In winter everything shifts; in the grocery store you will find lackluster strawberries from warmer places tasting watery and acidic, mountains of citrus fruits and an assortment of apples harvested last fall. Winter is a time when many people head off to warmer climates seeking sun, dark tans, and the local tipple. They fly off to Cuba, Jamaica, Hawaii, and Mexico for a week or two to escape the snow and darkness. For those of us left behind we can make the best of winter by bringing in a bit of sunshine in the home by making ginger beer. Ginger beer has taken off in popularity in my area in the past few years with imports from Scotland becoming available, and now it seems now that every craft brewery from large to small has produced its own version of it. Most of these are sugary sweet concoctions of pear and apple juice mixed with alcohol, CO2 and ginger, and others are wheat beers with ginger flavour added. Real ginger beer is superior from anything you can buy on the market and is far removed from ginger ale which is just flavoured soda. Home brewed ginger beer has a well rounded flavour with a good bite, light and refreshing and not heavy on sweetness. I have yet to taste any commercial preparation that can match it. One taste will instantly transport you to someplace tropical.
Ginger beer is easily made at home with pure non-chlorinated water, good ginger, a lemon or lime, sugar, and this jelly-like substance called a Ginger Beer Plant (GBP). The “plant” part of the name is a bit misleading, it is not a plant at all. From what I gather the word is used in an archaic sense to mean factory, a factory that produces ginger beer. The GBP is actually a symbiotic relationship of a particular yeast and a particular bacteria. When added to sugar and water it produces a small amount of alcohol and carbonation. In that way GBP is related to sourdough cultures, kambocha, and keffir grains. Ginger beer is perhaps the easiest home brew to start with in that it doesn’t require any special equipment, takes a short amount of time from brewing to bottling (about 1 week) and doesn’t take up a lot of space in your home.
Ginger beer hasn’t been around for very long. It was first created around 250 years ago in the UK. It was certainly available during the time period of Downton Abbey and Outlander. Back then most households had their own ginger beer plants which they carefully kept. Later on ginger beer became commercially available and was sold in stoneware pottery bottles. The GBP was even transported to the Caribbean and the Americas. The GBP nearly died as a casualty of WWII. Sugar rationing (an essential food source for the GBP) are likely what did in it in. You can find sources on the internet for purchasing the original GBP, this is where I purchased mine. Don’t bother trying to cultivate your own, and don’t believe that you can achieve the same results with adding commercial brewers yeast.
I first found the instructions in one of the River Cottage Handbooks, but here they are as well by the same author. Your GBP supplier should also give you the instructions. I’ve made 4 batches now and have observed a few things:
1) Adding more sugar will increase the alcohol level. I decided that I prefer a low alcohol version (2-3%) and like to stick with +/- 200g of sugar.
2) After bottling you must leave the bottles at room temperature for a few days before refrigerating. This is essential if you want your ginger beer to be carbonated and not flat.
3) The carbonation forces the sediment (leftover yeast and small particles of ginger) to the bottom of the bottle, so don’t pour out the last bit just like other bottle fermented products.
4) I like to use glass prosecco bottles with swing tops because: they look elegant, have a convex bottom to trap sediment and bolster against pressure build-up, and seem more durable and re-usable than plastic. There is a concern over bottles breaking under pressure so use your own judgement and if this is a concern to you than use plastic soda bottles.
5) Ginger beer is cost effective, 2 liters (2 quarts) of brew will cost you only $5 in ingredients.
6) This beverage is completely bespoke. You can adjust the levels of sweetness and ginger bite according to your taste.
Ginger beer is also an ingredient in many vintage cocktails and home brewed ginger beer would be a welcome ingredient in a Dark and Stormy or a Moscow Mule (circa 1940’s America). Serve a ginger beer cocktail to those who prefer a stronger drink!
2 oz vodka
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
4 oz ginger beer
lime wedge for the garnish
Fill a copper mug with ice (a copper mug is the classic serving vessel but a glass will be fine). Pour in vodka and lime juice. Top up with ginger beer.