassafras root bark and sarsaparilla root. Yes, they are very different!

Sassafras has a naturally sort of "warming" flavor. It is hard to duplicate the flavor, but wintergreen, birch bark, spearmint leaf, orange peel and cinnamon will get you close.

Sarsaparilla has a bit of an earthier flavor, with a "powedery" hint of "cardboard". Definitely adds something. What I find most interesting is that no one mentions Birch bark--which can be difficult to locate sometimes. (My herb supplier was out for almost 2 yrs!)

To the boil, I also add a little vanilla bean to provide that warm note that's missing (when you leave out sassafras) and ginger root to kick up the burn. A hint of sweet marjoram, basil or thyme... and roasted chicory root can also be useful. Definitely add a hint of star anise!!! (Similarly, it makes Earl Grey tea taste more like Earl Grey when used judiciously.)

So, #1: Avoid the extracts. It's just plain cheating! #2: Sassafras is the one that's supposedly carcinogenic, not sarsaparilla. #3: I would imagine that finding a company to ship int'l would be difficult, due to trade restrictions on some plants. The only caveat I can think of here would be US/Canada, who have pretty strong relations. Finally, #4: the mouthfeel is key to some brands. This is where sweetener comes into play and will also effect flavor. If you're doing a yeast-fermentation, you'll need to discuss this with a local brewer or mead-maker. Personally, I use both white and demerrara sugar, along with either maple syrup or molasses.

All that said, I haven't brewed in well over 10 yrs... so I'd be a bit rusty on the specifics. But a great way to get the process going is simply to treat it like you're brewing tea. Experiment with ratios of herbs and spices and keep meticulous notes of each batch. Don't move onto the fermentation/carbonation until you're happy with the tea.

GOOD LUCK!

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