I have been mildly obsessed by ginger beer ever since I grew up gorging myself on Enid Blyton novels with their constant mention of it. (I did always wonder how English people had so much ginger knocking around when it was as rare as hen’s teeth in 1980s Ireland in comparison.) My only taste of ginger beer as a nipper was the occasional can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer and this also confused me as to how the Famous Five could make fizzy drinks at home. But then again, I never found any shipwrecks round my way either so I think I knew not to compare myself to them too closely.
Living in Brixton these days, I drink a lot of ginger beer made from fresh ginger and often given a hearty slug of dark rum at my friend Brian’s restaurant Fish Wings and Tings in Brixton Village. Fiery and refreshing, it was perfect in the hot weather earlier this summer.
However my tastes in drinks run to the sparkling. Anyone who has ever been to my flat knows that I order fizzy water in quantities so immense I should really have stop using bottles and just park a tanker outside instead. Could I make a fizzy ginger beer to tick all my beverage boxes at once?
Someone mentioned The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz to me as they’ve been making kefir and other fermented drinks at home and have the successful touch with their sourdough starter. Still slightly resentful of the time someone chose to break up with me so they could spend more time with their new sourdough starter, I have resisted the fermenting trend thus far. But I discovered you can make a ginger beer ‘plant’ with ginger and yeast and it will fermented to make both bubbles and booze you can drink. My time had come.
Recipes told me that I could use both dried ginger and fresh ginger for this plant, but believing the dried powder to be too good to be true, I decided I would experiment and try a batch of both. I also didn’t want to have to splash out on champagne yeast so having finally obtained some fresh yeast tried it instead. I did get bubbles this way but the flavour was so intensely damp and yeasty, it was undrinkable.
I tried again with some champagne yeast I bought off Ebay and the overpowering yeasty flavour was replaced with something more subtle and crisp due to the tight little bubbles it created. Unfortunately there was no flavour or fire from either the fresh or dried ginger and the whole thing was unpleasantly bland.
I went for third time lucky and decided to adapt Brian’s recipe in Recipes from Brixton Village to combine it with my fresh ginger plant and create a fizzy ginger beer with a kick. Instead of just relying on the plant for flavour, I steeped fresh ginger and sugar in water overnight as well and it was perfect.
Full of flavour and fizz and just alcoholic enough to warm the cockles further, it was well worth the experimenting. It’s not a quick recipe but it’s fun to do and works out much cheaper than bottled ginger beers from the supermarket if this is a favoured tipple.
Alcoholic Ginger Beer (makes 3 litres)
For the plant:
- 750ml warm water
- 1.5 teaspoons champagne yeast
- 250g grated fresh ginger
- 8 teaspoons sugar
For the ginger beer:
- 3 litres water
- 500g grated fresh ginger
- 1 kg sugar
The whole recipe will take about 2 weeks to make from start to finish, including creating your plant and fermenting the ginger beer. It will then keep for several weeks unrefrigerated, ready to drink when you choose.
Begin your plant by mixing the yeast and the warm water in a clean glass jar. The water should be no warmer than blood temperature so you don’t kill the yeast. Allow it to sit for 5 or 10 minutes so that it begins to bubble and froth. Add the grated ginger. You don’t need to peel it. The skin of the ginger is particularly abundant of wild yeasts that will aid fermentation so just grate it coarsely on a box grater and bung it into the jar.
Add one teaspoon of sugar and leave the jar somewhere fairly warm to begin fermenting. You then want to feed it one teaspoon of sugar everyday for another week. Each time you feed it, give it a little stir and listen to the sounds of it bubbling and foaming gently. Mine almost sounded like it was sighing in pleasure when I fed it and I grew quite fond of it.
On the sixth night, put 3 litres of cold water into a large saucepan and bring it to the boil. Add the kilo of sugar and stir until dissolved. Grate the ginger on the largest holes of a box grater and again, don’t worry about it being peeled. Turn the heat off when the water comes to the boil and the sugar is dissolved and then add the ginger. Put the lid on and allow to steep overnight.
Next day, feed the plant one last time. Try not to feel oddly guilty that you are about to end its life and strain the fresh ginger out through a muslin cloth, retaining the liquid left behind. Twist the cloth round on itself to drain out every drop of the liquid you can and discard the ginger pulp.
Pour the steeped ginger beer through a sieve or muslin cloth to separate out the ginger. Again, squeeze the ginger well to wring out as much of the liquid in it as possible. Discard the pulp. Add the drained plant liquid into the ginger beer and stir well to mix.
Take two clean plastic two litre drinks bottles and fill them part way with the ginger beer mix. I took mine to the top of the label, allowing lots of room for expansion. Do not use glass bottles for this. The sugar and the yeasts react to create the gas that makes the beer fizzy and glass bottles don’t have any give for this and may shatter dangerously. Do not overfill the bottles even if you are making a larger amount of ginger beer than given here. Simply use more bottles.
Screw the lids on tightly and leave the bottles somewhere warm, but not in direct sunlight for a week to ferment. You will see them start to expand and bulge and you may hear them crackle slightly. Loosen the lids slightly if they start to distort, but don’t open the bottles completely until needed.
Carefully twist the lids open a little at a time to allow the pressure to escape. The ginger beer will fizz and expand hugely as you do this so don’t do it quickly unless you want to be soaked in a tidal wave of fizzy drink. Once the pressure is settled, pour the ginger beer into glasses, add ice and rum if liked and drink.
I don’t have a hydrometer so I’m not sure what kind of ABV this is. I drank two glasses without any added rum and felt gently merry before dinner which was delightful. It’s not suitable for kids and definitely not if you’re driving. It’s much less sweet than the commercial brands of alcoholic ginger beer and much more fun to make. I think I’ve got the home brewing bug now…