The small tree known as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) was once one of the most prized plants of North America. In 1565, Francis Drake returned to England with a cargo hold full of sassafras roots, and set off something of a craze for sassafras tea, or saloop. By the next century it had become a major export item, almost equal in value to tobacco. Europeans accepted the claims of most eastern Native American tribes about its effectiveness as an all-purpose medicine and tonic, and that combined with its wonderful taste and aroma — Thoreau called it “the fragrance of lemons and a thousand spices” — eventually guaranteed its place as the root in root beer. John Lawson, an early explorer of the southern Appalachians, wrote in 1709, “Sassafras was a straight, neat little tree… treasured by the Indians for its aromatic roots, from which, when pounded, a potion can be brewed to refresh or cure, according to his needs.”
Early colonists consumed a lot of beer, and it probably didn’t take long before someone got the bright idea of adding sassafras roots to the mix of herbs and spices typically added for flavor and medicinal effect. It might seem strange to think of beer as a health drink, but for many centuries, it was far safer to drink than most available sources of fresh water, being first subjected to a prolonged boil and then made alcoholic. Weak beers were consumed in roughly the same quantities as Americans today drink Coke or Pepsi, but with less serious health risks, since the sugar was all turned into alcohol.
The modern herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Brewers Publications, 1998) has this to say about brewing with sassafras:
Sassafras was the original herb used in all “root” beers. They were all originally alcoholic, and along with a few other medicinal beers — primarily spruce beers — were considered “diet” drinks, that is, beers with medicinal actions intended for digestion, blood tonic action and antiscorbutic properties. The original “root” beers contained sassafras, wintergreen flavorings (usually from birch sap), and cloves or oil of cloves. Though Rafinesque notes [in 1829] the use of leaves and buds, the root bark is usually used, both traditionally and in contemporary herbal practice.
“Beer” was used loosely to refer to a variety of lightly alcoholic drinks made with whatever sugar was on hand; both the recipes Buhner offers, for example, use molasses instead of malted grain, as does this one I found in The National Farmer’s and Housekeepers Cyclopedia from 1888:
Root Beer.—To make Ottawa root beer, take one ounce each of sassafras, allspice, yellow dock, and wintergreen, half an ounce each of wild cherry bark and coriander, a quarter of an ounce of hops, and three quarts of molasses. Pour boiling water on the ingredients, and let them stand twenty-four hours. Filter the liquor, and add half a pint of yeast, and it will be ready for use in twenty-four hours.
I was excited to see the mention of wild cherry bark — something I had considered using in my own brewing, but hadn’t found any actual mention of until now. I have brewed with all the other substances mentioned, though not all at the same time. (I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the flavor of yellow dock in beer.) But I’m more of a purist than Buhner: I do insist upon using malted grain (or malt extract) as the primary source of sugar, though I will use molasses or honey as adjuncts, in small quantities.
And I feel the early colonists probably made their root beers, spruce beers, and other healthful brews with malt, too, whenever they could. From an early date, many larger farmhouses had their own brewing operations, and taverns brewed beer in every town and village, first with malts imported from Europe, but quite soon from locally grown grain. A 1685 report from William Penn suggests that malt was substituted for molasses as soon as real brewing became practical:
Our Drink has been Beer and Punch, made of Rum and Water: Our Beer was mostly made of Molosses, which well boyld, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it, makes very tollerable drink; but now they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially at the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People.
In 1750, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, interviewing a nonagenarian for his book Travels in North America, learned that the early Swedish colonists of what is now eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey had been “plentifully provided with wheat, rye, barley and oats. The Swedes, at that time, brewed all their beer of malt made of barley, and likewise made good strong beer.” And of sassafras specifically, he wrote, “Some people peel the root, and boil the peel with the beer which they may be brewing, because they believe it wholesome.” He adds: “The peel is put into brandy, either while it is distilling or after it is made.” Nor was ordinary tea neglected: “An old Swede remembered that his mother cured many people of the dropsy by a decoction of the root of sassafras in water drunk every morning.”
Kalm also mentions the preservative and antiseptic properties of sassafras, which must’ve played a role in its popularity as a brewing ingredient as well (hops were far from the only herb understood to help keep beer from going “off”):
Several of the Swedes wash and scour the vessels in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled, which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome. Some people have their bedposts made of sassafras wood to repel the bed bugs, for its strong scent, it is said, prevents vermin from settling in them. … In Pennsylvania some people put chips of sassafras into their chests where they keep woolen stuffs, in order to expel the moths which commonly settle in them in summer.
A slightly later (and much more famous) botanist-traveler, William Bartram, mentioned a very different root beer formula from the standard recipe, which makes me wonder how many other sassafras-based concoctions might have been made at one time. Writing about a southern Appalachian plant now known as Bignonia capreolata or crossvine, he wrote, “The country people of Carolina chop these vines to pieces, together with china brier [i.e. Smilax pseudochina] and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.”
Lo how the mighty have fallen. Safrole, the active compound in sassafras, has been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1976 as a supposed carcinogen, and as a consequence sassafras may no longer be prescribed by herbalists, though commercial brewers and root beer manufacturers may still use a safrole-free extract. For the homebrewer willing to ignore the FDA’s finding — which even the very conservative Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America rejects as absurd — it’s a matter of locating a thick stand of sassafras on some dry ridgetop and getting permission from the landowner to dig a few roots. The tree grows like a weed, and with its distinctive leaves it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. How will you be able to tell if a given root is sassafras, and not from a neighboring tree? Just scratch and sniff. If it has “the fragrance of lemons and a thousand spices,” you’ve hit pay dirt.
UPDATE (19 Nov. 2014): For a recipe, see Sassafras-Black Birch Beer.