Soda Brewing

At this point my commentary about various aspects of soda brewing are spread so evenly through my blog archives that I think it’s time to collect some of them in one place for easy access for people who are looking for the information. The following is a somewhat ordered list of items that I think are important for people who are trying to brew their own naturally carbonated sodas. That said, this is far from a definitive work and I would be glad to hear from others about their own thoughts on this topic. Actually, that’s not quite true: I would be astonishingly excited to talk to anyone else that is also brewing sodas.

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Basic Recipe
My basic soda recipe is as follows:
Software:

  • X gallons purified drinking water
  • X pounds sugar
  • Flavoring
  • 1/4 teaspoon brewers yeast for every 5 gallons of water

Hardware:

  • 11, 12oz bottles per gallon of water
  • Food grade bottling bucket large enough to hold the entire volume of water
  • Food grade tubing
  • Racking cane/Bottle filler
  • 1 bottle cap for each bottle, plus a few spares just in case
  • Stainless steel 2-4 gallon kettle
  • Large metal ladle
  • 2 cup Pyrex or glass measuring cup

Before you start you must clean and sanitize everything. This is very, very, very important. If you don’t sanitize something you are likely at best to have some pretty odd flavors in the resulting soda, and at worst will need a trip to the emergency room. Don’t kid yourself, it does happen. The best people to tell you everything you need to know about sanitization are at your local brewing supply store, and they are more than happy to do so. It doesn’t take much time or effort to do properly and is always worth it. If you have no interest in properly sanitizing your equipment and workspace you should NOT be brewing.

1. Bring no more than 1/4 of your total volume of water to a simmer in a large stainless steel pot.
2. Chill the remaining water thoroughly.
2. Dissolve all of the sugar thoroughly in the water.
3. Set aside 1-2 cups of the sugar solution.
4. Add flavoring to remaining solution and increase heat to just bring it to a boil.
5. Allow solution from step 3 to cool to just above room temperature.
6. Dissolve yeast into cooled solution and let stand to allow it to bloom.
7. Continue to allow flavored solution to boil until flavor is very strong and very sweet, then turn off the heat and let cool.
8. When the yeast has been blooming for at least 15min there should be a short layer of foam on the top.
9. Pour half of the chilled water into the bottling bucket, then the flavored solution, then the yeast, and then the remaining cooled water.
10. Bottle and cap quickly.
11. Store bottles in a warm, dry, and dark location for 60 hours. Be sure they are not exposed directly to sunlight.
12. Place the bottles in a refrigerator and let cool for at least 1-2 hours.
13. The soda will usually be best 3-5 days after being chilled. Drink within 1 month.

While you are at the store learning how to sanitize your equipment, the helpful people will probably also be very happy to sell you just about everything on the hardware and software lists. Your first time making a batch of soda I would recommend using Champagne yeast and an extract for flavoring. Rainbow and Gnome both make very good extracts and are widely available. If you are feeling more adventurous you can also use your favorite tea. Once you’ve made a few batches from extracts or teas, I strongly encourage perusing the herb and produce sections at the local co-op or supermarket for ideas.

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Glass vs Plastic
So far, every time that I’ve talked to someone who works at a brewing supply store I have heard the same thing: Never brew soda in glass bottles. Anyone who is looking to start brewing their own soda is very likely to hear the same thing and it is basically good advice, but I think it’s important to note that this usually dire warning is a bit overstated.

The basic argument is that because there is nothing to inhibit the yeast in the bottle from continuing to produce more CO2 using glass bottles is akin to producing little glass bombs that you never quite know when they are going to go off. It is also pointed out that a typical plastic bottle is flexible enough to be very useful in figuring out when your soda is done carbonating and is ready to be chilled.

These points however overlook the number of flaws of using plastic bottles. They are much easier to damage, must be replaced more often, add an unpleasant flavor to whatever you put into them, and in my opinion look ugly. Plastic is by it’s nature more porous than glass. When I say they are much easier to damage, I am not just referring to obvious physical wear and tear, but also that if you ever have any sort of mold or other undesirable in the bottle there is no chance that you can use that bottle safely ever again.

By following several very simple rules, glass bottles can be used very safely without ever exposing anyone to the risk of a face full of glass shards:

  • Most soda is fully carbonated after 55 to 80 hours. The actual time is greatly effected by the amount of sugar and yeast, as well as the acidity of the soda along with the air temperature where they are stored for carbonation. Higher amounts of sugar, yeast, and temperature equal shorter carbonation time. Higher amounts of acid require longer carbonation times. In almost all cases I carbonate my sodas for 60 hours in 68F with good results.
  • Always keep the bottles out of direct sunlight. While a minute or 2 isn’t going to hurt anything, it’s quite possible that an hour might kill you. Sunlight contains a LOT of energy and is very good at making things in your soda that had no intention of doing anything suddenly become very dangerous. If your soda has been left unrefrigerated in the sunlight for an hour or more THROW IT OUT. And be careful opening the bottles when you do.
  • Once you have chilled the bottles, keep them that way. Short trips of 1-2 hours without refrigeration will probably be okay, but any longer and you need a well tended cooler.
  • When you have chilled the bottles the yeast has not completely stopped working. You will notice that as they have been in the fridge longer, they will get more carbonated, but much more slowly than when they are at room temp. I find that after about 1 month the carbonation has gotten to the point that it is very likely that every bottle will be “a gusher”. The biggest problem with gushers is that the yeast that used to be neatly at the bottom of the bottle will suddenly be mixed in with the soda very effectively by the fast stream of bubbles going everywhere. Brightly colored sodas also tend to stain nice carpets very well too. Once I’ve gotten 2 bottles out of a batch that are gushers, the rest go down the drain. Besides, if you haven’t drunk most of it already you probably made too much in the first place. :-)
  • Limit the amount of yeast you start with. It is no coincidence that my basic recipe has a variable amount of water and a fixed amount of yeast. For batches under 5 gallons I find that 1/4 teaspoon of yeast is always quite sufficient. Less than that is harder to measure but would probably be just as good for 1-2 gallons. Often the finished taste of the soda is also effected strongly by the amount of yeast you start with.

Follow those simple rules and I think you’ll have a much better experience using glass bottles than plastic.

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Good Yeast
For reasons completely unknown to me most brewing supply stores will recommend RedStar Champagne yeast as a good yeast for making soda. I can say that without exception the soda that I have made using this yeast has been execrable, and usually undrinkable. I have heard that other people have great success with the stuff, but if you have a choice try something else. I have have very good results using Lavlin EC-1118 Champagne yeast and highly recommend it.

If you take the time to look through the selection of yeasts at your local brewing supply store you will notice that there is a huge variety of yeasts. For the most part they all do about the same thing, the difference is that they all impart slightly different flavors as well as texture when they’re doing it.

The flavor part is relatively simple to explain: Different yeasts taste differently. Some leave a very strong “yeasty” flavor, like the smell of unbaked bread dough. Others leave flavors of mushrooms, spices, or fruits. Champagne yeast is usually recommended for soda making because they tend to be the strains that have the least strong flavors, or at least ones that don’t clash with sweet and bubbly liquids. This should not stop you from experimenting with other yeasts. I have found that very hearty Ale yeasts in particular are very good for root beer.

The texture part is somewhat more complex to explain: Different types of yeast will produce different types of carbonation. The simplest explanation involves the size of the bubbles produced. When you pour a glass of soda you will usually see bubbles that stream out of the liquid. Champagne yeasts generally produce very small bubbles that are the reason why carbonated wines are usually called “sparkling”. They are light and fairly frothy and give a very specific texture to the liquid they carbonate. Other yeasts produce bubbles that are larger or smaller. I find that ale yeasts produce nicely sized bubbles that rise more slowly and impart a more round texture to sodas that can soften the edge of slightly bitter flavors.

When you go looking for yeast you will probably find it in several forms. I would recommend that you stick with dry yeasts. Yeast packets are designed for wine and beer brewing which generally requires a LOT more yeast than you are going to use for soda. With dry yeast it is a fairly simple matter of measuring out what you need and then throwing out the rest. While that may seem like somewhat of a waste, either make larger batches, or do more than one at the same time so that you can use more of it. Generally once the yeast packet has been opened you need to use it then, or not at all. The problem with using liquid or “pitchable” yeasts is that it’s much harder to measure out what you need since most of the contents are liquid. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, just difficult.

Yeast is just as important a component in your soda as the sugar and the flavoring and should not be forgotten when considering exactly what you want to be making. Carefully selecting the right yeast for your batch can mean the difference between a good soda and a great soda.

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Sugars
I am consistently surprised at the lack of knowledge people have about the relatively simple subject known generally as, “sugar”. As with other crafts, like candy making, sugar is a topic that can is inordinately important, and also one that is often ignored. For every batch of soda produced, you will have spent the most money on sugar and every time someone tastes the results of that batch the primary thing they will taste will be the same. When people think about soda, they think about a sweet drink. Liquid candy. Fizzy candy. Candy. That is not to say that all sodas are like candy, but if wine is the chicken stock and beer is the hamburger of brewing, soda is definitely that little treat of sweetness to lighten any mood. Like candy, the difference between mass produced dreck and high quality delights is the quality of the sugar used to make it.

Starting in the early 1980’s, the major soda manufacturer’s made a concerted effort to increase their profit margins. Cane sugar, which is what most people know as “sugar”, was expensive in the American market because of a number of factors, not least of all price protection by the government and they needed a way to continue to be produce products that their market could afford, and at the same time get them more profit. Corn sugar was their solution and today it is a rare product that doesn’t use it when sugar is required.

To put my bias out front I like cane sugar better than corn sugar. To me corn sugar has a very recognizable after taste that is slightly sour. Cane sugars tend to have more depth to their flavors and often lack that sour after taste. But in the end, I just like I better and it is what I use for most of my sodas.

But there is more to sugar than just cane and corn. A short list of common natural sugars includes those two as well as beet, date, palm, as well as honey, molasses, maple, and birch. Using natural sugar in soda is important beyond the flavor because it is needed to provide food for the yeast that produces the carbonation, but that still leaves room for the lower calorie artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Nutrasweet), and even saccharine (Sweet ‘N Low). In fact I have theorized that it might be possible to make a shelf-stable (i.e. doesn’t need to be chilled) soda using exactly the right amount of natural sugar to produce a limited amount of carbonation and the rest of the flavor produced by an artificial sweetener. I still haven’t done that experiment, but I’ve got a box of Splenda waiting in the cupboard for when I do.

As people have noticed since diet sodas have been produced, the sweetener used in a soda greatly effects the flavor of the soda and the same is true of other natural sugars. Birch gives the wintergreen like flavors to root beers and birch beers just like Maple can easily impart that classic maple flavor to any concoction, while honey often has subtle floral and fruit aspects that pop out when paired with other flavors. Molasses and brown sugars produce dark and heavy flavors, while pure and refined corn, cane, and beet sugars produce light and clear tones. Date and palm sugars, while a bit harder to find, produce exotic and complex flavors. Selecting the right combination of sugars is like writing music. Sometimes you need an orchestra (1/4 refined corn, 1/4 dark brown cane, 1/4 honey, 1/4 date) and sometimes you need a great horn solo (all washed raw cane sugar), but whatever you choose makes a difference.

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Resources
Brewing Supply Stores:

Books:

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