Sometimes we forget of all the beverages we can make at home other than beer. Whether you know it or not, you already have the equipment and most of the knowledge to expand to things like cider and wine. Soda pop is also in your tool box. The biggest motivator for making 5 gallons of soda is usually kids. If you have kids, they most likely love soda pop. If you are like me, you limit your kids soda pop intake to some degree or another. But for some reason, I take off the worried parent hat when it comes to home made soda. And I think the reason is because I know whats in it. I know whats making it sweet and my opinion is that kids are better off drinking a soda made with real sugar than high fructose corn syrup and a bunch of chemicals I can’t pronounce.
The first thing you have to decide is if you are going to go the quick and easy route, or you want to get your geek on and make soda pop from scratch. We have a recipe book at Humboldt Beer Works that has dozens of recipes for soda that have spices, fruits and roots and yes, that’s how it was done 100 years ago. But when you flip through the recipes, you quickly realize some of the ingredients may be hard to find. Go for it if you want, but I don’t. The easy route is just getting a small bottle of soda flavoring or extract. From here on out, I’m going to be talking about specifically root beer made with extract, but other sodas are all pretty much the same.
Next, you need to decide if you are going to keg your root beer or bottle it. Kegging it is the easy route. If you want to bottle your root beer, you will need bottles, caps and about 5 grams of yeast. Almost any yeast will do, but preferably you want a clean finishing yeast like US05 or champagne yeast.
Before we go any further, you need to commit to getting some extra equipment. Here is the thing. Root beer extract, and some other soda extracts, is very potent and the smell of root beer will permeate everything thats plastic or rubber. Lets just say stainless steel is the only material safe from permanent root beer smell and taste. So if you are dispensing from a keg, you need a dedicated hose line and quick disconnect. I prefer to just have a dedicated keg for root beer as well. You can go back to using a keg for beer. After all, these were soda kegs at one point, right? The issue is in the o-rings. You can clean your kegs good enough but you should be ready to swap out your o-rings if you want to use that keg for beer again. This also applies to bottling root beer. You need a dedicated bucket for mixing the root beer and bottling it.
Next, the recipe. The great thing about home made anything is that you can tweak your recipe to your liking. I use the extract, 1 tablespoon of vanilla and sugar and honey totaling 5 pounds, but you want to have a balance of a pound on either side with the honey or sugar. I have made a batch that is heavy on the honey and it came out a bit thin and lacked body. Some batches I’ve done 3 pounds of sugar and 2 pounds of honey and vice versa. With this batch, I went with 2.5 pounds each.
Right now you may be choking a bit. “Two and a half pounds of sugar? For a five gallon batch?” Yes, thats the nature of sugary soda pop. It is my belief sugar is less harmful to your body than aspartame. Especially in the long term. But as with everything else, moderation is key. Its going to take several months for my kids to finish off this 5 gallon batch of root beer. I have made a “lite” root beer. Remember the mostly honey batch I mentioned before? I ended up adding a little sugar, less than a pound, and also 8 ounces of dextrine. The dextrine fixed the problem with the thin body.
Next, get your vessel, whether bucket or keg, and get a couple gallons of hot water. Its best to have it around 150 degrees or you can use really hot tap water. I have an on-demand water heater that kicks out 120 degree water, so I just go with it.
There is no need to be super accurate about the volume of water, just try to get at least two gallons in your vessel. Now lets add your ingredients!
Next, stir the heck out of it. I actually stirred this batch prior to adding my root beer extract because I don’t want my plastic brew spoon ruined. If you have a stainless steel spoon, you have no need to worry. Get it stirred and the sugars dissolved. You can even let it sit for a while to make sure the sugar is dissolved. Next, top off your vessel with cold water.
Yep, straight from my kitchen sink sprayer. Once you have topped off to 5 gallons, you are done if you are kegging. If you are bottling, make sure the root beer is within temperature range for the yeast you are using and then mix that in as well. Bottle like you already know how to bottle and you are done. If you think about it, bottled root beer has a tiny amount of alcohol in it using this process. Most commercially bottled root beer, especially “craft” root beer is carbonated another way. By carbonating in the bottle, you are “bottle conditioning” your root beer. Similar to regular beer, most people use a little bit of corn sugar when they bottle. Some people use yeast or even dry malt extract. The point is you are trying to make another tiny fermentation inside the bottle by adding more yeast or more sugar to your homebrewed beer. Since root beer already has the sugar present, your only choice for making bubbles is adding a small amount of yeast. Although hard root beers do exist, your root beer will not have the opportunity to make any significant amount of alcohol.
At this point, if you are bottling, you are done. With kegging, there are a couple more considerations to carbonate and dispense. I’ve already drilled it into your head you need dedicated tubing, but you also need a lot of it. Like 20 feet of it. Soda is carbonated at around 4 volumes of Co2. No beer comes close to that so you aren’t used to needing 20 feet of tubing. I’m not going to get into the physics of it here, but basically if your dispensing line was only 1 foot long, your root beer will come out foamy. So would regular beer. Besides, your root beer c02 dispensing pressure is also much higher than regular beer. It doesn’t have to be high for dispensing, but if you want to set your regulator and forget it, your PSI will most likely be 20 or more. It depends on your system balance. You need the long length of tubing because the root beer needs the distance to travel to come out fizzy but not all foam. Also, your dispensing tubing has thicker walls compared to racking tubing. Its a mix of restriction, pressure and distance traveled that needs balance.
Making root beer may sound difficult but compared to beer but its not. And the first time you make a root beer float with your home made root beer, you know you have done something worth while. Of course, the next step to making that perfect root beer float is making your own ice cream……