Wild Crafted Soda
By Pascal Baudar
Much emphasis in permaculture is on the creation of natural food and preserves, but there are also many plants in the garden, and in the wild, you can use to create delicious drinks, not just infusions and teas, but also natural sodas and interesting brews.
Making your own sodas is an excellent alternative to store bought and traditionally was the way sodas were made. Nowadays, typical sodas are made with flavoring and corn syrup, then CO2 is pumped in to create the carbonation – not exactly a health product.
The old way of making sodas was through a simple fermentation process that creates a probiotic with live yeast. You make juice or an infusion, add yeast to it, let it ferment for a short time in a container (large bottle, jar, etc…), then transfer it to a closed bottle (plastic soda or swing-top glass bottle). As fermentation continues within the closed bottle, pressure builds and creates carbonation. The basic principle is extremely simple. All you need is some water, a source of sugar, yeast, and some plants or berries for flavor.
Sugar can be found in various natural sources such as cane, sugar beets, tree sap (maples, birch, box elder, sycamore, etc.), or fruit juice. For soda making, I mostly use organic cane sugar, honey, and sometimes maple or birch syrup.
Yeast is present everywhere, including in the air you’re breathing right now. In fact, it can be found in large quantity on various plants, flowers, or berries. If you see berries or fruits with a white bloom, realize that the bloom is mostly yeast. Place a bunch of those berries in sugar water, cover the container with cheesecloth, stir 3 times daily and within 3-4 days you will have some nice bubbling. Congratulations, you’ve just made some soda starter! You can also purchase commercial yeast to ferment your soda – I usually use champagne yeast.
Making sodas is extremely easy and requires very little equipment. Most of it already exists in your kitchen. Here is the basic list for one gallon using the hot (boiling first) method.
Soda Making List:
- White sugar, honey, or maple syrup (3/4 to 1 cup sugar / maple syrup or 3/4 cup honey)
- Yeast (champagne or wild yeast)
- 1 gallon filtered water (not tap water which contains chlorine)
- Large pot with lid (if you boil the juice/infusion)
- 1 gallon bottle (or glass container)
- Sieve and Funnel
- Soda bottles (recycled plastic bottles or swing top glass bottles)
- Measuring cup
- Airlock and stopper (available online or local beer supplies store) or you can also top the gallon bottle with a clean paper towel and a rubber band.
The ingredients you use will dictate the best method to use: hot or cold infusion. Some plants, such as mint, are much better using the cold method while others such as dehydrated berries, sages, etc., are better boiled first to extract the flavors. If you have fruits, you may not even need to add sugar.
Make your tea/brew, infusion, or juice then let it ferment for around 24 hours in a bottle or container with an airlock. The airlock is there to let the gas escape (a byproduct of the fermentation process) and not let anything inside (fruit flies, bacteria). Some people use a clean paper towel and rubber band instead of an airlock, and it works fine.
After around 24 hours of fermentation, transfer your soda to closed bottles and wait for another 8-16 hours. Pressure builds up inside the bottles and creates the carbonation. After that period of time, you can place your soda in the fridge. The low temperature will stop the fermentation process.
There is a bit of an art involved to get the right amount of carbonation in the bottles. If the original fermentation is very active (lots of bubbling) you don’t need to leave the soda in the closed bottle for 16 hours: that may be too much and too much pressure is created.
I like to use the airlock to see how active the fermentation is. If I see a bubble going through every second then I will leave the soda in the closed bottle for maybe 8 hours, then place in the fridge. If I see a bubble going through every two seconds, I usually use 16 hours before placing in the colder temperatures. You can always check the pressure by opening the bottle, carefully and very slowly. See “Feel the Pressure” further in the article.
The Hot Method for Making Soda
Because I like to dehydrate a lot of my berries and plants, I’ll share my procedure for making soda using the hot method to extract flavors.
It is quite simple. You boil all the ingredients, cool the solution, add yeast, let it ferment, and then bottle it.
You don’t always have to boil the ingredients either; you can make some infusions by boiling the water, removing it from heat, and then placing your herbs in the hot water and letting them steep. Once the solution has cooled down, add the yeast, then strain and place into your fermenting vessel.
Cold Brew Soda
The procedure for cold brewing is actually very similar to hot, but instead of boiling the plants/berries you clean and chop them, then let them infuse in cold water for 24 hours. Then continue with the same procedure as above.
As you experiment with your ingredients, you will discover that boiling your solution works best in some cases, but can alter the taste too much with specific herbs. For example, you lose a lot of subtle flavors when cooking mints, chervil, fennel or basil, while some herbs such as sages, mugwort, and dehydrated berries take this method very well.
Here is a recipe example for a 1⁄2 gallon (1.8 l) batch of wild soda (steps are pictured to the left).
STEP 1: Gather your ingredients.
• 1/2 gallon spring or distilled water • 2 lemons
• 1/2–3/4 cup dehydrated blueberries
(feel free to try other berries)
• 1/2 teaspoon wild fennel seeds (or commercial fennel seeds)
• A small handful dry mugwort leaves
• 1/2 cup organic white sugar • Champagne yeast
STEP 2: Pour the water into a pot and add all other ingredients except the yeast.
STEP 3: Bring the solution to a boil in a covered pot, then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove the covered pot from heat and place it a pan filled with cold water. You want to bring the temperature of the solution down to lukewarm. If the liquid is too hot when you add the yeast, it will kill the yeast and defeat its purpose.
STEP 4: Clean the fermentation bottle thoroughly. You can find 1/2-gallon or 1-gallon bottles at most regular grocery stores, look in the aisle for cheap wine. Place a funnel in the bottle’s neck, then pour the solution through a sieve and into the funnel. With very clean hands, squeeze the ingredients left in the sieve to extract additional flavor.
STEP 5: Open the champagne yeast packet (a 5-gram packet is usually good for 5 gallons) and pour some of the yeast inside the bottle. I use around 1/10 of the yeast packet content for 1⁄2 gallon.
STEP 6: Place the clean stopper and airlock on top of the bottle. Wait 12-24 hours. Usually after 10 to 12 hours, sometimes sooner, fermentation activity and gas escaping in the form of bubbles is visible. That’s a good thing. When your fermentation is quite active, near constant bubbling, you can bottle it.
Pour the fermenting soda into plastic soda bottles or swing-top glass bottles. Close the bottle tops. If your fermentation was very active, check the pressure after 8 hours by opening the top slowly and carefully. If there is not enough pressure,
keep fermenting the soda and check again after 8 or more hours. When satisfied, place in the refrigerator.
Feeling the Pressure
There are no set rules. The key is to observe. The rule of fermenting a soda for only 12-24 hours is not sacred. Sometimes you’ll have a very active fermentation overnight, and may choose to bottle the soda at that stage; other times you may need to go a bit longer than 24 hours. You want to see a nice active fermentation, healthy bubbling, and the brew should smell good. Then bottle it.
A very active fermentation inside a closed bottle can create a lot of pressure. Be careful. In the beginning, you may want to start with reused plastic soda bottles because you can gauge the carbonation by pressing the side of the bottle with your fingers. The first time I made soda I used recycled plastic bottles and compared the pressure to a regular store bought Coke bottle by pressing the side. When I was satisfied that the pressure in my soda was similar to the Coke, I would place my homemade soda in the fridge.
Now I use swing-top bottles and if the initial fermentation is very active, I check one of my bottles after 8 hours or so by holding and pushing on top with my left hand and slowly releasing the side handles with my right hand. If I’m satisfied with the carbonation, I just place the bottles in the fridge. I do the same before serving a batch to guests. Once in awhile I would miscalculate the pressure and found out the hard way that it was too much. Simply hold and release slowly a few times and, bit by bit, you’ll get rid of the excess pressure without losing some of your precious liquid. If I don’t have enough pressure when the bottles come out of the refrigerator, I bring them back to room temperature for a few hours. The fermentation process will restart, and eventually get the right amount of carbonation.
Pascal Baudar is a wild food researcher and a self-styled ‘culinary alchemist’ based in Los Angeles. He is the author of The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, a culinary research into a local terroir.