As bartenders in this town dive deeper into their craft, we've seen a lot of housemade sodas pop up on lists. Several places make their own tonic, for instance, and a few turn out their own ginger beers. We know of places trying to work out the kinks of more ambitious sodas, too, and at least one -- Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder -- is bottling its own carbonated beverages and popping the top for drinkers.
At Jax Fish House in Denver, barman Josh Burbank started making ginger beer, which he still pours on tap, and then moved on to create his own recipe for root beer, too.
"It took about six months to figure out, and longer to figure out how to carbonate it and get it ready to serve," he says, explaining that his process was mostly trial and error, tweaking ratios as he tried to bring out different flavors. He got the sassafras from chef Amos Watts's 86-year-old grandfather. "I paid him with a bottle of Usher's Green Stripe scotch," he notes.
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The whole process takes days -- at least 48 hours are devoted to carbonation alone -- but now that he's nailed it, he's got the root beer flowing from behind the bar, and he spends a day every few weeks mixing up a new batch.
Burbank was kind enough to divulge his process -- though he keeps some of the ingredients and the ratios top-secret. Here's a photographic step-by-step of how to make his root beer:
The bartender starts with a variety of spice, including cinnamon, allspice, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, fennel seed and star anise. As those toast, they release the aromatics. After a few minutes, Burbank dumps gallons of water over them. Burbank adds the sassafras to the water, including one knotted stick that he says he uses in every batch. Next, he brings the mixture to a boil then reduces it to a simmer for an hour and a half. Once done steeping, he pulls out the roots and adds liquids like spruce oil, fresh ginger juice and winter green, bringing it back up to temperature to make sure everything is sterilized. Finally, he stores the concentrate until he's ready to carbonate it into soda. After experimenting with yeast at the suggestion of Avery's head brewer, Burbank has switched to forced carbonation in a cornelius keg. He dilutes his concentrate with water and then leaves it in the keg for at least 48 hours, which gets it ready to be poured on tap. Finally, Burbank pours his homemade soda into steins, cocktails and, of course, root beer floats.