Starving has required me to experiment a lot, and I’ve had varying degrees of success. Sea salt was a smash hit, ice fishing was just okay, jury’s out on dandelion wine. Very few of my experiments, though, have been abject failures; my attempt at harvesting wild yeast (no link there!) was probably the biggest flop to date. Then I decided to make my own root beer.
I could go the rest of my life without a Coke, the popularity of which mystifies me, but I drink a lot of root beer. And not just any root beer. Diet root beer – any diet root beer.
And now we’ve come to the true confessions portion of the post: I use artificial sweeteners. Usually sucralose (the stuff in Splenda), but also aspartame (the stuff in Nutra-Sweet). I put it in my oatmeal, I make lemonade with it, and I’ve even been known to put a little in salad dressing. I’ve tried to bake with it, but the results have been more appropriate for building than for eating.
I’ve done the research, and it seems clear that these substances are safe, or at least safe enough. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which thrives on telling us what not to eat, gives sucralose a clean bill of health. Aspartame seems to be a low-level carcinogen in rats, but no well-constructed study has found ill effects in humans.
Like most people, I struggle to control my weight. I figure that weight gain (with its risks of things like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers) is a much more serious threat than artificial sweeteners, and so diet root beer is on the menu. In fact, I make it a policy not to drink any of my calories unless they’re alcoholic. Beer and wine, there’s just no substitute for.
Which got me thinking. Where’s the beer in root beer? Beer is, by definition, a fermented drink, and societies from the ancient Egyptians to the indigenous Brazilians made it from products as diverse as corn, millet, and even bread. Most of the beer we think of as beer is made from barley, and the fermentation occurs when yeast consume the grain’s carbohydrates and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
In less traditional beers, like ginger beer, a flavoring is combined with sugar, and it’s the sugar that the yeast consume. The first root beers, which date back hundreds of years, were mildly alcoholic.
Which brings me to my next question. Where’s the root in root beer? Long gone, it turns out. Root beer was originally flavored with sassafras oil, obtained from the bark of the sassafras root. The principal constituent of sassafras oil is a compound called safrol, and the FDA banned it back in 1976 because it was a suspected human carcinogen.
The long and short of it is that today’s root beer isn’t beer and doesn’t have roots.
I set out to fix that. I envisioned a root beer, made from sassafras, carbonated naturally with yeast, and somewhat alcoholic.
I couldn’t use artificial sweeteners, of course. I like them fine, but yeast won’t touch them. If you want bubbles and alcohol, you need real sugar. (I wasn’t happy about giving up my sucralose, but I figured I made up for it by adding safrol. If you eliminate one suspect compound without substituting another, you’re in violation of Haspel’s Law of Conservation of Carcinogens.)
I found an old recipe for root beer that called for sassafras, ginger, wintergreen, juniper berries, sugar, and yeast, and set out to gather my ingredients. Like so many projects I’ve undertaken this year, making my own root beer required getting dirty; step one was digging up a sassafras root.
We have sassafras growing on our property, but all our trees are small. My parents’ summer cottage, about five miles from us, has some bigger specimens. So one day a couple weeks back, I showed up on their porch, spade in hand. They were delighted to let me have a sassafras root, probably because they were relieved I wasn’t there for any of the more sinister purposes that come to mind when someone shows up on your porch with a spade.
I took my root home, washed it, and stripped it of its bark, which I chopped fine and boiled for about half an hour with the ginger, wintergreen, and juniper. Then I added the sugar.
The recipe called for a pound and a quarter of sugar for the one-gallon batch I was making, and I weighed it out and started stirring it into the root mixture. The sweetness seemed about right when I’d added a little less than a pound, so I stopped adding. When the mixture was lukewarm, I strained it and added yeast.
After about twenty minutes I tasted it and, miracle of miracles, it tasted like root beer! I was astonished.
Unfortunately, that was the high point of this experiment. It was downhill from there.
If cooking is art and baking is chemistry, fermenting is biology. What I failed to realize was that you can’t have your sugar and let your yeast eat it, too. The whole point of yeast is to turn carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide. You can have your carbohydrates, or you can have your alcohol and carbon dioxide. You can’t have both.
My root beer, which I bottled in screw-top wine bottles, turned progressively worse as the yeast ate more and more of the sugar. Eventually, it turned into a nasty, medicinal fizz bomb. When we opened a bottle, fully half erupted out of the bottle. This turned out to be a good thing, as it left only half to be poured down the sink.
I can’t decide whether I want to try this again. When I think about that first taste, the one that tasted like root beer, I think it’s worth a do-over. But the prospect of five more bottles of a failed experiment is daunting. That whole try-try-again ethic is for things like getting a job or mastering a craft or writing the Great American Novel, enterprises with gravity and oomph. Making a mildly alcoholic carbonated beverage? Maybe not.