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The Root of Rootbeer

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By Allston McCrady  
Photos by Allston McCrady

Growing up in eastern Tennessee, we took to the hills as a family for blueberry picking expeditions. My grandfather, a biologist, would identify trees, mushrooms, and creepy crawlers. One plant really struck a chord in my childhood imagination: sassafras.

When you uproot a young sassafras tree, the root smells like rootbeer. And for good reason. Rootbeer was originally made with actual root. Sassafras root. Somewhere along the way the USDA decided that too much sassafras ingestion can be dangerous to your health (as in, if you drink 25 gallons of real rootbeer a day, you might get cancer). Possibly yes, but as professional forager Hank Shaw points out, if you drink 25 gallons of anything a day, you’re gonna have problems. All things in moderation.

Photos by Allston McGrady
Photo by Allston McCrady

On a recent hike in the North Carolina mountains, I spotted a sassafras plant, pulled it up and passed it among the kids to see eyes light up. It occurs to me, “Why not make some rootbeer?” A quick Google search, and Hank Shaw’s recipe for sassafras rootbeer pops right up.

[As a disclaimer, I should warn, please don’t try to make this unless you know how to recognize a sassafras tree. The center leaf is three-pronged, flanked by two mittens. Have someone knowledgeable show you. God forbid you end up making poison ivy tea. If you pull it up and the root doesn’t smell like rootbeer, it’s not sassafras.]

The premise for rootbeer is simple. Pull up a bunch of young sassafras trees, 1-4 feet tall. Rinse the roots, then chop them into quarter-inch chunks. Throw them in 4 cups of boiling water. Add a few spices: a star anise, clove, and sprinkling of coriander seeds. Cover and simmer for about a half hour, then strain. Put the liquid back on the stove, then add your choice of sweetener. Hank chose ¼ cup of molasses. I chose ½ cup of sorghum. Stir over low heat to dissolve. Remove from heat and stir in some sugar (you are making a simple syrup to add to carbonated water). Hank used 6 cups of white sugar. I found this far too sweet and substituted 2 cups of brown.

The resulting simple syrup should last refrigerated for a year. Just add it to a tall glass of soda water whenever you want a homemade rootbeer drink (or up the ante with bourbon or gin). The taste is refreshing, zingy, almost lemony, with a hint of ginger. It’ll make you wonder how we ever got so far away from nature.