It started out because of a craving. On a scorching summer day, I was craving a can of pop. (Are you with me? Every once in a while, an ice cold carbonated drink is just what one longs for in the dog days!) And for our family, soda pop is a real treat. We don’t have it very often.
The trouble? I have kids that can’t tolerate ingredients found in most sodas so we either find certain beverages that they can have or I get to be creative with making ‘special drinks’ for them.
All that to say, it was hot, soda pop was my craving, and we were in a bind. No beverages available that we could all enjoy and a Momma with a bit too much time on her hands (apparently!).
Now, sassafras is a plant that grows wild all over the U.S. and was the traditional root for what we call root beer. I remembered finding lots of sassafras growing on our property as a kid, so I decided that since I was on my old stomping grounds I would see just how easy (or difficult) it would be to make some homemade root beer from the plants.
I found a good recipe here that I’ll be sharing (below). This site also has a nice description of where to find sassafras plants and what the leaves look like – essential for the novice! Check out the article if you need some assistance. (My tip for the doubting sassafras hunter? Just break a stem and sniff! If you’ve got the right plant, it should smell like – you guessed it – root beer!)
Motivated by a craving, and having located a recipe, we set out on an adventure! Here it is… in brief.
After announcing the idea to an eager and energetic crew (my kids and a few cousins), I climbed in the cab of my dad’s 1978 Chevy pick-up truck (a pretty green colored camper special) and gave the big, rusted door a hard slam. Eight kids (ages 4-10) piled in back, whoopin’ and hollerin’. I cracked open the center back window and advised them to stay on their rears while I was driving through the field and neighboring orchard in search of the precious root. Or else! That worked… for a few minutes.
As we bounced along, teeth rattling in wide grins seen through the rear-view mirror, I thought about the fact that even if the soda didn’t turn out, the memories we’d make would last!
Before long, we’d located a whole row of sassafras saplings along the edge of the woods across from the cherry trees. Within a short amount of time, we’d pulled up a few bundles of the precious young plants and had loaded back into the truck for the jarring ride back to Grandma’s.
I used some pruning shears to trim the plants at the house and had the kids hall the tops to the burn pile out back. Then we scrubbed (okay, I had them do all of this part!) the roots at the hand-pump outdoors and put the clean roots in plastic bags. These we placed in the refrigerator to store until the cooking process the following day. (Having to wait a day just made the homemade drink taste that much better, I think! Nothing like a bit of anticipation to heighten the senses!)
The following day, we cut up the roots, boiled them with some molasses and a few spices, and boy did it smell good! Then we strained the roots out, added sugar and finished the process. After cooling the syrup down, we added some of it to a bottle of club soda and (tadaa!) we’d made our very own sassafras root beer!
Want to give it a try? Start watching for some sassafras and get it while the stems are still young and tender. And, like I said earlier, even if the soda doesn’t turn out just the way you were hoping, at least you’ll have some fun memories to treasure forever!
The recipe we followed is below.
Homemade Sassafras Root Beer Recipe
- Prep time: 10 minutes
- Cook time: 30 minutes
- Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 quarts.
- Several roots (including some green stems) from sassafras saplings, about 30-40 inches worth of 1/4-inch thick roots (enough to fill one cup when you chop them into 1/2-inch pieces)
- 4 cups water
- 2 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds (can sub fennel)
- 4 allspice berries
- 1-inch of stick cinnamon
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 quarts soda water
1 Scrub the roots clean of any dirt. Cut the roots into 1/2-inch long pieces. (The roots can be tough, if you have a pair of pruning shears, they work great to cut the roots.) If you have a few green stems, you can include them too, but you should have mostly roots. Cut up as much as you need to fill one cup. Put the roots into a small pot and cover with 4 cups of water. Add the cloves, anise seeds, allspice berries, and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the molasses and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat.
2 Strain through cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve lined with a paper towel. Rinse out the pot. Return the liquid to the pot. Add the sugar, heat until just a simmer and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3 To assemble the root beer, fill a glass with ice cubes, add the syrup and soda water in a 1:2 ratio, so 1/3 cup of syrup to 2/3 cups of soda water. Add more soda water if you want it more diluted, add more syrup if you want it stronger.