(If you want to skip to the nitty gritty start on the 9th paragraph.)
Growing up (in the 80ies and 90ies) I always hated store bought root beer. All my siblings loved the stuff, but I avoided it most my life, thinking of it as a crappy tasting cream soda.
I never really put much thought into the flavor of root beer (especially since I didn't like it) until a few years ago when I bought my house in southern NH. One day when I was going for a walk down a rural dirt road near my house and I noticed these pencil thin trees. They had trunks and branches that deviated in odd directions with big mitten shaped and 3-lobed leaves.
After getting home from my walk I looked these trees up and quickly found out they were probably Sassafras trees. This also quickly lead to me finding out their roots used to be the "root" in root beer. That today, you can't find real "root" beer these days. Since Sassafras was banned in the 60ies.
That caused me to get a bit of an obsession to find out what actual root beer tasted like. That maybe it wasn't actual root beer I disliked all this time. Maybe I just disliked the modern mix of stuff they use to try and emulate the old flavor.
I live on over eleven wooded acres, so I went into the woods on my property to find Sassafras trees. I found a tree I thought was a Sassafras tree (since I was just starting out I still didn't know if there were look-a-likes). I found a large Spice Bush Swallowtail Caterpillar on the tree which confirmed it's identity. I snapped a twig off and took a sniff and found that it had a very good fruity smell. Not bitter and dirty smelling like I expected.
I had a feeling the roots smelled different, but at this point the tree was the only one I was aware of on my property, so I didn't want to risk damaging it by digging up any roots. I made Sassafras tea from the green bark of one of the branches from the tree. I was good, but it wasn't root beer like at all. So I went back to researching about the tree. I found that there were no look-a-likes. So I set out to find more Sassafras trees on my property and I found many more, some even more than 30 feet tall. I even found one growing in my yard.
After looking over the Sassafras tree in my yard I realized there used to be half a dozen medium sized Sassafras trees growing there, but the previous owner had cut all but one down after they were damaged in an ice storm a couple years before. So I set to digging up the roots from one of the stumps. After I had dug around one of the roots I proceeded to cut it with a small hand saw and was met with a robust, earthy smell before even cutting through the whole root. I was anticipating it would be repulsive, but, to my surprise, I found it was quite pleasant smelling.
After cutting the root I decided to do more research about it's toxicity (after all it was banned by the FDA) before consuming any. I'm a molecular biologist so after tracking down the studies they were easy for me to read and understand. I found the study the ban was based on to be flawed since they used rats and the main carcinogens found in the rat's livers were not found to be produced in human liver. Additionally the carcinogenicity of Safrole (the supposed "bad" chemical in Sassafras) itself is so low that a regular beer is much more likely to cause cancer. Even the air in your house is more carcinogenic! These things convinced me that the danger of Sassafras has been highly over blow.
After looking a few things up I decided to keep things simple and try to make a tea with the root. First I had to removed the outer root bark while leaving the inner bark intact. I didn't like any of the techniques I found online where most of the inner back got cut away. After tooling around with the root for a bit I found the best strategy was to take a razor and rake it backwards over the root instead of pushing it forward. This quickly stripped the outer root bark off while doing almost no damage to the inner bark. I then used a knife in the proper cutting direction to skin the inner root bark off the inner wood.
I split the root into two batches, one to dry and the other to boil and make tea. I boiled the root bark fresh in a small pot of water, with a lid on it, for about 20 minutes. I found the flavor was similar to the branch bark tea. It smelled good while cooking, but the flavor was all gone when the batch was done. I figured I must have over cooked it.
I didn't want to waste the root I had left, so I did some in depth research of the chemical make up of the root flavors to better understand what went wrong. Then I found what went wrong. The root flavors are not soluble in water. So once they are released from the root by heat they float to the top of the water and boil away.
After doing my research I came to the conclusion I needed to just forget the tea and grind the root bark up and extract it in a clean, warm vodka. I came to this conclusion because I found all the flavorings in the root are highly soluble in alcohol. I didn't use hot vodka because I didn't want to lose the alcohol to evaporation before extracting. I heated up a small amount of vodka in the microwave until it was warm to the touch. I then poured it into another glass which contained the root bark finely ground. The vodka quickly turned a dark brown color. Oddly the extract didn't have a powerful smell, because the alcohol was holding in the flavors. One drop of it though had an extremely powerful taste. I thought BINGO, I found the best way to extract it! I used a damp paper towel two remove the ground root from the extract after letting it stand in a closed glass container overnight.
One important thing is that I used all GLASS and NO plastic. The flavors in Sassafras love plastics, and the plastics will actually leech the flavor out of your extract. I could never get the root beer smell out of the plastic milk jug I put my initial root tea in. I had to throw the jug away, because everything that went in it (especially if they contained alcohols or oils) would come out of it with a hint of root beer flavor.
I had heard that down south they would use molasses as a sweetener in their root beer, but I'm in NH so I decided to use some good old NH Maple syrup instead. I put about 3/4ths syrup to 1/4th extract and added seltzer water to taste. I then had my very first home made root beer, made from pure Sassafras root without any other adulterating flavors. It was the best root beer I had ever had up until that time. Since then I've been experimenting with adding other flavors like wintergreen to give it a more familiar, but still tasty flavor.
I've found that most flavors are either soluble in water or alcohol, so using a clean (flavorless) vodka is always a good bet. You can extract roots and twigs with warm vodka over night. However anything that's green (Wintergreen (Teaberry) leaves for instance) needs to be extracted for a week in cold vodka to prevent it from developing a cooked spinach flavor. This also applies to green Sassafras shoots as well, which I've used to make a soda, which turned out to taste much like lemon-lime soda.
I hope you liked my story on home made root beer!