Dec 112013

My Mum used to make ginger beer on the farm. We would seal it in the glass bottles with bottle caps that you tapped on with a hammer, trying hard not to break the glass. A bottle or two would occasionally explode during the fermentation process, which was exciting, and messy.

I’ve taken to making it. Home-made ginger beer is a refreshing, fizzy drink, much less sweet than commercial soft drinks, with a pleasing zing. There is a small amount of alcohol in it due to the yeast-making-bubbles fermentation step, but it’s minimal. The process of making it is fun, teaches the kids something about chemistry, and is much less messy with the advent of PET bottles.

The process is reasonably simple. You start with a ginger beer plant (actually a fungus yeast and a bacterium; more details here). You feed it ginger and sugar every day until it’s ready, then add the liquid to a mixture of water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bottle, store for a few days, and enjoy!

There are a number of places on the internet you can get a ginger beer plant. I made my own; as a consequence it may not be a ‘real’ ginger beer plant, but given the ginger beer it produces is good, I’m not bothered by that fact. There are lots of variations; this is the recipe I follow.

To make the plant, put the following ingredients in a jug or jar.

  • 8 organic sultanas (golden raisins). You need organic (or other unprocessed, if you’re lucky enough to be able to get them) to get access to the natural yeasts that live on the sultana skins. Modern processed sultanas are too clean and don’t have those yeasts on them, so the ginger beer won’t ferment properly.
  • ¼ cup lemon juice. Use real lemons to get the juice, not something that comes in a bottle. Organic is nice, but not necessary.
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest. Make sure you wash the lemon first to get rid of any coating that might interfere with the yeast.
  • 1 tablespoon sugar. I use white sugar, but you can use any type.

  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger. You can also grate fresh ginger if you like, but I find that’s too much work.
  • 2 cups water. I usually use ordinary water, since our tap water isn’t too heavily chlorinated. If you wouldn’t drink your tap water, use bottled or filtered (but not distilled).

Stir, and cover the jar loosely with a cloth. You want air to get in (for the natural yeasts) but not bugs (in summer this is a magnet in my kitchen for fruit flies). Keep at normal room temperature. Feed every day with 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 2 – 4 teaspoons of sugar (I use 4, you may like it slightly sweeter or less sweet). After a couple of days, you should notice some bubbles in the mix, and even a slight smell of fermentation as the natural yeasts go to work on the sugar and ginger. The plant will be more active in summer, when the kitchen is warmer.

After a week or three (the period depending on how much time I have in any given week), make the ginger beer. You will need around 12 one-litre PET bottles. If you don’t have those at home, a local beer-brewing shop will be happy to sell some to you, complete with the caps. Wash in soapy water, and rinse to get the bubbles out. You don’t need to sterilise the bottles, I find the usual detergents to be adequate.

In a large pot, boil 5 cups of water with 3 cups of sugar. Stir to make sure the sugar is all dissolved, then take the pot off the heat. Add the juice of three fresh lemons (yes, the prohibition against bottled lemon juice applies here too). If you have small lemons, make that the juice of four lemons. Place a clean cloth (an old linen tea towel, for example) over a sieve or colander and pour the ginger beer plant through the cloth into the pot. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid out of the plant and into the pot as possible. Add 7 litres of water to the pot (same comments on the water as above; I use tap water). Bottle the ginger beer, leaving some space at the top of the bottle for expansion.

The contents of the cloth are the ginger beer plant itself. Take approximately half of it, put in a clean jar with two cups of water, and feed. I also put another couple of sultanas in at this stage. This is the basis for the next batch of ginger beer, so feed every day as before. Give the other half of the plant to someone, or add to your compost bin. The plant gets better as it ages, so it’s worthwhile keeping it going rather than starting new each time.

After a couple of days, you should see some small bubbles in the bottles, and the bottles should be firmer. This stage may take a couple of days longer in winter than summer. You can drink the ginger beer at this stage, but it tastes better if you can leave it at least a week.

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