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.

| August/September 2005

  • Burdock

  • Parsley

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


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.)

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