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By Megan Wabst, American Homebrewers Association
The following article is based off information presented in “Soda, Anyone?” by Drew Beechum (March/April 2013 Zymurgy magazine). Access this article with Zymurgy Online, an exclusive AHA member benefit. Not a member? Start your free trial today!
Soda making is an exciting yet simple pursuit, and it makes for a great non-alcoholic beverage that you can share with friends and family of all ages.
The best part of making your own soda is being in control of the flavor—less sugary than most store-bought sodas with more opportunities to explore flavors.
Whether you prefer sweet, sour, unique, or just plain, old bubbly, the world is your oyster when it comes to homemade soda (you could even use oysters, but we won’t go there today).
Simply put, soda is a combination of water, sugar, acid, flavoring, and carbonation. It is up to the soda maker to create harmony among these components to make a balanced beverage that begs you to take another sip.
In soda making, the sugar and acidity offer counterpoints to help achieve this balance, similar to the dynamic between hops and malt in beer. Additional ingredients are then used to create an interesting flavor profile supported by the sweetness and acidity of the soda’s base.
The soda-making process is relatively easy once you’ve decided on your preferred flavor: mix hot sugar syrup with flavorings (fruit, veggies, etc.), strain, add water, then enjoy!
Like beer, water makes up most of the soda, so it is important to use quality water. Not all tap water is appropriate, and some can even introduce off flavors. Using carbon-filtered or store-bought filtered water is a great place to start.
Avoid reverse osmosis or distilled water, as the low mineral content can make for a dull soda. If you must use reverse osmosis or distilled water, rely on mineral additions to improve the flavor.
Many store-bought sodas are jam packed with sugar, but home soda makers are in control of sugar content.
Your options for sweetness are diverse, and it’s up to you and your flavor pursuits as to what to use. Liquid sugars like honey, agave nectar, and malt extract are great candidates, or you can use dry sugars that are commonly used in brewing.
Once you’ve selected a sugar, mix it 1:1 with water by volume (e.g. 1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water) in a medium-sized saucepan and boil for 10 minutes. Two cups of sugar per 3-gallon batch is a great starting point, but it’s up to you.
Don’t underestimate the need for acidity. Just as hops cut through and balance the sweetness of malt and other sugars, acidity in soda complements the combination of sugar and brisk carbonation.
Commercial sodas use an array of acids. A mixture of phosphoric acid and citric acid is common. Citric acid is readily available at grocery stores and homebrew shops.
The tried-and-true method of “you can always add, but you can’t take away” rings true here. Adding a bit at a time and taste testing is ideal and will prevent you from going overboard. Too much acidity can cause unpleasant sourness while giving your tooth enamel something to worry about.
When thinking of the actual flavor additions, go natural for the freshest flavor. Herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, juices, teas, and even cocktail bitters can be used to develop interesting sodas.
Some of the most interesting-flavored sodas are made with unusual ingredient combinations! Drew Beechum’s Szechuan Cherry Surprise brings together cinnamon, cherry juice, and Chinese five spice powder to create an amazingly earthy yet tart soda.
For details on specific ingredients used in soda making, check out Beechum’s article online, but here are some tips:
The flavored sugar syrup you end up with can be added to the water. Again, remember it’s always easier to add more flavor than it is to take it away! Add syrup in small amounts with frequent taste tests to ensure you achieve the balance you’re pursuing.
If you want to bottle your soda, most old-school recipes call for adding a pinch of ale yeast and a heaping spoon of sugar (around 1.75 ounces per gallon) before bottling to achieve carbonation. Remember, though, that your syrup base also contains lots of sugar, so additional priming sugar isn’t strictly necessary unless you’re making a very low sugar soda.
As with bottle conditioning homebrew, yeast ferments the sugar and produces CO2, which dissolves into the soda and creates carbonation in your sealed bottles. It is highly recommended to use plastic bottles since the pressure created during carbonation can very easily make glass bottles. A bonus of using plastic bottles is that a simple squeeze can help you gauge carbonation progression: the firmer the bottle gets, the more it is carbonated. A typical soda is carbonated to a much higher level—up to twice the CO2—as most beer.
Once the bottles have reached your ideal carbonation level, store them in the refrigerator to slow yeast activity. If kept at room temperature (or warmer), fermentation will continue and not only cause your soda to over-carbonate and gush when opened, but also reduce the sweetness needed for balance. Keep bottles refrigerated until ready to enjoy.
If you are kegging, you can forgo natural carbonation and force carbonate instead. Simply mix up your soda in the keg, hook it up to a CO2 tank, and set the carbonation level to your preference. Beechum recommends 30 psi at 35°F to reach 4.5 volumes of CO2. A longer serving line can keep foaming at bay.
If you use kegs that you also use for homebrewing, it’s wise to keep a separate, dedicated set of O-rings and gaskets on hand to prevent the potential for flavor and aroma crossover. Soda flavors are strong, and some, like root beer, are nearly impossible to remove from plastic and rubber.
The recipes below feature fruits, juices, and the sugar of your choosing, making them simple and approachable for any level of soda maker!
For even more soda recipes, read Drew Beechum’s article “Soda, Anyone?” in the March/April 2013 issue of Zymurgy magazine. This issue is available exclusively online for AHA members! Not yet a member? Start your 30-day free trial today!
The classic seltzer water! The name comes from the Great Depression when seltzer was the cheapest option at the soda counter. Hard times, cheap drinks.
Ingredients for 3 U.S. gallons (11.3 L)
Chill to 35° F (2° C). Force carbonate at 30 PSI for 10 minutes.
Cullen Davis contributed this spin on the classic lemon-lime soda. The ginger provides an extra punch that wakes you up and keeps things moving.
Ingredients for 3 U.S. gallons (11.3 L)
Juice fresh ginger with a juicer or by frinding it to pulp in food processor and squeezing it in a clean kitchen towel. Zest six limes and six lemons; tie up zest in double-layer cheese cloth. Juice enough lemons and limes to get about a pint of each kind of juice. Heat the water to about 170° F (77° C), stirring in sugar whenever you like—just make sure it all dissolves. Add lemon, lime, and ginger juice and turn off heat. Add tied-up zest bundle, cover the pot, and let stand for half an hour. Chill the liquid in an ice bath or chilling method of your choice, then transfer to a clean Cornie keg or soda bottles with carb caps. Be sure to leave behind zest bundle.