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!

Bitter Beer v1.3b

image

I was missing my bitter root beer syrup as I drank my way through the spruce oil version.

Sadly, I had an issue with contamination with one of the bottles of the Gram converted Root Beer batch. Tried to remove the top and it would not stop exploding out of the bottle. It also smelled pretty foul, so some sort of contamination I’m guessing. If that happens to you, don’t even try it.

So I needed a new batch. I have been a bit curious about how Mugwort, a common ingredient in Gruit beers, would work in the bitter root beer. Along with Mugwort, since I was playing in the Artemisia family, I figured I’d add some Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, and Fennel Seed, since they are common partners in crime, er, Absinthe.

Bitter Root Beer v1.3b

Roots:
2 tsp Sassafras, Bark of Root*
2 tsp. Sarsaparilla (Jamaican)
2 tsp Wintergreen
2 tsp Licorice
1 tsp Gentian Root
1 inch section fresh ginger root, peeled, sliced and smashed
1/2 tsp Dried Ginger Root
1/2 tsp American Spikenard
1/2 tsp burdock root
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp tarragon
1/3 Vanilla Bean
1 Star Anise

Herbs:
1/2 tsp Mugwort
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate
Pinch Cascade hops

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

1 drop wintergreen oil.

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots, cover and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Cover and steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Add Wintergreen Oil and stir to combine. Cool, bottle in santized container, 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 3-4 parts soda water) or carbonate with yeast (mixing 1 part syrup to 3 parts water and 1 tsp of proofed yeast).

On initial taste, I’m finding this a bit busy, it will be interesting to see if it settles down after cooling. For the next version, I’ll probably leave out the Wintergreen oil.

*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.

Sassafras, Continued

When talking about Sassafras, one of the seeming best pieces I found was from a home brewing forum.

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

This page contains the following:

“Let’s say that I drink 1 of my own rootbeers per day. In order to have a 50% chance of cancer, I’d have to have 3.85g of safrole per root beer. Since my batches are 5 gallons (~50 beers), that would mean I’d have to get 192.5g of safrole out of the sassafras I seep. I start with 16oz (1lb) of sassafras root. Well, 1lb is actually only 453g. 192.5g/453g is 42%.”

So this guy is using about 90g of Sassafras per gallon of Root Beer and feels it is a relatively safe amount, if he is getting a (very generous) 42% yield of Sassafras Oil per gram of sassafras root.

Old recipes call for 8-10 drops of Sassafras Oil per 5 gallon batch. I don’t know what the conversion is between Sassafras Oil drops and grams, but some things I’ve found indicate between 40-90 drops per gram for liquids. Castor Oil is said to be around 44 drops per gram. If Sassafras Oil is similar in weight, by rmitterson’s math, you would need to be using basically 3.85 times 44, or 169 drops of Sassafras Oil, per glass of Root Beer for a “50% chance of cancer”.

When I weighed out the amounts of herbs and barks in my Root Beer recipe, I found I was using about 4-6 grams of dried Sassafras Root Bark per gallon.

A pound of Sassafras sounds like a lot, but the yield of sassafras oil from my 4-6g of dried Sassafras Root per gallon, (most things I’ve read indicate the yield of Sassafras Oil from Sassafras Root Bark is 6-9% by weight when steam distilled,) isn’t going to be anywhere near significant in a simple heat infusion in water. Sassafras Oil isn’t even soluble in Water (Alcohol is another matter)!

So, mostly, I have to say I don’t feel that worried about Sassafras in my Root Beer recipe, at least compared to other potentially cancer risk elements in my life history or current environment.

Gram-i-Fied Root Beer

Root Beer Brewing.

Root Beer Brewing.

Aside from the Spruce Oil, I really liked that last Root Beer recipe, and I’ve been meaning to turn it into a weight recipe instead of a volume recipe anyway. Some of the ingredients are so light, it’s kind of impossible to weigh them in the amounts I am using with the scale I have, but here you go:

Root Beer, by weight

16oz Water

ROOTS:
20g Fresh Ginger Root, sliced and smashed
3g Sassafras Bark of Root*
3g Sarsaparilla Root
2g Vanilla Bean, split and scraped
2g Grains of Paradise, crushed
1g Star Anise
1g Spikenard
1g Wintergreen
1g Ginger Root, dried
1g Roasted Dandelion Root
1g Licorice Root
1g Honey Roasted Licorice Root
1g Star Anise, whole
6 Juniper Berries, crushed
1/4 tsp Gentian Root

HERBS:
1/2 tsp Horehound
1 generous pinch Cascade Hops
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate

200g Washed Raw Sugar
3 Tablespoons Wildflower Honey
1 Tablespoon Molasses
1 drop Wintergreen Oil

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots, cover and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Cover and steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Add Wintergreen Oil. 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 3-4 parts soda water) or carbonate with yeast (mixing 1 part syrup to 3 parts water).

*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.

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

ROOTS:
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

HERBS:
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)

Roots:

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

Herbs:

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

Sweetener:
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)

Roots:

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

Herbs:

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

Sweetener:
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…