June 11, 2011

Book Review: Stephen Cresswell's "Homemade Root Beer, Pop, and Soda"

from Storey Publishing
Available from Amazon (also on Kindle), Barnes and Noble (also on Nook)

This is the book that got me started on homemade soda. I was searching for what roots were in root beer and came across this in a local library. No library is complete without a copy. One thing that makes this an excellent resource for someone looking to create homemade sodas is that Cresswell gives a clear context on what it takes to start from scratch and work your way up to being an advanced brewer. The book is planned perfectly to help the reader step by step. He begins with an engaging history on root beer and carbonated beverages in general which is in itself worth picking up a copy. Indeed every page instills romantic nostalgia for all things soda related. Cresswell lays out a discussion on necessary equipment, categorized according to what’s necessary and what’s just nice to have. As many hobbyists know, understanding what might be extraneous when just starting out is always encouraging when starting a new hobby. Then, the recipes begin with easy, 4 and 5 ingredient first batch recipes and Cresswell works the reader up through more complicated recipes on to helpful tips for many aspects including creating one’s own recipes, using natural roots and other ingredients, and troubleshooting what might have gone wrong in the event of a bad batch. In addition to being well versed in pop’s history, Cresswell also provides historical and vintage recipes from yesteryear, even as far back as
Colonial America.

Included recipes range from simple old-fashioned root beer to the spicey Virgin Islands ginger beer and the interesting Russian kvass. In addition to bottled drink recipes, there are a number of traditional beverage recipes for smoothies, spiced coffee drinks, and even egg nog.

Creswell is very up front about doing things the old fashioned way – carbonating with yeast, bottling in glass bottles. While this is part of the allure of homemade soda, this becomes one of the book’s shortcomings in that Cresswell only briefly discusses other methods for carbonating and glosses over the safety issues of natural carbonation in glass bottles. Most homebrewers will consider unchecked fermentation in glass as “bottle bombs”, i.e. when there is enough sugar to cause the bottles to burst. It is usually suggested on forums and elsewhere that soda brewers reuse commercial PET bottles, whereas Cresswell mentions that while plastic bottles will work, they have limited use.

Another downside is that the book is somewhat dated on ingredient sourcing. Ingredient sourcing is now a breeze with specialty internet shops selling bulk roots and herbs. There was much less of this in 1998 at the time of the book’s release, leaving the reader feeling limited to local flora for ingredients which are often regional and seasonal.

The book does however have an excellent reference section, including references for the historical recipes found throughout the book. The references are a great resource for those wanting to delve deeper into other homebrewing, digging for local roots and herbs, and searching out more vintage recipes and history.

At 120 pgs, the book is a great way to get a jump start on homemade soda, without feeling
overwhelmed with complicated recipes or feeling like you’re plowing through a thick university text.

Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop

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