Back in the ‘50s, my brothers, sister and I eagerly awaited the arrival of Aunt Rosie and our four cousins. They drove up in early August from Philadelphia and stayed for several weeks at our old farmhouse in upstate New York. While Mom and Aunt Rosie played canasta ‘round the clock, we did all the fun stuff kids do on a farm.
We picked plump red raspberries and sold them from a card table set up at the bottom of Roselawn Road. (Each of us made about 25 cents, which went immediately to the local candy store.)
We staged talent shows in the barn hayloft. We used old plywood to build “Fort Apache” in an area of the back woods that we dubbed “Sherwood Forest.” We caught crayfish in the brook, then gave them elaborate funerals. At dusk, we captured fireflies and put them in mason jars — the original nightlight!
But the highlight of their visit was making root beer. Several days before the cousins arrived, the four of us scavenged for glass bottles of any size and shape, then washed and dried them. The morning of the big brew, Mom filled a large speckled gray galvanized pot with cold water from the kitchen sink faucet, brought it to a boil, added sugar, yeast and then the special elixir — root beer concentrate.
We eight kids stood in a semi-circle around the stove like puppies at feeding time. Each of us envisioned a great future in bottling and selling our own home-made “boot beer."
When the brew had cooked enough so that Mom declared it ready, we placed old newspapers on the kitchen table and poured the hot liquid through a funnel into our motley assortment of soda bottles. “Don’t fill them too high,” Aunt Rosie warned us. “Leave an inch or two at the top.”
Then came the best part — capping the bottles. Mom had bought a capper at the church thrift sale. It was made of red metal, stood about two feet high and, as my sister recalls, “had an important handle that required leverage.” Each of us took turns. Once capped, we toted the bottles down to the cool dark cellar and stored them in cardboard boxes.
“You’ve gotta wait at least a week before the ‘boot beer' is ready,” Mom warned us. “It needs time to ferment.”
“What’s ‘ferment’?”, cousin John asked.
Mom’s advice fell on deaf ears. Within half an hour, John had tiptoed down to the cellar, popped open a bottle filled with the warm watery brown fluid and hollered, “Not ready yet, guys.”
Every night as we laid in bed, our hopes for a future in the root beer business were dashed one bottle at a time. WHUMPH! A bottle exploded. Then WHUMPH WHUMPH. Two bottles exploded.
Between cousin John’s frequent tasting visits to the cellar (“Still not ready!”) and the nightly WHUMPH WHUMPH WHUMPHs, we ended up with about five bottles. To this day I remember it as the best root beer I ever tasted.
Nowadays “Mr. Root Beer Home Brewing Kits” sell at Amazon for under $15. Most bottles are screw-tops. I hope kids making their “boot beer” today have as much fun as we did, all those many Augusts ago. And I sure hope they don’t hear their cousin cry, “Still not ready!”