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.

Contents

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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A cola recipe!

A cola recipe!

Funny what you don’t find even when you’re looking sometimes. Interestingly enough it does not contain any cola nuts that I can see, though I haven’t looked into the details about how the various oils in the recipe are produced. I hope to be able to give this one a try in the next few weeks, with the modification of using yeast for carbonation, of course. I have some concerns about the phosphoric acid killing of the yeast, but I’ll certainly find out then.

Spring 2004 Update

I’ve completely fallen off the wagon as far as keeping this up to date is concerned, so I’ve started to re-title them somewhat more appropriately.

I did however recently do 2 batches of soda, both quite drinkable and one of them is a HUGE success. Absolutely terrific stuff, and so close to perfect that it’s really breathtaking.

And the other one… well, it was a good experiment. :-)

I tried a new champagne yeast and have confirmed that it’s just something about the Red Star yeast that just DOES NOT WORK for me. Always a good tasting, but incredibly bad smelling batch with the Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast.

The yeast I switched to I HIGHLY recommend. It has now produced 4 great batches and produces a really lovely carbonation and even adds a nice, but slight, yeasty flavor to the batch. Lavlin EC-1118 Champagne is available from Northern Brewer and other sources, usually in the Wine Yeast section.

The first batch in the recent set was a replay of the Red Berries based soda from Icon last fall. The recipe:
2oz TeaSource Red Berries herbal tea blend
1lb Billington’s Demerara sugar
1lb bulk pure granulated organic cane sugar
1/4tsp Lavlin EC-1118 Champagne
2 Gallons purified drinking water

Carbonation time: ~58 hours

The nose is amazingly fruity, and the flavor is bright and fairly sweet while not being sugary. Slight yeast flavor that adds some depth and does not detract from the fruit. Brilliant red color, showed off well in the 16oz/500ml Flint EZ Cap bottles I was able to get most of the batch into (Had to fill a few fairly standard brown longnecks too). Carbonation is thorough and fairly lasting, a plastic cup full on Sunday night in very high humidity was still noticeably carbonated after sitting out for an hour. Almost perfect! I would still like to tone down the sweetness just a touch so the fruit can stand out a bit more on it’s own. I might try cutting the granulated cane sugar down to 1.5 cups for the next batch and see what happens. Hoping to get it done soon as several people are clamoring for more.

The experiment was an attempt to marry a few flavors that I find quite good on their own or in combination with other flavors. It’s basically a ginger soda, though I was aiming more for a ginger beer. The recipe:
2oz TeaSource Honeybush tea (not a blend, 100% honeybush)
6oz fresh ginger root, coarsely chopped
1lb Billington’s Dark Muscovado sugar
1lb Billington’s Light Muscovado sugar
1/4tsp Danstar Nottingham Ale yeast
2 gallons purified drinking water

Carbonation time: 62 hours

I left it go a bit longer carbonating because the Notthingham and related yeasts aren’t quite a quick as the Lavlin Champagne, and I am quite pleased with that result. The bubbles are a bit larger and more playful. However, the sugar I used pretty much trampled on ALL of the other flavors in the batch and so what I ended up with was a somewhat interesting molasses flavored soda with maybe a slight trace of ginger, and hardly any honeybush to be seen. Color is fairly cloudy brown, and the scent is strongly of molasses. There are so many directions to go with this batch, I’m not quite sure where to start:

  • I was hoping that 6oz of ginger would be enough to get a nice nose tickle, but even the flavor is mostly not discernable unless you know to look for it. I might try crystallized ginger next time. I would welcome ideas on this.
  • I definitely needed to go with just the Light Muskovado sugar, and the drop the Dark entirely and use either a Demerara or the granulated organic cane. That way there will still be some molasses, but not nearly the huge, overbearing, 800lb gorilla it turned out to be. I really thought that the ginger and honeybush would stand up to it a lot more.
  • Once the sugar has been tamed, the honeybush should come out quite a bit more. Maybe adding some sarsaparilla to give it some additional spine too.

Anyway, certainly drinkable but not what I was looking for. I used the Dark Muskovado for Birch Beer with the Old Fashioned extract and it was really great. Just need to make sure there is something very potent for it to work against next time.

I got a pleasant surprise via email the other day:…

I got a pleasant surprise via email the other day: There are people who actually read this! While this wasn’t the first person to mail me, it has been awhile since I’ve heard from anyone and now I feel somewhat bad about not keeping it up to date.

So, here’s the big update:

  • Some days I wonder if I actually read anything. Case in point, the extracts that I have got (and have been using) are not the Gnome brand, but are in fact Old Fashioned brand. Assumptions, assumptions. Anyway, I am pretty happy with the Old Fashioned extracts. The one small issue that I have is that there is a slight pickle-like aftertaste that I think is probably associated with using some sort of vinegar (or a derivative) as a preservative. Honestly, the only other person who has been able to taste it is another big time foodie so it’s basically just a nit. And it isn’t even a bad thing, just a thing mostly.
  • The batch that I last mentioned here used ~6grams of of the Nottingham ale yeast. On September 6, I produced a batch with the following ingredients:

    The yeast bloomed very nicely with a rather large head after only 10 minutes. I was going to use Nottingham again, but they were out at Northern Brewer and they said that the Windsor is very similar, which I think was very true. I don’t know if I could tell the difference after brewing which one had been used. After bottling, the batch carbonated decently in only 42 hours! After sampling that bottle, I refrigerated the rest of the batch at ~50 hours and it was _very_ carbonated. To be quite honest, I think this was my first completely successful batch. The flavor was good, the sweetness was almost perfect (though maybe just a touch over sweet), and the carbonation was actually almost too much for me. Taking a sip from the early bottles would get you a mouth full of foam as all the carbonation tried to release as it came into contact with saliva. As several people noted, it was excellent belching soda. However, there was still a bit too much yeast flavor, even after 2 weeks in the fridge. I have 1 bottle remaining that I’ll be opening tonight to see how it’s aged. My notes on the existing bottles indicate that 5 days in the fridge was probably optimum for settling as the yeast flavor dropped precipitously until day 5 when it has remained almost constant ever since.

  • On September 30, I put down a new batch, hoping to finally reduce the yeast taste to a better level. This recipe was:

    It’s been carbonating for 36 hours at this point and I’m planning on tasting one of the bottles tonight before I go to bed. The first try with the yeast didn’t bloom very well (I think the water was too cold) so I had to do another bloom using filtered tap water. I’m a little worried about that, but I think it should come out okay.

  • I’ve been playing with ideas for ingredients for a non-extract soda. My first attempt will be either tonight or tomorrow morning using 2oz of TeaSource’s Red Berries herbal tea blend. It’s a really lovely, sweet, and fruity tea that I think will make a fantastic soda if the iced tea I’ve made with it previously is any indication. I don’t think that the C&H Dark Brown sugar is going to work as well with it since I think the molasses flavors will cover up some of the subtlety inherent in the tea, so last night I went to the Seward Co-Op and got a couple of pounds of bulk organic raw cane sugar. I’m still not sure how much I’m going to use for this batch just yet though.
  • I’ve been asked to supply some homebrew soda for the Supercon room party at Icon next weekend! The Fan Goh for Icon this year happens to be the new Supercon parties head and he’s having a panel on homebrewing on Friday night of the con. Immediately after the panel, he’s coming down to host the room party and will be showing off several examples of the panel discussion. I’m planning on bringing the Birch Beer batch that I put down this week, and I’m looking to do a ginger beer/ale/soda of some sort to fill out the selection.
  • I’m working on formulating my own root beer recipe, and I think I’ve come upon an unusual ingredient that will add a lot of character: African Honeybush. I’ve been drinking it for awhile from various places, and TeaSource has started carrying it as well so I got a few ounces and I’m going to start pairing it up with sassafras, sarsaparilla, vanilla, and anise/star anise to see what I can come up with. One of the places that I’ve been drinking it very regularly is at Midori’s Floating World Cafe just up the street. They have a drink they call African Cloud Tea that is honeybush tea, palm fruit, and something else that is really wonderful. The other ingredient that I’m toying with using might be nutmeg as well, but I think I’ll wait till I’ve played with the other stuff a bit first.

So, that’s the current stuff. Quite a bit, but I’ve been having some fun. Hopefully I’ll remember to post early about the new Birch Beer batch, and the Red Berries batch.

Someone who ran across my site made the assertion …

Someone who ran across my site made the assertion that Ginger Beer is possibly Australian in origin. I hadn’t heard that before, and so now I’m off on a fact hunt.

First things, putting “Ginger Beer” into Google as your search terms sure pulls up different hits than it used to, including this site with some simple Root Beer and Ginger Beer recipes. Pretty similar to the stuff that I’ve seen before, but quite nice to finally start seeing this sort of thing around the net. I sent mail off to see what they have to say on the topic of yeasts. Hopefully something helpful.

Anyway, not too much in the way of history, so I refined to “Ginger Beer History” to see what happened. Well, not so much about actual Ginger Beer history, but I did run across a micro-Birch Beer in the Rochester, NY area. Not what I was looking for, but always good to know about these sorts of things. I also turned up this site which is billed as “the comprehensive ginger site”. Still nothing really definitive.

After a bit more searching, it looks like the party line goes something along the lines of: Ginger beer is really old. There is some evidence that the Egyptians knew about it, or something very like it, and there is still a strong presence in sub-Saharan Africa of similar beverages.

So, probably not Australia.

Progress Report

Progress Report
Recipe Number: 1.0
Batch Number: 1
Stage: Carbonation
Elapsed Time: 182 hours

I had opened bottle #2 earlier in the week and it had still not been at all carbonated so I decided to just let it sit for a few days, then the household got pretty sick for most of the week and then busy, and so finally on Saturday I opened bottle #3 and there was carbonation. Still pretty light though. The smell is about the same and definitely off putting for drinking, even though the actual flavor is definitely drinkable. So, the result? I could drink this stuff if I had to, but thank goodness I don’t have to. I dumped the rest of the batch and I think I’ll try putting down a batch of ginger ale later this week and see how that goes.

Progress Report

Progress Report
Recipe Number: 1.0
Batch Number: 1
Stage: Carbonation
Elapsed Time: 45 hours

Well, the first batch has to be somewhat disappointing. I opened up Bottle #1 and there was no carbonation what-so-ever. The color has continued to mellow towards amber and the floating sediment has arranged itself at 2 particular levels of the solution which might say something about the specific gravity of the solution at those points. Dunno though. The flavor was fairly good but not quite like a typical off the shelf root beer though there were very distinct similarities.

Anyway, it is possible that this is a result of a leaky bottle or bad/inactive yeast so I’m going to wait till tomorrow night and open the next one to give more time for some carbonation as well as let it mellow just a bit more. If that bottle is also completely flat I’ll have to decide whether to open the rest of the batch or to give it another day.