Pohutukawa honey sweetens the finish
, smooths the bitter of unadulterated root beer extract. I know this because I tried and I tried because root beer without the sweet is liniment. And nobody drinks liniment.
Sophia is twelve and she is American and she lives in Auckland with her parents who are our friends from California (though they grew up in Michigan) and they were there — at the airport — the day this started. The day we emigrated to New Zealand. You might say they softened the (culture) shock and have helped dampen its reverberation over these three years. The least we can do is reciprocate with good old fashioned American root beer.
Sophia and her brother and her sister and their parents are over for a visit. Maybe it’s for Christmas, or maybe we always catch up this time of year, or maybe we are a free flowing lot who catch as catch can. Sophia hasn’t had root beer in ages, she says, while I prattle on about the intrigue surrounding the FDA’s declaration that safrole oil is carcinogenic and argue that root beer shifted from traditional medicine to flavouring (argue? lament?) as industry took control of that tradition and packaged it up and sold it and tried to compete in an increasingly constrained fizzy drink marketplace, etc….
Cut to the chase: this kid wants a root beer float. Today please.
How about we try this extract I picked up at Hauraki Homebrew. No ingredient list. No instructions, but I reckon we can figure it out.
Sodastream a litre of fizz.
Does three caps look about the right colour? Yep. OK, I’ll try a shot.
Blech! This is definitely not a sweetened extract (as we suspected.) What do you think?
Sophia’s mom, cooking up a storm beside us, says “brown sugar.”
How come you taste so good?
Isn’t that a song? Indeed.
I paw through the pantry. No. The fridge? I used to store the brown sugar in the fridge in the old place because there were ants. Ah, there it is.
Just a spoonful? Sounds good.
I pulled open the top drawer where we keep the utensils and fumbled around looking for a small spoon that might fit into the mouth of the one litre bottle and I measured a precise bit of a scoop and dumped it into the bottle and a chemical reaction I could have named twenty years ago volcanoed streams of fizz out the mouth and down the sides and across the stainless steel counter top and drained into the sink and down the pipes, mixed with carrot shavings and cucumber skins, and the mixture flowed to the waste water treatment plant where it mixed with a long variety of non-sugary chemicals, diluted sufficiently that it would never taste of cucumber, carrot, or root beer again, or until it one day runs through my tap, back into the one litre bottle, threaded to the plastic housing that connects the carbon dioxide injection system commonly known as sodastream, which squirts gas into the water and I’ll unscrew the bottle and add three capfuls of unsweetened American root beer extract but I will never ever directly add brown sugar again because I’ve learned my lesson.
I have an idea. Much as they sweeten tea in Georgia, let us boil a sugar water solution and add that solution to the mix. To facilitate an easier dispensation of said sweet concoction, I dump the litre (minus one half a bitter shot, plus half a bit of a spoonful of brown sugar) into a sturdy mixing bowl. Plenty of air flow. Fire extinguisher at the ready.
We boil up the sugar water and scoop it into the bowl and whisk it around, which, in hindsight we shouldn’t have done, and now this seems so obvious: the result was a vaguely sweet but entirely flat and luke warm version of commercially produced root beer. (Hypothesis: when you whisk a hot sugary substance into fizzy water, the water will flatten. Confirmed.)
We both taste and agree that the mixture tastes somewhere on the spectrum between yuck and ew. But it’s the right amount of concentrate, which we count as one step forward.
We agree to boil some more sugar water and cool it in the fridge (back from whence you came sweet crystals!) and in the meantime we’ll mix and taste the pre-sweetened sodastream root beer concentrate, strictly for comparison, and as a palate development exercise.
To no one’s surprise, the sodastream version is comparatively sickly sweet, and bees and hummingbirds begin to collect around the mixing bowl. We shoo them away and rid ourselves of the mixture and agree: rotting our teeth straight out of our heads is not the root beer experience we seek.
While the brown sugar sweetener cools, I cook rice to go with the rest of dinner — enchilada casserole to die for! — prepared by Sophia’s mom. Sophia and her sister walk down the street to the local dairy to source some vanilla ice cream for our impending root beer floats. The other grown-ups talk. The other kids stomp and scream quietly on the veranda, evening wind picking up, a storm rolling off the sea.
I’m thinking more and more about the flavour of commercial root beer. It’s intense. Too intense. A sip takes complete control of your mouth, of your sense of taste and smell and even feel and for some it may cause a slight ringing of the ears and blurred vision. There seems no way to taste commercial root beer carefully, or deliberately — you know, to deliberate over the flavours. The syrupy brew attacks with its liniment wintergreen and mysterious sassafras, sharpened to a razor finish with a saturation-point scoop of sweet. It’s instant. Nuclear. Utterly unsubtle.
In contrast, the unlabeled extract invites deliberation. It invites your senses — you — into a certain sensory mindset. The extract is the jazz trio to the commercially manufactured rave, pumped up on ecstasy (which one can manufacture (partly) using safrole oil (and a host of other ingredients), which one can extract from the roots (or bark or leaves) of the sassafras tree, which is traditional root beer’s main flavour (and the source of its medicinal properties), which is partly why root beer is a flavour and not a medicine these days, though were this not its history, this might not even be a project. But here we are.)
The trio, off in their corner honking and thumping away, sound lovely as a complement to the goings on in the room. But should you choose, you can extend an ear and find richness and storytelling in their numbers. An effort can be made, we might say. But it needn’t be. And either way, you’ve got all that jazz.
Anyway, once our brown sugar syrup cooled, we started a new batch of root beer. Bubbled up some water and added half a whiskey shot of extract and poured the mix into a glass pitcher I hadn’t a call to use in enough years that it needed a wash. To this mix we added three shots of sugar water, careful not to disrupt the fizz and flatten the drink. Sophia and I each pulled half a shot from the pitcher and tasted and agreed.
It was the right sort of subtle flavour attack, but the finish led to a bitter end. Two more shots of sugar water. No. Two more. No.
Wait. If we keep this up, we’re going to end up with nothing more than commercially mixed rave sweetened fizzy drink. I have this pohutukawa honey. Shall we try?
So we heated the honey gently to get it to flow and poured a precisely measured dab into the pitcher and watched the sweet trail swirl and settle on its own.
We each pulled our half shot and tasted. Still a good start. Wait for the finish. Is it? Wait. Close your eyes and consider. Tune out the ambient noise, the jazz trio.
Yes. It’s not bitter anymore and — YES! It tastes of honey! Sweetener problem solved. Perfect with vanilla ice cream. We all got our floats.