Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Homebrewed root beer -- timeless

When you live in the home of the oldest Fourth of July celebration in West Virginia, America's birthday is as big as Christmas.

Making homemade root beer so it's ready for the star-spangled festivities is a tradition my husband's grandmother started.

Since Grandma Flossie moved from Terra Alta, my sister-in-law Gloria has tried to replicate the taste she grew up with and preserve the tradition. Through trial-and-error she tries every year to duplicate the process.

"If it doesn't turn out this year, the tradition dies," Gloria said in 2004, but I didn't believe her.

That year she let me watch her home-brew efforts in my mother-in-law's kitchen.

It is the process as much as the recipe that makes or breaks the root beer. Leave the bottles on their sides too long and the fermenting yeast will build up too much pressure, causing the bottles to burst. Stand them up to slow the process too soon and the root beer will be flat.

Gloria and her Aunt Sandy discussed it while leaning against the countertops, smoking cigarettes. They decided to follow the concentrate package directions: Add a whole package of yeast and set up the bottles after 1 1/2 days instead of adding a bottle cap full of yeast and letting the bottles lie on their sides for a week as Grandma did.

While a Meat Loaf CD played on a portable stereo, Sandy mixed the root beer concentrate, sugar and yeast dissolved in water. Gloria filled a 5-gallon, 40-pound stone crock with water.

After mixing the batch with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolved, Gloria filled the bottles to the tunes of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sandy capped them with an old crank-style bottle capper.

While the glass bottles are reusable — some 16-ounce bottles date back to the days of Pepsi Free — the caps are not. Some hardware stores sell bottle caps.

When the big bottles break, it's hard to find more. Coca-Cola still bottles its soda in 8-ounce green glass. Crush is sold that way, too.

The bottles will sit on shelves in my mother-in-law's garage about three weeks until the Fourth, when my family will crack into them and anticipate the taste that bears only slight similarity to commercial root beer. And Gloria and her brother will remember popping open a bottle as kids and pretending to be drunk on the fermented brew.

If you want to start this tradition as part of your Independence Day celebration, start at least a month before. Find the recipe for homebrewed root beer on the package of root beer concentrate, sold near extracts in the supermarket. Grandma Flossie used Hires but it's no longer on the market. Gloria used McCormick last year. McCormick suggests using plastic bottles because of safety. Gloria said she thinks the root beer would taste like the bottle. As long as the family washes and stores the glass bottles, they have a supply of the real thing. (This year I played chief bottle washer.)

They'll need them.

Independence Day 2004, Gloria took several bottles to her grandmother's house in Oakland, Md. Grandma Flossie cracked one open, took a swig and said "You did a pretty good job."

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