Make Pop from Plants

Combine herbs with sugar and yeast for soda pop that will beat the socks off anything you can buy in the store.

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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 overall well-being, ginger ale for nausea and Coca-Cola for headaches and hangovers.

Of course, the sodas of yesteryear were entirely different creatures from the ones we find on our supermarket shelves today. They were made from natural ingredients — the roots, leaves, flowers and barks of plants credited with health benefits. But pharmacists would not leave well enough alone. Many had received training as chemists, and they couldn’t resist the urge to experiment with different chemical combinations to produce artificial colorings and flavorings. By the early nineteen hundreds, synthesized flavorings were taking over the soda world.

Fortunately, the art of making 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. Small beers, such as root beer and ginger ale, allowed children and workers to enjoy the refreshing foaminess of beer without the drunkenness. During Prohibition, when the only way to acquire beer was to make it yourself, the art of small beers also went through a revival and, in some corners of the country, it stuck.

You can rekindle this tradition in your own kitchen. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

• Large soup or spaghetti pot
• Funnel
• Plastic soda bottles with screw-on caps and/or bail-top beer bottles
• Unscented chlorine bleach
• Sugar
• Herbs
• Yeast

A WORD ON YEAST

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 and transform it into pop. (The amount of alcohol in the finished product is very low — no more than what is found in commercial near beers.)

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. Experiment and find your own favorites, but 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. Then you can add it to your brew.

BOTTLETOP YOUR BOTTLED POP

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 and drink cold.

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. Sanitizing removes wild microorganisms that could spoil your batch.

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. Then you are in for potential danger and a big mess.

CREATE YOUR OWN RECIPES

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 on Page 45.

Then drink up and marvel over what the poor folks at those fast-food places are missing.

RECIPES

TONIC ROOT BEER

This recipe combines the roots of several wild plants traditionally used in herbal medicine for overall health. The essential ingredient is sassafras. The other roots are optional, but add complexity and body to the end product.

1/4 ounce dried sassafras root bark
1/4 ounce dried astragalus root
1/8 ounce dried bayberry root bark
1/8 ounce dried sarsaparilla root
11/2 ounces fresh, thinly sliced yellow dock root (also known as curly dock)
3/4 ounce fresh burdock root, thinly sliced
1/4 ounce fresh dandelion root
11/2 cups white sugar
4 quarts water
1/8 teaspoon yeast plus 1/4 cup water

1. Mix the roots and sugar with 1 quart of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Remove from heat. Strain. Discard plant material.
3. Mix the strained liquid with the remaining 3 quarts of water.
4. If necessary, let the brew cool until lukewarm.
5. Meanwhile, stir yeast with 1/4 cup water, let sit 15 minutes, stir again and add to the brew. Stir.
6. Let brew sit 10 minutes.
7. Bottle.

If yeast carbonation seems too complicated, substitute 3 quarts of club soda or carbonated mineral water for the 3 quarts of water in step 3. Skip steps 3 through 7. After bottling, refrigerate immediately. Makes eight 16-ounce bottles.

STRAWBERRY-LAVENDER SODA

This soda is based on strawberry juice, which you can purchase at health-food stores or make yourself by cooking 2 quarts of strawberries in a small amount of water until soft, then squeezing the juice out through muslin cloth.

5 cups strawberry juice
2 cups pear or apple juice
4 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
11/2 cups white sugar
3 quarts water
1/8 teaspoon yeast plus 1/4 cup water

Simmer strawberry juice, pear or apple juice, lavender flowers and sugar for 10 minutes. Proceed with steps 2 to 7 of the Tonic Root Beer recipe. Makes ten 16-ounce bottles.

ROSE PETAL POP

Choose red or dark pink petals for a pleasantly pink pop. The delicate flavor of pear — another member of the rose family — is a perfect complement to the headier rose aroma. If pear juice is unavailable, substitute white grape juice.

2 cups fresh rose petals
11/4 cups white sugar
2 3/4 cups pear juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup rose water
4 quarts water
1/8 teaspoon yeast plus 1/4 cup water

Simmer together rose petals, sugar, pear juice, lemon juice and 1 quart water for 15 minutes. Strain, squeezing as much liquid as possible from the petals. Discard petals. Mix in rose water and remaining 3 quarts water. Proceed with steps 4 through 7 of the Tonic Root Beer recipe. Makes nine 16-ounce bottles.

PARSLEY SODA

This brew was inspired by a drink of the same name mentioned in the popular children’s serial novel A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. In my version, parsley adds a pale green hue and a subtle, cooling twist to a basic lime soda. The timid may substitute mint or pineapple sage for the parsley.

12 ounces fresh parsley (about two bunches)
3/4 cup lime juice
13/4 cups white sugar
4 quarts water
1/8 teaspoon yeast plus 1/4 cup water

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. Proceed with steps 2 through 7 of the Tonic Root Beer recipe. Makes eight 16-ounce bottles.

ELDERFLOWER BUBBLY

Sodas based on elderflowers have been popular with homebrewers for at least two centuries. Elderflowers have a scent somewhat reminiscent of vanilla. To remove elderflowers from their stems, shake the flower clusters over a pail or rub the clusters between two hands. If that’s too much work, health-food stores carry dried elderflowers.

1 quart boiling water
3 to 4 cups elderflowers, stems removed
1 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Peel and juice of one lemon
3 quarts water
1/8 teaspoon yeast plus 1/4 cup water

Pour boiling water over elderflowers. Let steep overnight. Strain. Squeeze remaining liquid out of flowers. Discard flowers. To the liquid, add sugar, vinegar, and lemon peel and juice. Simmer 10 minutes. Proceed with steps 2 through 7 of the Tonic Root Beer recipe. Makes eight 16-ounce bottles.

GINGER ALE

12/3 ounces fresh gingerroot, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 cup dehydrated cane juice or brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
4 quarts water

Simmer ginger, juices, sugars and 1 quart water for 30 to 60 minutes. (Longer simmer time produces stronger flavor.) Proceed with steps 2 through 7 of the Tonic Root Beer recipe. Makes eight 16-ounce bottles.


Kathryn Kingsbury is a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance writer. She enjoys exploring local plant life and turning her kitchen into a culinary chemistry lab.