Prior to the discovery of artificial carbonation the only way to obtain carbonation was through fermentation by the action of yeast on unrefined sugar. Historically there was no sharp distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages; the alcohol content was completely dependent on the length of time fermentation was allowed to work. “Small beers” were low in alcohol, “table beers” contained a moderate amount, and “strong beers” were just as the name implies.
The earliest records of fermented beverages are attributed to the Sumerians who are thought to be the first people to have developed a forerunner for beer. Beer was considered very important in the context of medicine, ritual and myth. Varieties included rose, frankincense, honey and garlic beer. It’s thought that the Sumerians made bread as a way of storing the raw materials to make beer and that they actually make the beer from bread.
Terminology from the Old World
Cordial: A broad definition, often used interchangeably to refer to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. However it almost always refers to a restorative beverage, and may be considered to be synonymous with tonic.
Rob: A vegetable juice, thickened by reducing the liquid by long simmering.
Switchel: A beverage flavored with molasses, ginger and vinegar
Shrub: A fruit drink with vinegar or brandy added.
The New world
Native Americans made teas flavored with birch bark, sarsaparilla, mint and wild ginger. The settlers arriving from Europe with their tradition of brewed beers and cordials eventually started using native barks and leaves in their own recipes. Add Caribbean spices and sugar and all the key ingredients are in place for the evolution of root beer.
Root Beer Ingredients
• Sassafras root (Sassafras albidum): Native Americans made a tea from the root. Exported by the English colonists in the 1600s as a cure for venereal disease. The dominant flavor in sarsaparilla and birch beers.
• Burdock root (Arctium lappa): The root is said to eliminate toxins from the body.
• Sarsaparilla: Several plants around the world go by the common name sarsaparilla. Usual source for the root are several sp. from the Smilax genus, typically S. regelii. Originally from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. It has a bitter licorice-like flavor. It was widespread as a cure-all and tonic, especially for syphilis. Modern day clinical trials have shown impressive results in treating conditions such as leprosy and syphilis.
• Wild black cherry bark (Prunus serotina): Common in the eastern part of the country. Used sparingly – flavor similar to stale cigars. Supposed to help with coughs and colds as well as being mildly sedative.
• Spruce twigs: Acted as a preservative. The best tasting was black spruce
• Birch Sap (Betula lenta): Birch trees tapped in early spring. Sap used in place of water. Gives a slightly wintergreen flavor and a natural sweetness.
• Effervescent mineral waters have been cherished by many societies throughout history.
• Artificial carbonation in the lab was first achieved by a Swiss alchemist named Thurneysser in 1560. Various methods using strong acids and powdered chalk were used.
• Two Americans were independently successful in 1807 at bottling artificially carbonated soda water. The fashion for taking the waters at urban soda fountains grew in the early 1800s.
• Flavor was first added commercially by Pierre Lacour. He created recipes for a variety of syrups: lemon, vanilla, grape, and a spirit of aromatics (including ginger, sassafras, cloves and bergamot).
• French immigrant Roussel of Philadelphia then started bottling a lemon soda for sale locally.
Early patent medicines
Sold throughout America, these provided a lucrative and totally unregulated field for enterprising pharmacists. In the 1880’s several thick sweet syrups appeared for sale at licensed soda fountains. Mixed with carbonated water, they promised relief from a wide variety of common ailments from the simple headache, upset stomach to exhaustion.
• Ayer’s Sarsaparilla
Invented by Dr. J.C. Ayer in Lowell MA. Described as the “best blood purifier” and as a treatment for exhaustion and dyspepsia. Among other claims it could treat “disorders of the liver, stomach and kidneys as well as TB, tumors, female weakness, pimples and syphilis. With sodas like Ayers readily available doctors started to lose their monopoly on medical knowledge to the druggists selling sodas. Ayers also acquired a reputation for enhancing the male body and virility.
• Corbett’s Shaker’s Sarsaparilla
Made by the shakers and deemed as a “great purifier of the blood and other bodily fluids”. Claimed it would help with many conditions: gout, gravel, white swellings and palpitations of the heart
Invented by John S. Pemberton in 1886. A seven-ingredient cure using spices and plant extracts. Popularity grew in response to the temperance movement. It was one of many of the early patent medicines that contained coca. Coca (Erythroxylum coca) use goes back at least 1500 yrs in South America. The Incas took a cocada (the equivalent of a tea or coffee break) when they would chew coca leaves. This helped them cope with the high altitude. Coca became popular as a stimulant tonic in 19th century Europe. It was taken as a tea or an elixir and was enjoyed by the pope and Sigmund Freud. Due to prohibition the recipe was modified and promoted as an alcohol free “Intellectual Beverage and Temperance Drink”. When coca and all its derivatives were banned in 1902 it was removed as an ingredient. Cola is a pleasant flavored stimulant that comes from the seeds of the African cola tree (Cola nitida). It contains caffeine and it adds sweetness.
• Dr. Pepper
Invented by pharmacist Wade Morrison of Waco, Texas in 1885. It contained 23 plant ingredients and was named after a colleague in the East who had driven Morrison off for romancing Pepper’s daughter! Ingredients included sassafras, coriander, ginger, and nutmeg.
Promoted itself for “home and hospital use”. Its makers claimed it would cure hangovers, nervousness, sleeplessness and excessive smoking.Transformation from patent medicine to sodaCritics called for reform of the cure-all elixirs and in a series of published articles they attacked unsubstantiated claims and the hidden harmful ingredients (cocaine and alcohol). The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the result. Manufacturers remarketed their medicine as a refreshing drink but no miracle cure. Coca remained as a flavoring for some time after, although in much smaller amounts.
The Basics of Making Naturally Carbonated Soda (aka Small Beer)
Basic Equipment for Getting Started
- Plastic soda bottles with screw tops, glass bail-top beer bottles, or glass 12-oz. bottles and caps1 gallon bottle if bottling in individual serving bottles
- Unscented chlorine bleach
- Large pot (2 Qt. minimum)
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Thermometer ranging from 32° to 212°F (nice to have, but not necessary)
Sanitizing your Bottles
Before you fill your bottles, sanitize them by soaking in a solution of 1 gallon of water with 2 T unscented chlorine bleach. Wait for 10 to 30 minutes, and then rinse well with clear tap water. This will minimize the possibility of introducing wild yeast to your soda.
Basic Ingredients for 1 gallon soda
- 1 gallon water
- 1 to 2 cups sugar
- 7 t yeast
More About the Basic Ingredients
• Sugar (more correctly, sweetener) – The primary purpose for the sweetener is to provide the food that makes the yeast happy. The secondary purpose for the sweetener is to provide a pleasant taste to make you happy. Every recipe must contain some form of sugar for the yeast to convert to alcohol. The by-product of the yeast breaking down the sugar is carbon dioxide. Table sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and corn syrup are all suitable sweeteners. Additionally, the fructose provided by fruit juices acts as a sweetener. Sugar substitutes such as aspartame, saccharin or sucralose (Splenda) are not suitable sweeteners for our primary purpose; yeast cannot process these, so will not yield carbon dioxide.
• You can substitute fruit juice for all or some of the water. For every 2 cups of sweet juice you use, decrease the sugar by 3 c. If using a sour juice such as lemon, lime or unsweetened cranberry, don’t decrease the sugar.
• You can substitute artificial sweetener for all but c of the sugar. You must have at least 4 T sugar per gallon to feed the yeast. Additionally, add the amount of sweetener equivalent to 1 c sugar.
• Yeast – Yeasts are small single-celled organisms (more specifically fungi). They are everywhere including in the air. When we’re making carbonated soda, however, we prefer Saccharomyces cerevisiae (bread or ale yeast), S. bayanus (champagne yeast), S. uvarum (lager yeast), not the wild yeast. Bread yeast will work, but a more refined taste will result if you use champagne, beer or wine yeast. These are all varied strains of yeast that have been isolated because of their abilities to flocculate (clump at the bottom of the bottle), attenuate (consume the sugar), tolerate alcohol content, and tolerate temperatures. Champagne yeast is ideally suited for soda-making.
• You can herbally infuse the soda by making a strong tisane of leaves, roots, barks or flowers. When using a plant matter you normally use for tea, for instance, use 16 times the amount of material you would normally use for a cup of tea. Mix your ingredients in 1-2 quarts water and bring to a simmer. For leaves and flowers, simmer 10 to 15 minutes. For barks and roots, simmer 30 to 60 minutes. The tisane will be quite strong, but remember it will be diluted with 2-3 quarts water.
• Raisins – High in natural yeast and tannins (reduce cloudiness). Drop in one or two softened raisins for each 12 ounces at bottling time.
Basic Instructions for 1 gallon of Soda
• Proof the yeast
Soften the yeast by dissolving in a cup of lukewarm (baby bottle temperature) water for 5 to 15 minutes. This should be thoroughly mixed before adding the rest of the ingredients. Champagne, beer or ale yeast will give the best results, but bread yeast will work. Bread yeast tends to make the soft drink taste a little “yeasty” or “bready.” Do not use brewers yeast. This is an inactive yeast that will not ferment.
• Flavor the liquid
In a 2-quart (minimum) saucepan, add your plant matter or flavoring to 1 to 2 quarts water (or juice). Add all the sugar. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes to an hour (see above). Remove from heat and, with cover still on, let cool for 25 minutes.
• Strain out the plant matter
Pour 1 quart of cool water into either a sterilized one-gallon bottle, or your sterilized plastic soda bottles (divided). Using a large funnel, slowly pour in your flavored liquid, straining the liquid as you go.
• Add remaining liquid
Add the remaining liquid to within 3 inches of the top of the bottle. Ideally, the overall temperature of the mixture will be lukewarm (70° to 76°F).
Cap the bottle and agitate vigorously for a few seconds. You want the sugar evenly distributed throughout.
• Add yeast
Open the bottle, add the proofed yeast and its water. Cap the bottle again and shake the jug. Leave capped and let sit about 15 minutes.
• Top off with liquid
Fill the bottle with tepid liquid leaving 1” to 2” of headspace, cap loosely, and immediately bottle.
• Bottle (if not mixed directly in the fermenting bottle)
If bottling in individual bottles, you’ll need eleven 12-ounce bottles, or eight pint bottles. Fill the bottles and immediately cap them. If the mixture will remain in plastic bottles, tighten the screw-top cap firmly.
• Allow fermentation/carbonation to progress
Carbonation time will depend on many factors, among them: quality of the yeast, temperature of the room, and acidity of the mixture. Older yeast will slow carbonation. A warm room will speed up carbonation. A more acid mixture will slow carbonation. Typically, carbonation will be complete within 1 to 7 days. If carbonating in plastic bottles, the bottles will become very firm. If bottling in glass bottles, you may want to fill a single screw-top plastic bottle of the mixture to allow you to test when carbonation is complete.
When carbonation is complete, put all the bottles in the fridge. Wait a few days before drinking to allow the yeast to settle out, and the flavors to mellow. The bottles need to remain refrigerated until they are consumed, otherwise they’ll likely explode.
Your soda should always be chilled when you drink it. Chilled soda is less likely to gush from the bottle. Gushing causes a mess, and disturbs the sediment that’s settled on the bottom of the bottle causing you to get yeast and sediment in your glass (not so tasty).
Common Problems – Tweaking the Process
It’s bound to happen. You just hope it happens to a half-gallon batch and not the 5-gallon batch you’ve made for a special occasion. Bad batches are typically the result of a bad recipe, bad ingredients, bad measurements, or poor sanitation. If you’re trying a new recipe, you may want to start with a half-gallon batch. Writing your measurements down will minimize mistakes as you experiment. Since your results will be evident in less than a week, the process can be refined fairly quickly. Usually, you can be fairly certain that if an un-carbonated beverage tastes good, it will taste good with bubbles. If you’re tweaking a known recipe, go slow with your changes. Taste the batch as you make your changes to be sure you’re happy with the results.
Gushers – The carbonation happened too quickly before the batch was refrigerated. Excessive yeast was incorporated, the bottles were left at room temperature too long, the room was too warm, or it was stored in the fridge too long (5 weeks is about the limits) and continued to, however slightly, carbonate.
Exploders – Typically the situations that cause gushers, cause exploders if left doing their thing. Rarely, if ever, does a bottle explode if refrigerated as soon as the carbonation is sufficient.
Flat or weak carbonation – The bottles may have been cooled before they were fully carbonated. Overheating may have killed the yeast. The yeast may have been old. The bottle cap may have leaked. The sugar may have been omitted. Citrus juice will slow the carbonation significantly. Give these batches several extra days to carbonate.
Skunky taste – Your beverage was likely exposed to light during its fermentation stage. Keep the bottles in a dark, warm (but not hot) place to ferment.
Sulfur-like, buttery, or rubbery taste - Poor sanitation will result in contamination with wild yeasts and bacteria. These will likely yield an “off” taste. Don’t skip the step of sterilizing your bottles.
Yeasty taste – Too much yeast will yield a yeasty taste. Different strains of yeast will lend a “bready” undertone. Pouring carefully will typically leave the yeast as sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
Ginger Beer (“Ginger Beer Plant” method)
A popular recipe from the 19th century. Sweet and mildly alcoholic with a strong ginger flavor. Medieval brewers had difficulty brewing consistently good beer. Open fermentation was easily contaminated and often had slightly off flavors. Ginger was a favorite flavoring agent acting as a mask, hence the large number of ginger beer/ale/pop recipes
The “ginger beer plant”
½ oz dried yeast
½ pt water
sugar (3 T total)
ground ginger (3 T total)
juice of 2 lemons
Put the yeast into a jar. Add water, 2 tsp. sugar and 2 tsp. ground ginger. Mix well. Cover the jar with cling film. Each day for 7 days add 1 tsp. sugar and 1 tsp. ground ginger. Finally strain the mixture, add the lemon juice to the liquid and reserve the sediment*.
The liquid is now ready to use.
“ginger beer plant” liquid
2 oz sugar
cold boiled water
Add the sugar to the ginger beer plant liquid and make up to 1 gallon with water, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved. Pour into strong, dark-colored beer bottles and cap off with pop-off plastic lids. Leave for 7-10 days before drinking.
*For future use (or to give a friend), keep the sediment and divide it equally between two jars. To each jar add ½ pt water, 2 tsp. sugar and 2 tsp. ginger and proceed as previously, ad infinitum.
Strawberry-Lemon Ginger Ale
Juice if 5 lemons (about 1 c)
1 can strawberry nectar
1 c sugar
1 oz. fresh gingerroot, coarsely shredded
4 quarts water
t yeast plus
2 dozen raisins softened in warm water
1. Simmer juices, sugar, gingerroot and 1 quart water for 30 minutes.
2. Remove from heat. Strain. Discard plant material.
3. Mix the strained liquid with the remaining 3 quarts water.
4. If necessary, let the brew cool until lukewarm
.5. Meanwhile, stir yeast with cup water, let sit 15 minutes, stir again and add to the brew.
6. Let brew sit 10 minutes.
7. Bottle with 2 raisins for each 12 ounces per liquid.
Lemony Snicket’s Parsley Soda from Kathryn Kingsbury, The Herb Companion
12 oz. fresh parsley (about two bunches)
c lime juice
1 c white sugar
4 quarts water
t yeast plus
Put parsley, lime juice, sugar and 1 quart water in a pot. Simmer until sugar is dissolved and parsley turns from bright to dull green. Follow steps 2 through 7 of Strawberry-Lemon Ginger Ale above.
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The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit