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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Better-Than-Bottled Root Beer

Howard got the idea to make root beer when she met a farmer who sold sassafras bark. She describes her signature recipe as something similar to a sweet tea.

jackie howard with root beer

[photo 1]

A Chef And Her Farmer

John Allen Flynn’s table at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market is divided in two parts. “Basically this side of the table is foraging, and this is gardening.”

The result is a really diverse offering — blackberries, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, walnuts and sassafras bark. “I have numerous sassafras trees on my property, and I just sell it to people and some people will try to make root beer out of it.”

Jackie Howard came across Flynn’s table one Saturday morning. She shops at the farmers market all the time for local fruit to incorporate into her soda recipes. She’s a co-owner of Bea’s Soda Bar. Sassafras bark is usually hard to find, she says, so she knew she found something special with Flynn. She immediately started playing with root beer recipes to see what could work for her food truck.

“You could take it and ferment it, similar to actually making beer,” she says. “What we do is make a syrup and combine that will club soda.”

[pullquote]Really when you think about it, you’re essentially making a sweet tea. That’s what making this syrup comes out to, because it’s all these different roots and leaves.[/pullquote]

That way, it’s easier for them to transport because they wouldn’t have to bottle or keg it. They can also use the syrup in other preparations. (Root beer shot in your coffee, why not!)

Tea With Bubbles

She started with your basic root beer recipe of wintergreen, sarsaparilla, sassafras and anise. That was the base. Then it was time to experiment. One batch had hops — that got mixed reviews. Lavender and coffee grounds made appearances.

After lots of tinkering, the final list includes the basics plus burdock root, wild cherry bark, cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans. She finishes with a splash of lemon juice to give the drink a bite of acidity.

“Really when you think about it, you’re essentially making a sweet tea,” she says. “That’s what making this syrup comes out to, because it’s all these different roots and leaves.”

And as with many teas, this recipe is pretty light, both in flavor and color. She wanted her root beer to be bold. “So, to add that depth without adding caramel color, and things like that that you get in a bottled root beer, that’s where we add the molasses. We use brown sugar to add some depth,” along with turbinado and cane sugar. She lets the mixture steep, just like a tea, and then reduces it down by about a third.

[photo 2]

That Hand-Crafted Taste

And we’re ready to try it!

“You want to pour it over ice. Soda needs it to be really cold for it to be as fizzy as possible,” she says. “We like the club soda for that carbonic bite. Give it a good stir, folding your syrup up into your soda so you don’t lose the fizz from the soda.”

Just one star anise gives the drink a distinct flavor, but there’s something else going on in the glass that you don’t get from commercially-produced root beer. Howard says it’s probably the sassafras. “When you get any bottled root beer that you would buy at the store, it does not have sassafras.”

What does John Allen Flynn think about the root beer made from his sassafras? Howard says he hasn’t tried it yet. “He’s just happy to bring us bundles and bundles (of sassafras). ‘Alright, I’ll bring you more next week. I’ll bring you more next week.’ He’s really great.”

Root Beer Syrup


  • 9 1/2 cups water
  • 1 bundle sassafras bark
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons wintergreen
  • 5 teaspoons burdock root
  • 5 teaspoons sarsaparilla root
  • 5 teaspoons cherry bark
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup turbinado sugar
  • 1/2 cup cane sugar
  • 3 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh coffee grounds
  • 2 vanilla beans
  • splash of lemon juice


  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large pot. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat. Let it steep on low heat for about an hour, or until it has reduced down by one-third.
  2. Serve over ice. Use a 4-to-1 ratio of club soda to root beer syrup. Fold the syrup into the club soda with a spoon or straw, using an up-and-down motion. (This way you won't lose the fizziness of the soda.)

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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