Learn the basics you need to know about how to make soda pop from plants.
With soft drinks as much a part of the junk-food pantheon as burgers and fries, it’s hard to imagine that physicians once promoted the drinks as cures for all sorts of ailments. In the late 1800s, druggists frequently served up root beer for well-being, ginger ale for nausea and Coca-Cola for hangovers.
Of course, the sodas of yesteryear were entirely different creatures from the ones we find today. They were made from natural ingredients — the roots, leaves, flowers and barks of plants credited with health benefits. But many pharmacists had received training as chemists, and they couldn’t resist the urge to experiment. By the early 1900s, synthesized flavorings were taking over.
Fortunately, the art of how to make soda pop from plants was not completely lost. For centuries, homemakers had been stirring up batches of “small beers” — low-alcohol, bubbly drinks — right alongside homebrewed beer. During Prohibition, when the only way to acquire beer was to make it yourself, the art of small beers also went through a revival.
You can rekindle this tradition in your own kitchen. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
Yeast and sugar are what give homebrewed sodas their carbonation. As the yeast cells consume sugar and reproduce, they create carbon dioxide and alcohol. Normally, carbon dioxide dissipates into the air. But trapped inside a closed bottle with sugary water, it has no choice but to infuse the liquid. The amount of alcohol in the finished product is very low.
Bread, ale, lager, wine and champagne yeasts contribute slightly different flavors, but all result in a fine fizz. The recipes here call for granulated yeast of any variety. I generally use champagne yeast because of its light flavor, but some people prefer the “yeastier” taste of bread and beer yeasts. Don’t use nutritional yeast (sometimes called brewer’s yeast), which is not alive and therefore will not produce carbonation.
To activate granulated yeasts, mix 1/8 teaspoon of yeast with 1/4 cup of lukewarm water (no warmer than 109 degrees) and let sit for about 15 minutes.
To minimize alcohol and maximize fizz, bottle your brew within an hour of adding yeast to it. The easiest method uses empty plastic soda bottles. Pour your yeasted brew into clean bottles and twist on the caps. Squeeze the bottles and notice how they give slightly. Every few hours, squeeze the bottles again. You will notice that they become progressively harder to squeeze. Once the bottles no longer give when you squeeze them (this may take from a few hours at the height of summer to many days in winter), the soda is sufficiently carbonated. Refrigerate promptly.
You also can use the bail-top beer bottles in which some imported beers — such as Grolsch and Altenmünster — are sold. I bottle most of my soda in these bottles, but continue to fill at least one plastic bottle per batch so I can gauge the rate of carbonation.
Sanitize your bottles before you fill them by soaking in a solution of 2 tablespoons unscented chlorine bleach in a gallon of water for 30 minutes. Rinse the bottles or allow them to air dry, then fill.
Never store yeast-carbonated soda at room temperature. The yeast will continue to produce carbon dioxide, building up so much pressure that the bottle bursts.
Once you get the hang of making soda from scratch, you’ll likely want to venture into creating your own signature recipes.
First, come up with a list of plants you enjoy in herbal teas. Let’s say you love peppermint tea. To end up with about a gallon of peppermint soda, you’ll need a gallon of water, 1 to 2 cups of sugar and 16 times the plant material you would normally use to make one cup of tea. If you use a teaspoon of crushed, dried mint to make a cup of tea, you’ll need 16 teaspoons to make a gallon of soda.
If you want to get more complicated, you can substitute juice for some or all of the water. For every 2 cups of sweet juice you use, decrease the sugar by 1/4 cup. (Don’t decrease the sugar when using sour juices, such as lemon, lime or unsweetened cranberry.)
Mix all your ingredients and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes if using leaves or flowers, or 30 to 60 minutes if using roots. Then follow steps 2 through 7 outlined in the Tonic Root Beer Recipe.
Then drink up and marvel over what the poor folks at those fast-food places are missing.
Kathryn Kingsbury is a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance writer. She enjoys exploring local plant life and turning her kitchen into a culinary chemistry lab.
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