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Monday, December 11, 2023

Move Over, Topo Chico: How to Make Your Own Sparkling Water

Sorry, Perrier: Anyone who has washed down a taco al pastor knows that Topo Chico is the king of the sparkling waters. Unfortunately, thanks to thick glass bottles and shipping fees from Mexico, this slick, bubbly masterpiece is much spendier than La Croix. 

After a few years scarfing Mission burritos in the San Francisco Bay Area, my finance-minded brother did some drunken mental math and sent me a Facebook message: $3,800. That’s how much he claimed that it costs to drink eight bottles a day of Topo Chico at an average of a little over $1 per drink—San Francisco Whole Foods prices, he claimed.

As a longtime homebrewer with a keg, kegerator, CO2 tank, and access to minerals that make my hoppy beers crisp and my malty lagers silky, I laughed out loud. I’ve been making my own sparkling water for years.

Then I realized I wasn’t just some fancy pants who has spent too much money on beer gear. It penciled out for him to do the same, just for his sparkling water habit. The up-front cost was relatively high, but with the necessary gear, my brother could make his own sparkling water for significantly less than $3,800. 

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The Math

Let's start with a kegerator, which has an up-front cost of around $1,000. You can also use this setup for beer, cider, wine, and other kegged beverages, all of which are significantly cheaper in keg form. 

There is also an environmental benefit. While glass and cans are recyclable, many of them end up in landfills. I drink my homemade Topo Chico out of a reusable, insulated mug or Hydroflask. I barely touch a single-use can or bottle.

Plus, flavors are insanely cheap. You can buy lime and grapefruit extract powders online by the 500-pack for less than $50. Like hard seltzer? You can buy the flavoring online, pour it in your keg of sparkling water, add some clear grain alcohol, and voilà: hard seltzer!

Sodastreams and other devices make sparkling water at home, but they're not as cost-effective over the long term, and not nearly as versatile. We all have a friend who tried to carbonate juice or wine in a Sodastream and broke it. With a keg and a CO2 tank, you can make and carbonate anything you want.

Provided you have space and you’ve found yourself recycling dozens of cans and bottles a week, you should consider making your own in bulk. I barely drink any non-sparkling beverages, and my recycling bin is significantly emptier than it was when I bought it premade.

The Kegerator

I’ve waffled on the subject of kegerators over the years. I have built my fair share of mini-fridge, chest freezer, and upright fridge-based kegerators with hoses and fittings, but it's much easier to buy something that’s designed to do the job. When you factor in the cost of hoses, connectors, and taps, it's not that much more money. 

Used kegerators appear regularly on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, but I like these basic kegerators from EdgeStar ($559), which have enough room to fit two 5-gallon kegs at a time. You can store one keg of water to carbonate, while the other is on draft. You can also save yourself the trouble and grab a two-tap version ($659)  for an extra hundred bucks. If you've read this far, you'll want two taps eventually.

The ones linked above come with an empty 5-pound CO2 tank, but other models do not. I like this tank by Kegco ($94). Get it filled at a local welding supply or homebrew supply store before trying to carbonate with an empty tank! Some places fill tanks, while others swap them. Try to go somewhere that fills them if you like the look of your new tank!

You may want to consider swapping the regulator and tap. Because sparkling water requires more pressure to carbonate than beer, a nicer regulator like this Taprite ($91) is usually more reliable and less prone to leaks or failure than the included regulator. I also recommend a flow control tap, because sparkling water is so pressurized that it can fly messily out of standard taps. I like these Perlick taps ($73), which have a flow control valve to slow or speed up your pour.

A Keg

Big manufacturers like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and other purveyors of sweet carbonated beverages formerly used smaller, slim Cornelius kegs, or “cornies.” You can find them used online, or just buy a new one ($99), but you need this type of keg for carbonating and serving your wares. If you buy a used one, you should have a socket wrench to clean and disassemble it before use.

Unlike the single-hole kegs you may have seen at a college party or stacked in the corner of a bar, corny kegs have a quick-latch mechanism in the middle of the top of the keg. You can open it and fill the kegs with whatever liquid you want before serving it up, carbonated or not.

You’ll also need a couple of small hose adapters ($10), since most store-bought kegerators are set up for commercial kegs, not corny kegs. A corny keg has a gas inlet and outlet on either side of the keg, unlike a commercial keg that has a single middle connector for both. Ball-lock connectors are easy to find and don't require more equipment than a flat-head screwdriver.

Some Minerals

I’m lucky enough to live in Portland, Oregon, where the water is about as close to distilled as you’ll find in the Lower 48. But many of you reading this have hard water, which has more calcium and magnesium dissolved into it than mine. 

To recreate Topo Chico, you need to add minerals to mimic the water that comes out of the ground at the Topo Chico factory. If your water is pretty soft, like ours is, you can just use it straight out of the tap and pretend it’s distilled. If your water is hard, you may want to buy 5 gallons of reverse-osmosis or distilled water at the supermarket. 

Some common minerals include gypsum ($10), calcium carbonate  ($13), pickling lime ($15), and Epsom salt ($27), which mineral water picks up as it travels through rock. All of these are easy to find at local homebrew shops or online, and a little goes a long way. Most recipes call for a single gram in 5 gallons of water, so they last a very long time if you buy them in bulk.

Don’t forget to grab a scale. Any food scale that measures up to tenths of a gram will work, but if you’re really nerdy you can get a more accurate scale like this Brifit model ($14). Mineral additions are typically very small overall, so the more accurate the better.

Make It Happen

Pop the top of your corny keg and fill it up about 90 percent of the way. Take about half a gallon of water and boil it on the stove in a pot. You'll add your minerals here so they'll dissolve in the keg. 

To make Topo Chico, I followed the recipe that this blogger posted, which is based on the company’s water report. If Topo Chico isn’t your jam, you can also find recipes for various brands of sparkling water online. Just search Google for the brand name you like and “recipe 5 gallons” to find what you’re looking for. Many companies publish their water reports, so if you're an expert water chemist, you can probably calculate the recipe by scaling it down yourself. 

Weigh out the appropriate minerals, add them to the hot water (or in the way your specific recipe states), and dissolve. Then pour the mixture into your mostly full keg. Top up with any extra water as needed, and seal the lid with the latch on top.

Getting Bubbly

Now the fun part: Put the keg in your kegerator, hook up the CO2 and liquid-out lines (usually marked “In” and “Out” on the top of corny kegs), and turn your regulator to about 45 pounds per square inch (PSI).

The last step is to wait for the water to chill and carbonate. It takes about a day (or less time if you use higher pressure). To carbonate the water, hook the gas line to your keg and shake it to dissolve CO2 into the solution. CO2 dissolves much easier at lower temperatures, so letting your keg fully chill to fridge temp beforehand is a good idea.

Once your water is carbonated to your liking, set the PSI to 45-ish (more if you like it more bubbly, less if you like it less), and enjoy 5 gallons of sparkling water whenever you choose. 

The entire process (minus the cooling and carbonation time) takes me about 10 minutes. If my keg of water runs out, I chill a keg of water overnight, add my salts in the morning, and wait to carbonate. Then I have carbonated water by the end of the following day. 

If you want a never-ending supply, just buy more kegs for reserve batches! You can even make enough to bathe in the sparkling water of your dreams.

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