Sassafras

The most controversial aspect of brewing your own Root Beer is whether to use natural Sassafras Root Bark.

As I mentioned, some time in the 1960s or 1970s, it was determined that there is a link between a substance in Sassafras, Safrole, and Liver Cancer in rats.

Shortly thereafter, Sassafras was removed from the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list by the FDA and banned from use in food.

A lot of people play this down, Sassafras Root Bark tea is still pretty commonly drunk as an herbal beverage in the parts of the United States.

You’ll find quotes like this one from Wildman Steve Brill’s website:

“Note: You may have heard that sassafras has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it causes cancer. Huge quantities have given to rats over took periods of time give the rodents cancer because they change the molecule sassafrole into a cancer-causing one. Humans don’t do this, and no one has ever gotten sick from sassafras. Sassafras was banned because there are a lot of rats in the FDA!”

On one hand, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there has been no strong correlation discovered between liver cancer in humans and the moderate consumption of Sassafras Tea or Root Beer.

On the other hand, you may feel it is better to be safe than sorry. You only have one liver, after all.

There are Sassafras Root extracts available, and Root Beer Flavorings, which use Safrole free Sassafras Extract.

Other Root Beers, presumably, forgo Sassafras altogether and just pump up the other ingredients, generally the Wintergreen.

Interestingly, Sassafras Oil and Safrole are used in the illicit manufacture of MDMA, making Safrole a list I chemical under federal law.

I’ve also seen recent studies which point out that excessive Sassafras use may cause sweating and/or hot flashes. Amusing, since one of the traditional common names is “ague tree”, and it was taken to cause those exact effects.

I’m not a scientist or your Doctor, so I can’t pretend to tell you what to do, but it’s good to be informed and make your own choice.

Sassafras entry from “A Modern Herbal”, M. Greive, circa 1900:

—Description—The name ‘Sassafras,’ applied by the Spanish botanist Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage. The tree stands from 20 to 40 feet high, with many slender branches, and smooth, orangebrown bark. The leaves are broadly oval, alternate, and 3 to 7 inches long. The flowers are small, and of an inconspicuous, greenishyellow colour. The roots are large and woody, their bark being soft and spongy, rough, and reddish or greyish-brown in colour. The living bark is nearly white, but exposure causes its immediate discoloration. The roots are imported in large, branched pieces, which may or may not be covered with bark, and often have attached to them a portion of the lower part of the trunk. The central market for all parts is Baltimore. The entire root is official in the British Pharmacopoeia, but only the more active bark in the United States, where wood and bark form separate articles of commerce. The bark without its corky layer is brittle, and the presence of small crystals cause its inner surface to glisten. Both bark and wood have a fragrant odour, and an aromatic, somewhat astringent taste.

“The tree, which has berries like those of cinnamon, appears to have been cultivated in England some centuries ago, for in 1633 Johnston wrote: ‘I have given the figure of a branch taken from a little sassafras tree which grew in the garden of Mr. Wilmot at Bon.’ Probably it was discovered by the Spaniards in Florida, for seventy years earlier there is mention of the reputation of its roots in Spain as a cure for syphilis, rheumatism, etc., though its efficacy has since then been much disputed.

“The fragrant oil distilled from the rootbark is extensively used in the manufacture of the coarser kinds of perfume, and for scenting the cheapest grades of soap. The oil used in perfumes is also extracted from the fruits. The wood and bark of the tree furnish a yellow dye. In Louisiana, the leaves are used as a condiment in sauces, and also for thickening soups; while the young shoots are used in Virginia for making a kind of beer. Mixed with milk and sugar, Sassafras Tea, under the name of ‘Saloop,’ could, until a few years ago, be bought at London streetcorners in the early mornings.

“Oil of Sassafras is chiefly used for flavouring purposes, particularly to conceal the flavour of opium when given to children. In the United States of America it is employed for flavouring effervescing drinks.

—Medicinal Action and Uses—Aromatic, stimulant, diaphoretic, alterative. It is rarely given alone, but is often combined with guaiacum or sarsaparilla in chronic rheumatism, syphilis, and skin diseases.”

Some more modern information regardingSassafras from the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“Scientific Name: Sassafras albidum

“Common Name: Ague tree, saxifrax, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling-stick

“Clinical Summary:
Derived primarily from the roots of the tree. There are no clinical data to support the use of sassafras, which contains safrole, a volatile oil that was shown to be carcinogenic in animal models. Diaphoresis, hot flashes, and sedation have been reported following administration of small doses.
Excessive doses can cause hallucinations, hypertension, and tachycardia.

“Food Sources:
Once used as flavoring agent in root beer and candies. Its use as food additive is now prohibited by the FDA due to its carcinogenic effect.”

Sassafras is Not Nearly as Dangerous as You Would Think, rriterson, 2010

“First, let me state that I believe i am qualified to offer an opinion because I am a practicing biochemist and can more easily find and perhaps understand the data out there. However, I am not an expert on safrole or safrole metabolism, so do not take my word as gospel. I encourage you to look at the data and decide for yourself.

“I think the safrole health hazards have been significantly overblown. Take a look at these two sources (one a secondary source, the other primary):

http://potency.berkeley.edu/chempages/SAFROLE.html

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T6P-3X9415Y-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view =c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_user id=10&md5=8ec1ea8630ab130def74241535d2fc11#sec2.1

“Let’s not go too far and say that safrole doesn’t cause cancer. It does at the right dose But I think that dose is waaaay higher than you’re likely to get. Pollution in the air, chemicals in your kitchen cleaning products, etc, will probably give you cancer first.

“So, I am not at all afraid to use raw sassafras in my root beers, and I don’t think you should be either.

“What do I think the real reason for why the FDA was so quick to act against Safrole? It’s one easy chemical reaction away from MDMA, the banned drug most of us know as ecstasy. By eliminating the food needs for sassafras, the industrial production sources all disappeared, making it very hard for an illegal drug house to get enough sassafras to make MDMA.

“I’m interested to hear other opinions out there, and especially interested in reading any other sources people can find.”

Jackson Hole Buckin’ Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 20

Jackson Hole Root Beer.

Jackson Hole Root Beer.

Ingredients: Carbonated Water, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Quillaia Extract, Caramel Color, Red #40, Citric Acid, and Sodium Benzoate (To Preserve Flavor).

Yow, quite a shock to go back to commercial Root Beer after mostly drinking home-made for a few days.

“We’re probably most proud of our multiple Award-Winning Jackson Hole Soda Co.”Buckin’ Rootbeer” – the taste that won the West! Made with real sugar, premium natural flavorings, and batch-brewed to ensure the highest quality, our Rootbeer is made with care and attention to detail that reminds folks of the rich, heady Rootbeer Grandma used to make. Some folks enjoy our Buckin’ Rootbeer so much, they buy it by the keg. We’ve even heard of one little Buckaroo that loves Buckin’ Rootbeer on his pancakes!

“Recipe Ideas: Excellent with BBQ spare ribs, pulled-pork, hamburgers, pizza and everything else! The absolute BEST Rootbeer ever created for Rootbeer Floats. (Don’t believe it? Give it a try!)”

I struggle to find anything other than Wintergreen in this Root Beer, it’s a full on Wintergreen bomb. I get some vanilla and other flavors later, but mostly in after-taste.

The folks at the Fizzary said this was a favorite among many of their Root Beer buying customers. I guess Wintergreen is popular with the kids. To me, it’s too much.

3 1/2 Barrels out of 5.

Lack of Adult Beverages

As wonderful as it is to have a profound selection of drinking waters, it just isn’t as fun to drink water with dinner as it is to drink wine or beer.

With water, there is almost zero chance of a miracle interaction, like where your wine pairing brings your food up to a new level.

And, well, every other damn soft drink on the planet is aimed at children, or at least those with the palates of children, pumped to the gills with sugar and cartoon level flavors.

Grapier than grapes. Applier than apples.

I don’t always feel like Coffee or Tea, though I do almost always feel like Cold Brewed Tea. If only it were easier to find decent, well made, unsweetened Iced Tea in the real world.

It seems like there is a whole category of non-alcoholic adult beverages missing from the market in the US.

Die Like A Dog

From an interview with Saxophonist and artist Peter Brötzmann in Wire Magazine by David Keenan:

“The best decision I have made in my life was to stop boozing,” he reveals. “I would have died earlier than (Paul) Rutheford.” Near the end, Brotzmann was kickstarting his mornings with a cocktail of rum, champagne and mixer that he admits was “mostly rum”. “I didn’t drink beer anymore, I didn’t drink wine anymore, it just was booze all the time,” he says. “And then I got what Rutheford had in the last years of his life. I think you English call it gout. It starts mostly in the toe but it’s fucking painful because there are some crystals in the joints and so whenever you move it hurts. I came home from a tour in Poland, a cheap tour, everything was really shit. I was sitting at night and suddenly it was like someone put a spear through my leg. I called an ambulance and a young doctor came and he took his time and told me what he thought would happen: that soon I would not be able to move, that all the organs fall apart, that everything would swell up and shit like that and then it goes to the heart and you can say goodbye. He was a nice guy and very convincing. I decided that was it. I said, OK, I don’t move out of the house. I called my wife, asking her to bring the necessary things. It’s shaky, it’s sweating, you feel like shit really. But after a week it was over and then you just have to keep it in mind. I still have a bottle of schnapps in the house for visitors, and I don’t mind being around people boozing. When I’m on the road with the guys I tend to go earlier to my hotel because if they’re getting too drunk I don’t want to know what kind of shit I was talking back in the day.”

Flannestad Root Beer v1.2

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 19

Not entirely pleased with the last batch of Root Beer Syrup, have made some adjustments.

image

Flannestad Root Beer v1.2

Roots:

2 tsp Sarsaparilla Root, Jamaican
2 tsp Sassafras Root Bark*
2 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 Dandelion Root, Roasted
1/2 tsp Licorice Root
1/2 tsp Licorice Root, Honey Roasted
1/2 Vanilla Bean, Split

Herbs:

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

Sweetener:
1/4 Cup Maple Syrup (Grade B)
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 and Washed Raw Sugar, cool, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water.

image

This is much closer to what I imagine as Root Beer, the overwhelming Molasses replaced with the mellower sweetening of Maple Syrup. Still, more bitter and much more herbal than modern commercial Root Beer.

Might have to get the smoker out, after all.

*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. Thus, 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. I also wouldn’t give it to kids, but they probably wouldn’t like this complex concoction in any case.

Home Fermented Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 18

I recently experimented with home brewed Root Beer, Flannestad Root Beer, but I didn’t quite follow it to its logical extension.

For some reason, while I’ve done a lot of infusions, I’ve never tried fermenting anything (except bread) at home. I’ve never even made home fermented ginger beer.

However, when Charles Hires first created his Root Beer Dry Mix and Syrup in the late 1800s, he expected people to be able to ferment it at home.

I reproduce his instructions here from a booklet circa 1892:

Recipe and Directions for Making Root Beer

Take Contents of Bottle. 4 Pounds of Sugar (granulated is preferable).
5 Gallons of Fresh Water (preferably luke-warm).
Half-Pint of fresh yeast, or half cake of fresh compressed yeast.
When making in cool weather, double the quantity of yeast is used.

The Way to Do It:

Dissolve the sugar thoroughly in the water, then add the Root Beer Extract and the yeast. (If cake yeast be used, it should first be dissolved in a little cold water, then it will mix more readily with the Beer.) Stir until thoroughly mixed, and bottle in strong bottles or jugs at once, corking and tying the corks securely. Then be sure and set in a warm place for several hours, so that it can become effervescent. (If set in a cool place when first made the yeast becomes chilled and cannot work.) It will be ready to drink after being bottled in ten or twelve hours, but will open more effervescingly if allowed to stand for three or four days. After the Beer has become effervescent, it should then be set in a cool place of even temperature. Before opening the bottle place it on ice, or in a cold place, for a short time, when it will be sparkling and delicious.

To make the Beer more cheaply, molasses or common sugar may be used to sweeten it.

A very pleasant drink may be made for immediate use by adding two teasponfuls of the Extract to a quart of water, sweetening it with granulated sugar to suit the taste, then beat half the white of an egg, and mix together.

NOTE. –Occasionally parties write us that they have tried to make the Root Beer, and while it is very good, it does not evervesce, or pop, when it is opened.

Now, when a case of this kind happens, we know that there is something wrong in the making of it. Either the yeast was not good, or else the Beer, when made, was placed in the cellar, or in a cool place, where it became chilled and could not ferment.

A woman in making bread is always very careful that the dough does not become chilled, so sets it in a warm place to insure its rising and becoming light. So it is with our Root Beer, warmth is essential to life. If this simple fact is borne in mind no one will ever fail in making our Root Beer to have it delicious and Sparkling.

When we say “fresh compressed yeast,” we mean the small square cake yeast that is sold fresh every day in most of the prominent towns of the United States at two cents a cake. When only the dry cake yeast can be had, a whole cake should be used. In fact, our experience has been that very little of the dry cake yeast sold is good for anything; we therefore prefer to use good fresh baker’s yeast, or fresh compressed yeast.

If these simple hints are carefully borne in mine the Root Beer is very little trouble to make successfully.

When we say “yeast” we do not mean Baking Powder.

The Charles E. Hires Co.,
Sole Manufacturers,
Philadelphia, PA

Well, right, then. If late 19th Century home makers can do that, so can I.

I decided to try and turn my sweetened Root Beer syrup into a sparkling beverage.

I proofed a teaspoon of active dry yeast with warm water and a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of a clean quart plastic soft drink bottle. When the yeast was active, I added about a cup of my Flannestad Root Beer Syrup, then filled with lukewarm water. I let this sit in a warm cool place overnight. Then in the morning, I placed it in the fridge to chill.

I may have used too much yeast.

Mrs. Flannestad was surprised how much the beverage reminded her of real Beer. I was pleased that the yeasts had consumed some of the sugars, leaving it a slightly dryer beverage.

The Fizzary

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 17

Fizzary SF.

Fizzary SF.

Taylor’s makes a line of Mate based soft-drinks, but about 6 months ago they opened a retail space specializing in Candy and Fizzy Lifting Drinks.

Gaseosas y Dulces.

Gaseosas y Dulces.

AKA Gaseosas y Dulces.

Many Root Beers.

Many Root Beers.

And a fine selection of Root Beers, do they have. I scored Root Beers from Goose Island, Jackson Hole Soda, Kutztown, and, last but not least, 3 Dachshunds. Expect reviews of those in the next week, and more Root Beer from the Fizzary to follow.

The Fizzary, An Urban Menagerie of Soda

“Join our campaign to create a hands-on botanical brewery & soda wonderland in San Francisco, CA Plans are to expand our retail showroom and introduce a beverage museum. We also plan to create an unparalleled craft beverage incubator for the budding brewmaster and a delicious stop over for the parched adventurer! To receive campaign and contribution updates, as well as sneak peeks of the premiums you will be awared, simply drop us an email and you’ll receive an auto-reply with more information. We look forward to you joining our fizzy collective…Cheers!”

We’re OPEN! Tuesday-Sunday 11:45 am – 7:00 PM

2949 MISSION ST, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94110

ph: 1-877-368-4608

Flannestad Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 16

Starting from this Root Beer recipe, which is claimed to date from the mid-1800s or earlier:

“Gather a quantity of hops and roots of burdock, yellow dock, sarsaparilla,
dandelion, and spikenard. Dry them thoroughly, then chip ½ ounce of each.
Pour over this mixture a gallon of water and boil it hard for twenty minute
and strain while hot, then add ten drops each of the oils of spruce and
sassafras well mixed. When lukewarm, stir in two-thirds pint of molasses
and 3 tablespoons of jug yeast. Mix well. Let stand in a stone
crock, covered with a cloth, in a warm place for two hours. Bottle. Cork
bottles well and store on a cold cellar floor.”

And Charles Hires’ Ingredients:

Birch Bark – United States, New England
Chirreta – India
Dog Grass – Germany
Ginger – Africa
Ginger – China
Ginger – Jamaica
Hires special plant
Hops – United States, Northwest
Juniper Berries – Italy
Licorice – Spain
Licorice – Russia
Sarsaparilla – Honduras
Sugar – Cuba
Vanilla – Mexico
Wintergreen – United States, North Carolina
Yerba Mate – Brazil

Root Beer Ingredients

Root Beer Ingredients

Flannestad Root Beer Syrup, v.1

INGREDIENTS:

Roots:

1 tsp Sarsaparilla Root, Jamaican
1 tsp Sassafras Root Bark*
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 Dandelion Root, Roasted
1/2 tsp Licorice Root
1/2 tsp Licorice Root, Honey Roasted
1/3 Vanilla Bean, Split

Herbs:

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

1/2 Cup Molasses
1 1/2 Cup Washed Raw Sugar

Root Beer Brewing.

Root Beer Brewing.


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 and Washed Raw Sugar, cool, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water.

Root Beer.

Root Beer.

My initial thought is that the Molasses flavor is too strong, kind of overwhelms everything else in the mix. Definitely more bitter than any commercial Root Beer I’ve ever tried, and more herbal. A good place to start, but I don’t think anyone trying it would recognize it as Root Beer. For v2.0, I think I need to double the Sarsaparilla, Sassafras, and Wintergreen. Also, a little too sweet.

Might have to get the smoker out, after all.

*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. Thus, 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. I also wouldn’t give it to kids, but they probably wouldn’t like this complex concoction in any case.

Rating the Roots

This is basically how I view my Barrel based Root Beer rating system:

5 Barrels: Exceptional. If you like Root Beer at all, or even beverages, you should try this.
4 Barrels: Very Good, solid Root Beer. If you like Root Beer, you will probably like this.
3 Barrels: Flawed, but interesting.
2 Barrels: I probably wouldn’t spend my own money on this Root Beer again.
1 Barrel: I would turn this down, if someone offered it to me for free.