Homemade Sassafras Root Beer

Every summer I head east to spend some time with my goddaughter Piper and her sisters Alden and Reilly on the Massachusetts shore south of Cape Cod. In what has now become a yearly tradition, we dig for clams to make stuffies, pick rose hips for rose hip jelly, and gather sassafras roots for homemade root beer. Credit for the root beer goes to Hank Shaw who taught me all about how to make root beer from sassafras on one of his return trips from the east coast. Sassafras grows wild all over the eastern United States and Canada and was the traditional root for what we call root beer here.

Before I get into the details about how to identify the plant and how to make the root beer, a disclaimer is in order. The key ingredient in sassafras is safrole, which the FDA banned for commercial use in food in the early 60s because studies found that rats fed enormous amounts of the stuff developed cancer or liver damage. But here’s the rub. According to a government agency that extrapolates human exposure needed based on rodent carcinogens (see the links below the recipe), if you drank a sassafras root beer a day, you would still have much less carcinogenic risk than if you drank beer or wine. You would have to drink a LOT of this stuff over a long period of time for there to be a problem, and at those amounts, the sugar in that much root beer would probably be much more toxic for you than the safrole. So remember my mom’s advice, “all things in moderation”. Disclaimer over.

sassafras.jpg

So, if you’ve decided to dance on the wild side and join us in this sassafras adventure, you’ll need to find some sassafras. (Apologies to the westerners among us, you won’t find sassafras growing out here, it only grows in the east.) Hank has a great explanation on his site as to what to look for. The sassafras plant grows to be a small bushy tree, that likes the shade under the canopy of larger trees. We found our sassafras plants right at the edge of the backyard where it met a wooded area. You can usually find three shapes of leaves on the plant, single oval-ish leaves, mitten-shaped leaves, and leaves with three-lobes. The plants do resemble young oak trees, but the key difference is in the leaves. You’ll find two or three different shapes of leaves growing on a sassafras. The plants tend to grow in clumps. Look for seedlings a few feet high. They’ll be the easiest to pull and their roots the easiest to cut. Once pulled, rinse off the dirt, wrap the roots in a paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the fridge until you are ready to make your root beer. If you have any doubts as to whether or not you have picked sassafras, just break a stem and smell it, or smell the roots. They smell just like root beer.

alden-and-austin-picking-sassafras.jpg
Alden next to a perfectly sized sassafras sapling, and my nephew Austin holding the root.

Traditionally root beer is fermented, hence the word “beer”. Our version is not fermented, but you could do that if you wanted to. Here’s a great blog post by Vaughnshire Farm on how to make fermented sassafras root beer. Our version is much more simple. Just boil the roots with some spices and molasses, strain, add sugar, and store as a syrup. Mix the syrup with soda water to make the root beer.

My friend and Simply Recipes contributor Steve-Anna grew up making sassafras root beer this way in Alabama. How about you? If you grew up making sassafras root beer, please tell us about it in the comments.

Homemade Sassafras Root Beer Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 quarts.

Hank likes to add a drop or two of mint extract to the sassafras syrup, which adds a nice note.

Ingredients

  • Several roots (including some green stems) from sassafras saplings, about 30-40 inches worth of 1/4-inch thick roots (enough to fill one cup when you chop them into 1/2-inch pieces)
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds (can sub fennel)
  • 4 allspice berries
  • 1-inch of stick cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 quarts soda water

Method

sassafras-root-beer-1.jpgsassafras-root-beer-2.jpg
sassafras-root-beer-3.jpgsassafras-root-beer-4.jpg

1 Scrub the roots clean of any dirt. Cut the roots into 1/2-inch long pieces. (The roots can be tough, if you have a pair of pruning shears, they work great to cut the roots.) If you have a few green stems, you can include them too, but you should have mostly roots. Cut up as much as you need to fill one cup. Put the roots into a small pot and cover with 4 cups of water. Add the cloves, anise seeds, allspice berries, and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the molasses and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat.

2 Strain through cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve lined with a paper towel. Rinse out the pot. Return the liquid to the pot. Add the sugar, heat until just a simmer and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.

3 To assemble the root beer, fill a glass with ice cubes, add the syrup and soda water in a 1:2 ratio, so 1/3 cup of syrup to 2/3 cups of soda water. Add more soda water if you want it more diluted, add more syrup if you want it stronger.

Links:

Making homemade root beer from sassafras roots a step-by-step article for making sassafras root beer that is fermented for the carbonation from Vaughnshire Farm
Sassafras and homemade root beer from Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Root beer marble ice cream from the Salvation Sisters
Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop - book by Stephen Cresswell


From Ranking Possible Cancer Hazards from Rodent Carcinogens:


Safrole is the principle component of oil of sassafras (up to 90%). It was formerly used
as the main flavor ingredient in root beer. It is also present in the oils of basil, nutmeg, and mace (Nijssen et al., 1996). The HERP value for average consumption of naturally-occurring safrole in spices is 0.03%. Safrole and safrole-containing sassafras oils were banned from use as food additives in the U.S. and Canada (Canada Gazette, 1995; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1960). Before the 1964 ban in the U.S., a person consuming a glass of sassafras root beer per day for life, would have had a HERP value of 0.2% (Ames et al., 1987). Sassafras root can still be purchased in health food stores and can therefore be used to make tea; the recipe is on the World Wide Web.

This basically says that if you drank one glass of sassafras rootbeer a day, it would still have less carcinogenic risk than wine (0.6%) or beer (1.8%) given the HERP (Human Exposure Rodent Potency Index) value.

23 Comments

  1. Michele

    How you incorporate cooking with nature and what those children are learning about both is such a priceless gift. You are truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing with all of us!

    xoxo michele

  2. B

    After successfully making ginger soda, I went looking for sassafras at Rainbow Grocery in SF to make root beer back in January. At $70/lb, I decided that drinking the commercial stuff might be the better option. But if I ever have the $ to splurge, I’m bookmarking your site!

    I think you can get it on Amazon.com for about $20/lb, but it’s still expensive. ~Elise

  3. Bob

    Wild sassafras is one of the things I miss most about living in NJ. I worked as a surveyor for years and spent a lot of time in the woods were it was really abundant. We used to just pull a plant out and chew on the root. I wish I could grow some out here in Colorado.

  4. Kate

    I have really fond memories of this. I grew up in Northern NY state and every year at the local county fair there was a stand where they sold homemade real sassafras root beer. It was so delicious. They also sold birch beer, which was great. Have you ever had it? They sell it in some stores in the northeast, I believe it was made by Polar, it was good but the homemade was much better. I live in the south now but I never see it for sale anywhere.

    That’s a new one for me. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on birch beer. Cool! ~Elise

  5. Bill

    I grew up in Georgia, and my grandma taught me how to make what she called Sassafras Tea. (But no actual tea involved.) It was a simple Depression-era recipe (boiling the roots in water, straining, adding sugar). As you know, the best part was making something gathered from your own backyard or woods. Your root beer sounds much tastier than grandma’s “tea”, but the process was similarly satisfying, I imagine.

    • Teresa

      We used to make sassafras tea, too, same recipe as yours. Always loved it, with enough sugar to make it super sweet, of course.

      I grew up north of Huntsville, Alabama, close to Hazel Green. We had a grove of sassafras trees in the front yard. I didn’t know they preferred to grow in the shade.
      We didn’t add all the other cool spices that Elise has in her recipe, didn’t know about them, and we couldn’t afford soda water.

      We live in South Carolina, now, and I wish we had space to introduce a few sassafras saplings. They don’t get quite as bad as bamboo, but they can be a nuisance.

      I had heard that the guy who wanted to introduce Sassafras Tea to the goldminers out west in 1849 or 1850, was told to call it Root Beer, else they would turn it down.

  6. Kevin

    Elise,
    My Dad’s original BBQ sauce used sassafras tea (and we used to drink it all winter), but I haven’t seen sassafras in a market in years.

    Hi Kevin, where you are you can probably just dig some up! ~Elise

  7. S.

    Neat! I had no clue how root beer was made or how sassafras is used. Thanks for the pics and educational write up. Your experience looks like it is a fun and memorable one making this! Thanks for the great recipe!

  8. Becky

    I love seeing this recipe! I just returned home from working at a summer camp as a CIT Director (couselor in training program) and sassafras played a big part on our overnight. It was amazing to see just how many of my cits (all of them) had no idea what a sassafras tree was. It was even more amazing to realize that none of these 17 and 18 yr olds had a clue that you could eat things you find in nature. GASP! It was a fun overnight filled with all sorts of new experiences. We made a simple sassafras tea in the morning that everybody loved! I’ve never made anything other than a simple tea and I can’t wait to try this.

  9. Heather A. W.

    Did you know that File (as in File Gumbo) comes from Sassafras leaves?

    Sassafras trees have got to be my favorite (silvery bark, beautiful fall color, berries that attract birds, ‘Tolkien-esque’ growth habit), and they can actually get quite large. I planted one in my backyard when I was 5, by the time I was 15 it was 90 feet tall!

    Yep, Hank told me all about file gumbo! Wow, your tree got that big? Cool! ~Elise

  10. Jeanne C

    Growing up in Wisconsin in the 50′s and 60′s,we didn’t make Sassafras rootbeer (although we drank it quite often). However, my dad was a big fan of Sassafras tea, and always kept some on hand in the pantry, or fruit cellar. It’s one of the things I miss, now living in California.

  11. Charles

    I love sassafras, tea or chew, but I have to say one thing: sassafras has a nasty habit of growing in the same places as poison ivy. Just another set of leaves to memorize, but well worth learning. Fair warning! (And though I miss sassafras, I do not miss poison ivy here in Arizona.)

    Good point! I did notice quite a bit of poison ivy out there. It’s similar to our poison oak. ~Elise

  12. sheila

    Oh My Goodness Gracious! My littlest is going to be ever indebted to you for this recipe. We have Sassafras growing all over our property, she is always whittling down the twigs….and wanting to make root beer, but I have been a lazy mom and have not investigated how…so now you just dropped it in my lap…no more excuses! Thanks Elise. Cheers!

  13. Judy Johnson

    You’ve brought back memories of my childhood! We had Sassafras trees in our back yard and while we never made root beer, we did make Sassafras tea. It had a lovely fragrance and the most beautiful golden pink color.

  14. Jesse Gardner

    If you can’t get homemade birch beer, Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer is the best commercially produced birch beer I’ve tasted. The stuff is fantastic, rich and licorice-y.

  15. Treva Burns

    I am flabbergasted!!! This is the plant that we have been cursing for 10 years because it has taken root in our side yard and grows like crazy!I bet there are 200 plants since it has an underground root system. I had no idea what it was-just that it smelled good when we got the brushcutter out to plow it down again.Thank-you so much for the knowledge AND the recipe!

  16. mark

    I spent many summers on the cape, while I never had sassafras beer, we did make tea, which is much easier. simply boil the stripped roots in water and mix in sugar while still hot. Drink hot or over ice for refreshing ice tea.

  17. Pam P

    when I was young all the kids that lived in our neighborhood would go into the woods and get the roots bring them back for one of the older ladies and she would whip up a batch of tea. I now live in the middle of a wooded area and have huge groves of the sassafras trees :) and this summer will be the first time I will attempt to make my own tea = thanks to your site

  18. Louis

    I’ve been on the hunt for sassafras roots for a while now, living in Alberta Canada they don’t exactly grow in my back yard and finding a supplier is next to impossible so far. Most of the online websites that come up look very sketchy. I brew beer, wine, and I’m itching to make a root beer with the kids. If anyone knows where I can buy some please let me know! Heck, if anyone wants to harvest and dry some for me and mail it I’d be up for that too!

  19. Christy

    This is a wonderful recipe. Thank you! Any tips for storing the syrup?
    Thanks!

  20. Neill

    Thanks for this write up! The internet has made it seem almost scary trying to make original recipe root beer. Feeling encouraged after seeing this that I should try!

  21. samk

    I have so much sassafras growing in my backyard! Might try this this weekend if the fam is into it!

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