Spruce's piney terpene flavor is an acquired taste. Drinking a soda made exclusively from spruce twigs would be not unlike imbibing the essence of forest, but when blended with more traditional root beer flavors (such as sassafras and sarsaparilla) and especially a good hit of ginger, spruce’s pine essence is refreshing and cooling. Spruce beer was an American colonial favorite, since spruce had preserving qualities similar to those of hops.
Early soda makers frequently sold their wares at stands, but Roy Allen and Frank Wright, the owners of A&W Root Beer, were the first to build a full-service restaurant chain based on a soft drink. In the early 1920s they opened the first A&W drive-in restaurant, featuring “tray-boys” offering curbside service. By 1933 there were more than 170 franchised A&W outlets, and in 1960 there were 2,000 nationwide.
- 4 1/2 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups molasses
- 2 ounces sassafras root, chopped
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh gingerroot
- 3/4 teaspoon oil of spruce
- 3 cups dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons maltodextrin (optional)
1. Combine the water, molasses, sassafras, ginger, and spruce oil in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally; let simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
2. Blend the brown sugar and maltodextrin (if using), and gradually add the mixture to the simmering root infusion, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and strain. This syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
Variation: Wintergreen Root Beer
Substitute 1/2 teaspoon -wintergreen essential oil for spruce oil.
To mix with seltzer:
- 1/2 cup spruce syrup
- 1 2/3 cups seltzer
- Makes 1 serving
Pour the syrup into a tall glass. Add the seltzer and stir just until blended. Add ice and serve.
To carbonate with a siphon (makes 3 servings):
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup spruce syrup
Combine the water and syrup in a 1-quart soda siphon. Charge with CO2 according to the manufacturer’s directions. Siphon-charged sodas can be stored in the siphon in a refrigerator for up to 5 days. Disperse as desired into tall glasses filled with ice, and serve.
To brew (makes 1 gallon):
- 3 quarts lukewarm (80-90°F) water
- 1 batch spruce syrup
- 1/8 teaspoon champagne yeast (Saccharomyces bayanus)
Combine the water and syrup in a large container. Test the temperature; the mixture should be at a warm room temperature, from 75 to 80°F. (If it is too hot, let it sit until it cools a bit. If it is too cold, warm it over low heat.)
Add the yeast and stir until it is completely dissolved.
Pour the mixture into sanitized plastic bottles using a sanitized kitchen funnel, leaving 11/4 inches of air space at the top of each bottle. Seal the bottles. Store for 2 to 4 days at room temperature. When the bottles feel rock hard, the soda is fully carbonated.
Refrigerate for at least 1 week before serving; drink within 3 weeks to avoid overcarbonation.