Sassafras Anecdote

“Well, to make Root Beer, you’d have to actually use Sassafras, but since those kids at UC Davis proved it is dangerous…”

“Uh, what? Kids at UC Davis?”

I was chatting with an acquaintance about Gruit, Ginger, and Root Beers, and she threw this into the conversation.

According to her, a group of grad students at UC Davis were bored with their research projects and decided to use the facilities to research the potentially hazardous nature of several flavorings commonly used in soft drinks, because according to her, the students thought the FDA never really researched food additives. Sticking it to the man, using grant money and facilities to do research they thought would benefit humanity.

They picked 5 flavorings, one of which was Sassafras Oil, and dosed up a bunch of their lab rats with them.

Of the 5, the only strong correlation they got was with the Sassafras.

Now I’m going to have to confirm this!

Fridge Tea

Fridge Tea.

Fridge Tea.

A while ago I posted about how to make awesome “Sun Tea“.

Well, I was reading about it, and it turns out that many in the nanny state of the blogosphere disapprove of Sun Tea.

If you leave water and tea sitting at warm room temperature for a few hours, it turns out there is some small chance of some sort of bacterial growth in your beverage.

So, I have reconsidered my ways.

Instead of Sun Tea, I have been making the fully sanctioned Refrigerator Tea.

Currently I am using a clean 2 liter glass container.

To this jar I add 1/4 cup of Chinese Green Tea (dragonwell is very nice), 1/4 Cup of Yerba Mate, and one bag of peppermint tea. Cover with cold water from the tap.

I then place it in the fridge overnight and strain the leaves out the next day.

As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the levels of extraction in Sun Tea and Refrigerator Tea.

Others have pointed out to me that there are commercial versions of this very green tea, mate, and peppermint beverage.

I have countered, as someone who isn’t currently fully employed, the Sun Tea is not only more environmentally friendly, but quite a bit cheaper, per ounce, along with being tastier.

Also, woo, quite the caffeine kick, and if you want to be really fancy you can call it “Cold Process Tea“.

Hires Based Root Beer v1.1

Vanilla Beans.

Vanilla Beans.

A few things have been bothering me about my interpretation of Charles Hires’ Recipe for Root Beer.

First, the vanilla I’ve been using has been pretty crap. So I stopped at a store which specializes in Vanilla and picked up some Vanilla Planifolia beans. Hi Vanilla Saffron Imports, you rock!

When researching ingredients, I realized that the “Ginger (Africa)” listed in the recipe was probably Grains of Paradise, so I wanted to include that pretty common beer ingredient in my recipe.

Charles Hires also included “Chirreta” which is a Gentian-like bitter root. I had made a couple truly bitter root beers, but I wanted to rein (oops, not reign, thanks Rowen!) in the bitterness in a bit.

I’d also been reading about Wintergreen and that the compounds which create the flavor we associate with Wintergreen are not readily available from a simple infusion. Apparently, the leaves need to be fermented and then the result distilled, for you to get anything really resembling Wintergreen flavor. So I got some Organic Wintergreen Oil.

Finally, early recipes for Root Beer contain spruce oil. If I’m springing for Wintergreen Oil, I might as well spring for Spruce.

Root Beer v1.1

2 tsp Sassafras Bark of Root*
2 tsp Sarsaparilla Root (Jamaican)
2 tsp Wintergreen
1/2 tsp grains of paradise, crushed
1/2 tsp Juniper Berries, crushed
1/2 tsp Licorice Root
1/2 tsp Honey Roasted Licorice
1 tsp Fresh Ginger Root
1/2 tsp Ginger, dried
1/2 tsp American Spikenard
1/2 tsp Burdock Root
1/4 tsp Gentian Root
1/3 of a Vanilla planifolia Bean
1 Star Anise

1 pinch Cascade Hope
1/2 tsp Horehound
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate

1 Cup Washed Raw Sugar
3 TBSP CA Blackberry Honey
1 TBSP Molasses

1 Drop Organic Wintergreen Oil
1 Drop Organic Black Spruce Oil

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Cool, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water (I usually go 1 part syrup to 4 parts soda water).

Root Beer v1.1.

Root Beer v1.1.

Whoa! Those essential oils are powerful stuff. I think I need to at least double this recipe to balance them out. The Wintergreen isn’t bad, most modern Root Beer are more serious Wintergreen bombs than this version, but the Spruce scent on this is kind of overwhelming. Authentic or no, I’ll leave the spruce out next time.

*Note, Sassafras Oil has been shown to cause liver cancer in laboratory rats and so Sassafras has been forbidden for use in food or beverage products by the FDA. Sassafras Oil is also a precursor chemical to MDMA, aka Ecstasy, so the TTB recommends that vendors keep a close eye on any significant sales. Use at your own risk.

Dr Chase’s Root Beer

Here’s my favorite Root Beer recipe so far, found in John Hull Brown’s “Early American Beverages”. It is, of course, in the section on Medicinal Beverages.

“Root Beer: For each gallon of water to be used, take hops, burdock, yellow dock, sarsaparilla, dandelion, and spikenard roots, bruised, of each 1/2 oz.; Boil about 20 minutes, and strain while hot, add 8 or 10 drops of oils of spruce and sassafras* mixed in equal proportions, when cool enough not to scald your hand, put in 2 or 3 tablespoons of yeast; molasses two-thirds of a pint, or white sugar 1/2 lb. gives it about the right sweetness.

“Keep these proportions for as many gallons as you wish to make. You can use more or less of the roots to suit your taste after trying it; it is best to get the dry roots, or dig them and let them dry, and of course you can add any other root known to possess medicinal properties desired in the beer. After all is mixed, let it stand in a jar with a cloth thrown over it, to work about two hours, then bottle and set in a cool place. This is a nice way to take alternatives, without taking medicine. And families ought to make it every Spring, and drink freely of it for several weeks, and thereby save, perhaps, several dollars in doctors’ bills.”

Dr Chase’s Recipes, 1869

Well, with a government shut down and a stalemate on health care, perhaps it is time to review this recipe!

*Note, Sassafras Oil has been shown to cause liver cancer in laboratory rats and is forbidden for use in food by the FDA. It is also a precursor chemical to MDMA, aka Ecstasy, so the TTB recommends that vendors keep a close eye on any significant sales of Sassafras Oil. Use at your own risk.

Gale’s Root Beer

Summer Root Beer Post 26.

Gale's Root Beer.

Gale’s Root Beer.

Ingredients: Carbonated Water, cane sugar, caramel color, natural and artificial flavoring, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla extract, phosphoric acid, sodium benzoate added as preservative.

Just past the Fall Equinox, winding down the Root Beer project to make time for other pursuits. (Hint: They involve Toddy Sticks, Loggerheads, and Cask Ales.)

A Word From Chef Gale Gand:

“I love root beer!” While cooking in England some years ago, my root beer sources dried up and I was forced to do without. So I got a little brown terrier puppy and named him Rootie. When Rootie and I got back to the United States I started making my own root beer to serve in my restaurants. Now I’m pleased to present my best batch ever! Rootie and I know you’ll love it. Enjoy!

Like the Caamaño Bros. High Noon Sarsaparilla, the initial flavors here are very Cola-like. Mid tastes are thin and the late flavors primarily birch and wintergreen with a touch of vanilla very late.

Awesome label and a great story. On the plus side, this isn’t super sweet, but still, I wanted to like this Root Beer more than I actually did.

3 1/2 out of 5 Barrels.

What Was Root Beer?

Before Charles Hires cemented the flavor profile for commercial Root Beer with his incredibly successful product, what were its origins?

First, as we’ve seen, the gamut of spices and flavorings used in Root Beer were primarily medicinal before they found their way into Root Beer. They were also native to the Americas: Wintergreen from Northeastern America, Sweet Birch from Northeastern America, Sassafras from Southeastern America, and Sarsaparilla from Central America via the Caribbean.

The peoples native to the Americas had traditions of Root and Herb based medicines.

Africans brought to North America, also had their own traditions of Root and Herb based medicinal elixirs.

When French, Spanish, and English settlers came to the Americas, they brought European traditional medicines, but a lot of the ingredients they had been using in Europe were either in short supply or unavailable to them in the Americas.

So for their ailments in the New World, presumably, they turned to the people who were already living here who had some experience with using the native flora and fauna for medicinal purposes.

In addition to the Medicinal ingredients being in short supply, many of the raw ingredients which had been used to produce recreational beverages in Europe were also only available as imports from Europe and the supply lines were not reliable.

The grapes which had been used to make wine in Europe did not grow in America; the types of Grain which had been used to make beer did not grow in abundance; Apple trees which were ubiquitous in areas of England, France, and Spain were non-existent; Domesticated Bee colonies had to be introduced before anyone could make mead…

While the South and Central Americas had more plentiful carbohydrate and sugar sources that allowed them the ability to have surplus to ferment, this was not the case in North America, where the intoxicating substances used for ritual and social purposes were generally smoked or eaten, rather than fermented and imbibed.

In truth, fermentable sugars and carbohydrates were pretty thin on the ground in North America, especially the North Eastern America, until the Sugar and Molasses trade in the Caribbean got up to speed.

In addition, making beer is a bit complicated and takes a while, not the easiest thing to do while you’re busy establishing a new country.

But, habits die hard, and I can see how the quickest route to some sort of alcoholic beverage, ANY sort of alcoholic beverage, would be to take the highly concentrated fermentable carbohydrates of plain sugar, (including Molasses, Maple Syrup, or Birch Syrup,) and turn them into intoxicating beverages with a little yeast. However, I’ve tasted fermented cane juice and it is pretty nasty. The same goes for Sugar and Molasses wine.

It totally makes sense that someone would take spices, herbs, etc. and throw them into their fermented sugar beverages, just to make them remotely palatable. If the herbs are medicinal, well, bonus! At least you know they aren’t poisonous.

And indeed, until the technology of artificial beverage carbonation became commercially viable in mid to late 19th Century America, all yeast carbonated Root and Ginger Beers were at least mildly alcoholic.

Like Chicory or Dandelion used to make imitation coffee, I think Root Beer probably started primarily as a quick substitute for actual beer. Luckily, Charles Hires discovered a formula for the beverage that was not only palatable in desperation, but also enjoyable on its own merits. As a consequence, from the late 19th Century to the Mid 20th Century, Root Beer was the king of soft drinks in America.

#HumbleBrag AKA Root Beer 1.3b

I haven’t been entirely clear if this whole bittered Root Beer has been a mistake. I like it, but I’ve been A little nervous about having “normal” people try it.

All the batches have been pretty darn bitter, and not everyone enjoys Gentian as much as I.

Happily, I have a Food and Beverage writer (Hi Lessley!) living next door, so after her husband loaned me a shirt for an event, I gave her a little of Root Beer Syrup 1.3a as a thank you gift when I returned the shirt.

I waited nervously for feedback…

Then yesterday I was standing at the bus stop across the street, when she ran out of her door and over to where I was standing.

“That Root Beer is amazing and I don’t even like soft drinks!”

I was like, yeah, that’s my whole impetus. I’ve been trying not to drink much alcohol this summer, but I can’t stand most commercial soft drinks, either.

“I want to buy it, it’s so good!”

Well, you can’t buy it, but the recipe is on the blog, and you can buy most of the ingredients at the Rainbow Grocery Coop.

Anyway, that interaction, among other things has been the highlight of my week, so I made up another batch.

Flannestad Root Beer v1.3b (Bittersweet)


2 tsp Sarsaparilla Root, Jamaican
2 tsp Sassafras Root Bark*
2 tsp Wintergreen
1 tsp Licorice Root
1 tsp Ginger Root, sliced fresh
1/2 tsp Ginger Root, Dry
1/2 tsp Juniper Berries, crushed
1/2 tsp American Spikenard
1/2 tsp Gentian Root
1/2 tsp Roasted Dandelion Root
1 Star Anise


1/2 tsp Horehound
1 Generous Pinch Cascade Hops
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate

1/4 Cup CA Wildflower Honey
1 Cup Washed Raw Sugar
1 TBSP Blackstrap Molasses

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Cool, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water (I usually go 1 part syrup to 4 parts soda water).

*Blah, blah, Sassafras is not FDA GRAS, as it causes liver cancer in rats after they’ve been given high doses of pure sassafras oil intravenously for about a year. I’m amazed the rats lived that long, with that high a dose of anything, but use at your own risk. While no one has ever correlated Sassafras, Gumbo File, or Root Beer with Liver cancer in humans, I’d try to avoid shooting up with it anyway. I also wouldn’t give it to kids, but they probably wouldn’t like it, especially in this bitter concoction.

Flannestad Root Beer v1.5

Unfortunately, I liked Bitter Root Beer v1.3a less than I liked the original Moxie Root Beer v1.3. Damn, reminds me of my old “Hercules” experimentation days.

Thought I would return to the original proposition, but confront what happens when you leave Sassafras Root Bark out of the mix, since that’s what the FDA thinks I should do anyway. I’ve pumped up the Sarsaparilla and Wintergreen and also slightly widened the “kitchen spice” mix with Clove and Ceylon Cinnamon.

Flannestad Root Beer v1.5 (Sassafras Free)


3 tsp Sarsaparilla Root, Jamaican
3 tsp Wintergreen
1/2 tsp Ginger Root, Dry
1/2 tsp Ginger Root, sliced fresh
1/2 tsp Juniper Berries, crushed
1/2 tsp American Spikenard
1/2 tsp Roasted Dandelion Root
1 tsp Licorice Root
1/2 Vanilla Bean, Split
1 Star Anise
4 Cloves, crushed
1/4 piece Ceylon Cinnamon, Crushed


1/2 tsp Cascade Hops
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate
1/2 tsp Horehound

1/4 Cup CA Wildflower Honey
1 Cup Washed Raw Sugar
1 TBSP Blackstrap Molasses

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Cool, bottle in clean containers, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water.

Flannestad Root Beer 1.5.

Flannestad Root Beer 1.5.

It does end up more of a “spice” beer than a Root Beer, just doesn’t quite have the “bite” of a Sassafras based Root Beer. Heck, it would probably make a tasty Toddy…

Avery’s Root Beer

Summer Root Beer Project, Post 26


INGREDIENTS: Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup Corn Sweetener and Sugar, Caramel Color, Artificial and Natural Flavors, Citric Acid, Gum Acacia, Preserved with Sodium Benzoate.

Avery’s bottles and sells premium old-fashioned Soda in over 35 flavors. All are made with real cane sugar, the finest quality ingredients and naturally pure well water. This is the best soda available anywhere!”

Again, burned by not reading the ingredients list fully before purchasing. Yes, they are made with real cane sugar IN ADDITION to High Fructose Corn Sweetener, DAMMIT!

That said, this isn’t bad.

Definitely, in the A&W mellow, sweet school of Root Beer, it is fairly well balanced and enjoyable.

3 Out of 5 Barrels.

Optional Root Beer Ingredients

I’ve already covered the properties of the most critical elements of Root Beer: Sarsaparilla, Sassafras, Wintergreen, and Birch Bark.

What about the other ingredients in Charles Hires’ Root Beer Recipe?

Chirreta – India

Chiretta (Swertia chirata) appears to be a Gentian-like plant which is, “used a great deal in India as it has two valuable bitter tonic principles,” for Ayurvedic medicine.

“The true Chiretta has a yellowish pith, is extremely bitter and has no smell, an overdose causes sickness and a sense of oppression in the stomach. It acts well on the liver, promoting secretion of bile, cures constipation and is useful for dyspepsia. It restores tone after illness.”

Dog Grass – Germany

Dog-Grass may be Couch-Grass, (Agropyrum repens), whose, “roots have a sweet taste, somewhat resembling liquorice,” and were used medicinally.

“Diuretic demulcent. Much used in cystitis and thetreatment of catarrhal diseases of the bladder. It palliates irritation of the urinary passages and gives relief in cases of gravel.

“It is also recommended in gout and rheumatism. It is supposed to owe its diuretic effect to its sugar, and is best given in the form of an infusion, made from 1 OZ. to a pint of boiling water, which may be freely used taken in wineglassful doses. A decoction is also made by putting 2 to 4 oz. in a quart of water and reducing down to a pint by boiling. Of the liquid extract 1/2 to 2 teaspoonsful are given in water.

“Couch-grass is official in the Indian and Colonial Addendum of the British Pharmacopoeia for use in the Australasian, Eastern and North American Colonies, where it is much employed.”

Ginger – Africa

There are a few species of ginger which grow in Africa, but the most likely one is “African Pepper” (Aframomum melegueta) aka “Grains of Paradise”.

“Humans aren’t the only ones who rely on Aframomum. Both Eastern and Western Lowland gorillas love this plant in the wild. In fact, it is the most common plant they eat. Aframommum appears to have important health benefits for gorillas, particularly for their cardiovascular health. It contains powerful anti-inflammatory substances called gingerols, and it has antibiotic properties. Native African healers have used this plant for centuries to treat infections. Aframomum is important to daily life in West Africa, where the seeds are consumed socially for good health.”

Ginger – China

“Ginger is one of the oldest medicinal foods.

“Since the herb originated in Southeast Asia, it’s not surprising that ancient Chinese and Indian healers have made ginger a part of their toolkit for thousands of years.

“Ayurvedic texts credit ginger as a ‘universal great medicine’. An old Indian proverb says that ‘everything good is found in ginger.’ Traditional Chinese medicine holds that ginger ‘restores devastated yang’ and ‘expels cold’.”

Ginger – Jamaica

The Jamaican ginger is known to be of premium quality on the world market today. Although this popular plant is native to Asia, the Jamaican Ginger is by far more pungent and aromatic than the others cultivated in other countries. The ginger is as old as history and is mentioned in ancient Chinese, Indian and middle writings including the Quran.

Hops – United States, Northwest

“Hops have tonic, nervine, diuretic and anodyne properties. Their volatile oil produces sedative and soporific effects, and the Lupamaric acid or bitter principle is stomachic and tonic. For this reason Hops improve the appetite and promote sleep.

“The official preparations are an infusion and a tincture. The infusion is employed as a vehicle, especially for bitters and tonics: the tincture is stomachic and is used to improve the appetite and digestion. Both preparations have been considered to be sedative, were formerly much given in nervousness and hysteria and at bedtime to induce sleep; in cases of nervousness, delirium and inflammation being considered to produce a most soothing effect, frequently procuring for the patient sleep after long periods of sleeplessness in overwrought conditions of the brain.”

Juniper Berries – Italy

“The chief use of Juniper is as an adjuvant to diuretics in dropsy depending on heart, liver or kidney disease. It imparts a violet odour to the urine, and large doses may cause irritation to the passages. An infusion of 1 oz. to 1 pint of boiling water may be taken in the course of twenty-four hours.

“In France the berries have been used in chest complaints and in leucorrhoea, blenorrhoea, scrofula, etc.”

Licorice – Spain
Licorice – Russia

“Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has been used in food and as medicine for thousands of years. Also known as “sweet root,” licorice root contains a compound that is about 50 times sweeter than sugar. Licorice root has been used in both Eastern and Western medicine to treat a variety of illnesses, ranging from the common cold to liver disease. It acts as a demulcent, a soothing, coating agent, and as an expectorant, meaning it helps get rid of phlegm. It is still used today for several conditions, although not all its uses are supported by scientific evidence.”

Vanilla – Mexico

“Europeans, and later, Americans, considered vanilla a stimulant but, paradoxically, also a treatment for hysteria and nervousness. Dr. John King wrote in the American Dispensatory in 1859 that vanilla was an aromatic stimulant useful in infusion for treating hysteria, rheumatism, and low forms of fever. ‘It is said to exhilarate the brain, prevent sleep, increase muscular energy and stimulate the sexual propensities.'”

“Vanilla was also used extensively to flavor tinctures and syrups and to perfume medicinal ointments, a practice that continues today. (Vanilla is one of three flavors most used in medications and syrups, and it is also used as a neutralizer in noxious smelling medicines.) A sweet tincture was made to treat stomach disorders, and this medicinal value was listed in the American Pharmacopoeia until 1916.”

Yerba Mate – Brazil

“The indigenous people have used it for centuries as a social and medicinal beverage. Yerba Mate has been shown to be hypocholesterolemic, hepatoprotective, central nervous system stimulant, diuretic, and to benefit the cardiovascular system. It has also been suggested for obesity management. Yerba Mate protects DNA from oxidation and in vitro low-density lipoprotein lipoperoxidation and has a high antioxidant capacity. It has also been reported that Yerba Mate tea is associated to both the prevention and the cause of some types of cancers.”

American Spikenard (Aralia Racemosa)

“Used for pulmonary diseases, digestive weakness, gynecological problems, blood purification, hay fever, diarrhea, colds, bronchitis, sore throat, fever, venereal disease, rheumatic aches and pains, asthma, coughs. Externally, used for skin diseases and hemorrhoids. Taking the tea for some time before labor is said to make childbirth easier and shortens the labor. Native Americans used the root for wounds, boils, acne, pimples, blackheads, rashes, swellings, bruises, inflammations, and chest pains. For the external use, the root was pounded and made into a poultice or dressing. Flavoring for liqueurs and cordials.”

Dandelion Root (Taraxacum Officianale)

“The roasted roots are largely used to form Dandelion Coffee, being first thoroughly cleaned, then dried by artificial heat, and slightly roasted till they are the tint of coffee, when they are ground ready for use. The roots are taken up in the autumn, being then most fitted for this purpose. The prepared powder is said to be almost indistinguishable from real coffee, and is claimed to be an improvement to inferior coffee, which is often an adulterated product. Of late years, Dandelion Coffee has come more into use in this country, being obtainable at most vegetarian restaurants and stores. Formerly it used occasionally to be given for medicinal purposes, generally mixed with true coffee to give it a better flavour. The ground root was sometimes mixed with chocolate for a similar purpose. Dandelion Coffee is a natural beverage without any of the injurious effects that ordinary tea and coffee have on the nerves and digestive organs. It exercises a stimulating influence over the whole system, helping the liver and kidneys to do their work and keeping the bowels in a healthy condition, so that it offers great advantages to dyspeptics and does not cause wakefulness.”

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)

Well, actually, I’m the only one who puts Horehound in Root Beer, just because I like its flavor.

“White Horehound has long been noted for its efficacy in lung troubles and coughs. Gerard says of this plant: ‘Syrup made of the greene fresh leaves and sugar is a most singular remedie against the cough and wheezing of the lungs . . . and doth wonderfully and above credit ease such as have been long sicke of any consumption of the lungs, as hath beene often proved by the learned physitions of our London College.’

“And Culpepper says: ‘It helpeth to expectorate tough phlegm from the chest, being taken with the roots of Irris or Orris…. There is a syrup made of this plant which I would recommend as an excellent help to evacuate tough phlegm and cold rheum from the lungs of aged persons, especially those who are asthmatic and short winded.’

“Preparations of Horehound are still largely used as expectorants and tonics. It may, indeed, be considered one of the most popular pectoral remedies, being given with benefit for chronic cough, asthma, and some cases of consumption.

“Horehound is sometimes combined with Hyssop, Rue, Liquorice root and Marshmallow root, 1/2 oz. of each boiled in 2 pints of water, to 1 1/2 pint, strained and given in 1/2 teacupful doses, every two to three hours.

“For children’s coughs and croup, it is given to advantage in the form of syrup, and is a most useful medicine for children, not only for the complaints mentioned, but as a tonic and a corrective of the stomach. It has quite a pleasant taste.”

Sugar – Cuba

Well, as they say, a spoonful of sugar helps all that medicine go down.