I’ve been pondering writing a post on lacto-fermented soft drinks for quite a while, but I’ve been in beer mode and haven’t done any homemade soft drinks for a year or so. I recently got inspired!
The other day I was given a link in one of the forums to Basic Brewing which is an American online HB site with lots of radio and video content. One of the 2006 archived radio programs had an interview with a guy called Raj Apte who has been messing around with an authentic ginger beer plant he acquired from Germany. You can listen to this interview here. And there is some other stuff here and here.
After reading and hearing all this I was inspired to make another ginger beer plant, as I threw my other one out a while back and had forgotten about it. I just thought I’d use this post to share some of my experiences with home-bred cultures and how I’ve used them to partly ferment and carbonate home-brew soft drinks/sodas which are great if you have any citrus trees in your back yard. I will include a recipe for a recent batch I had success with (pictured above) toward the end.
I’ve tried a couple of the commercial ginger beer home brew kits and was pretty unimpressed with the results as they taste like diet soft drinks, and I don’t like the fake-sugar flavour. The following brews are not really geared towards large scale production, rather it’s for small batches like 4-6L that are consumed within a week or two of bottling. Although, you could do more if you want to serve a large crowd in the near future. The good thing is that you can prepare it and have it ready faster than home brew beer – and being only very mildly alcoholic, it’s also very suitable for kids. Note: If you’re not keen on making a plant you can simply use a brewers ale or a regular bakers yeast – the results are simlar but bottle fermentation is very quick and gushing can be an issue. So it must be made and consumed faster and with a little more attention.
To make a plant you need some type of unsprayed, uncleaned fresh or dried fruit. For the last plant I made I used 1/2 a handful of organic raisins. I placed these in a clean jam jar, covered them with cold water, left the lid slightly ajar and then placed it near a sunny window (while yeast doesn’t like light, lactobacillus loves it) for about five days. After this period I tipped the contents through a strainer, transferring the water into another jar. I then added a teaspoon of dried ginger (you could also use freshly grated ginger) and 2 teaspoons of sugar. The sugar feeds the culture, which should be a mixture of lactobacillus and some wild yeasts which will largely be suppressed by the bacteria. In winter the plant needs to be fed 1/2 teaspoon of ginger and 1 teaspoon of sugar every 2-3 days in order to keep it lively. In summer it will need to be feed more often as it is more active in warmer weather. Malt extract will give the culture a more nutritional feed.
The plant I made the other day was made by picking a mandarin from a tree in the backyard, covering it with water and a dissolved teaspoon of malt extract, and following the same procedure as above for the raisins. Any fresh untreated fruit will give you a similar result to using organic raisins. Treated fruits (e.g. those from the supermarket) have usually been soaked in bleach solutions which will have killed off many of the wild yeasts and bacterias present on the skins. So something picked straight from the tree is best if you’re going to use fresh fruit rather than organic dried.
So what do you do with the plant once you have made it? Other than keeping it fed to keep it alive, you use it to partly ferment home made soft drinks – particularly ginger beer, though you can also use it to make lemonade, orangeade, etc. – really any citrus-based softdrink you like.
For around 6L of ginger beer I usually used the juice and zest of about 6 smallish to medium lemons or oranges (whatever is on the trees in the backyard), freshly grated ginger if I have some, and quite a bit of sugar, a teaspoon of cream of tarter (Raj Apte suggests that this provides some sort of nutrition for the fermenting agent), some boiling water to dissolve the sugar and extract the citrus oils, plus whatever cold water is needed to make up to 6L. I usually do this mix by taste to get the sweetness I’m after. Obviously less sugar/more citrus gives you a more tart result.
I then funnel the drink mix into PET bottles or clear plastic soft drink bottles which have been cleaned in very hot water. I would never use glass for this. Ultra-careful sanitation is not that important because we’re not dealing with long storage times like we are with normal beer, for instance. The bottles are filled, leaving about 2 inches of head space. I then pour the liquid off the top of the ginger beer plant through a funnel to distribute it evenly amongst the bottles.
The dried ginger sediment that is left behind in the jar is the plant. To keep it going for the next batch I add some more cold water (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup) plus a teaspoon or so of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of dried ginger. All the bottles are then capped, but only loosely. This is important, as they will explode if left for a while to carb up at room temperature. Leaving them loosely capped allows fermentation to take place and let the excess CO2 vent out. For a sweet soft drink 2-4 days fermentation in winter in a warmish, well lit place is more than enough. I seal the bottle lids tightly and allow them to carbonate fully for a about a day, but no longer. Checking the hardness of the bottle is a good way to see if it is ready: hard bottle = good carbonation. In summer all of this happens in less time.
Then I refrigerate before serving. Cooling the ginger beer down is a very good idea before opening otherwise it can gush. Once refrigerated the lactobacillus becomes inactive, and the wild yeasts will often back off too and you can keep the drink in the fridge for about week. It’s not advisable to leave it any longer though unless you let off some excess pressure by quickly undoing the lid to vent off the excess CO2. This is a good way to regulate the pressure in the bottles. But the contents should be cold or they will defintely gush. The bit of head space in the bottle gives me some time to quickly twist the cap back to the closed position if the brew tries to escape.
Although this all sounds very backyard and esoteric (I don’t make regular beer like this) these ideas presented here actually do work well and the taste of the drink is far superior to commercial home brew ginger beer kits IMO. Sourdough breads are actually made with very similar cultures to this and in Europe there are certain bakeries which have been using the same strains for over 200 years. As indicated above, I have also made lemonades and orangeades from the same plant by using more citrus juice in the mix. After a certain amount of use and refeeding, the plant’s properties become more stable as one type of culture in the mix becomes dominant over the others. Exposure to sunlight will aid lactobacillus development and help to suppress any wild yeasts present in the blend.
I just put down a small batch today with my new plant cultivated from the wild stuff off a fresh-picked manadarin described above. I only made 3.75L just to test it out.
Firstly, I zested and squeezed the juice from 6 very small sour marmalade oranges (which seem to be more sour than lemons), and put this in a bucket along with the squeezed-out fruits. To this I added 1.5L of boiling water, 500g of raw sugar, 2 teaspoons of ground mixed spice, 1 heaped tablespoon of golden syrup and 2 heaped tablespoons of dried dark malt extract (DME). I didn’t have any fresh ginger or cream of tartar on hand today. I then dissolved everything really well, left it to steep for 5 minutes and topped up the bucket to the 3.5L mark with cold water. Next I strained the contents through a seive to get out all the zest and squeezed orange parts. I used my hands to squeeze all the additional liquid out of the orange flesh. I then checked for sweetness and it seemed like it was sweet enough, so I topped up again with cold water so I had a total of 3.6L of ginger beer ‘wort.’ The temperature of the liquid was in the mid 30s: just right for lactobacillus. I then funneled the wort evenly amongst 3 clean 1.25L Pepsi bottles. The additional 100-125mls was made with the liquid off the top of the ginger beer plant, which was poured through the funnel evenly amongst the 3 bottles. The colour is a nice cloudy amber thanks to the DME and golden syrup.
I then loosely capped the bottles and left them on a sunny, warm, north-facing window ledge (indoors).
After this I topped up the plant with water and gave it a good dose of dried ginger powder, DME and some raw sugar, too, to keep it going.
Bubbles started forming in the bottles almost instantly, so fermentation was already underway. After 3-4 days, I tightened the lids on the bottles and left them for another day. After testing the hardness of the bottles to check that they were firmly gassed enough, I refrigerated them for a few hours.
This drink is delicious served on a warm summer’s day, though we consumed some of the drop on a sunny winter afternoon (last weeked), alongside a barbeque lunch, and found it equally refreshing!
Here’s another more authentic GB recipe which worked out very well. I found my plant to be a bit lazy so I added a small amount of ale yeast to it just speed things a long a little. You could use dried baker’s yeast too.
I made another 3.75L batch. Firstly, I zested and squeezed the juice from 4 medium lemons into a big mixing bowl and also added 400g of raw sugar, 2 tablespoons of golden syrup, 2 heaped teaspoons of dried dark malt extract, 3/4 teapoon of cream of tartar, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid, 2 teaspoons of dried ginger, 1 teaspoon of mixed spice. I then covered all this with 1.5L of boiling water and left it to steep for 30 minutes. Then I strained all this through a sieve into a bucket and topped up to the 3.6L mark with cold water. Pitched my yeast boosted plant (about 150mls worth) into the luke warm mix and bottles into 3 x 1.25L soft drink bottles. I left the lids loose for about a day and then on the second day tightened ’em up before I went to bed. When I woke up the bottle was quite hard so I let off the pressure and retightened ’em and then waited another several hours before they were hard again (the presence of a yeast strain seems to speed up the whole process significantly). I then put ’em in the fridge until chilled and served it up. Best GB I have ever had. Excellent carb level and nice golden colour, and delightful spicy flavour. Tasted a lot like a specialty organic brand I have had before. At last GB Holy Grail…..