Make Pop from Plants

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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

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
• 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

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

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.


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

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

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.


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

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

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.



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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.

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