Finding My Pioneer Roots

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From Mormon ingenuity to brew kits, James Bennett has finally found his homebrewing niche. Illustration: Steve Thueson

I had wanted to be involved with the annual Beer Issue since its conception, but there was always one glaring problem: I don’t drink beer.  As SLUG Magazine’s Highest Ranking Mormon ™, I was limited in what I could contribute. I had always been obsessed with the process of making beer (much like early Mormons were until that whole “Word of Wisdom” thing came along) and was intrigued by the culture of local home brewing. As I looked into it, I realized that, with an increase in home beer production, there was also an increase in the number of brewers that wanted to share the experience with their kids—albeit in a non-alcoholic way. Thus, I found my calling: I would brew my own root beer.

I had tried to make my own root beer in the past, with limited success. The easiest and most ward-party-friendly way to do it is the old dry ice method: a bag of sugar, a bottle of extract, a cooler full of water and a chunk of dry ice was all it took. Kids flip their shit looking at a bubbling cauldron, and it really is fun. Still, it seemed soulless, and it always tasted exactly the same. I had tried yeast-brewing root beer only to have bottles explode or get too yeasty. I switched to plastic bottles so I could better gauge the carbonation, and it worked. I moved away from extracts and tried a century-old recipe I found in an old Utah County cookbook. It was essentially a Provo housewife’s attempt to replicate the bag of roots A&W originally sold to home brewers. I ordered birch bark, sarsaparilla, sassafras and licorice roots from a health food co-op and steeped them for an hour in filtered water. I then strained the liquid, added some molasses and a little yeast. I sealed the bottles and waited. The result was authentic, but it was bitter and tasted too strongly of yeast. It was probably all the rage on the pioneer homestead, but it was completely unfit for modern tastes. I was stuck. Mormon ingenuity had failed me. I needed to go in a different direction.
 
Regardless of your past root beer brewing experience, a visit to a well-stocked and friendly brewing supply store is a must. I went to Salt City Brew Supply and asked for help. Cody McKendrick showed me around. SCBS’ main focus is beer brewing, but they carry a range of products, supplies and literature for all kinds of home beverage production—including wine, soda and coffee. If I had wanted to go the long way, they certainly had the supplies for it. It turns out that many of the traditional roots and spices used for root beer can also be used in alcoholic beer: birch bark, sarsaparilla root, licorice, ginger, vanilla, mint and anise. The one root they didn’t routinely stock was sassafras, an understandable omission when you consider that the plant is carcinogenic. Still, if you want to flirt with the cancer for flavor’s sake, they can order it in for you. For those wanting to take the easy way out, as I was, SCBS also carries a selection of soda flavor extracts made by an Ozark Mountains company called Rainbow Flavors. In addition to root beer, SCBS stocks spruce and birch beers, sarsaparilla, cola, cherry and a few others.
 
With the flavor base problem solved, it was time to talk about adding bubbles. The yeast flavor of vintage home-brew root beer was so off-putting to me that I wanted another way to do it. McKendrick suggested the more modern practice of using a carbon dioxide tank to add carbonation. I wanted to try it. I left the shop with the extract, a five-gallon beer keg, some tubing, a CO2 tank and a gas regulator. All I needed to do was mix the extract with water and sugar, hook the carbon dioxide to the keg and put the mixture under 50 PSI for a week to allow the gas to properly dissolve into the liquid. The wait was on.
 
The best part about carbonation with gas is that it eliminates much of the guess work. With a yeast brew, you have to overly sweeten your mix so that it’s still sweet enough after the microbes eat up the sugar and give off gas. If the yeast is especially active or lazy, you risk spoiling the whole batch. After about 10 days, the carbonation was where it needed to be, and the resulting drink was awesome. It had smooth, tiny bubbles and a very authentic flavor. It had deep, minty undertones, but it was so much better than any of my past attempts. In the future, I would go the same route, but I would add a little cinnamon and vanilla to the mix, and maybe use some brown sugar instead of white—because I think homemade soda should taste like homemade cookies.
 
Like all good things, this root beer was meant to be shared. I took the keg to an LDS ward campout one weekend in June and shared it with all those in attendance. Everyone loved it. Everyone, that is, except for 80-year-old Sister Holding. “This doesn’t taste anything like the yeast root beer we used to make back in MY day,” she said. 
Exactly, Sister Holding. Exactly.
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