The Alchemical Kitchen: Small brews for big health

By Rebecca Brenner

Make your own tasty tonics.
by Rebecca Brenner
I’m not one for deprivation, especially during the festive season when sugary treats, heavier meals, and a glass (or two) of wine or soda are de rigueur of social life. I am, however, always curious about how my indulgences might be met with mindfulness and more conscious choices.

In the Alchemical Kitchen, traditional sugary treats are turned into whole grain cookies sweetened with local fruits and agave nectar. Heavier meals are accompanied by homemade cultured vegetables for easier digestion. Wine and beers that have been patiently aging in the basement are opened and splashed around in salutations. And this year, sodas are being home-brewed—just like our kombucha, kefir, beer and wine.

The home-brewing of sodas, which were originally called small beers because of the tiny amounts of alcohol they contained, has been practiced throughout history in England and the British Isles, as well as in early colonial America. Homemakers and ale houses would ferment local grains and herbs, creating refreshing drinks that were full of B vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Small beers also contained lactic acid and lactobacilli, which aid the body in digesting and assimilating food and nutrients.

Early American small beers, such as root beer, ginger beer and birch beer, were made with local herbs, bark and roots. These local finds were fermented with grains and whey, creating a refreshing, effervescent tonic. Common ingredients, such as juniper, dandelion root and molasses are still used today by conscientious small brewers. Unlike today’s commercial soda pop that is more akin to candy, small beers drunk with meals aided digestion and, during a heavy work day, replenished minerals and enzymes.

In the early 1800s pharmacists promoted the health benefits of mineral water mixed with medicinal herbs. This early soda was healthy, but soon techniques were developed to artificially add carbon dioxide to water, replacing natural spring water and home fermentation. Soon, large brewing companies like A&W began to spring up all over the country, mass-producing soda.

With mass production, local herbs, bark and roots were replaced with artificial flavors, chemical-laden preservatives, large amounts of sugars and, eventually, artificial sweeteners. Mass production of soda has also made it easy to over-consume, leading to health problems such as liver damage, tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, acid reflux, heart disease, anxiety and hyperactivity.

Large amounts of water are used in the production of soda and the cans and bottles they’re delivered in. When not recycled, cans and bottles along with caps, lids, tabs, plastic rings and other packaging add to our ever-growing mountains of garbage. Vast amounts of fuel are used to produce, package, ship and cool soda.

This is why food is such an amazing catalyst for positive change—cutting commercial soda completely from your diet would not only benefit your body, but also the world in which you live.

This holiday season, instead of buying the brandname sodas, buy the ingredients for these recipes and give home-brewed small beers a go. Not only will you gain the satisfaction of creating your own healthy soda alternative, you will also have the pleasure of enjoying and reclaiming a delicious part of DIY history.

Old-fashioned root beer
1 cake of compressed yeast
5 lbs. sugar (organic preferred)
2 oz. sassafras root*
1 oz. ginger root
2 oz. juniper berries*
4 gallons filtered water
1 oz. dandelion root*
1 tsp. wintergreen oil

1. Wash roots in cold water and drain. Add juniper berries (crushed), wintergreen oil and ginger.
2. Pour two gallons of boiling water over root mixture and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Strain through cheese cloth.
4. Add sugar and remaining two gallons of water.
5. Allow to stand until lukewarm.
6. Dissolve yeast in a little cool water.
7. Add yeast to root liquid. Stir well and let settle.
8. Transfer into a clean glass containers that can be corked or sealed tightly.
9. Keep in a warm room five to six hours, then store in a cool place for several weeks before serving.
* Available at natural foods markets and Dave’s Health & Nutrition.

Ginger beer
This recipe is from one of my very favorite cookbooks—”Nourishing Traditions,” by Sally Fallon.
1 c. organic ground ginger
1 c. organic white sugar
Filtered water
3 cups of rapadura (evaporated sugar cane juice; purchase at Hispanic, Indian and some natural foods groceries)
Juice of four organic lemons

1. Genuine ginger beer begins with a “bug” made by feeding two tsp. ground ginger and two tsp. white sugar to a culture for seven days. White sugar is used for the small quantity needed to make the “bug.” Rapadura is used for the larger quantity that goes into the beer.
2. Place 1½ cups water, two tsp. ground ginger and two tsp. white sugar in a jar. Cover, shake well and leave at room temperature for 24 hours. Feed the culture with two tsp. each of sugar and ground ginger every day for seven days, leaving culture at room temperature. On the seventh day, it should produce bubbles. If not, throw away and start again.
3. Dissolve rapadura in 10 cups boiling water. Place in a very large bowl or stainless steel kettle. Add lemon juice and 5 quarts of water. Carefully pour off the liquid from the “bug” and add to the bowl, reserving the sediment. Mix well, cover the bowl tightly and leave for about seven days. Transfer to eight quart-sized bottles with wire-held corks or stoppers. Let stand 14 days at room temperature before drinking.
4. To make a new “bug,” removed half of the ginger-sugar sediment (give to a friend as a starter—it has a shelf-life of about two weeks) and reserve the rest. Add 1½ cups water and feed with two tsp. each sugar and ginger for seven days, as before.

Ed.’s note: If you want to try your hand at soda-making, but are unsure of tackling the project completely from scratch, head to the Beer Nut: They have extracts, which greatly simplify the process—as well as recipe books for the gung-ho who want even more options, and the reusable bottles and stoppers. Do we think this is a great gift idea? Oh yes!

Rebecca Brenner, Ph.D., is a nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health. For more healthy DIY recipes visit her at and

This article was originally published on November 30, 2009.