All Natural Homebrewed Ginger Ale with a Ginger Bug
According to Wikipedia: Traditional ginger ale (or ginger beer) is a naturally sweetened and carbonated, non-alcoholic beverage. It is produced by the natural fermentation of prepared ginger, spices, yeast and sugar.
Thank you for the insight Wikipedia, I could not have said it better myself. I can, however, guide you through the process of brewing ginger beer a little bit. I am no ginger beer aficionado, but I do enjoy the magic of fermentation from time to time. Especially natural ones, such as the creation of a “ginger bug”.
Also known online as a “ginger beer plant” or “ginger SCOBY”, the ginger bug is a colony of Saccharomyces florentinus and Lactobacillus hilgardii. In other words, it is a spontaneous fermentation that occurs when ginger, sugar, and water are left to their own devices on your counter top. Much like a yeast starter for your favorite ale recipe, yeast and bacteria colonize, and thrive, in the ginger bug with the environment that you create for them.
Ginger on its own has been used for centuries to aid with digestion, nausea, and a slew of other medical purposes that may or may not particularly have science behind them. As it says on the side of every bottle of vitamins I own: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.” In my opinion, it does not hurt to try. The yeast and bacteria that are found in the ginger bug contain probiotics, like the ones in the yogurt Jamie Lee Curtis is fond of, and are beneficial to gut health in helping to balance the body’s natural good bacteria. If writing this article has taught me anything it is that: Science is hard. Fermentation is easy. Let’s get started!
Brewing Ginger Ale From Scratch
First you will need some supplies. About a hand sized amount of fresh ginger root, a bag of sugar, and water, (all preferably organic or filtered and, more or less, free of any pesticides, chemicals or human adulteration) and a vessel for containing all three in no particular order. A large Mason jar works splendidly, just be sure to remove the candle, or mixologist crafted cocktail, first. You’ll also need to buy, borrow, or otherwise acquire:
- A grater or knife
- Some empty soda bottles (they hold higher carbonation amounts), and an area that is safe to carbonate your tasty naturally fermented soda. I made a small batch my first time as I wasn’t ready to go all in like I did with actual beer, but after that I was off to the races.
The initial process takes about a week to get going. Once the supplies have been gathered you will need break off, and peel, about a 2 inch piece of the ginger. Then you are going to grate it down or chop it finely until you have 3 tablespoons, or 3 Tbl. Place the grated ginger into the clean, sanitized, Mason jar, add 3 Tbl. of organic sugar and about 2 cups of water.
I have read different versions of how much water to add. Some recipes add all the water in the beginning and some add water every time they feed the ginger bug over the course of the week. In either case you are trying to build up to about a 2 cups worth of liquid. Think of it like building a yeast starter, but for ginger ale.
Each day for the next 5-7 days add 1 Tbl. of grated ginger and 1 Tbl. of sugar, stir, and cover with a coffee filter and rubber band. DO NOT SEAL. You want to expose the growing ginger bug to oxygen and airborne yeasts that live all around us. Keep at room temperature and your bug will begin to bubble as the fermentation takes hold.
Brewing Batches With Your New Ginger Bug
Once the ginger bug is strong and bubbly (above), you will be ready to ferment your ginger beer. You will need: 8 Cups more of that nice filtered water. ¼ cup of some form of sugar, I used a combo of organic cane and molasses. A couple of lemons, or other citrus fruit of your preference. However much ginger you can handle, a few finger sized pieces should suffice, but keep in mind that you will be adding your spicy ginger bug liquid to this mix so taste everything and calibrate your ginger threshold accordingly. You will also need a medium sized pot. And ideally a funnel for transferring into bottles, but anything with a spout and a steady hand will suffice.
Begin by heating about 8 cups of water in the pot, roughly chop your chosen amount of ginger and add to the water, stir in your sugar and be sure it dissolves completely. Boil for 15-20 minutes. I added a couple of vanilla beans, star anise, and an orange to my boil, because I am crazy like that. But this is your ginger beer and you can do it however you like. I strongly encourage adding more citrus to the cooled liquid because it will add a lot of flavor and complexity to the finished flavor.
When the boil is complete cool to 70°F, stir up your ginger bug, and strain out about ¼-½ cup of the liquid, be sure to get the white yeast that have taken up residence in the bottom of the jar. Mix your strained ginger bug into your now cooled and flavored liquid. Transfer to airtight bottles.
DO NOT USE ANYTHING THAT ISN’T STRONG ENOUGH FOR CARBONATED BEVERAGES! Grolsch style swing top bottles and plastic soda bottles are ideal. There's no hops to worry about skunking your batch if exposed to light.
Carbonating Your Ginger Ale
Store upright in a six pack carrier or something similar. One of my bottles expanded so much it became unbalanced and fell over. If you are wondering if the bottle did any physical harm, the answer is no, but my cabinet will never be the same. The fall combined with the carbonation was strong enough to pop the cap and the mess was made. This stuff carbonates way quicker than beer and it will sneak up on you if you don’t pay attention to it. Mine carbonated in about 2 days in the dead of a California winter.
Soda bottles can be checked for carbonation easily. First off, they swell up and become hard. Secondly the caps can easily be twisted and the telltale hiss can be heard. Standard glass beer bottles, while prettier, more eco-friendly, BPA free, and all around classier, cannot tell you when they are carbonated unless you want to open and re-cap or just wait until they explode ginger love and shrapnel all over your newly painted kitchen. You want to be able to open the bottles slowly, because this stuff carbs up like champagne and it may gush. As soon as your ginger beer is fully carbonated, about 2-4 days depending on how warm your fermentation area is, place it in the fridge and get it cold.
When it is nice and cold pour a glass and enjoy your new tasty beverage. When I say "tasty" I mean as tasty as a homemade all natural organic ginger beer/soda can be. That’s right ladies and gentlemen it tastes exactly as you expect it to. But you will feel healthier because you chose to drink it instead of some phony 64 oz. sugar bomb, with ingredients that you can’t even pronounce, let alone know what they are. I've read tales of all natural homemade root beer and fruit flavored sodas being made with ginger bug, so please explore and try other recipes. I am going to try to make some root beer next, and if I can figure out how to make Strawberry Fanta I'll be set for life.