Homemade soda brews at co-op

Wheaton senior makes soda 'from the heart'

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ben Biller was tired of store-bought soda. As he saw it, when brand-name companies injected carbon dioxide into their products, the drinks stopped being natural. So about a year ago, Biller decided to take matters into his own hands.

With a few gallons of water, a lot of ginger and sugar and kitchen materials in the Finlandia co-op kitchen, Biller made his first batch of ginger beer.

Since then, the Wheaton College senior – who takes courses at Brown through a cross-registration program – has produced a steady flow of soda to share with his co-op housemates.

The first batchBiller’s foray into soda-brewing was mostly an experiment done for fun. “This sort of ginger beer, it comes from the heart, ’cause I was originally making it for myself,” he said. “I was just doing it for sh*ts and giggles.”

But the stuff tasted pretty good and his co-op members encouraged him to keep it up.

Ashley Aguilar ’10, a fellow co-op member, was one of the first to sample the ginger beer. When the first bottle opened, she recounted, it exploded with carbonation, teaching the amateur soda-brewer and his friends that the bottles should be opened outside.

“We sampled ginger beer while watching ‘Planet Earth,'” Aguilar said. “It was just really awesome and a great experience.”

Biller started buying more bottles to fill.

He put different ingredients into the mix, coming up with varieties of the original formula. The co-op kitchen, he said, was well suited for his beverage experimentation.

“I did it because of the facilities” at Finlandia, he said, since it has large pots and other industrial-sized materials.

“And I have a readily steady amount of test victims,” he added.

Each batch comes out differently, and each bottle has its own qualities.

One, from a recent batch, went down with mild carbonation and had a strong accent of ginger with a sweet aftertaste of sugar. A second bottle was more heavily carbonated and exploded white fizz when opened. The ginger came on stronger, giving it a tangy feel.

How it’s doneMaking soda, Biller said, is fairly easy.

“With very little effort and very little time and money you can brew your own soda,” he said. “It comes out well.”

For most of the supplies he needs to purchase, he patronizes the Basement Brew-Hah, a local brewery supply store.

He first went there after he had made the original batch, and on that visit he found the book “Homemade Root Beer, Soda and Pop,” by Stephen Creswell, which gave him suggestions and explained some of the history of homemade soda to him.

But most of his supplies are just found in the kitchen at Finlandia.

For the most basic ginger beer, he boils water, then adds grated ginger and a lot of sugar. The sugar not only sweetens the drink, but is important for the yeast to carbonate the soda.

The next step is to let the water cool down until it is tepid – a process that takes a lot longer than he first expected. “That takes forever,” he said. “That was a pain in the butt the first time.”

Then the yeast is added, fermenting for a few days – just until it is carbonated – but it adds a negligible amount of alcohol.

Then, using a Gatorade cooler with a spigot, Biller pours the soda into glass bottles.

“Its not fully scientific,” he said, adding that the process is mostly experimental and that he often tries new things as he makes each batch.

“I know it would be so much less fun if I went and rented an industrial kitchen and patented a recipe and tried to sell it instead of just making it with the intent of having people enjoy it, and being creative,” he said.

To make other flavors of soda, it’s just a matter of adding the necessary fruits or tastes into the mixture.

“I can make banana-apple-coconut beer,” he said. “I can put nine flavors in if I want to.”

Care to share?Biller said making and drinking the soda was more fun because his friends chipped in. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the co-op,” he said. “I never would have had the initiative, because I get help from people.”

It has also been a positive non-alcoholic social activity for him and his friends. “I don’t drink anymore,” he said.

“It’s a really fun way to share a unique beverage with people who don’t necessary want to drink alcohol.”

Aguilar, who said the ginger coconut beer was her favorite, said she has enjoyed watching the process and sampling the varieties.

“It’s really amazing to come into the kitchen and see Ben with his huge apparatuses, going crazy. He’ll take over the kitchen, and just make huge batches of ginger beer,” she said. “He serves it at dinner, and he knows what he’s doing.”

“That’s a lie,” Biller playfully cut in. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“It seems like he knows what he’s doing,” Aguilar corrected. “There’s some cool varieties, and the carbonation is always different, so it’s like having your own personalized ginger beer whenever you want.”

Another of Biller’s housemates, Herald comic artist Joe Larios ’10, said the brews are unlike mass produced varieties.

“Each batch has a different character that rises out of it,” he said. “So it definitely has a homemade feel and great taste.”

Future plansBiller said he recently went to a farmers’ market and spoke to a woman who sells her own bottled jam, which he said was similar to his product.

From her, he learned that selling the homemade product is not as simple as it might seem. 0She has to rent a health board approved kitchen, get a license to sell to the public and pass continual inspections by the Board of Health or the Health Inspector, according to Biller. And ultimately, he said, it is not very profitable.

“The sad reality of food production is that unless you do it in a large scale, it’s not really economically viable,” Biller said.

So, instead of mass producing and selling the soda, Biller wants to start a “ginger beer co-op.”

“Each semester, you would put in some money for ingredients, you could come and help make it and then get as much soda as you could drink all semester long,” he said.

Biller tried to start the soda co-op last year, but was unsuccessful. But he said he wants to try again this semester.

“It’s a no-brainer that if you like drinking soda, (the co-op) is the way to go,” he said.

And Biller definitely likes drinking soda. “I would argue that my soda is better than any soda I’ve ever had.”