Ye Olde Fashioned Ginger Beer Recipe and the Theory of Homemade Soda

ginger beer

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.

Theory

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.

Practice (recipe)

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!

Enjoy!

Edit

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…..



Ginger beer

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24 thoughts on “Ye Olde Fashioned Ginger Beer Recipe and the Theory of Homemade Soda

  1. This is so awesome!! I have tinkered with making my own sourdough from organic grapes (courtesy of julia child), but I didn’t know that you use the same concept for sodas. That is so awesome! I can’t believe that the drink remains sweet and that all the sugars don’t ferment. How many times did you have to try this before it was actually tasty?

  2. Yes the process is very similar to making sour dough in that you are cultivating a mixture of bacterias and yeasts which are what ferment your product. If the brew is left for a longer period of time more sugars will be fermented and you’ll end up with a drier tasting more alcoholic drink. So the guidelines I give are actually for a sweeter, lower alcohol drink which you consume before too many sugars have been consumed by the plant. It’s only really enough fermentation to carbonate it. Cooling the drink in the fridge all but halts the fermentation process and dissolves more CO2 into the liquid so you’re less likely to get a gushing bottle. Thanks for your replies.

  3. A couple of other points which I forgot to add –

    I found the recipe reliable and successful straight away.

    If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making a plant, you can actually used brewers or bakers yeast to replace it, just by adding a teaspoon to each bottle. But the fermentation process in doing this will be much faster, and you’ll have to be more careful about over-carbonation. Again, the fridge will slow the yeast down, but the fermentation will still continue. Yeast tends to give it a different flavour, too, because it doesn’t produce lactic acid like lactobacillus does.

    Cheers!

  4. The reason that all of the sugar is not fermented is that it is refrigerated and consumed quickly. If you let it go longer in the fridge (venting the gas occasionally,) or allow it to sit at room temperature for a longer time (with the cap loose) then the sugar will be completely converted and you wind up with flat, moderately alcoholic ginger beer or really weak ginger wine, depending on what’s doing the fermenting. In most fridges, there is a spot (toward the top back in those with freezers on top) where things tend to get a little too cold and freeze. This is a great spot to store your ginger beer once you’ve got it to the sweet/dry balance that you like. You have to keep an eye on the stuff, but the cold will kill yeasts after a week or so, assuming it’s right on the edge of freezing. This leaves a sediment of yeast at the bottom, but you just pour the top off and drink. Additionally, the colder temperatures allow more CO2 to dissolve in the liquid, so it tends to fizz for longer once you pour.

    The wild yeasts that are mentioned are actually pretty good at producing a weakly alcoholic version of this, since they don’t tolerate alcohol well they tend to die out/slow down as the alcohol goes up. Through this (plus cold) you can get a more beer-ish ginger beer that is still sweet pretty easily.

    Getting good flavor with this type of recipe is really easy. Ginger tastes great and it doesn’t take much to give a good flavor. Adding other spices or fruits adds to the goodness of it all. Really the only way you can mess this up is by adding too much sugar to the mix and making a sickeningly sweet ginger syrup.

  5. (I found your post via Google.)
    Awesome info! Thank you.
    I have done something similar to this, using a ginger bug, with herbal and green teas. But none of my citrus-y stuff has turned out.
    I’ll try your method next.

  6. Hello, wildschwein.

    I really enjoyed your post on Ginger Beer and making a GBP. I have a friend who originally hails from England, but has been a US citizen for many years. Anyway, John has several times voiced a wish for the ginger beer of his youth, and I thought I would give it a try.

    Your post was very clear, so I am only posting to ask for clarification of a couple of minor points. Can you give a better description of the following:
    1) ground mixed spice
    2) golden syrup
    3) dried dark malt extract

    I used malt extract syrup back in the “bad old days” of seat-of-the-pants homebrewing, but haven’t encountered a dried version, or either of the other two components. I assume that these are regional or national differences, and that I can come up with suitable local replacements if I have a little more information.

    Thanks in advance for any help you can give, and I will let you know how things turn out.

    SimpleMikey

  7. Hi SimpleMikey,

    You should be able to find dry malt extract at a homebrew specialist shop. Dry malt extract is not an essential ingredient in the recipe, though. If you wanted to, you could use liquid malt as an alternative – use it in similar concentrations.

    Golden syrup is a byproduct of sugar refining. In Australia we have three common products marketed to us which are all closely related: golden syrup, treacle, and molasses. Golden syrup is the lightest and sweetest of the three; molasses is the darkest and least sweet, and treacle is in between. In the UK or US it might just be called treacle or molasses; I’m not really sure. We use Lyles Golden Syrup: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_syrup
    I’m not sure if this product is exported to the US, but it’s a UK product.

    Mixed spice is just a combination of spices commonly used in the baking of fruit cakes and Christmas puddings. It usually consists of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. I just buy it from the supermarket as ‘mixed spice’. However, if you can’t find it at your supermarket, then you could make it yourself. Just grind equal quantities of those spices together.

    Hope this is of help to you. If you have any more questions feel free to ask! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cheers
    wildschwein

  8. Thanks, wildschein, for the quick reply. I have three prospective starters going, from three different fruit trees, to see which one will produce the best result.

    I don’t want to flood you with inane questions, but here are two more that I should have asked in my first post:

    1) Regarding the starter: When you say “place it near a sunny window”, do you recommend full sun, or a northerly (southerly to you) exposure with plenty of light, but no direct sunlight? My thought is that full sun may raise the temperature in the jar beyond survivability of the cultures.

    2) Both of your recipes contain raw sugar. Do you use corn or cane sugar? From back in my homebrew days, I seem to remember that cane sugar produces some unwanted flavors in beer. On the other hand, society seems to be more concerned about the widespread use of corn sugar in our foods these days. Perhaps either is acceptable in this case because little of the sugar is actually fermented.

    SimpleMikey

  9. Hi mate,

    Flood us with questions; feel free. Not a problem at all.

    Direct sunlight probably isn’t the best option, you’re right. Our sink is built into a bench that has a window over it, and we put the jar of culture on this bench. It’s northerly facing, but only gets indirect sunlight. It’s enough to give it light, but not enough to boil it or anything.

    The raw sugar we use is cane sugar, or sucrose. It seems to have some of the molasses left in it; it is a very light brown granule. As you noted, with this process you’re not fully fermenting the product, and most of the sugar remains unfermented at serving time. There is only enough fermentation to carbonate the product, so unwanted side effects aren’t really an issue as they are with homebrew beer. Unless, of course, you fully ferment the ginger beer out to make ginger wine. In this case yes, you’re probably going to get some nasty hangovers!

    If you were making a fully fermented product I’d recommend using malt extract in place of sugar.

    Hope that’s of help.
    Cheers

  10. OK, wildschwein, here’s an update on my first batch.

    First, this took a little longer than I planned because of problems with my test starters. Ultimately, I opted to use yeast instead: a tried-and-true method that I am familiar with.

    Once I got the fermentation going, everything went well with the process; the bottles percolated merrily away for 24 hrs until I capped them, then began hardening up immediately. I chose to use 24 oz. (710 ml) bottles because that seemed like a convenient size for two people to share. I kept one around still filled with the original commercial product, which gave me something to compare with when squeezing to check the pressure in my “babies”. Refrigerated after an additional 24 hours capped off. After another two days, I decided to crack one open an give it a go.

    Lots of tendency to “gush”, as you put it, but screw caps are great for allowing one to slowly bleed the pressure off. Good color, great carbonation load, and an intriguing flavor and aroma, although the ginger flavor is somewhat muted by the other flavors. Overall, a great success. However, here’s what I will try next time:

    * Fewer lemons, perhaps just one or two. Many of the old-time recipes I have reviewed have called for only one lemon, and I thought this brew was a tad high on the lemon flavor. I may also add the zest and juice from a small orange to see what that may add to the end result.

    * A little less sugar. This batch turned out to be quite sweet.

    * Corrected spices. As you know, I simulated “mixed spice” from your suggestion. I later checked Wikipedia, and their entry for mixed spice places clove in the list of spices sometimes added to the main three spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice). In my opinion, the clove flavor was overwhelming, so I will leave it out, and I will probably add about half as much of the other three.

    Please don’t view this as criticism. I thought the result was wonderful for a first attempt, and all the things I have mentioned are matters of personal choice. I simply wanted to give you a full report on my experience, and my thoughts on which direction to go with future batches.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and giving all of us noobs the impetus to strike out on our own.

    SimpleMikey

  11. Glad you found the information helpful SimpleMikey. We agree, all recipes usually act simply as a guide; different people have different tastes and after the method is down you can of course tinker with it to suit your own preferences. It’s great to know this post has helped you get a bit closer to your search for ginger beer nirvana, and we thank you for posting your progress updates here for us and others to read & learn from.

    Happy brewing, ๐Ÿ˜€

    the wildschwein

  12. We are a packaging company in South Africa that used to package Spring Water, Fruit Juices and Carbonated Soft Drinks. We sold our brands four years ago and since been looking for a unique soft drink to launch in South Africa. Our thoughts were a herbal soft drink or a brewed soft drink, a soft drink with substance.

    We Need Help

    Thank You
    Alexi

  13. Hello Alexi,

    In which way do you think we could help you?

    I am not quite sure what you are requesting.

    Please leave a follow up comment, or alternatively you could contact us by email via the ‘Contact’ link at the top of this page.

    Best wishes

  14. Wow, I tought making some GB would be a lot tougher than this!

    So all I need to gather is a few 1.5 litre bottles, a bucket, and a mid sized jam jar.

    Right on! Im off to raid the neighbors tree *cackle*

  15. Heya,

    I’ve got a question for anyone who has tried to start/grow a GB Plant/Wort with both refined white sugar or unrefined raw sugar.

    My reason being, “unrefined raw sugar is made from the juice from the sugar cane plant and still has trace minerals and nutrients present. Refined sugar on the other hand is devoid of all nutrients.” http://www.naturalorganiclifestyle.com/unrefined-raw-sugar.html

    This in mind, I’m guessing that the unrefined raw sugar is going to react differently to the lactobacillus cultures with all the extra minerals, nutrients and possibly introducing new wild yeasts.

    Does anyone think that this may affect the way in which the plant will feed? Will the cultures feeding be inhibited in any way?

    Or should we simply use the refined white sugar for the plant/wort, as it is almost completely free from anything but the carbohydrates that the cultures feed on.

    Cheers,

    Xavier.

    • Raw sugars are probably better for the yeast than straight white stuff as you note it contains more nutritional value. Malt extract is probably even better. Peace, Canaan

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