Homemade Ginger Beer the Lacto-Fermented Way

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Maybe it was in the Fall or early Winter, I can’t remember exactly when, just that it was a while back that I saw this recipe for lacto-fermented sodas on homegrown.org.

What, you may ask, is a lacto-fermented soda? An age old process used before refrigeration, lacto-fermentation takes place when the starches and sugars in vegetables, fruits and roots are converted to lactic acid by lactic-acid producing bacteria – lactobacilli – which apparently are everywhere.

This fascinated me for some strange reason. I’m not been a soda drinker for years, but I do love ginger and have always been a big fan of ginger beer.  When I read the article/recipe I started to get really excited. Homemade cola, root beer and ginger beer, oh my!

First, I was flummoxed by the need for a… carboy? For the longest time I got in my head that it was called a “crowboy”, so not only couldn’t I find one, but people had no idea of what the hell I was talking about! Luckily I got that straightened out and could start a proper, systematic search.

Apparently New Yorkers are not big on making their own wine or beer as there isn’t a wine or beer making supply store anywhere close by. The ones I contacted on Long Island or in New Jersey sold only plastic ones or were out of stock or it was going to involve a long journey or a steep shipping cost to get. Seems to me someone should open up an old fashioned general store and start selling this kind of stuff…

And then, finally, about a month ago, Neil and I were wandering around in Williamsburg and found an old, glass, water cooler bottle – a de facto carboy i.e. a large multi-gallon container with a small, narrow opening – in a “junk” shop. One part down!

The other thing that this process calls for is a fermentation lock, some fancy gadget that regulates the gas coming out of the fermenting liquid and prevents yucky things from getting in. Needless to say I didn’t buy one of these either, although they are cool looking and maybe one day I’ll get one, but for now folded, multilayered cheesecloth seemed to work just fine.

If you have ever had one of those Kombucha drinks you will have some idea as to what the end result will taste like. Fizzy, crisp, and in the case of my recent batch of ginger beer, really gingery.

The response has been great, with only one person saying that it was “a bit too healthy for me” (and it wasn’t Neil! he keeps opening new bottles, drinking it and offering it to company, spreading his enthusiasm and The Word).

Neil has never liked root beer, however, but I’m really dying to try it, if only because I think it is so cool that the “root” in root beer is burdock, something else I learned from this foray into soda making (and another great recipe from Homegrown.org).

The fact that naturally fermented beverages are pro-biotic was the real clincher. I have a history of stomach issues small and large and to be able to have a bottle of delicious home made ginger beer in the fridge that will sooth the demons in my tummy is a great alternative to phosphorescent pink tablets of bismuth.

OK, so finally the recipe – I have linked above to the original article but I’ve rewritten it here with observations based on my recent actual experience in making it. Oh and I call it ginger “beer” as opposed to “ale” because the end end result is cloudy, not sweet, and very gingery, and my association with ginger ale is the commercial, sweet, clear stuff. This reminds me more of the Jamaican ginger beer I used to get when I lived in Toronto.

And in case you needed any other motivation to search out a carboy and start your own soda making enterprise, apparently home made ginger ale/beer is all the rage according to the NYT.

The recipe:

Lacto-fermented Ginger Beer

This is like sour dough starter. Clean a quart mason jar, fresh out of the dishwasher is easiest, but if you don’t have a dish washer obviously hot water and soup and some elbow grease work just as well.

Part 1:

This is going to be your starter, which you can use over and over again. Chop 2-3 tablespoons of fresh ginger. The original recipe called for 1 or 2 and said it could be grated or food processed, I don’t think it said anything about peeling it (probably you don’t need to, but I did), so I used more ginger (as is my want) and roughly chopped it with a knife.

Add the chopped ginger to your clean a quart mason jar full then fill with still mineral water – DON’T USE TAP WATER chlorine kills all the good bacteria you will need to make this work.

Add 1 teaspoon of organic cane sugar, place the lid on the jar and leave sit at room temp over night.

Every day, for the next week (so a total of 7 days), add another 1 teaspoon of organic cane sugar. By the end of the week the water will have become somewhat cloudy and you should see little bubbles. I had no problem with mold or other yucky things happening, but if it does appear skim it, if it becomes a problem then your jar wasn’t clean enough and you need to start again.

Ta da! Now you have a live bacteria starter. If you are still in search of your carboy you can put it in the fridge until you find it, when ready to use just take it out and add another teaspoon or so of sugar and let it sit out over night to warm up and reactivate.

Part 2:

Now the fun really starts. Making the Wort (funny name, eh?)

Into a 4 quart or larger pot finely grate or food process 8 ounces of ginger (I doubled the original amount and used a food processor for this part). Add 3 cups of sucanat (I used a similar unprocessed sugar, but you could use maple syrup, agave, malt extract or honey – they suggest to stay away from white, raw and brown sugar, molasses and corn syrup – I can’t imagine the last one even occurring to someone thinking of making a lacto-fermented soda, but just in case…). Add 8 cups of mineral water and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and let boil gently for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and add the juice of 4 lemons.

Let cool.

My experience with this boiling process was that the unrefined sugar still contains molasses and so you get a kind of nasty black scum happening, I skimmed and discarded this. I was also surprised at how much darker the sugar got when cooked. It all worked out fine, so if you have the same experience, not to worry.

In lieu of a fermentation lock the original recipe says you can use a balloon with a few pin pricks in it, I somehow never managed to get around to buying a balloon and instead just used cheesecloth I folded three times with an elastic band to hold it in place over the mouth and neck of the bottle.

Once cool, using a funnel, pour the ginger mixture into your carboy, then add a gallon and a half of mineral water (in my late night soda making excitement I added two gallons of water – but maybe because my starter was sweeter or beginners luck or something, again it worked out just fine) and just the quart of water from the starter straining out the ginger to be reused for your next starter.

Cover the carboy with your fermentation lock/balloon/cheesecloth…keep at room temperature (they say 75 degrees, I think anywhere close is fine).

After 2 days taste your concoction and then taste every day after that until it has a suggestion of sweetness. This is a gray area as far as I’m concerned as I really don’t understand what ” a little bit of sweetness” really means. If memory serves me I left this mixture in the carboy for about a week.

The other worrisome thing that happened was that for some weird reason there was a tremendous amount of sediment at the bottom of my carboy and I still can’t really figure out what it was. The sugar was all boiled and melted, the ginger was only 8 ounces, so it miffed me, but in the end it didn’t matter, when if came time to bottle I just shook the whole thing up and put it all through a sieve with a piece of cheese cloth on it – which I felt was needed anyway to get rid of the grated ginger.

The original recipe calls for an elaborate process of bottling in beer bottles and capping and uncapping daily to check on the fermentation process and to see if the ginger beer is carbonated enough for your liking. As there is no way to get beer bottles, caps and a capping machine with out great effort and expense I just used those resealable bottles in which you get fancy French lemonade. Or there is even a wine called Vin de Picnic that uses them as well. I supplemented my supply with some I got on sale at Broadway Panhandler for half price. If you were serious about this as an ongoing endeavor it seems like you could buy a box of them wholesale on line.

This recipe makes a lot of soda! It made 8 of these big bottles and I had to throw some away because I didn’t have enough containers to put it in. Also, in order to stop the fermentation process, you need to be able to put what you have made in the refrigerator. So be warned! It’s very space consuming.

The joy of using these bottles is that you can open and close them with ease. I left my bottles fermenting at room temp for at least a week because I was somehow convinced that it wasn’t working. In part that’s because after my initial tastes I decided I could see the level of carbonation by looking – WRONG! I was lucky because by the time I refrigerated them they were perfectly carbonated, but had I waited another day I would have had a bunch of exploded ginger beer and glass all over my kitchen!

Due diligence is needed once you have bottled to check the carbonation, it seems to me 5 days or there about is what it takes.

Check back here and I will update you on how to make cola and root beer, but before I publish a recipe I want to try it for myself.

At this moment I think replacing the lemon juice with lemon grass that is also boiled with the ginger could be a good idea (in the fall there is even local lemongrass at the market). Or in addition to using lemongrass add lime juice, we had this drink in Bali that was lemongrass/lime/ginger and it rocked.

Good luck and report back here with your results and comments.

About urbanfoodguy

I'm a self taught cook with a dedication to buying and eating food that is as humanely and sustainably raised as possible. Which is why in addition to recipes you will see a lot of environmental/political reporting here. I started cooking when I was about 6, it's something I always loved to do. Watching Graham Kerr - aka "The Galloping Gourmet" - was what got me started and I have never really looked back. Over the years I've been a private chef, a caterer, and a food stylist for magazines such as Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Real Simple, Oprah, Martha Stewart's Everyday Food and many more. I've also worked in the prep kitchen for the Food Network on the Bobby Flay and Paula Deen shows. Now I work at home in my kitchen sharing with you here recipes that I create or that other people have created that inspire me and I think you will like. I love my neighborhood (the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and I love to travel. Because NYC is such a big place I tend to focus mostly on my 'hood and the ones that are close by: The East Village, Bowery, Chinatown and Williamsburg. My love of travel has no limits really, I'm always ready to get on a plane. I was lucky enough to have a business for many years that allowed me to spend a lot of time in South East Asia. These days I've been spending time in Mexico, Germany, Canada and the West Coast of the U.S., but check back you never know where I might end up. I do consulting, cooking classes, and freelance lifestyle writing so if you are interested please send me a note: urbanfoodguy@gmail.com
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One Response to Homemade Ginger Beer the Lacto-Fermented Way

  1. Pingback: Fermenting in Maine | Urbanfoodguy

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