Homemade Sassafras Root Beer

DrinkRoot Beer

Homemade Root Beer, it's EASY! Kid-friendly version made with the roots of sassafras plants, spices, and molasses.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Every summer I head east to spend some time with my goddaughter and her sisters on the Massachusetts shore south of Cape Cod. In what has now become a yearly tradition, we gather sassafras roots for homemade root beer.

Homemade root beer is easy to make! The predominate flavor comes from the roots of sassafras, which one boils with spices and molasses to make a sweet syrup. Sassafras grows wild all over the eastern United States and Canada and traditionally was the main root used for what we call root beer here.

Root beer can be fermented, but my favorite method is what follows—kid-friendly, non-fermented, and non-alcoholic.

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.

Finding sassafras

If you’ve decided to 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.)

Sassafras Leaves

The sassafras plant grows to be a small bushy tree, one 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.

Sassafras plants resemble young oak trees, but the key difference is in the leaves. You’ll find two or three shapes of leaves growing on one sassafras plant—single oval-ish leaves, mitten-shaped leaves, and leaves with three-lobes.

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.

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.

Pulling up the roots

Pull up a seedling at the base of the plant. (Note that if a young sassafras seedling is too difficult to pull up, it’s probably too big, look for a smaller one.)

Once pulled, rinse the dirt off the plant and roots, 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.

Sassafras Picking

Alden next to a perfectly sized sassafras sapling, and my nephew Austin holding the root.

Safrole and Sassafras

Before I get into the details about 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.

Fermented or not fermented

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.

How about you? If you like making sassafras root beer, please tell us about it in the comments.

Homemade Sassafras Root Beer Recipe

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  • 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

1 Prepare the roots: 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.

2 Simmer roots with spices: 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.

3 Add the molasses and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat.

4 Strain and add sugar: 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.

5 Add soda water to syrup to serve: 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.

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Links:

DIY Root Beer, a fermented version from Serious Eats

Sassafras and homemade root beer from Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

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 root beer 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.

If you make this recipe, snap a pic and hashtag it #simplyrecipes — We love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter!

Elise Bauer

Elise Bauer is the founder of Simply Recipes. Elise launched Simply Recipes in 2003 as a way to keep track of her family's recipes, and along the way grew it into one of the most popular cooking websites in the world. Elise is dedicated to helping home cooks be successful in the kitchen. Elise is a graduate of Stanford University, and lives in Sacramento, California.

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35 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  • John

    I’ve not tried this recipe yet but in trying to work sassafras root into a root beer, I am always left with a really horrible bitter flavor. The smell is great, but the flavor is terrible no matter the sugar I use. How do you combat that or is it something that you accept?

  • Jeffrey T. Farinholt

    I have not yet, but will soon use this recipe. I have gathered many roots over the years and each time I happen to visit friends that have a yard with undisturbed vegetation, I begin looking for the sassafras small trees. Once a person finds one of these plants, it becomes an enjoyable search and find hobby. If just beginning to look for these plants, it helps to take a picture of the leaves along, just make sure leaves are still on the other trees in the forest as a typical rule of thumb, since the leaves fall off the plants here in Virginia around 30-45 days after the oak trees, for the winter season. The roots can run a long way under the ground surface so having a small digging tool will allow you to lightly wiggle the plant, watch the soil move around the roots and move the dirt with tool to continue gathering more roots. At some point, you will decide to cut and remove the plant and root. Even when the roots are small like sewing thread, they still carry that root beer smell. It is such a sweet natural smell. Now, in my experience, after I have gathered them, I will cut where the dirt line on the plant is, as the root beer smell above soil level is no longer present, the smell is only in the roots. This is just my rule of thumb. Good luck.

  • Boyce Rensberger

    Which season is best for taking roots? Plants vary a lot in their content of various compounds depending on the season.

  • Jessica Lidh

    I know someone asked the question, but I didn’t need know if someone came up with an option for canning the syrup? I’d love to give as gifts!

  • FB-D Odell Smalley

    I has piece of Sassafras Root that is over 40 years old which I inherited from my grandmother . I recall them making rootbeer when I was really young . But I have no clue from what recipe . This root still to this day can fill the room with the greatest rootbeer Oder of all. .

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