Home Brewed Spiced Root Beer & Ginger Bug Secrets

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The 4th of July conjures up ideas of good ‘ole American traditions- apple pie, fireworks, root beer and blue jeans. Let’s face it, there is no single fashion item that screams AMERICA more than jeans. Sure designers worldwide have put their spin on them, and those are nice too, but I still love my Lucky Brand Sweet and Lows. I miss wearing my jeans. The last time I wore them was May 5 (7 weeks ago) and since then I’ve looked at them longingly and imagined how my attire would change if I could slip into them in the morning when I roll out of bed. Since I work from home three days a week jeans are my go-to comfort clothes. Much to my surprise, post hand surgery #2, I was just given clearance to fasten buttons. This may seem inconsequential to you, but for me it is like having a serious dose of oxygen put into my lungs after traveling to the moon.

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Coming from a big Italian American family, some of our traditions for the holidays can be wonderfully stifling. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world but there are times when I dream about just getting on a plane to go somewhere else just for an adventure. In my heart I know that I would desperately miss all the pomp and fanfare. However 4th of July isn’t quite one of those holidays that rates as a show stopper family event so it has become a traditional party date (or reunion) for a few of our single, now married friends, and a their children. We keep it simple and old-fashioned. We don’t expand the guest list because it is the group of friends we sometimes only get to see once a year- on this day. The “kids’ now range from 4th grade to high school, and somehow the walls come down and they all melt together as if they were never apart. We do our gourmet hot dogs, fruit salads, chips, chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, BBQ prawns, sausages, lamb, ribs and salads. The pool is used as a cannon ball practice playground, and unsurprisingly most of the water is outside of it by the end of the day. Water balloons and water guns abound, and the evening concludes with a ride in the back of a truck up a steep hill to see fireworks. We then come home and unleash the legal-ish fireworks –pops and sparklers. The constants from year to year are these… smiles abound from ear to ear, the girls bathing suits get smaller, the boys swimsuits get longer, the sun kissed faces are rosy and we all wish this bubble of annual fun we created would never end. Vacations are planned around it and year after year the tradition we started right out of college lives on.

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Now back to this root beer post. Why root beer? Last year, our good friends the Lammer’s took a trip they had been planning for years. They passed a year driving around the US in their RV seeing all the sights; taking in the history and creating one amazing and enviable adventure. Upon returning home we couldn’t wait to hear their stories. I was inspired to learn that one of the most impressionable memories that 13 year old Logan had was when he visited an Amish town and purchased a homemade bottle of root beer for the first time. Logan is passionate about his root beer, in fact he traveled all over the US and collected bottles of all the unique root beers he could find. My curiosity was peaked. I had never ever thought about making homemade root beer and so my research began in earnest. Ingredients were sourced from San Francisco to Oregon and my homework commenced. This was certainly a big project to take on, I am not going to lie. But what better way to celebrate the 4th of July on this blog then to make a recipe of firework proportions.

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This year, in honor of good ole’ American fun along with wearing my Lucky jeans I am going to flip the top on this homemade root beer and share it with all those that inspired this post.

History on American Cookery

This classic recipe is full of roots, berries, barks and flowers. There’s an old-fashioned undeniable charm of brewing root beer the traditional way – slowly simmering a concoction of roots, berries, bark and spices, dissolving a sweetener into the herbaceous brew adding a natural source of yeast, bottling and then simply waiting for the yeast to do its work. Some lead time is required to make it so depending on if Keifer starter is used the concoction will take 5 days or if ginger bug is made and used then it will take approximately 10 days from start to finish.

Preparing a true homemade root beer from scratch is simple. Herbs and spices are steeped in hot water, and when it has cooled to blood warm– you mix in sweetener, starter culture which makes a superb base for homemade sodas and probiotic tonics and is super convenient to store and keep. This mixture is then bottled and allowed to sit and ferment for a few days before it’s ready.

The work you put into your homemade root beer is minimal, but sourcing the ingredients can be very challenging. All of the other ingredients I found at two local health food stores, Good Earth and Gathering Thyme. They stock all the ingredients used for this old-fashioned homemade root beer recipe. If you are not a San Francisco Bay Area local then I suggest ordering online. I recommend purchasing from Mountain Rose Herbs which stocks obscure organic herbs and spices.

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Finding Ingredients for Homemade Root Beer

Root beer, like many other fermented beverages, once enjoyed position as a staple of American cookery. There was even a time when each community and each family enjoyed a closely guarded homemade root beer recipe. Unlike today, water was not always easily available or safe to drink so other fermented beverages were consumed as the beverages of choice.

The primary flavor found in any old-fashioned homemade root beer recipe is sassafras, a deciduous tree native to North America. The characteristic sweet flavor comes from the tree’s roots, thus giving us the name root beer. Traditionally sassafras was used as a diuretic and thought to cleanse the blood and promote skin health, which may account for the claim that this brew purified the blood and made for rosy cheeks. I guess we’ll just have to drink it and see for ourselves!

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Home Brewed Spiced Root Beer

Seasoned with sassafras, sarsaparilla and eight other herbs and spices, amassing the ingredients for this classic homemade root beer recipe can prove challenging as I mentioned, but it is a taste of American culture and worth the fun of pulling it together.

Root Beer Ingredients

1/4 cup sassafras root bark

1 TBS birch bark

1 TBS dandelion root

1 TBS ginger root

1 TBS hops flowers

2 TBS sarsaparilla root

1 TBS licorice root

1 TBS wild cherry tree bark

1 tsp juniper berries

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup unrefined cane sugar

1/2 cup ginger bug (this is not a spice, it is concoction made 5 days prior to use, directions below), or fresh whey or 1 packet kefir starter culture (available here)

Root Beer Directions

Bring two and one-half quarts filtered water (10 cups) to a boil and stir in sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch and wild cherry bark, ginger, hops, juniper and licorice. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and simmer the roots, berries, barks, leaves and flowers for 20 minutes.

Remove concoction from the heat and strain the infusion through either a fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth into a pot. Stir sugar into the hot infusion until it dissolves and allow it to cool until it reaches 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 at room temperature for 3-4 days. Then transfer to the refrigerator for an additional 2 days to age. Now it is party time! But don’t rush now, 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 bowl so that if it explodes all the goodness isn’t lost on the kitchen floor or down the sink. Serve over ice.

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Ginger Bug

If you are feeling kind of crazy and want to really go old-school on the deal then let’s get ready to make ginger bug. Ginger bug, a slurry of fermented ginger and sugar, forms the basis for homemade, traditionally fermented sodas including root beer or fruit-based sodas that are rich in beneficial bacteria.

Yield: about 1 pint

Ginger Bug Ingredients

Fresh Ginger

Sugar, Unrefined Cane Sugar, or jaggery (only one of these are needed)

Ginger Bug Directions

Break off a knob from your hand of ginger and peel away its skin. Grate the ginger until you have 2 heaping Tablespoons. Place the grated ginger in a small jar, whisk in 2 TBS sugar and 2 TBS filtered water with a non-reactive spoon. Cover the jar loosely and allow it to ferment in a warm place in the kitchen.

Every day, for at least 5 days, mix an additional 2 TBS grated ginger, 2 TBS sugar and 2 TBS filtered water into your jar. The ginger will begin to foam and bubble at its top, and will take on the yeasty fragrance of beer. After 5 days, it is ready to use. You can also store it in the refrigerator, and feed it 2 TBS grated ginger, 2 TBS sugar and 2 TBS filtered water once a week.

Note: When using the ginger bug to make homemade sodas, strain off 1/4 cup of the ginger bug’s liquid and whisk it into 1 quart of a sweetened drink (tea, fruit juices, etc). Mix well. Transfer the sweetened drink and ginger bug mixture to flip-top bottles, and allow it to ferment at room temperature for 3 days. Transfer to the fridge or drink straight away. Replace the 1/4 cup ginger bug you’ve removed with 1/4 cup sugar dissolved into 1/4 cup warm water. In preparing the above recipe I used 2/3 cups ginger bug and replaced the mixture with 1/2 cup of warm water to dissolve 1/2 cup of sugar.

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