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Homemade Root Beer in the Summer Time

By Joy Swartley Sawatzky

On a trip out toward the Lancaster Pennsylvania area the other week I saw the sign again. "Cold Homemade Root Beer."

It is amazing what a just few words can do, like take you back forty years in a flash. But with those words, I was a child of about 8 years old, standing over the sink in the kitchen, filling the 5 gallon crock with warm water. The smell of root beer extract filled my nose and I could almost taste the yeasty flavor of the lightly carbonated beverage.

Root beer made from scratch was a summer staple in our home from the time we lived on a dairy farm back in the countryside of rural Pennsylvania. It became my job each year to initiate the ritual. First I gathered the supplies: two dozen or so assorted bottles, bottles collected over the years that could be reused time and time again. Most were old soda pop bottles from the days when all bottles were recycled. Even more eclectic were the caps used to seal them. They were also collected over the years and looked like it. What an assortment. Some had wire latches, some were plastic and others were whatever we could find. We even resorted to corks when we were desperate. Then there was the five gallon crock. I’m not sure where the crock came from, but it was older than my family at any rate. A wonderful piece of pottery.

Next came the ingredients: Five pounds of sugar, a package of yeast, the small bottle of root beer extract and five gallons of warm water. Pretty simple to make. I loved pouring the sugar into the bottom of the crock and then letting the extract slowly turn the sugar dark brown as I stirred it in. The aroma of sweet, rich root beer filled the room as the crock filled. Then with funnel in hand, I poured the warm brown liquid into the various shapes of bottles. Part of the secret of getting the right amount of carbonation was getting the space between the liquid and the top of the bottle just right. When they were sealed they went to the back room or an attic room to ferment. It usually took about two weeks until they reached the carbonation point and were ready to drink.

The waiting was always hard, and I was sometimes known to break some out before the sacred two weeks were up. Just checking, you know! It was not uncommon to hear an explosion from the room where the root beer was ‘brewing’, as for whatever reason, a bottle would break or a cap give way. What a mess as the sticky liquid leaked or sprayed out over the room.

Drinking the treat was most often saved for when we had company. Cousins would come to visit and we always treated with something to eat. Vanilla ice cream and fresh root beer was one of our favorites. While our parents weren’t looking we would slip the ice cream into the glass of root beer and watch the rich foam rise. If I remember right, it usually looked better than it tasted.

In fact, I don’t think that I will ever stop at any of the places where the homemade root beer is sold out in Lancaster. I would rather be left with the memory of how special it was. After many, many years of the store bought stuff I am afraid I would be disappointed at how flat it would be or how yeasty it would taste, though when I told this story to a group of senior adults they swore that if done right, home made root beer had great fizz to it and you didn’t taste the yeast. They had their own stories of exploding bottles and memories of taste.

When my parent’s household was dismantled about two years ago, I was blessed to become the keeper of the crock that held the root beer. That is the only function the crock had, as I remember. It now stands in my living room holding volleyballs. Maybe it is somewhat of a symbol of the different times of children now and then. I never made homemade root beer with my sons and I doubt they would enjoy it. They chuckle when my nostalgia kicks in and I tell them a ‘when I was a child’ story. That’s okay. Their time will come when they realize the value of all they have lived. A simple memory will someday become a connection and grounding. That’s just the way life is meant to be.


Remembering Your Story

What were the refreshing drinks that you most often drank as a child growing up? What kinds of settings did you usually drink them in?

Explore the story while doing a hands-on project

Copyright May 6, 2004 by Joy Swartley Sawatzky. All Rights Reserved.

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