I want to make root beer, what are the ingredients required to produce that signature flavor?
The primary ingredient in the root beer flavor is traditionally sassafras root. However, modern root beer uses artificial sassafras flavoring because the US FDA banned safrole, the oil from sassafras root. It is considered a weak carcinogen as well as a List I chemical by the DEA (used in the manufacture of illicit substances).
Beyond sassafras the ingredients vary widely and drastically between manufacturers. The most common include vanilla, wintergreen, cherry/spruce bark, licorice, anise, and many more. A more complete list of root beer ingredients can be found on the wikipedia page.
If you're looking to make your own, I suggest finding a recipe and following it. Given the vast array of ingredients present, you'll have to do a ton of experimentation to stumble upon a suitable flavor without a recipe.
I am not a root beer expert, but to me (and a few others, including root beer homebrewers :)) Russian квас / kvass (a fermented rye beverage) is very similar to (family-made) root beer, so I think you might be interested in it too, as the ingredients for kvass might be easier to find in your vicinity.
Kvass variants run from clear and light to dark and heavy with all sorts of additives (usually fruit) possible. People use different kinds of bread, and some people cook or fry the bread first. Most kvass has a little alcohol in it (depending on its age) -- some has more, but usually not so much as to be dangerous if drunk in normal amounts.
- (stale) (dark/black) rye bread
- active dry yeast
- sugar or honey
- 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
- 1/2 cup ginger bug, fresh whey or 1 packet kefir starter culture
- 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. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and simmer the roots, berries, barks, leaves and flowers for twenty minutes.
- After twenty minutes, turn off the heat and strain the infusion through a fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth into a pitcher. Stir unrefined cane sugar into the hot infusion until it dissolves and allow it to cool until it reaches blood temperature. Once the sweetened infusion has cooled to blood temperature, stir in the ginger bug or fresh whey and pour into individual bottles (preferably flip-top bottles which are easy enough to find online, leaving at least one inch head space in each bottle.
- Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator for an additional two days to age. When you're ready to serve the root beer, be careful as it, like any other fermented beverage, is under pressure due to the accumulation of carbon-dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation. Open it over a sink and note that homemade sodas, like this one, have been known to explode under pressure. Serve over ice