Sarsaparilla, also known as China root, is a kind of smilax. The one most commonly used in the beverage of the same name is a tropical variety. However, smilax grows wild in many areas of the United States and is generally considered a real pest. Its thorny stems and climbing habit make it a nightmare for anyone who has ever had to deal with it. However, the fact that the root can be turned into a pleasant soft drink lends smilax the air of having at least one redeeming quality.
Sarsaparilla is a kind of root beer, in the original sense of the term. There are two basic methods of making it; one produces a drink similar to modern root beer, the other a traditional alcoholic drink that hearkens back to the day when all root beers were beers made from roots.
The first step in brewing sarsaparilla is finding the root. True China root may be hard to come by, but it makes a better-tasting drink than native varieties. However, these can be used as well. Next, you must decide whether you are making a drink acceptable for children, or if you are making a real root beer.
If you are making kid-friendly sarsaparilla, you will need a soda keg. To fill a three-gallon keg, add three pounds of corn syrup to the keg along with enough root extract to fill it. Make the extract by chopping up three ounces dried sarsaparilla root and boiling it in three gallons of water for an hour. Put three more ounces of chopped root in a muslin bag and hang it in the water. Cover and let sit until it reaches your desired taste level, up to three weeks. Alternately, just boil all six ounces at once, cover, and let stand overnight. Once everything is in the keg, carbonate it to 30 psi and serve.
For an alcoholic sarsaparilla, you should brew this in almost exactly the same way you would brew beer. For one gallon, boil one gallon of water with two ounces of root for one hour. Cover and let stand overnight. Warm it enough to dissolve two pounds brown sugar (or two pounds malt extract for a more beer-like character). Cool the mixture to 70 degrees and put it into the fermenter. Add brewer’s yeast and stir vigorously. Hang a muslin bag with two ounces of root in the mixture. Let this ferment until complete, about three weeks. Bottle, using one teaspoon corn sugar per bottle. This should be ready to drink in two weeks.