people in a 1920s speakeasy

Alcoholic root beer, Prohibition-style

Brewed on 9 September 2015.

When I think of Prohibition-style brewing, I think of mad-scientist-type experiments with any fermentables you can get your hands on. This beer turned out so well, I’ve been forced to re-examine two of my fundamental assumptions about homebrewing: that brew made only with cane sugar—no malt—isn’t true beer, and that small batches don’t offer enough buffering against infection for an unhopped beer.

Makes one gallon (U.S.).

Sugars

  • light brown sugar, 1 pint
  • jaggery, 1/4 cup (priming)

Herbs

  • gentian root, 1/4 tsp.
  • fresh sassafras root bark, 1 T
  • dried black birch root bark, 1 1/2 T
  • dried spikenard root, 1 T
  • dried calamus (sweet flag) root, 1 t
  • dried Indian sarsaparilla root, 1 T
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

Yeast

  • Safale S-04, 7 g.

Procedure

Bring a gallon of water to a boil, add all of the above herbs, simmer for 20 minutes, lid the pot and let it steep for two hours. Remove one quart of the liquid to another pot, add the brown sugar, boil it for ten minutes, then add it back in. Put brew pot into an ice bath and cool down to 70°F. Pour into sanitized 1-gallon fermenter, straining through a cheese cloth. Add dry yeast and insert fermentation lock. Bottle after two weeks.

Results

The above is a simplified form of my actual procedure. I’d set out to make regular root beer, then decided it was a bit too bitter because of the gentian (which I’d added in imitation of Moxie), so I decided to bring it up to room temperature, add a lot more yeast and ferment it out. The result: a light, refreshing, warming beverage with a very well-balanced flavor profile. Does it taste like root beer? Not really; there’s nothing caramelly about it. More like a spiced pilsner, which really shocked me. American homebrewing wisdom since the 1970s has held that too much cane sugar in a beer spoils it by rendering it too cidery, though some brewers have become less dogmatic in recent years under the influence of Belgian brewing, in which sugars of various kinds are added with great enthusiasm. Still, how is it that something with neither malt nor hops can still taste like beer? A revelation.

I do love malt, though, so my next step was to try making a three-gallon batch (so I wouldn’t drink it up so fast), go all-native on the herbs, and deploy a porter-like grain bill. That’s still conditioning, but preliminary results have been good. Stay tuned.

UPDATE (25 July) A bottle saved for nine months hasn’t gone off at all — there’s no hint of souring. I’d attribute that mostly to the preservative powers of gentian root.