Old Time Herbal “Sports Drinks”

Often called ‘field drinks’ for their use by farm workers to keep their energy up on those long hot days of summer, these beverages are the real thing. Commercial sports drinks just don’t come close in flavor or nutritive energy-giving value. Once you get the hang of it, they’ll have all the fizz and spark needed to  tingle the taste buds. Take care making the fermented kinds though, the longer they ferment the more alcoholic they become and we wouldn’t want that now would we?

By personal experience I can testify that field drinks do a better job than plain water at restoring physical energy when it sags. Fermentation has been used down through the ages to add nutrition to low nutrient foods. For example, those who depended on grains for most of their caloric intake would sprout and ferment them into beers, not just for fun but because the protein content increased several times over…vitamin B complex, including hard to get B12 increases, minerals are made bio-available, there’s more vitamin C.  Beers have long been a major protein and B-complex source of agrarian peoples.

Soda pop is really a kind of non-alcoholic beer. These drinks are used while the alcohol content is still very low and are sometimes called “small beer”, often made specifically for children. Entire books have been written on this fascinating subject and I know you’re probably eager to get started making summer drinks so let’s just get to it.

There are several methods and I’m not even going to try to load them all into one blog post. This will give you enough of a sample to get you started.

In all of the following recipes, if you want the mineral electrolytes a simple way to get them is to use clay water. Dissolve about 1 level tablespoon of fine dry powdered bentonite clay in a quart of water for a few hours. 

Non-Alcoholic Switchel:

Once very common in the South, this one isn’t fermented and can be thrown together quickly. It sounds awful but with practice you can craft a refreshing, tasty beverage. Since “good” is very much a matter of taste just play around with the following amounts:

  • 1 quart cold water (or clay water), 2 tsp organic apple cider vinegar (quality matters, aim for a raw vinegar like Bragg’s,or make your own), 1-2 tsp powdered ginger, sweeten to taste with your preferred sweeter (NOT aspartame, even white sugar is better). Stir it well and taste, adjust freely. I like a lot of ginger in mine. A squeeze of lemon is good too.

Starters for Field Drinks/Small Beer/Soda Pop:

In the old days folks just looked around for wild starters…is there some fruit juice in the fridge that’s going “off”? A piece of bread dough will work. Or you can use regular store bought yeast in this method:

  • Yeast method: In a clean glass container combine a teaspoon of yeast, a cup of warm water, a tablespoon of sugar, 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, and 1 tablespoon malt extract (it will work without the extract or tartar if you don’t have it). Cover with cheesecloth and put in a warm place a few days until bubbles start.
  • Lacto-Ferment method: Here you make a starter that relies on lactic acid bacteria formation. To grow it there are three common sources: ginger root, burdock root, powdered whey. The advantage of this method is that you’re also creating a good probiotic.
  1. Root starter: Using a sterile quart jar, fill it with clean water and add two ounces of chopped ginger root or burdock root, 2 tablespoons of white sugar. Stir well and cover with cheese cloth. Put in warm place. For about a week (depending on how warm it is), stir twice a day with wooden spoon or chopstick adding another teaspoon of sugar once a day. This is just feeding the bacteria and they’ll eat the sugar so you don’t have to. Once bubbles form its ready to use. Refrigerate unused portion.
  2. Whey method: You can obtain whey by making yogurt cheese (simply dump a quart of yogurt into a cloth lined strained and let it drain, what comes out as liquid is whey). Use an organic quality yogurt. In the past one could buy powdered whey in the health food store but I haven’t seen it lately. Don’t use the whey protein products, they have a lot of other stuff in them. If you can find straight powdered whey online, that would work, too.  In this method, once you have the whey, its the starter…nothing special to do with it.

Here are a couple of recipes using each starter method:

Ginger ale:

When your lacto ferment is ready do the following:

To roughly 24 cups of water add ginger to taste (this means you’ll have to experiment). Generally about 2 – 4 tablespoons of grated fresh root or 2 tbs of powered ginger. Simmer for about 15 minutes and add 4 cups of sugar and the juice of a lemon (if you have it). Stir well and allow to cool. Once its cool, strain it and add the contents (strained) of your lacto ferment starter culture. I often just allow it to ferment in a cloth covered gallon jar or a stainless steel pot (covered with a lid), but to get the most fizz you’ll really need to let it ferment in a bottle with a lid on it. But it has to be watched carefully or it will explode. Some folks place such bottles in boxes of sand just in case. Or you can place a balloon over the top of a bottle. It should be in a warm area. When will it be ready? Watch for bubbles, they’re your clue. Depending on temperature, one to three days should do it. Its ok to bottle it in individual beer-type bottles. If you refrigerate it it will stop the action.

Lemon Balm (or other herb) Soda:

Again, experiment to taste. Chop up a big handful of fresh lemon balm and cover it with hot water in a sterile quart jar to sit overnight. The next day, strain it and to the liquid add a couple tablespoons of sugar or honey.  In an empty quart jar place 1/2 to 1 cup whey, pour in your lemon balm liquid, it’s helpful to add a piece of ginger root or burdock root to assist in fermentation but will work without it. The liquid should come close to the neck of the jar, if not, add more water. Cover loosely with a jar lid (just rest the lid on it, don’t screw it down). Or use the bottling method for ginger ale. Two or three days should do it.

For beginners there’s a good way to ensure plenty of fizz without blowing anything up. However, it uses plastic bottles which I’m not too fond of. For this you fill an empty plastic soda bottle with the liquid and cap it tight. Every once in awhile squeeze it and when the pressure in the bottle builds up it will resist your squeeze, that means its ready and will fizz on opening.

Now that you have the basics feel free to play around with fruit juices, or other herbal infusions. And do let us know your results!

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About dcoda

An herbalist for over 40 years, ten years spent alone in the Ozark Hurricane Creek Wilderness Preserve, working with its brilliant botanicals. I'm an instructor and co-founder of the Ozark Herbal Academy which offers training in medicinal and edible plants through hands-on workshops and online courses.

Posted on July 8, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I was planning on doing a similar post, but why recreate the wheel?! Excellent info. My favorite field drink is water with a tablespoon of Rose apple cider vinegar (or self heal vinegar), rose honey (or maple syrup or moleasses – I change it up for variety) and two sprinkles of turmeric powder.

  2. Really interesting, thank you a lot ! 🙂

  3. Thankyou, this has been really helpful.

  4. You are awesome, thanks for sharing


  5. my grandma used to make a apple beer, but not alcoholic! She does not know how to make the starter for it though. Will your field drink, small beer starters work for this? I will try anyway, just thought I’d ask…

    • It should work. Small beers were often made for children and while they’re “young” are non-alcoholic. Would you let us know what kind of results she gets? (share a recipe???)

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