Homemade Root Beer Syrup

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homemade root beer syrup in a pitcher
Photo by Elise Bauer

If you like root beer, you like sassafras. And making your own root beer syrup is super easy.

The aromatic bark, leaves and roots of this little tree are believed to be the first plant exported from North America to Europe, back in the late 1500s. All parts of this little tree make for delicious — and different — teas, sweets and other confections, and sassafras commanded exorbitant prices in Europe… until everyone started drinking sassafras tea to cure their syphilis. Soon no one wanted to be seen sipping their syphilis cure in public, and the sassafras trade withered.

More recently, sassafras has been getting a bad rap by the folks at the USDA, who say that the active component of sassafras, safrole, is a “known carcinogen.” Why? They gave tons of pure safrole to rats and the rats got cancer. Later researchers noted that, like the whole saccharine scare in the late 1970s, safrole seems to cause cancer in rats — but not people.

Still, many people still think that sipping sassafras tea or eating sassafras ice cream will doom you to a date with your oncologist. Just know that there are many times more “known carcinogens” in a bottle of beer than there are in any homemade sassafras product you might make. By one calculation, you’d need to drink 24 gallons of sassafras root beer a day for an extended time to get the amount of safrole fed to those rats.

And if you drank that much soda, you’d have lots of other problems to deal with…

I collect sassafras on Cape Ann, where my family lives. It’s easy to spot its telltale mitten leaves. Sassafras is unmistakable. It is a spindly, shrubby tree that lives beneath larger trees. Its upper bark is green, and the leaves come in three varieties, often on the same branch: a mitten, a three-lobed leaf, and a simple spear-shaped leaf.

The way you collect sassafras is to pull seedlings right out of the ground. I know, it sounds destructive, but it isn’t. Sassafras grows in clumps, and the parent tree sends out suckers under the ground, which then become seedlings; it’s a lot like mulberry.

You find a clump — look for at least 8 to 10 treelings scattered about — go to one about 2 or 3 feet tall,  grasp the very base of the tree and yank it straight up. You should come away with the seedling and about 10 inches’ worth of the root.

You did not get all of the root, you know, and this is a good thing. It will regrow later. So what seems a little destructive is actually good for the sassafras cluster — it lets the surrounding seedlings grow with less competition.

All parts of this tree are useful. Notice I did not say “edible,” because the leaves are the only part you actually eat. You know them as filé powder, and without sassafras leaves gumbo just isn’t gumbo.

Sassafras roots and twigs
Photo by Elise Bauer

Roots on the left, twigs on the right. What’s the difference? They make very different teas. The twigs have a lemony-floral flavor and aroma that one author has compared to Froot Loop cereal — not exactly a selling point in my book, but they are lovely. The roots, however, are the “root” in root beer.

I am not a tea drinker. Coffee is my breakfast drink of choice. So I was not about to switch for sassafras. But I do like using flavored syrups from wild ingredients; I recently made a delicious fir tip syrup from the young tips of a Douglas fir tree. I then use these syrups to glaze meats, make homemade sodas, sorbets or ice creams. Sassafras is a prime candidate for this treatment.

To make a twig syrup, you peel back the green bark a bit to expose it — the bark is what has most of the flavor — then simmer the twigs in hot water. The brew quickly turns a pretty amber, a little like cola. Let it steep overnight and then strain it through cheesecloth and mix it 1:1 with sugar to make a simple syrup. It is outstanding. I mean, really outstanding. Think root beer with a lot of lemon in it.

To make root beer syrup, the first thing you need to do it chop the sassafras roots.

Chopped sassafras root
Photo by Elise Bauer

Sassafras is the prime flavor in root beer, but not the only one. Root beer is a concoction of many things. My recipe is heavy on the sassafras roots, plus some burdock root, molasses for color, one clove, a star anise, some coriander seed and one drop of wintergreen extract.

It really does taste like store-bought root beer! Maybe not the root beer you get in a can now, but then that no longer has any real sassafras in it. It is warm, and zingy, and, well, deliciously rooty.

If you live near sassafras trees — and you do if you live east of the Great Plains, south of Quebec and north of Orlando — by all means make this root beer syrup. If you don’t live there, or don’t feel like foraging, you can buy sassafras root bark online. You’ll never go back to store-bought root beer again.

Close up of sassafras leaves.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

When you make your root beer, start with a tablespoon of this syrup to a pint of seltzer water. You can adjust the strength of your drink from there.

homemade root beer syrup
5 from 12 votes

Homemade Root Beer Syrup

You will need some unusual ingredients to make this, notably sassafras roots. If you happen to live in the United States or Canada east of the Great Plains, you are in luck: Sassafras grows everywhere in that region. If you don’t live there, or don’t feel like foraging for your own sassafras, you can buy sassafras root bark online. The burdock in the recipe grows all around you as a weed. Otherwise, many good supermarkets have burdock in the produce section: They are long pale, skinny roots often sold under their Japanese name “gobo.” If you absolutely cannot get your hands on burdock, use dandelion roots. The root beer will be different, but still fine.
Course: Drinks
Cuisine: American
Servings: 20
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 6 cups water
  • 3 ounces sassafras roots
  • 1 ounce burdock or dandelion root
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 clove
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 2 drops wintergreen or peppermint extract
  • 6 cups sugar

Instructions 

  • Chop the sassafras and burdock roots into small pieces, about 1/2 inch or smaller.
  • Put the roots in a medium-sized heavy pot with the clove, star anise and coriander seeds and cover with the water. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Simmer this for 15 minutes.
  • Add the molasses and simmer another 5 minutes.
  • Turn off the heat and add the wintergreen or peppermint extract. Put the cover back on the tea.
  • When the mixture cools, strain it though cheesecloth to remove any debris.
  • Return it to the pot with an equal amount of sugar. Stir to combine. Bring it to a simmer and cook it for 5 minutes, uncovered. Pour into quart mason jars and seal. Keeps a year in the fridge.

Notes

If you can find it, get wintergreen extract. If not, use peppermint extract.

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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73 Comments

  1. My syrup is coming out tasting bitter and like medicine. I’m thinking it’s the black strap molasses (couldn’t find non-blackstrap). Thoughts?

    1. JB: It’s a personal choice, but for me about 1 or 2 tablespoons to a normal glass. Maybe twice that for a pint.

      1. Growing up, we had a large extended family. A fond memory was in the spring when our papa took all the young children to dig for sassafras roots to make our “spring tonic”. Made us healthy and happy.

  2. Do you use dark or light molasses. I have made a version of this using dark molasses but it overpowered the root beer taste.

  3. For those worried about cancer, I’m nearly 50 and have been digging and drinking sassafras all my life. I collected more with my son today and am not worried about it harming either of us…

  4. I’ve used sassafras all my life. And btw, its been proven, that particular breed of rat that FDA and other government agencies use in cancer studies, will show that sterile, distilled water will cause cancer. The most valid thing college added to my life!

  5. I cant wait to try this out one day. I’ve been doing my research for a few days saying about how sassafras lead to cancer and it made me a little bit paranoid from the FDA. Do you know anyone that has been drinking sassafras from the root down, family member or friend you know of for years and never got cancer?

  6. Have you ever tried canning this? I’m very thankful to find a recipe that uses real ingredients like this one. Would love to know if this could be canned in bulk and kept in a pantry!

    1. Cristina: I find that it is pretty stable because there is so much sugar in it. I generally keep it in the fridge, though.

    1. Any thoughts on using black birch twigs/bark in the syrup instead of the wintergreen extract? Seems like it should work, I’ve made wintergreen liqueur with black birch bark and it is beautiful.

  7. Made this today…the family and I all loved it! Fantastic recipe! It’s easy to make, and the strength of the soda can be personalized to the individual. I will make again for sure (before all of the leaves fall off the trees).

  8. Hi Hank, I researched a little and the FDA banned sassafras use in 1979. Is the sassafras root you recommended made for consumption?

    1. Britt: I researched a lot, and mention it in this article, that that FDA study was horrifically flawed, giving rats absolutely enormous amounts of sassafras. I use regular roots, as have many people over centuries. In these small amounts, you’re fine.

  9. I’m having trouble finding Sassafrass root right now (I live in Minneapolis). Most bulk herb stores I’ve called are not expecting to get any for at least a month, and the Amazon link is out of stock as well. Any suggestions?

  10. 3 ounces of dried or fresh sassafras roots? and does it make a difference what season you collect the roots? I’ve been wanting to do this for so long–but these questions stop me!

  11. I have used this recipe, though I usually add liquorice, nutmeg, sweetfern, spruce tips, black birch bark and replace wintergreen extract with dried wintergreen.

  12. Thank you very much for your recipe! I used to make sassafras tea when I was a kid. I remember it filled the house with a root beer aroma.