First, I just wanted to say that although I considered this recipe secret for a long time, I've learned a lot from HBT and developed many of my non-alcoholic beer recipes using other well-known recipes as starting points and their flavor has inspired me to try opening a zero alcohol brewery (I don't drink alcohol). So given that, I wanted to give something back to the community and so here is my original Root Beer recipe that gets very good reviews from all those who try.
Next, I'd like to give a bit of commentary on the "secret" formula and process. Just about every recipe I've seen online makes several mistakes when it comes to soda making. There's a good reason why homemade soda using those methods never have the amount of flavor they should, and most of it the home-brew community is already aware of from beer brewing! Later addition of hops gives you much more flavor/aroma than earlier additions, so the key is to not let the volatile oils be boiled off. Rather than trying to get all that flavor out of huge amounts of herbs, my recipe uses mostly 100% essential oils as flavoring for the above mentioned reasons, and they are added at flame-out.
No secret recipe would be complete without a secret ingredient. I'd like to explain what it is and why we use it. First, you may have realized that oil hates water, and we are using both in our recipe. I can't take full credit for this, as I'm sure it's already in use in the industry, but it certainly was hard to find at the time. My research on how to combine water and oil with search terms like "edible soap" (which the soda gnomes cleverly call "surfactants" to disguise their true nature to us normal folk) led me to gum arabic. Also known as acacia gum as it comes from the acacia tree. This gem not only combines oil with water in a true soap like fashion, but it is natural, edible, and doesn't contribute any major flavor to the drink. In addition, it allows for the correct "release" of those oils we add to contribute flavor, rather than locking them away to never be tasted. Gum arabic might not be new to people, but I really haven't seen listed recipes that have it listed. Most recipes I tried around the web used whole herbs and generally seemed to taste like cough drops with a more mild flavor, although not bad, wasn't what I was looking for.
A couple final comments before we get to the recipe. I include a lot of essential oils. Essential oils from reputable places aren't exactly cheap, but the good news is that once you've made the initial investment, they last a LONG time. In fact, I have bottles that are about 10 years old and I've made a lot of root beer in that time.
Disclaimer: WARNING! My recipe contains wintergreen or birch oil. The main active compound is methyl salicylate and is a known toxin in large quantities. It also breaks down in our bodies into what was later packaged as aspirin. Lethal doses are possible, with doses up to lethal making someone pretty sick. Methyls also may not be safe for those pregnant, so consult doctors. I'm not responsible for anything that you do with this recipe, consider it as informational purposes only. Also, wintergreen is usually listed on sites as not recommended for internal use, however 100% essential oils (NOT fragrance oils) are supposed to be purely from the plant listed, but you should buy your oils from reputable companies, as purity is all based on the company providing the oil.
However, given the above disclaimer, I will say that I've ingested lots (at what I feel are safe levels given here) of wintergreen in my time and never felt any effect. Also, lethal doses are listed around the web at about 4mL for children and up to 10mL for adults. My recipe includes about 4mL to create around 36 total litres of final product, which would all have to be drunk to make a lethal dose in a child. Even if the syrup is drunk straight, the full 6 liters would be necessary. I consider it pretty rare, however use your best judgement. And if you have children, make sure you keep your flavor oils LOCKED up in a secure area. Kids will love the smell and deaths have been reported mostly from children ingesting pure oil.
Although it depends on the thickness of the oil, generally 20 drops = 1mL
Ok, finally the recipe! All oils listed are 100% pure essential oil, get them from a trusted source!
80 drops Wintergreen or Sweet Birch (betula lenta) - both taste the same to me
20 drops Star Anise Seed
20 drops Fennel Seed (sweet)
15 drops Cassia
5 drops Nutmeg
25 drops Clove Bud
10 drops Cinnamon Leaf
30 drops Vanilla Extract
100g Gum Arabic
4kg Turbinado or Demerara Sugar (honey or maple syrup can be substituted, or even fresh cane juice if you have access to it, but you will have to adjust to taste)
Use "simple" carbonated bottled water. Never use tonic water, it has sugar and quinine added. Mineral water will also change the flavor a bit, but it can work in a pinch. Look at ingredient list, should just be "carbonated water" without other additives.
To make flavoring:
- Mix Gum Arabic with ~230mL of filtered water
- Add oils to this mixture. WARNING! Make sure you use goggles (as well as for all observers) when handling pure essential oils, they can splash when dropped into the gum solution.
- Blend in a small food processor, or mix by hand until smooth. It should be a syrupy consistency.
To make syrup:
- Dissolve sugar into ~3 liters of water
- Add water until a total volume of 6 liters is achieved
- Boil for at least 5 minutes to sanitize, add any water that is boiled off if necessary back to 6 liters.
- Turn out flame, whirlpool to get everything mixing, then add flavoring "syrup" and immediately cover.
- Rinse container or food processor with a small amount of water and mix to get the last bit of flavoring out. Add this to the main syrup and cover again.
- Let syrup stand covered for 10 minutes or so, afterwards give it a good stir and replace cover.
To store syrup:
- Clean 13 mason jars (16 oz) and lids. You can sanitize as well, but it's not necessary. Pre-heating with hot water should help glass to not crack.
- Place jar in sink and pour in hot syrup leaving about 1/2" of headspace. Hot filling is my preferred method which prevents spoilage, I don't like to use preservatives, but they are an option as well.
- Cap immediately and invert jar to sterilize lid.
- Allow to cool to room temp and avoid major temperature changes else glass may crack.
To make root beer:
- Use a 1:5 ratio as a starting point, adjust to sweetness desired.
- Pour in syrup first, this can be done warm if needed.
- Make sure bottle/growler is cold, syrup is cold and carbonated water is cold! If you mix while warm, you'll lose a lot of carbonation.
- Pour in carbonated water while making sure it cascades down the side of the bottle. This will eliminate foaming.
- Cap bottle and shake to mix. Allow to settle a couple minutes in the fridge before serving.
You'll notice while making the syrup that I try to keep the lid on while it's hot as much as possible. This helps to avoid the volatile oils from escaping, however the recipe is such that a bit extra oil is added to account for some escape.
Also, optionally you can boil herbs to replace some of the essential oils if you want to limit or stage your initial cost of buying all the oils, but consider them a long-term investment. Some herbs could be for flavor, others for medicinal qualities if desired, just add them before adding the sugars and boil or steep as is required for the type of herb. The most important oil to not substitute is the wintergreen as this flavor is hard to get from herbs directly.
Optional is also to keg and eliminate the mixing steps, this is what I do now. My current recipe has changed somewhat to include more herbs than I used to use for various purposes, but this recipe is in my opinion very good as a base where you can adjust to your tastes.
As a final note, I don't mean to come off as though no one but me knows how to make root beer, but having been unsatisfied with other recipes is what brought me to create this one. Someone else out there is probably doing it the same way as me, and I'm sure some commercial root beers are made the same way with some natural/artificial oils. I've just never seen any of them published. So enjoy and share with your friends!