Before the modern soda craze, which has caused all manner of health problems and sugar addictions, people made their own refreshing, fermented drinks at home. Most early recipes refer to these drinks as “beer” or “ale,” and the entire family drank them, including young children. These weren’t high-alcohol beverages, though — most only fermented 1 to 3 percent alcohol, if that. Instead, these drinks were a way to pass along the nutrition, flavor, and medicinal effects of various plants. They were often much safer than the water available in settled areas.
Some drinks weren’t even carbonated, but rather simple mixes of various liquids — water, vinegar, maple syrup, molasses, and so on — and flavoring ingredients. Up until the early 19th century, pharmacists recommended sodas containing certain plant materials to help with ailments. Over time, synthetic ingredients replaced the natural ones, until sodas became the sugar-packed drinks we’re accustomed to today.
Luckily, you can easily recreate the old-time versions of these beverages at home with equipment and ingredients you likely already have on hand. You can incorporate a wild array of flavors into your home soda brews, and you can further diversify each drink’s flavor and medicinal benefits by using different parts of the plant, from the leaves and stems to the flowers, fruits, and roots.
For a 1-gallon batch of soda, you’ll need the essential tools and ingredients listed below. Once you get your soda-brewing technique down, you can modify this basic blueprint to make a near-infinite range of drinks.
To develop your own soda recipes, you’ll need to follow some basic guidelines. Yeast turns sugar into alcohol if left to ferment long enough, but you’ll be bottling before this can happen, so there’ll be some residual sugar rather than alcohol. And because carbon dioxide (CO2) is a byproduct of fermentation, your drink will be carbonated rather than alcoholic. Even if you did let this ferment fully, it would contain no more than 1 to 2 percent alcohol. Just keep in mind that you’re not using the high-fructose corn syrup found in most commercial sodas, so the finished product will taste differently from what you’re used to.
Brewing your own soda allows you to customize the flavors and medicinal benefits of each batch. Any herbs used to make tea can be used for a healthy soda, though you’ll need about 15 times more plant material than you’d use for a traditional cup of tea. If you’re adding fruit, you’ll need 1 to 2 cups of chopped fruit. Adding more fruit doesn’t hurt, but be careful about adding too many herbs, as many of them have strong flavor components that can be overpowering.
Bottle Your Brew
Each of the following soda recipes ends with instructions to bottle the homemade drink. Here’s how to do it.
Pour the soda into a single vessel with a spigot, or transfer it into individual bottles using a small funnel. This is a very active ferment that’ll continue to ferment and expel CO2 once it’s bottled. If you leave a glass container sealed for too long, you’ll either end up with an explosion of glass shards, or a gushing volcano when you open the bottle. That’s why many home soda makers bottle up at least one plastic test bottle to gauge the level of carbonation. When the plastic bottle is too tight to squeeze, the soda is ready to go.
Store the bottles in a low-traffic area of your home in a box covered with a towel. Allow the soda to continuing fermenting, but for no longer than 24 hours (12 hours in warmer months), as it’s a fast-acting ferment. Then, take a test bottle outside and open it; the liquid may gush out from the top, but that fizz means your soda is finished.
Recap the test bottle, and refrigerate it and the remaining bottles to slow further fermentation. Be sure to consume all your homemade soda within 2 to 3 weeks of brewing.
It can be difficult to convert modern soda addicts into homebrew enthusiasts, but I find that most people enjoy the flavor of homemade sodas, especially kids. At first drink, it’s not what you’d expect from a soda, but you’ll be hooked before you reach the bottom of your glass. And since you make it yourself, you can adapt the flavor as needed; if it ferments a little dry, just blend in a bit more honey or sugar and give it another try. Brewing your own soda takes longer than a trip to the grocery store, but it’s worth the extra effort. Plus, there’s nothing like the feeling of adding another homesteading skill to your repertoire!
Tools and Materials
- 2- to 3-gallon cooking pot
- Stirring spoon
- 1-gallon glass or plastic jug, plus airlock with rubber stopper (a balloon will also work)
- Large funnel
- Vessel with spigot for bottling, or small funnel
- Bottles with re-closeable screw-on lids, or swing-top bottles
- Plastic soda bottle, optional
- 1 to 2 cups granulated sugar (white or cane), or raw honey
- 1-gallon spring water or nonchlorinated tap water
- Yeast *
- Herbs, roots, flowers, or fruits, as many as desired
* Most home soda-makers use a packet of champagne yeast. Bread yeast and ale yeast will work as well, but some brewers feel they impart a yeasty flavor to the finished product. To forego purchasing yeast, you can make your own starter instead.
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Jereme Zimmerman is a traditional brewing revivalist, homesteader, and speaker at nationwide natural living events, including Mother Earth News Fairs. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and daughters.