Monday, July 29, 2013

Root Beer. and Birch Beer

Birch Beer, Root Beer, IBC, A&W

... I'm jumping in feet first to try to help those of us who remember real Root Beer.

As a food nut, I have looked far and wide for foods I like. Growing up in St. Louis, before 1960, I easily remember the flavor of IBC Root Beer. We even had a hamburger joint (Fitz's) that had root beer on "draft". It was soooo creamy. But IBC tasted better.

The Quest was on and my research brought me to: The Independent Liquorist by Leonard Monzert. (New York : Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866). Monzert gives a wonderful root beer recipe.

But before I go into the history of this beverage, I want to deal with the chemistry of birch and "sassafras" root. The chemical name for both wintergreen and sweet birch is: METHYL SALICYLATE. That should mean that both birch and root beer taste about the same, at least as to that one ingredient. So it must be the remaining ingredients that constitute the flavor you all remember.

Monzert's Recipe for 10 gallons of:

Root Beer:

1 ounce yellow dock

1 ounce wintergreen

1 ounce sassafras

1 ounce allspice

1/2 ounce coriander seed

1/2 ounce wild cherry bark

1/4 ounce hops

3 quarts molasses

8 fl. ozs. brewer's yeast.

10 gallons of Spring Water (that means soft water)

Pour boiling water over all the ingredients. Stand 24 hours. Filter and add 8 ounces brewer's yeast and it is ready for use 24 hours later.

Root Beer in lore and legend is supposedly a response to the amount of beer guzzling going on in mid 19th century America. The inventor, whose name is lost to time, wanted to make a drink that would taste good, but not inebriate. Unusually enough, the molasses and brewer's yeast do yield an alcoholic beverage, but the alcohol is about .5%. You would have to drink a six-pack of root beer to equal one Bud.

If you are going to bottle this batch, sterilize your bottles and have a quality capper on had. I give a slightly easier recipe below.

From The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages by A. Emil Hiss (Chicago : G.P. Engelhard & Co., 1897) comes his recipe for:

Birch Beer

3 ounces Princess Pine leaves

1 1/2 ounces wintergreen

1 ounce ginger

1 gallon water

5 pounds sugar

4 fl. ounces birch or birch beer extract

Ferment or charge in a soda fountain. Hiss' instructions for making birch extract are somewhat "strange". He gives 4 differing recipes, of which, one I give here:

Birch Essence or Extract (I.)

Oil of wintergreen 5 fl. drams

Oil of lemon 2 fl. drams

Oil of cloves 1/2 fl. dram

Oil of sassafras 20 drops

Extract of vanilla 4 fl. ounces

Alcohol 16 fl. ounces.

Dissolve the oils in the alcohol and add the vanilla.

In 1958, the Federal gov't. passed the "Delaney Amendment" to the U.S. Food and Drug Act. It called for a "zero tolerance" policy for foods that could be suspected of causing cancer. Old fashioned root beer was one of the first "victims" of this Delaney act. It seems "reputable" scientists gave the equivalent of about 17,000 root beers a day to dogs and mice and they got cancer and died. I don't mean they force fed those animals that quantity. They gave the "safrol" oil, which is what sassafras bark has in it. So they used that concentrated oil, which is thousands of times "stronger" than ordinary. Who among us would consume 2 to 3 pounds of salt a day and believe it was a healthy idea? None the less, sassafras was made illegal for use in root beer. The soda pop industry reformulated about 1960 and root beer never tasted as good again. Curiously enough, mace, black pepper and nutmeg have small amounts of safrol in them, or safrol-like chemicals and the government never "zero-toleranced" them out of business.

Meanwhile, I've learned to make root beer extract with alcohol and the first recipes ingredients. It yields about 6 ounces of liquid to which I add hop essence (from the home beer making shop). That is then mixed with 96 ounces of simple syrup.

Approach it thusly:

Root Beer:

1 ounce yellow dock

1 ounce wintergreen

1 ounce sassafras

1 ounce allspice

1/2 ounce coriander seed

1/2 ounce wild cherry bark

1/4 ounce hops

Caramel coloring (Smart & Final, about $3 for a quart 2006 prices.)

From your local homebrewing shop obtain some hop extract.

Buy a bottle of vodka. If you don't regularly drink vodka, a pint will do fine. You need 6 to 9 fl. ozs. to start with. Grind the herbs or have your herbalist pulverise them for you. Herbs of Mexico, here in Los Angeles, charges 75¢ extra, but the herbs come out as a nice size particle. In to a mason or other, clean, jar, put the herbs, then 6 fl. ozs. of the vodka. Stir well. Put the lid on and shake for 30 seconds to a minute. Get the menstruum well mixed. Put the jar into a dark cupboard, the liquid becomes light sensitive and must be kept in the darkest spot available to you. In the morning, line a sieve with a Mr. Coffee filter or equivalent. Put the sieve and filter over a bowl to catch the liquid. Empty the jar. Next, allow it to stand until you collect at least 6 fl. Ozs. of extract. If you have a dark room, so much the better. It won't take more than an hour. Or at least it shouldn't. If you don't have 6 fl. Ozs. pour more vodka over the menstruum to obtain it. Wash the grounds out, so to speak.

Put the 6 fl. Ozs. into a sterilized (including lid) small bottle. Keep in a dark place. I use a hot sauce bottle, as this leaves little air space above the liquid.

Next, make your simple syrup. To 96 fl. Ozs. of water, add 96 ozs. of sugar. Bring to a strong boil, being careful not to let the sugar burn before it dissolves completely. Add the caramel coloring until you get a very dark color. Four to six ounces should be enough. Allow to cool and once the syrup is at room temperature, add the root beer extract. Decant into one gallon jar and a one quart jar. Keep the lid on tightly.

To serve: add 2 to 3 ounces of root beer syrup to a glass, ice and pour sparkling water over. I use Perrier.