I'm personally too lazy to make homemade root beer, although I did use store-bought concentrate in a pathetic attempt to make a batch once. I offer this section, however, to those that are curious.
The best document I've ever seen about making homemade root beer comes from Steve Mercer and can be found here. Basically you need to consider flavoring, sweetening, and bottling & carbonating when you make your own root beer, and this document covers it all in great detail.
For those that like things simple, most grocery stores sell "root beer concentrate." You should be able to find it near the spices. If you can find the vanilla extract, the root beer concentrate is probably not far away. Just mix 5 gallons of water, 5 lbs of sugar, and 5 lbs of dry ice with the extract and you are good to go! I've also found that you can order root beer extract from Cane and Reed. I've never tried this though.
For those that are slightly more daring, here is a recipe for making root beer from scratch. Keep in mind that this recipe calls for sassafras root, which contains safrole. Safrole is a carcinogenic and has been banned by the Food & Drug Administration in the US. Synthetic alternatives are available however. Thanks to Chris Thompson for this bit of information.
Simmer herbs for 30 minutes. Add sugar, stir to dissolve. Cool to lukewarm, add yeast and stir well. Cover and let sit for 1 hour. Bottle as above.
Source: "The Herb Companion", Aug/Sept 1990
Note: I've never made this recipe. If someone decides to make it, let me know if it turns out good! I've been told that some ingredients are available online at:
Here are a few tips submitted by readers:
From Craig: In reference to making root beer from scratch, I've recently taken it up as a hobby. In San Francisco, the natural foods store, Rainbow Grocery, sells all the bulk roots, barks, and herbs you need. I'm sure other cities have similar places. I've also come across another source online that looks very reasonably priced, though I haven't put in an order yet: http://www.starwest-botanicals.com/. I've been blogging my experiments at http://rootbrew.blogspot.com/.
From Jonny Anu: I've noticed that quite a few people have trouble with over carbonating from what I've come across on the web. An old trick used here in Finland, and through out Scandinavia is putting a few raisins in one of the bottles. When the raisins float to the top, it's time to stck the bottles in the cold. And, of course, don't use too much yeast! Also, remember that raisins will affect the taste of the root beer.
From Duane Moore: We've made 3 batches of homemade rootbeer - just follow the directions on the McCormick root beer concentrate bottle. My dad gave me a 5 gallon wine-making jug, but it was easier in a slightly larger canning pot. We found about 12 dozen old IBC root beer bottles, and my mother had my dad's old bottle-capper & some caps - 40-year old cork lined, but they still worked! Ok, I saved a few back & now I use the plastic-lined ones! Beware overfilling the bottles! The best idea someone gave me was to be sure to put the freshly capped bottles in a large Rubbermaid tub - with the lid on!!! I overfilled the last batch, and they started to explode about a week later. Luckily the lid was on tight! We only lost about 6 bottles, but each bottle was an adventure to open! If you didn't take it slowly, it erupted like champagne! I'll be more careful next time!
From Kirk: We always used to carbonate our homemade root beer using the dry ice method, but it still always seemed to come out flat. Then I discovered a secret ingredient: store-bought A&W. Add some regular store-bought root beer to your home made root beer, especially if you need help with carbonation and sweetness.