I’m not much for soda pop. To my taste, most of it is bland, mass-market stuff lacking in real character or subtlety. But in researching old beers, I’ve seen references to earlier “soft” drinks, not entirely alcohol-free, brewed for refreshment and hydration. While ginger and root beers are still made today, other old school brews popular a century ago such as hop bitters and dandelion stout have fallen out of favor. Called “botanic brews,” these bitter, complex beverages were popular from the second half of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth.
I recently stumbled onto a small book, The Botanic Brewers Guide, published by the English chemists and flavoring makers Potter & Clarke in 1920 (first edition 1899). A guide to those wishing to manufacture such brews, it provides recipes and techniques to produce these early sodas.
In England, beers of less than three percent alcohol could be brewed without license or tax, but beyond that level the tax authorities were on your case. The book mentions one offending product that tipped the scales at a staggering (pun intended) 10.8 percent alcohol, its brewer pleading ignorance.
The book lists a number of botanic beers, including burdock ale, chamomile beer, ginger beer, horehound beer, sarsaparilla and spruce beer, as well as the herb beer, hop bitters and dandelion stout detailed below. They’re chock full of funky charm and are an authentic link to the day when medicine, alcohol and refreshment were not so separate as they are in our world today.
At the time, saccharin was the latest and greatest, and all the recipes call for it. Artificial sweetener solves a big problem for fermented soda producers: how to make the drink sweet without having the residual sugar turn the bottles into bombs. Fortunately there are workarounds for the problem, including some much better tasting artificial sweeteners.
Before saccharin, soda would not have been sweet. The added sugar would ferment in the crock or in the bottle, producing alcohol and carbonation. Preservatives such as calcium bisulfate or salicylic acid, would have added a discernable taste to the beverage. Today potassium sorbate is the preservative of choice. It is highly effective and tasteless, used at four grams per five-gallon batch. We also have refrigeration, which can slow fermentation and preserve our homemade soda for a few weeks.
The artificial sweetener Splenda (sucralose + a dextrin bulking agent) has a very clean taste and should work well in any of these recipes. Quantities of 3–7 ounces (85–199 grams) should work in any of these recipes.
Here are several additional strategies, any of which should produce good results:
1. Ferment partially, then at 1003 OG (1 °Plato) bottle and cap and allow the soda to carbonate naturally. This will require artificial sweetener if sweet soda is desired.
2. Ferment totally, then force-carbonate in keg. This also requires artificial sweetener.
3. Bottle in plastic soda bottles (do not use glass for this) shortly after fermentation begins, and frequently check carbonation by squeezing. When desired carbonation level is reached refrigerate to slow down fermentation. Do not allow bottles to warm up after this, and do check from time to time. I would not recommend holding bottles like this longer than a week or two.
4. Keg the beer before fermentation and check the pressure often until the desired carbonation level is reached. Place into refrigerator to slow down the yeast, and add 4 grams of potassium sorbate to make sure it doesn’t get started again. Continue to check pressure level and vent if necessary.
The recipes below are taken directly from the book and have not been changed except to substitute Splenda for saccharin. The process recommended by the book is to boil the herbs and roots in half the water for 15 minutes or so, then strain them out. Sometimes the ingredients were placed in cloth bags to make separation easier. Sugar and artificial sweetener was added to this mix along with any other ingredients like color, acid or heading agent, and then rapidly cooled to about 70 °F (21 °C) fermentation temperature. “German,” presumably meaning lager, yeast was preferred for its cleaner flavor over yeast obtained from ale breweries, and pitched at the rate of a quarter ounce per gallon. Twenty-four to 36 hours later, the beer has cleared and is fit for bottling. A considerable amount of gas will remain in the brew and fermentation may continue in some small way.
The quality of sugar matters. The author states that the beet sugar of the day “…is generally artificially bleached and may produce an unpleasant odour in the beer.” My friends in the modern-day soda business confirm that pure cane sugar is by far preferred for soda making over beet, which imparts a dull and lifeless flavor.
These should offer grown-up tastes, and should be appreciated by your homebrew-drinking friends. It is my hope that these sodas offer us a delicious window into the crisp, refreshing and temperate past.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.