Sarsaparilla conjures up the image of a Wild West cowboy bellying up to the bar in a saloon and ordering a "sasparilly." It used to be a popular soft drink in the United States, especially during the 19th century when it was considered a sort of health tonic, much like what Coca-cola was first sold as. Today, though, sarsaparilla soda is a hard drink to find. What happened to this once-common beverage?
The sarsaparilla plant has long been considered to have medicinal properties, but the sarsaparilla soft drink isn't actually made out of sarsaparilla, at least not in the U.S. In some other countries, the sarsaparilla root is brewed to make tea, but in America what was called sarsaparilla was actually brewed from sassafras root bark.
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Sassafras is a plant that also has medicinal properties; it has been used to treat everything from skin conditions to arthritis and high blood pressure. In spite of the benefits, tests by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also showed that a compound in sassafras called safrole caused cancer in mice. For that reason, in 1964 the FDA banned safrole, ruling that sassafras could not sold as a commercial food ingredient (including as tea and in soft drinks like root beer and sarsaparilla).
It's a safe assumption that the ban led to the drop off in consumption of sarsaparilla as a soft drink.
Originally, root beer also used sassafras as the main ingredient, adding licorice root, wintergreen leaves, vanilla bean, ginger root, and other flavors to round out the bitter sassafras taste. Although it didn't contain alcohol, Charles E. Hires, the pharmacist who first created root beer, called it "beer" because he thought the name would appeal more to the Pennsylvania miners who were his primary customers. And he was right.
Root beer was first sold in 1876 as a dry extract; customers would mix the package of roots, spices, and herbs up with sugar, yeast, and water to make the fermented drink. In 1880, Hires then decided to sell it brewed as a concentrated syrup. It wasn't until 1893 that he brewed and bottled root beer and sold it as a ready-to-drink product.
Like sarsaparilla soda, root beer used to be a lot more popular as a soft drink. It survived the ban of safrole better than sarsaparilla soda because it was able to simply replace the sarsaparilla root with more of the other root beer ingredients and artificial flavors to get a similar taste to the original product. Today, some root beer and sarsaparilla soda manufacturers use a sarsaparilla extract that has the safrole removed for a more authentic taste.
You can buy sassafras root in health food stores, where it's sold as a dietary supplement (meaning it's not regulated by the FDA), usually with a warning about the potential dangers of safrole. The plant also grows wild in the eastern half of the U.S. Although the ban on safrole still stands, the data suggests that a human would have to drink a lot more than one sassafras-based drink a day to get above the danger line for safrole consumption, and so some people choose to use the root to brew tea and make old-fashioned sarsaparilla or root beer drinks feeling that the benefit of small doses of safrole outweighs the potential risk.
But if you'd like to try your hand at a homebrew version of this old-fashioned soda, we've got a few recipes to make a sarsaparilla syrup and homemade sarsaparilla soda (or homemade root beer, if you'd rather think of it that way).
This syrup is a great base for homemade root beer, but you can also use it for cocktails, including an amazing Old Fashioned.
Old Fashioned Root Beer
Like the original root beer, this naturally-fermented homemade soda recipe is tasty and fun to make. Instead of yeast, this recipe uses a ginger bug to start the fermentation process (don't worry, it's not a real bug!). The root beer ferments at room temperature in individual grolsch-style beer bottles or jars with a tight lid.
Homemade Sassafras Root Beer
This root beer recipe doesn't ferment the beverage, instead making a syrup that you mix with cold soda water. And if you're interested in foraging for wild sassafras, you'll find some great tips above the recipe.