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Fun with foam: Learn how to make your own root beer


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The pint glass filled with the dark caramel-colored liquid, tapering off in a perfect creamy head around the lip.

Carbonated fizz pops out of the top, and that first sip bursts with hints of sassafras, vanilla and ginger.

Jay Jackson has experimented with all kinds of home-brewing, from ales to porter to stouts. But he’s found one of his favorite creations is the smooth sip-ability of his own root beer.

 

“The kids can appreciate the root beer a lot more than they can the regular beer. It seemed like a fun thing to try,” he said.

As craft beermaking has exploded as favorite hobby of suds-heads, a subset of home-brewers have come up with a more family-friendly beverage. They have taken their own ingredients and mixed up batches of root beer.

“Root beer is uniquely American. Most of the things we have in this country, our forefathers brought over,” Jackson said. “But this was something that had been in America already.”

The flavor of root beer comes from the sassafras root. Outdoorsmen and naturalists have been using the root to make flavored tea for hundreds of years.

Charles Hires, founder of Hires Root Beer, wanted a version of the tea that he could sell as a medicinal syrup. Using the recipes for a sweet sassafras beverage that was popular at the time, he added wintergreen, ginger, anise and vanilla to enhance the flavor.

Hires was the first person to brew root beer commercially.

In making homemade root beer, people can take actual sassafras root, boil it down and grind it up to get the flavoring. But an easier way is to just buy a bottle of root beer extract from a hobby supply store. The thick syrup is the concentrated taste that gives the beverage its unique taste.

“You have the basic flavor that you can add yourself, so it makes it easy,” said Anita Johnson, owner of Great Fermentations, a home-brewing supply store in Indianapolis.

Great Fermentations focuses on wine and beer. Shelves filled with tubing, grain, kegs and other equipment help to meet the growing demand of making your own beverages. But included in the beer and wine production is a selection of flavor concentrates and books on soda-making.

Because you can use much of the same equipment to make alcoholic drinks and root beer, Johnson’s customers often pick up supplies to do both.

“It’s a niche hobby. A lot of times, we have home-brewers that dedicate a keg to their kids,” she said.

That is how Jackson started making his own root beer.

The Bargersville resident had purchased the casks, regulators and plastic lines to brew and bottle his own beer.

Brewing beer is time consuming, taking as long as two months to finish a batch. But root beer could be made in a few days and was a way for his children to be involved in the hobby.

But root beer doesn’t necessarily require fancy tubing, brewing casks or kettles. It can be made with a few basic ingredients and a large plastic bottle.

Natural carbonation occurs when yeast is placed in the sugary root beer concoction.

“When the sugar and yeast react to each other, you get (carbon dioxide), and its carbonates itself,” Jackson said.

Jackson has been working with the Johnson County Public Library to demonstrate this instant root-beer-making process as part of its “Hit the Road, READ!” community literacy project.

He is the executive director of ABATE of Indiana and helped the library come up with a number of motorcycle lifestyle-related activities. Root beer seemed like a family-friendly instructional event that fit into the theme.

Over the course of an hour, Jackson showed them how to mix the ingredients, bottle the finished result and let fermentation carbonate the beverage.

He also passed on his own tricks and tips that he’d discovered making soda. The advantage of making your own root beer comes from the freedom to experiment with flavors, Jackson said.

“You can tweak it by adding more sugar or hold back some on the sugar. You can add some cherry to create a Dr. Pepper type drink or vanilla to make cream soda,” he said. “It can be anything you want.”

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