12.16.2012 A Root Beer Garden?

It all started with a Ginger Bug. I was farm blog surfing and ran across this curious term. What on earth was a ginger bug? The answer to that question has sent me off on a wild tangent that is already proving quite daunting.

But let’s get back to that ginger bug. A ginger bug is a fermentation of ginger, sugar and water and it can be used to make all sorts of thing, the foremost being ginger ale. You may know the folklore concerning ginger ale: drink ginger ale to settle your stomach. I’ve done it to my kids, but other than the comfort of a fizzy drink on a scratchy throat I can’t say that a glass of ginger ale has ever “settled a stomach.” Now, I know why. Ginger can’t be expected to do what it’s supposed to do if it’s not there and commercial ginger ale has very little, if any, ginger.

ginger bug

My “bug” I started this Sunday evening, just some ginger, sugar and water. Monday evening at feeding time, it was still . . . well, still. I added a little molasses for extra nutrients. By Tuesday morning, there was some action. Not vigorous, but tiny bubbles are starting to form. (Anyone remember Don Ho?)

So naturally, I’ve got a ginger bug brewing on my counter at this very moment, and in a few days I will use my bug to produce a lacto-fermentation resulting in naturally carbonated ginger ale. The end result is supposed to be tasty and good for you since it actually contains some vitamins, minerals and probiotics. I have high hopes of serving it on Christmas Day to help aid in the digestion of the feast. But there’s more. The ginger bug has bitten me and I am suddenly intrigued by the world of home brewed sodas. I do so love a fizzy lifting drink! Home brewed root beer, cherry and cream sodas and something with the curious name of Kombucha.

If the ginger ale is a success, why not root beer. A simple online search yields many recipes, so I picked one at random and started searching for the ingredients I would need.

Sassafras root bark, Wintergreen leaf, Sarsaparilla root, Licorice root, ginger root, dandelion root, hops flowers, birch bark, wild cherry tree bar, juniper berries, cinnamon stick, unrefined cane sugar, ginger bug

To get all of those ingredients, it’s going to cost me $40 plus shipping. And this does not include the ginger root, the cinnamon stick, the unrefined sugar. You can see where this is going, can’t you? A Root Beer Garden!
After all, I have a sassafras tree coming in the spring (part of the botched Arbor Day Foundation shipment). But wouldn’t you know, back in the 60’s, the geniuses at the FDA fed safarole (the stuff in sassafras root bark that gives root beer its distinctive taste) to rats and the rats got cancer and died. The amount of safarole they fed to the rats was the equivalent of a human drinking 32 12-ounce sodas a day. Yeah, I know. Drinking that much water a day would probably kill you too. Still, the FDA ban stands and Sassafras root bark is not legal for sale as a human consumable in America. (Of course, there’s another good reason to ban the sale – safarole is an ingredient in the drug Ecstasy.) Incidentally, Sassafras leaves, incidentally, are dried and ground up and sold as file powder. Anyway, unless, you are significantly older than me, you probably don’t even know what real root beer tastes like. But the ban doesn’t stop old timers and herbalists from pulling up saplings and using the roots to make tea and things. (Oh, the things you learn trolling the internet!)

I know where I can procure some winter green plants which I’ve wanted to do for some time. They are acid lovers and would be good ground cover underneath the blueberry bushes. This is the one ingredient that is not all that complicated. You don’t have to dig roots, peel bark or wait for berries to ripen. You are just after the leaves.

That brings us to Sarsaparilla root. It’s a tropical plant from Central America, smilax regii, and it’s nearly impossible to find as a live plant. However, there are several alternatives – smilax pumila (aka Sarsaparilla vine, Wild Sarsaparilla, Dwarf smilax, Dwarf greenbrier) which is a thornless ground cover, but it’s a zone 8/9 plant. (I’m zone 7; I suppose I could grow it in pots). Then there’s smilax glauca, aka Cat Greenbriar, which is native to most of America east of the Rockies. It’s a thorny vine. I may already have this on the property.

Licorice root (glycyrrhiza uralensis or glycyrrhiza glabra): both are fairly easy to find. It’s a perennial in zone 6-10, but not harvestable for 2 or 3 years.

People are growing ginger in Virginia, in hoop houses. Grown like potatoes and harvested in February or March after a full year in the ground. Ginger does need protection from our winters, but I suppose I could make a potted plant of this until I build a greenhouse.

Dandelion root – not a problem. Got plenty of dandelions.

Hops flowers – people do grow hops in Virginia, but I need 30 feet or so of vertical/horizontal of trellising and some soil that’s significantly higher in pH than what passes for normal around here.

Which brings us to birch. When it comes to medicinal and/or food value, I can’t find a source that specifies one variety of birch over all others. Where a variety is named it is normally the European White Birch, which I have been told by a local nurseryman that I can not grow here – too much heat and too many pests. River Birch does well here though and there’s another cultivar called Dura heat. But like licorice and sassafras, it’d be years before I’d have a harvestable supply of bark.

The same goes for wild cherry. It grows around here. Stockmen pull it out when they find it in their pastures, because if forage ever gets scarce, cattle and horses will browse the wild cherry tree and it contains enough cyanide to kill them. (If I am to believe the stories my vet tells me.) Unlike the sassafras where massive quantities are needed for toxicity, trees of the stone fruit family are more dangerous once you venture past the ripe fruits into other parts of the plant. However, wild cherry bark powder is widely available in the herbal community, so it can’t be all that toxic in the small quantities used in herbal medicines. It’s all about the dosing, isn’t it?

As for juniper berries, I could harvest the berries off the many eastern red cedars (juniperus virginiana) but by some accounts they haven’t much flavor. The berries of some junipers are poisonous, so it’s best to just plant juniperus communis from which I could, theoretically, make gin. (Never been much of a gin fan, though.) The downside to planting a juniper is they are the winter hosts for the cedar-apple rust fungus. But if I got a low growing variety, it would be easy to knock off the galls, should the fungus infect the plant. (It’ll be a long time before I can grow a replacement for the cedar trees that form a wonderful wind break down the middle of my farm, so rust is going to be a problem for a while because I am not going to cut them down until I have a replacement in place. Removing all the little cedars is definitely on my agenda though. No need to let them keep multiplying.)

Cinnamon is a tropical and you can grow it as a house plant, IF you can find one for purchase. They are difficult to start from seed and have a low propagation success rate. Still it is possible. I can’t imagine my life without cinnamon.

So is planting a root beer garden a real possibility for a zone 7 resident? Possible yes, but practical, no, at least not with this list of ingredients. It definitely wouldn’t have its own little corner of the farm, a place I could point to and tell guests, “That’s where I grow my root beer.” The growing conditions are just too disparate – acid/alkaline, tropical/temperate. This whole exercise has me thinking I need to find a different recipe, and do a lot more research on the history of root beer (and maybe write a book.) A hundred years ago, down at the general store, in the Appalachian hollows and out on the prairies, were our American forefathers really purchasing Jamaican sarsaparilla, Mexican Vanilla and Ceylon cinnamon? I’m thinking they made do with what was around them and I should tailor my root beer to my surroundings. Terroir they call it in the wine world.

It sounds like another long project for wintry days, but I’ve got so many of those lined up already. For now, I will content myself with a root beer tasting party. None of the big name brands. Only micro brewed sodas with ingredients I can pronounce. It’s how we’ll be celebrating the end of the 5,125 year Great Cycle on the Mayan Calendar on Friday.


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