Special Ingredient: Sassafras

This distinctively spicy folk ingredient has a long tradition of going into American drinks, including beer—though it comes with a few disclaimers. Ready to forage?

Joe Stange Oct 16, 2020 - 4 min read

Special Ingredient: Sassafras Primary Image

Let’s go back to our roots, so to speak, and look at a traditional American ingredient that can add some comforting sweet-shop spice to your beer.

In the American context, sassafras refers to Sassafras albidum, a deciduous tree that grows in forests across much of the eastern United States. It has a long history of folk use—in homemade root beer, sassafras tea, and in the filé powder used to thicken Cajun gumbo. Long before that, people in Europe and Asia found medicinal and flavor uses for it.

Here’s the caveat: The Food and Drug Administration banned it from commercial food and drinks 60 years ago, after mice who were fed massive amounts of it developed cancer and liver damage. These days, commercial root beer successfully imitates the taste without using actual sassafras.

However, in small doses, it’s widely regarded to be harmless to humans.

“I would definitely say to not overdo it,” says Jereme Zimmerman, author of Brew Beer Like a Yeti: Traditional Techniques and Recipes for Unconventional Ales, Gruits, and Other Ferments Using Minimal Hops.

“Part of the safety concern is if you ingest it in huge amounts, which would mean pounds upon pounds in a batch of beer and drinking nothing but that beer for weeks or months at a time,” Zimmerman says. “But on a practical level, it’s a really strong flavor, so you don’t need much. I love the flavor, so I don’t mind overdoing it a bit.”

Sassafras character, as flavor and aroma, is something like a gentler licorice or anise, but not quite—you can also imagine the taste of root beer or the smell of an old-fashioned sweet shop. Zimmerman says he finds it to be compatible with Belgian-style ales and suggests it for holiday beers such as dark ales, porters, or stouts. It may need to hug some malt to work best. “It might be a bit much in a lager or a light pale,” he says.

So, where to find it? In certain states in the lower Midwest, the South, and along the East Coast, you might be able to hunt sassafras on a walk through the woods. “For those who are foraging-minded and are in Appalachia, it’s pretty easy to find a sassafras grove and dig up a couple of roots,” Zimmerman says. He also suggests an alternative for people in the Southwest: osha root. “It’s not an exact replica of the flavor of sassafras, but there are a lot of similarities,” he says.

Other options: Ask at your local health-food store or order some online. Zimmerman recommends the website of Mountain Rose Herbs: “They have a great supply of herbs and are very ethical and sustainable in their foraging,” he says.

ARTICLES FOR YOU