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Lacto-fermented soda skillshare – make your own ginger ale, cola, root beer and more

One of the really popular workshops at the PASA Conference this year was titled: “Lacto-Fermented Soda Making: The fun and easy way”. John and Dana Eisenstein of Jade Family Farm were incredibly generous in sharing their expertise (they say it’s just a hobby – their real vocation is vegetables), and I’ve tried to summarize the workshop as best I can.

John started with a caveat: If you’re hoping to make the sweet stuff like commercially available sodas, this is not for you. These drinks have a distinctive crispness, some might say sharpness, to them.  The bonus of these sodas is that they are probiotic and easy to digest. Before starting, it is important to use clean equipment – bottles, jars, utensils, hands should all be thoroughly washed and dried. Sterilizing everything, however, is not really necessary – this is easy, remember!

Materials needed:
The Starter
Fresh (very important) ginger root
White sugar
1- one quart Mason jar
non-chlorinated water

The Wort
A large pot for boiling water
Sweetener (evaporated cane juice, sucanat, honey, agave syrup, malt extract, maple syrup – avoid white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, “raw” sugar, corn syrup).
Flavoring (ginger, burdock, sassafrass, herbs, your imagination)
A fine mesh strainer

The Fermentation
Large glass container, bottle or brewer’s carboy with a fermentation lock
or a brightly colored balloon (the color is just for fun) and a pin

Maturation
Clean glass beer bottles – from beer with non-twist-off caps
A good funnel that fits into the mouth of beer bottles
Bottle caps and a bench top capper (available at home brewing supply houses)
Patience, vigilance and an appetite for adventure.

This recipe is for Lacto-fermented Ginger Ale, so you’ll need:
4 oz. ginger root
3 C. sucanat or other sweetener
Juice from 4 lemons
1 Q. starter

Let’s get started!
The Starter – “In order to ferment anything” John tells us, “you need a starter. Ours is cultured from fresh ginger root”.

  1. Chop 1-2 tablespoons of fresh ginger (using a box grater or food processor is nice and quick)
  2. Add to a quart mason jar full of non-chlorinated water.
  3. Add 1 t. of white sugar and cover container. Store at ~75 degrees and add 1 t. white sugar daily for 6 days until the starter is active. You’ll know it’s active when you see little bubbles coming off of the ginger and the water becomes somewhat cloudy. If bits of mold appear on the surface, scoop the mold off. If it returns, sorry, you’ll need to start the process again with clean everything.
  4. So, after a week, you should have a live, bacteria-rich starter!

    The starter is ready for fermentation

The Wort – John says: “Wort is the word for the soda before it is fermented. You need 1 ½ C of sweetener per gallon of wort, good water and flavorings. Flavorings depend on the kind of soda being brewed,” he says, but encouraged us to use our imagination when it comes to our favorite flavors. We’ll be using ginger for this recipe.

  1. Finely chop/shred/process ginger – count on 2 oz. of ginger per gallon of wort.
  2. Boil 3 C. Sucanat, 4 oz. ginger in approx. two quarts of water for 20 minutes. Add the juice of 4 lemons and let cool.
  3. When cool, transfer to larger fermenting vessel, add enough water to equal 2 gallons, then add 1 Q. starter – except for 1 inch of bottom with ginger chunks. This can be made into new starter.

The Fermentation – Keep the mixture covered and in a warm (75 degrees F) place. If using a carboy and fermentation lock, you’re all set. Otherwise, a rubber balloon with a few pin holes poked in it then placed over the opening will keep bad stuff out of the ferment while allowing gas from the fermentation process to escape.

  1. Taste the soda after two days and every day thereafter. When it is a little bit on the sweet side, it’s time to bottle. The remaining sweetener will be consumed and the soda will be perfectly flavored. This seems like the only time in the process that requires extreme vigilance.

A carboy with fermentation lock and a bag of sucanat

The Maturation

  1. Bottle the soda using a funnel, clean beer bottles and a capper. Again, keep it warm to allow for the fermentation to continue.
  2. Taste the soda every day (recapping with a new cap) and when the carbonation level is to your liking, refrigerate immediately. OK, I guess this part requires vigilance, too. John provided a firm warning in his materials:

“WARNING: If you use more than the recommended amount of sweetener in your wort, fail to refrigerate your carbonated soda promptly or neglect your soda in any way, you run the risk of over carbonation and potentially exploding bottles, flying shards of glass, and almost certain gruesome death! So pay attention.” What can I say, I like the drama of the statement.

You’re done! Really. Ready to drink. And soda will keep in the fridge for a long time. “Years”, says John. “Really!”

Maintenance
So, if you liked this process, and you want to do it again, you will need to feed and care for your starter by adding 3-4 t. of white sugar to the remaining chunks of ginger and fill the quart jar with clean water. Continue to feed the starter 1 t. of sugar every 3-4 days. The starter can be put into a “state of suspended animation” by sleeping in the back of the fridge. Awaken it by feeding sugar and leaving in a warm spot.

Other recipes

Root Beer
3 C. Sucanat as sweetener
2 oz. sassafrass
1 oz. sarsaparilla
½ oz burdock
water
1 Q. starter

Boil herbs and sucanat in some water for 30 minutes. When cool, add enough water to make two gallons and add starter (except for 1 inch of bottom with ginger chunks). Ferment. Good optional additions are limes and vanilla extract (add vanilla at bottling).

Cola (we like to call it Ferm-a-cola…Coka-ferma? hmmm…)

3 C. Sucanat as sweetener
2 oz. cola bark nut (we have now clarified this recipe, and it calls for cola nut, which can be found through herbal supply stores.)
cinnamon
water
Juice of 4 limes

Boil cola bark and sucanat in some water for 60 minutes. Add lime juice and cinnamon. When cool, add enough water to make two gallons and add starter (except for 1 inch of bottom with ginger chunks). Ferment and bottle. This does contain caffeine.

Happy soda making!

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45 Responses to “Lacto-fermented soda skillshare – make your own ginger ale, cola, root beer and more”

  1. Hey there, I’m so excited about this, I made my starter and am ready today to move to the next step, but I’m totally confused, in the next step as I read it, you make a wort, but there is no mention of when to add the starter? You say that the new wort remnants can make a new starter, but when do you add the old starter? Thanks for any help you can offer.

    Best,

    Urban Food Guy

  2. Hi Mark – I’m so glad you’re doing this!
    I’m sorry you’re confused, these directions are a bit “stream of consciousness”…
    In step 3. of the Wort section, it says to add 1 quart of the starter to the wort and water mixture (once it’s cooled).
    So, after the “old” starter is ready (cloudy, bubbly) add all but 1 ” of it to the larger container that holds cooled wort and water. The remaining 1″ will be for a new starter.
    Does that clarify the recipe a bit? Can’t wait to hear how you like it – and just in time for Spring!

  3. Thank you!

    I knew I was just missing something obvious! I put my old starter in the fridge I did it for 6 days, but it didn’t get bubbly, guess I need to let it sit out for a few more days!

    Yeah and trying to find cola bark in NYC forget it!

    Thanks!

  4. So will using a ginger based starter in a root beer formula mess up the root beer? Or should I make a starter out of sassafras?

  5. [...] shipping led to ‘fake’ solutions, where most sodas are just watered-down flavor syrup. Some people (with rather attractive website design) simply refuse to accept [...]

  6. Adam, the ginger is really only a starter, so, in short, no. The ginger will be fine for root beer. Sassafras is for the flavoring in the wort.

  7. HI
    Making root beer for the first time

    Seems like the wort mixed with the water and starter is getting gulatinous after 3 days, is this right?

    Im also noticing a white film on one jar ( i made two half gallon jars cuz i couldn’t find a gallon jar in new york city)

    Is the white film mean its moldy and therefore rotten?

    How much vanilla extract do u recommend for 160z bottle? I bottle 16hrs ago, is it too late, does the alcohol content affect the fermentation?

    I also like the idea of lime, do u juice a lime in to the wort before you boil it?

    THANKS BREWERS!!
    Fizzy in Brooklyn

  8. Jennifer, First thing – go back, review your procedural notes.
    Check your brewing ingrediants, the water used, how the utensisls and jars were cleaned, etc. OK, you did write down what you did and how you did it right??? I have issues with my beers at times, and when I look at what I did and compare it to what I THOUGHT I did, there is great divide!!! I would lay bets that you used city water, or some form of choloinated water, even with sanitization of your brewing items. Just listening to what you are describing, gulatinous being thicken, stiff solution, think you didn’t have any live beneficial bacteria. City water will kill just about anything. (sorry, bad hand!). If you did follow the instructions to the letter, and didn’t use chlorinated water, then, something with the bacteria didn’t catch. Which happens. So, do like I do, throw the starter out, and do it again, and again, and again, until it works. I have poured a few gallons of brew on my plants in my yard along with spent grains from failed batches. And I haven’t had a plant or veggie complain yet?! Good luck and keep at it.

  9. Hey, thanks a lot for the article i have been trying to figure out how to do this for quite a while, but didn’t know the name of the process so i always found results telling me to “add carbonated water” when i wanted to do it this way. Thank you very much Also, in the cola recipe it says “cinnamon” but it doesn’t say how much, how much should i use?

  10. Also, it says Kola bark, i cant find kola bark anywhere only kola nut, where did you find yours?

  11. Wow I am so excited, I finally found a carboy in Brooklyn, I took my starter our that has been patiently waiting in the fridge and tomorrow I begin! Just wanted to say that in the recipe you say the juice of 4 lemons, but in the pictures you have limes. It’s funny cuz I used to travel to SE Asia all the time and they were always saying lemons, but using limes, I don’t even think they have lemons in Thailand. Somehow they’ve become inter-changeable.

    Thanks again this is so much fun

  12. when following the recipe for cola my kola nuts set on fire, i am typing this with one hand because my other one is covered in burn blisters and second degree burns. DO NOT BOIL FOR 60 MINUTES

  13. Our friend Mark (here in the comments and @UrbanFoodGuy) has posted his experience on his blog and has amended the instructions to provide a bit more clarity. Thank you, Mark!
    http://urbanfoodguy.blogspot.com/2009/06/homemade-ginger-beer-lacto-fermented.html

  14. having hard time locating cola bark. do you know of a website

  15. I saw you presentation in the 2007 Pasa conference. I loved your soda. I have stomach problems which improved after drinking your soda. Since then, I’ve made several starters very carefully and ended up with alcohol producing wild yeast and major funk. Actually the funk was nice but the alcohol was very sharp tasting. My home beer brewing has been hit or miss even with very diligent sanitation procedures until I moved it outside. I make sauerkraut, lacto pickles, and daily sour dough bread, beer and wine…..and mill grain. We also process hundreds of pounds of fruit and produce from our small farm. Seems my kitchen has developed a flora of all sorts of fermenting yeasts and bacteria. So I am trying my ginger lacto starter again…outside….I hope it works.

  16. [...] It should be ready to try in a week. If it works well, I’d like to try some of the recipes here… I kept my ginger beer bug going to I can try using it [...]

  17. Where can I buy cola bark on the internet, I can’t seem to find it?

  18. A simply and easy way to carbonate your soda or anything else is to use your 2-litre soda bottles. If you drill a 1/2 inch home in the cap and pull a tire valve stem through it you will have a vessel that can be used to carbonate nearly any drink. You have to buy a CO2 tank and gauges plus attach a hose with a tire chuck on it to pressurize the 2-litre soda bottle with the tire valve stem in the cap. Fill the bottle to about 3 inches from the top and get the drink in the soda bottle cold. Then pressureize the soda bottle with about 25lbs of CO2. Shake vigorously and do it again till the bottle feels firm and tight. Allow it to sit and settle for 1/2 hour and then it’s ready to drink or wll stay carbonated for weeks.

  19. Hi,

    Have you ever tried, or is it possible to use stevia as the sweetener in the fermented drinks?

    Thanks,
    Deb Casey

  20. Deb, I believe it is possible to use stevia as a sweetener, just not as a replacement for the sugar in fermentation. It is my understanding that cheap white sugar is needed for fermentation, and is completely consumed once the process is complete. In other words, you won’t be eating processed sugar at the end. :)

  21. Does anyone know about using honey? It is my understanding that you use 7/8c of honey for sugar. Also I was told the fermentation will take a lot longer with honey-is this true? Has anyone tried Honey?

  22. Hi Jennifer,
    I was concerned that honey has antibacterial / antimicrobial properties, therefore not conducive to fermentation, but the folks in the “I Could Ferment That” group set me straight. Rachel said:
    “There isn’t any special compound in honey that makes it antimicrobial. It’s only that way because it’s such a high concentration of sugar. Once you dilute it, it shouldn’t be an issue. This is why you can use honey to make mead.”

    You can see the conversation here: http://www.homegrown.org/group/icouldfermentthat/forum/topics/lactofermented-soda-question? and join the group, too!

  23. I’ve clarified the recipe for Cola and have changed the cola bark to cola nut, which is available from many herbal supply stores. Sorry for the confusion!

  24. Jason Steurer Says:

    I am a homebrewer “of Beer” and soon to be doing soda’s and I cannot wait. Do you recommend any to do for a first timer? Thanks for sharing your ideas on this blog and I will be visiting more often..

  25. Jason, if you already brew beer, then any of the above recipes should be easy for you. I’m partial to the ginger beer / ale!

  26. So you just boil the kola nuts whole?
    How much cinnamon exactly?

  27. ET, you should use ground kola nut and the amount of cinnamon is to your taste. Good luck!

  28. I tried my first batch of lacto fermented cola. It has been fermenting for 36hrs. In the first 12 hrs after adding the culture to the cola syrup I made, I saw quite a bit of bubble activity. I was so excited! But when I tasted it, it was still way too syruppy and not done so I let it sit to ferment more. Now 36 hrs later, there are NO BUBBLES! Is all ruined? Or is there possibly still activity going on? Where did my bubbles go? Do I keep letting it sit? Should I try and add another cup of culture to jump start it? Any advice?

  29. hi,

    actually i have found some of my kefir whey, the liquid strained of my kefir works really well when i put it in fruit juice either freshly made or commercial. it takes a few days, and when the bottle i use firms up its ready.
    nice and carbonated, and the juice not so sweet, makes sickly sweet grape commercial juice taste really nice.

  30. Thanks for sharing.I was looking for this.

  31. Hey, thanks for a great site. I’ve been making ginger beer and kombucha for years and just started making home brew root beer. So far, I’m not loving the products, so I’ll take some of your suggestions to heart and hope for the best. Oh, and I forgot to mention, of course I signed up to teach a workshop on making root beer at a local fermentation festival!!! So, here’s hoping for some excellent inspiration and results. The course may end up being more about how to continue forging ahead when your process isn’t going like you hope it would. :)

  32. Hello there! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it tough to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any tips or suggestions? Appreciate it

  33. Thank you for this! I’ve been looking around for a while for good soda recipes. I’ve used Sandor Katz’s _Wild Fermentation_ for my Ginger beer recipe & attended a Kombucha workshop earlier in the year– so have been diligently making both for some short time now. Once you go homebrew, there’s no going back. But, I was having trouble finding a wild fermented rootbeer & cola recipe. I’m eager to try it. Thank you!!!

  34. One thing I wanted to note– you have to feed the starter daily. I tried the above recipe (similar to Katz’s) but forgot to feed it. It died after 3 days– no activity, moldy, & smelled like old cabbage. Not cool. My second batch was fabulous. After initially mixing the starter according to the recipe, every day that it remains out of the fridge– feed it 1 tablespoon of white sugar & 1 tablespoon of minced or grated FRESH ginger. Make sure the ginger’s clean, but don’t peel it. I find it works better– makes for a more active starter if the gingerroot hasn’t been peeled. Once you have an actively bubbling starter (it won’t look bubbly, but will sound like a bowl of rice krispies after about 3 days), make sure you reserve about 1/2-1/4 cup of the starter. Use the rest in your soda recipe. Add to it, keep it out for a day or two, then pop it in the fridge. Make sure the jar isn’t sealed. Put a piece of cloth over the top for air circulation & keep feeding it every 5-7 days. You can keep it indefinately & you’ve got your starter already prepped.

  35. [...] Find quaffable probiotic drinks you like. Turn plain kombucha into gingerade, use water kefir to brew raspberry lemonade, or make homemade root beer. [...]

  36. Adamnfinecupofcoffee Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I saw there you said to add the cinnamon to taste, but do you have a starting point? I mean, for example would it be closer to 2 teaspoons or 3 cups?

  37. Adamnfinecupofcoffee Says:

    Sorry, meant to address that to Cornelia.

  38. Adamnfinecupofcoffee Says:

    Also, could you use Muscovado instead of Sucanat?

  39. Hi Adam,
    Sorry about the delay in responding – wordpress was all wonky. You can use any sweetener you’d like after the fermentation process is finished. Good luck!

  40. Spencer Says:

    Hi, I tried the ginger ale with honey and the flavor is wonderful, but it didn’t carbonate. Did I add the starter to the wort before it cooled enough?

  41. Does anyone know when you strain? Before fermenting or after?

  42. I have made ginger ale using the ginger bug. My bug was quite active and once the ginger ale was to my taste I bottled it in German beer bottles with the wire closure. It appeared to be carbonated well but once it has been in the refrigerator there is little or no carbonation. Is there anything I can do to add natural carbonation at this point? Also, if I have a bottle that is not filled close to the top it does not carbonate. Will it carbonate if I just leave it out at room temperature longer?

  43. Denise,
    Put some grated ginger, or a raisin, in your bottles, then refrigerate. The natural sugar will enhance carbonation. I find ginger works well.

  44. Hi Cornelia,

    Please give us an idea of the starting point for the cinnamon in the cola recipe. How much did you use when you made it?

    Thanks
    Deb Casey

    “Adamnfinecupofcoffee Says:
    August 29th, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Hi Mark,

    I saw there you said to add the cinnamon to taste, but do you have a starting point? I mean, for example would it be closer to 2 teaspoons or 3 cups?
    Adamnfinecupofcoffee Says:
    August 29th, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Sorry, meant to address that to Cornelia.”

  45. […] for years, but I do love ginger and have always been a big fan of ginger beer.  When I read the article/recipe I started to get really excited. Homemade cola, root beer and ginger beer, oh […]

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