The Root Beer Legacy

The Bells haven’t had a lot to hand down through the generations.  My inheritance from my paternal grandparents consisted of a handful of miscellaneous items whose value is purely sentimental- a swiss army knife, a canteen, a hatchet, all probably older than me.  This inheritance is really meaningful only as a set of reminders of the characteristics and character of my dear old Grandma and Grandpa.  Much more valuable are my memories of them: the Grandpa presiding over huge, chaotic family conversations, imposing disorder and order at the same time by commanding certain stories from certain people and tickling kids without mercy; the Grandma enjoying and disapproving of much of it simultaneously.  And one of the best memories is of Grandpa standing at the end of a long table over a huge smoking vat of bubbling brown root beer, just hanging around as it slowly self-carbonated and shewing away the kids looking for a preview.

dry ice

A patented kid-attracter

Grandpa brewed the root beer every year at the annual summer party joined by both my Mom’s and my Dad’s families. There was plenty going on at the party, but honestly, the root beer solidly anchored at least the first half of the the slate of events for the evening.  It was not just some drink (as evidenced by the fact that Davis has already extolled it here).  It was sort of a living thing with a presence all its own.  The big white bucket that held it was faintly translucent, revealing the dark profile of the thing lurking under the loosely placed lid– a seething opaque presence roiled by dry ice bubbles, exhaling fog far too ominous for a bright July twilight.  You could sneak up on the table and inhale the steam, and get a fake root beer buzz that made you cough back into the giant vat.  You could try to sneak past Grandpa with a little foam cup and get the first sticky sample from the little black tap at the bucket’s bottom.  Best of all, you could just hang around watching the thing going through its tempestuous metamorphosis, and listening and laughing at Grandpa’s jokes, even the ones you didn’t understand.

Then at some moment that could be divined only be grandfatherly intuition, it was done.  The signal was perceived instantly by every kid under the bowery, and within minutes the group’s collective blood sugar spiked hard.  The concrete under the bucket turned sticky and brown, and soon most kids could be heard walking across the cement with sticky smacking sounds from repeated trips through the puddle.  The root beer keg was the center of the party for the first hour, and grandpa was always there, just behind the root beer.

I grew up a little, and went on a mission to Portugal.  There is no root beer in Portugal.  The Portuguese who have tried it say that no one there likes it because it tastes like medicine.  I can only imagine that long ago some doctor mixed up a medicine to taste like root beer as a way of getting little kids to like the medicine, and that by some weird stroke of luck, the medicine became hugely successful in Portugal, while root beer never did.  Now, the whole country has been innoculated against the taste of root beer because some medicine everyone had as a kid had that same taste.  Missing root beer, I wrote home for some root beer extract.  I’d dump it in a bottle of European sparkling water, only to find that adding sugar to carbonated water causes a geyser reaction, making me lose all the extract I’d added.  I finally discovered liquid sweeteners over there, and became a kind of missionary root beer bootlegger, always a secret flask at hand.  My requests home for more extract became so frequent that Davis still thinks it’s funny to mock me for it.  He never wrote home for a small piece of his grandpa to keep with him on his mission, so he lashes out at people who did. (Kook’s version of this was writing home wishing he could still undress in public, the main thing he and Grandpa had in common).


The perfect missionary accessory.  Now you can carry your root beer IN your Bible!

Grandpa died the Spring of ’07, a few months short of the summer party that year.  I expected to be sad about missing out on the root beer, but still looked forward to the get-together.  When I got there, though, there was a huge thermos at the end of the head table.  Tell-tale wisps of white carbon dissolved down its sides just before several little kids could inhale them.  My dad was manning the root beer station.  He used updated equipment, (there was no translucent visibility), but the stuff was still just as sticky sweet, and I still drank just as many cups as I did when I was fifteen.  So Dad took over the legacy, and his root beer is just as good, though it doesn’t have that subtle taste of cranky eccentricity it always had when I was a kid.  Maybe it’s the big orange thermos he uses now, but Dad’s root beer doesn’t seem nearly as mysterious as Grandpa’s either.  But the kids still hang around to watch the dry ice perform.

orange jug

Less foreboding, but better insulated

Last weekend I was in charge of putting together a party at the park for some Church people.  The first decision I made was that there would be root beer on tap.  I got the recipe from my dad, in an exchange that felt like  a coming of age ritual.  Lucy helped me stir all the sugar into the tap water before it was carbonated, and then she dumped the whole bottle of black extract in and watched it stretch out in tendrils and take over the water.  When I tossed the big squares of dry ice into the bottom, she shrieked and jumped up and down and had to go get the other kids.  They stood around and listened to the raucous bubbles, and startled when I fanned a big cloud in their faces.  Molly was entranced by the smoke and the way my hand half disappeared when I stirred it made her nervous.  We took it to the park and set it up at the end of the head table, and people drank a ton of it, and Rex said it was good but it was soooo cold.  It was slush by the end of the night, and there was enough to take home and keep in the fridge.  But the kids didn’t want the pitcherful.  They kept sneaking out to the back deck and sticking their mouths under the tap of the big thermos for the really cold stuff.  I sat and told them jokes while they bent over to drink it, and even Molly laughed at the jokes she didn’t understand.

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14 Responses to The Root Beer Legacy

  1. Macy Bell says:

    cute. I have to say it was dang good root beer….everyone raved!

  2. Andrea W. says:

    Ryan, you captured so beautifully the magic of Grandpa and his rootbeer. Perhaps you did too good a job, I’m really homesick for Grandma and Grandpa. Great post.

  3. Eliza says:

    Ditto to Ange. Fabulously written post, captured the magic of childhood and how things always just “appeared” at group functions and made your little life awesome. I totally remember you asking for root-beer extract in all your letters, so random and funny.

  4. Funny how sights, smells and sounds can take you back to a former life. Homemade rootbeer is one of my top ten nostalgia triggers. The most powerful is sunblock, but that doesn’t take me back to a specific event, just good summer times in general. Sunblock. Hmmmmmm.

    I’d like that rootbeer recipe, btw.

  5. Ryan says:

    When you’re ready, Kook. When you’re ready.

    Eliza, that’s a great point about how things used to just appear. It’s amazing how much work those things require now that we’re adults, huh?

  6. Davis says:

    I don’t why I would have made fun of you for always asking for root beer extract. That’s a perfectly normal thing to ask your Mom to ship thousands of miles to you.

  7. Azucar says:

    Remember how if you drank it too soon, you’d have yeast burps?
    Cabal of the Homemade Rootbeer unite.

  8. Landon says:

    I loved the root beer “slurpee” that was left over when all the liquid was gone, the games were over and fireworks were just about to start. I also seem to remember it being stirred with a yardstick. maybe that’s my imagination, i can’t remember it that well.

  9. Ryan says:

    Yes, the amazing stomach stretching properties of homemade root beer, with accompanying emissions, were something else, huh? It’s must more noticeable when you play volleyball directly afterward with that kind of taut gut, as the tradition prescribed. Any dive on your stomach always felt like landing on a boulder.

    Landon, I think Davis noted this in his post on the 24th, but like him, I remember it being a round wooden dowel. Where the dowel came from, why it was selected, what types of bacteria it hosted, will never be known. But I’d imagine that if that were on the block at the grandkids’ estate auction, it would have fetched a pretty penny.

  10. Braden says:

    Ry, that was a beautiful post. Funny and poignant–you totally captured Grandpa’s magic, of which the root beer was a large part. Thanks for taking me back for a few minutes to Rohmer Park at twilight.

  11. Ben Pratt says:

    For my Mom’s family, the great common thread is music. Singing together unites us and recalls good times past. Great post, Ryan.

  12. Katie Sherman says:

    You are so lucky you live in Utah where they sell dry ice. I love, love, love homemade root beer and wanted to make it for an activity in New York. I went everywhere in my town..spent an entire day looking for dry ice. Apparently it is illegal to sell it there. Everyone pretty much looked at me with a scornful look when I asked about it. Even gas station attendents for whom I should have been me giving the looks….Great post but now I am craving the brown stuff! Hope and your family are doing well!

  13. Ryan says:

    Brade, sadly, Roemer park is a thing of the past. The 24th is now officially held at Farmington Park. Sort of hard to take, but the root beer is still great.

    Ben, that’s funny, my mom tried to do the same thing with singing in our family. Then Davis and Kook came along and crushed her with their adolescent sullenness.

    Katie, I had no idea this was a controlled substance. Thank you so much for helping to further enhance my image of my grandpa as a bootlegger. I love that. (But seriously- looking for dry ice at a gas station?)

  14. julie says:

    I will be expecting this for our next get-together for sure..

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