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How to make soft drinks
Useful Information
Finances for small producers


How to make soft drinks

There are two ways that we will look at - making at home for home consumption or micro-bottling, and the second is the more industrial scale, but still small-scale bottling.  Both methods are a much more manual process than the large bottlers would use, but the bar for entry is much lower.  Larger scale bottling starts at around £150,000 - £200,000 and that is still very small in the bottling world.  The like of the 'big boys' pump out in excess of 500,000 to a million bottles a day and the equipment costs many £millions.  Let's start small. 

I will assume that you understand that everything that you use must be sanitary and hygienic and how to achieve this.

The basic stages:

  • The flavour base (or syrup)
  • Mixing/Carbonating
  • Bottling
  • Preserving
  • Labels,  Box & Ship

The flavour base or syrup.

This can be as simple as lemon juice and sugar (for lemonade) or as complicated as 30+ ingredients in some cola recipes.

On a home basis if there is a flavour that you like, but need to extract from something solid (like ginger, chillis, vegetables, herbs etc) then there are a couple of methods.

  1. Juice it.  For something like ginger the you can grate it then put it in a muslin cloth (cheesecloth) and squeeze the cloth 'til all the fluid comes out.  Ginger will be approximately 50% by mass as ginger juice.  Other vegetables can be macerated in a juicer (don't do this with citrus fruit - it's unpleasant to say the least), likewise some herbs.
  2. Extract it in to another medium.  Commonly this could be a sugar solution or water.  Industrially ethanol is used.  Elderflowers, for example, can be left 'stewing' in a sugar solution until all of the flavour is absorbed by the sugars and the flowers have no scent left.  We've found that sugar solution works well to extract most flavours.  Alternatively use water, and then concentrate the flavour by boiling off excess water.  This is not suitable for volatile flavours that are destroyed by using too much heat.  You can extract in to ethanol at home (alcohol is a brilliant solvent) by chopping up your 'extractee' and putting it in a bottle of vodka.  This does work but you have to be very careful about dilution of the extract for obvious reasons.

You may find that roasting certain vegetables or fruit give a very different, heightened, flavour.  

Mixing and/or carbonating

Once you have a flavour base then the next trick is to make it taste good as a drink.  Too strong isn't good.  A wishy washy drink likewise.

There are a couple of things that you'll want to bear in mind:

Acidity.  A raw lemon may well make you pull a face like a bulldog sucking a nettle but it's refreshing.  This is due to the acidity, and is a key component.  If you don't want to add citrus fruit or another strong flavoured acidic base (like Bramley apples), then you may need to think about adding citric acid or malic acid (based on the acids found in citrus fruit and apples receptively).  To heat preserve you'll need to have a moderately acidic product anyway (a pH value lower than 4.2), so get used to it.  Remember acidity doesn't mean sour - Coke is VERY acidic, but no-one calls it sour!

Sugar.  Sugar not only is attractive to our tongues but can also be cloying if used too much.  It is great to balance out acidity and there are various types.  You could use a dark sugar to give a deeper taste, or even a treacle or molasses syrup.  One important thing to note is that sugar changes the texture of the product.  As it makes it ever so slightly thicker (even a small change in sugar has a large effect here), then it lingers on the tongue longer.  The longer it takes to flow over the tongue then the longer the flavours are in contact with your taste buds and therefore the stronger the flavour.  If you have a 'watery' tasting drink then try adding a little sugar.  Gum Arabic also has the same effect as a thickener if you're happy with using additives.

Carbonating.  If you're carbonating at home then you'll need to use either a soda-syphon, a soda-stream or buy something similar to a post-mix carbonator.  Carbonating a drink at less that 4 degrees C will result in a flatter drink as the Co2 will escape.  Remember you must only use stainless steel pumps if you're thinking of getting a carbonating machine to carbonate anything other than water or you will strip the copper from the brass fittings and give people copper poisoning.  Carbonated water is acidic in itself (strictly this is now called carbonic acid), and carbonating will therefore result in a slightly more acidic product.
 

Bottling

If you're buying glass bottles then you will likely find that at the bottom of the bottle are two obvious measurements embossed in the glass.  One is the volume (275ml, 330ml etc), and the other is a measurement in mm (millimetres).  This second measurement tells you how far from the top of the bottle the correct volume is achieved.  E.g. 330ml, 53mm.  This tells me that the bottle is filled with precisely 330ml of liquid when the level is 53mm from the top of the bottle.

The simplest method of filling at home is to use a simple funnel.  The next stage up would be to purchase a gravity filler to fill still products, these run from a couple of hundred pounds for a basic 2-bottle stainless steel filler to many thousands of pounds.  If filling a carbonated product the you should use a counter pressure filler to stop 'fobbing', or foaming.  More information is available on the useful information page.

Preserving

You can preserve by adding something like a sulphate based preservative (as wine producers do), something like potassium or sodium metabisulphite would do a similar job, or our preferred method which is quick, simple and easily accessible is eat treatment.  In essence you can preserve an acidic product by placing the (glass) bottle (cap on) in to a saucepan of water.  You'll need an electronic thermometer or temperature probe.  £10 from Sainsburys will sort out a simple one for you.  Put the bottles in the water and when the water is at 72 degrees C start timing.  20 minutes later you can remove your pasteurised bottles.  Try to keep the water from going above 72 or so, and don't let it get below 70.  You'll need to put a grill or wire tray on the bottom of the saucepan to stop the bottles being in direct contact with the saucepan as there is a propensity for exploding bottles if they are left on the the bottom of the pan.  The water must cover the liquid in the bottles, but it's not necessary to cover the whole bottle.  Take all due safety precautions when doing this.

For more information on Preservation, including the pH you will need to ensure that the preservation 'sticks'. please see our Useful Information page.

We've made a handy guide to what preservation methods can be used, and which bottle type they can be used with - please click the image to download it - a low res version is below.

How Preservatives work in your product

People can sometimes get a little turned around on this subject - hopefully this little video will be able to help

Labels, Boxing & Shipping

e can recommend firms for assisting with design work - from posh companies to small, cheaper outfits.  If you decide to design your own and print them yourself then remember that an inkjet printer is NOT suitable as the labels will get damp and bleed.

Things to consider:  Speak to your local trading standards people (or give us a call) to get the legislation regarding labelling.  It is vital that you get this right.  It's not difficult, but it is important.

oxes:  Cardboard is actually very expensive.  Look to get a standard box as these will be much cheaper.  Nevertheless, still expect to pay 50p or so for a standard box.  If you're looking to buy a few then eBay is your friend as there are lots of sellers there that make boxes and sell them online.  For our customers we've found that for 250-330ml sizes a regular 12" x 9" x 9" box works best.

Shipping:  If you're thinking of posting your stuff around the country then be aware that couriers are mostly frustrated footballers and will kick your precious cargo, be it fragile labelled or not, at the irst opportunity.   And you can't insure glass bottles or liquids in transit.  Start locally and deliver it yourself.