In 1993, when I lived in Brisbane, Australia for six months, I often rode the city bus. For poor university students, the bus was the best way to get from the university campus into the city center to shop. The first time I took the bus was on a sunny day just before classes started. The bus driver was just as bright as the sun that day.
He sat in his shock absorber seat gliding up and down with the sway of turns and stops, almost oblivious to his passengers, smiling and singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from the musical “Oklahoma!” He would catch the eyes of a patron and give a little wink or a quick smile. I’ve ridden many public transportation buses all over the world since then and never come across such a happy and joyful driver.
I imagine his mood was predicated on more than the weather. Rather, it leapt from wonderful news about a family member. Or laughing with an old friend about some remembered teenaged foible. Or catching the familiar scent of a fondly remembered significant other.
That’s how I feel about ginger. It creates a happy place, like a good song or a burst of optimistic news. Ginger can be thrown into a pit of despair, blackened beef and a two-dimensional salty sauce, and help it rise to another echelon. Have a lemon frosting that seems too square? Add some ginger and it will gather more shape and form. Those mealy peaches languishing in the fruit bowl? Give them a boost with a ginger sugar dip.
So what if we make the ginger the star of the show? Ginger beer is the perfect vehicle for this endeavor, giving the ginger time to relax in a spa-like trance, fermenting and building. Ginger beer is the pinnacle of happy: that’s all it can be!
The important first step in creating true fermented ginger beer is the ginger bug. It is not an insect; rather, it is the cutesy name given to the ferment starter. Grating fresh organic ginger into filtered water sprinkled with sugar creates a microcosm of wild yeast and bacteria. The micro-organisms feed on the sugar added and produce carbon dioxide. When ready, the ginger bug is added to a sugared ginger water preparation, given time to ferment again, and the fizz produced creates the natural soda. No weird chemicals here: it’s all done happily by wild yeast and bacteria. See, everyone is happy. Oh, what a beautiful mornin’, indeed.
Notes: I use the same method of creating a ginger bug here as I did for my fermented grape soda. A ginger bug is a great starter for practically any kind of natural fruit soda making.
Additionally, this is a lightly sweetened and spicy flavored soda, with an option for adding green tea. I LOVE the green tea ginger combination. I am not fond of overly sweetened, artificially flavored ginger drinks. Making this one tops anything I could buy.
Thirdly, screwcap plastic bottles or glass bottles with caps should be used to bottle the ginger beer to ferment. I got my bottles at a local winemaking and homebrew shop. More notes on bottle selection below in the recipe.
I recipe-tested ginger beers with the green tea flavor — with lots of error before I found the right balance. I used matcha as I had read green tea leaves can impart a bitter flavor in baked goods and ice creams. And I also wanted to take advantage of the lovely green color of matcha. First, my heavy-handed matcha use created sludginess and turbidity, not a crisp, light drink. In retrospect, the bitter flavor may have balanced better with the strong ginger flavor. Secondly, the color of the first trial of matcha ginger beer looked akin to sewage water when I used too much matcha. I don’t think this will be appetizing for most people.
I subsequently moved on to brewed green tea for Flavor Trial #2. This trial resulted in a more clear and delicately colored drink. But there wasn’t enough tea flavor.
I moved back to the matcha. For 12 cups of liquid, I initially used 2 tablespoons matcha. Too much! Cutting it to 2 teaspoons on Flavor Trial #3 was a much better balance though it doesn’t seem like much. There is still the strange brown-green color, but little sludge, and a better balance of all flavors. Don’t agitate the bottle and strain the sludge to mitigate the color. If you aren’t on board with the matcha, the plain ginger is perfectly delightful. Below shows unagitated strained green tea ginger beer. I had three taste testers, Karlyn along for all of the trials. She gave me the full thumb’s up for this go-round:
Another view: Note the a bit-more-agitated glass on the left. The green tea ginger beer color is darker on the left versus the right glass. This is MY happy place: gently sweetened fizz, a kick of ginger, and a rill of green tea.
Author: story of a kitchen (basic recipe here, with my addition of green tea and sugar adjustments: http://ww2.kqed.org/bayareabites/2014/10/01/feed-your-ginger-bug-and-brew-some-diy-ginger-beer/ )
Recipe type: Drinks
Time: Factor in 1 week for the ginger bug to get going, then another 5-10 days for the beer to fizz.
A large hand of ginger, organic
One cup of boiled and cooled tap water
About 1 cup sugar (a bit more for the ginger bug)
Two organic lemons
Filtered or distilled water, about 5 cups (two mixed with ice; see instructions below)*
If flavoring with green tea, you also need 2 teaspoons matcha
Special equipment: One 8 ounce glass jar
6 16-ounce glass or plastic bottles with good sealing tops, well washed with hot water or sterilized
Instant read thermometer
Large pot, at least 12 quarts
Fine mesh strainer
Similar to the ginger bug I used for my fermented grape soda, grate about 1 inch (1 teaspoon) of unpeeled organic ginger into a glass jar. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and one cup filtered or distilled water. Stir to combine. Cover with tea towel and secure with a rubber band. Keep the jar in a dark area around the room temperature. Why is organic ginger important? From my experience, the conventionally grown ginger does not make a vibrant enough bug or may take longer to do so. Other reading reveals some people use non-organic ginger and peel it before grating.
Every other day, add 1 teaspoon of grated ginger and 1 teaspoon sugar and re-cover. It will take about a week for the ginger bug to be active and fermented. You can tell it is active when ginger is floating on the top, bubbles form around the ginger and may bubble when stirred, and white bits collect at the bottom of the jar. There is a sweet fermented smell also.
This is the fun part: use a vegetable peeler and peel the two lemons into a large pot. Cut them and juice them also. Combine this with 4 teaspoons grated ginger (nice and spicy!), 1 cup sugar, and 4 cups filtered or distilled water. Bring all of these ingredients to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down slightly and boil for a total of 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
Combine ice and more filtered water (Not the water you just boiled above) to make 7 cups.
Add this cold water ice mixture (7 c) to boiled ginger beer mixture (which is about 4 c) and stir to melt the ice. When all the ice has melted, use the instant read thermometer to record the temperature. It should read 80 degrees F or less. If it is warmer than this, cool for 15 more minutes, and recheck.
Pour this mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl. (ALTERNATE STEP: Sometimes I do not use the strainer and leave the bits of ginger in the bottles as they ferment. I find the CO2 production is better if I do though. I suspect that my fine mesh strainer is too fine, catching some of the important ginger bug yeast.) Stir the ginger bug into the other into the ginger beer mixture (7c + 4c + 1 cup bug = 12 cups liquid). The white yeasty collection at the bottom of the jar is important: make sure to scrape this into the bowl also. Stir.
If using matcha, remove about 1 cup of ginger liquid and mix in sifted matcha. Whisk to combine thoroughly and pour back into rest of the liquid. Don't worry if there are some lumps as you can strain the mixture again as it is poured into the bottles. For 12 cups of liquid, 2 teaspoons matcha is plenty.
Using the funnel, transfer the ginger beer mixture into clean bottles. Leave at least 1 inch of headspace in each bottle to allow for gas expansion. Anytime I make fermented drinks, I worry about too much gas expansion if I forget to check the bottles and subsequent bottle explosion. To put my mind at ease, I place recently bottled sodas or second fermentation kombucha into a large cooler or cardboard box and place in a dark area. Room temperature is preferred.
Allow the ginger beer to ferment for 5 to 7 days. Depending on the ambient temperature, it may take 10 days. One benefit of using plastic bottles is that one can feel the taut gas expansion against the malleable walls of the plastic. When you feel there is some gas collection, open the bottle and taste it. It should be lightly carbonated and be lightly sweetened. If the taste is not quite right, close it tightly and return to box to ferment longer. Taste again in a day or two.
Be careful to not allow the ginger beer to sit too long. As soon as it seems ready by taste and bubble, transfer the ginger beer to the fridge to chill completely before opening again. Make sure to keep it refrigerated if not drinking as it will continue to ferment and produce carbon dioxide gas if the ambient temperature is warm enough. The first two bottles of my not-too-sweet, extra spicy ginger beer was ready after 7 days. Also note the yeast will settle on the bottom of the bottles. Swirl gently to mix before drinking. if your strainer (if using) is not very fine, there may be some small bits that get through into the bottles. Feel free to strain the freshly opened bottles into a glass over ice to catch the last chunks.
VERDICT: Ginger syrup + seltzer versus fermented ginger beer:
If you want something easy and more commercial tasting, go for a ginger-lemon simple syrup mixed into seltzer. (Look at my lemon syrup recipe with added ginger for this method.) If you want the real deal, the more complex, fermented taste of ginger beer, take the time to make it from a ginger bug.
VERDICT ON GREEN TEA ADDITION: Do it! Do it! I experimented a couple different times on the amount of green tea added (see my notes in the post). First, I added too much and I felt the drink was sludgy. When I added less, as I report in the recipe above, I felt it was better balanced and the puke green color not as bright and offputting. I recommend this to decrease sludge and color concerns: Chill your drink and try not to agitate it, thereby leaving the ginger shreds and green tea sequestered at the bottom of the bottle. Use a strainer to catch any stray ginger bits and larger green tea islands. When you pour it into a glass, it won't look green but will have a green tea flavor hint. If you want a more toothy green-brown colored drink, swirl the bottle gently, and strain partially.
* Why is filtered or distilled water important? Some treated water (such as chlorinated) can give off a funny smell and/or taste when used in fermented drinks. When I used unfiltered boiled water, my ginger beer had a slight sulfur smell to it. The same happened to my kombucha. My research shows it can be caused by bacteria, tea nitrogen, or yeast byproducts. Since I had no issue with initial brews, it was not the tea (in the cause of kombucha) or yeast. It's usually safe to drink-- case in point: the smell didn't bother Eat who drank farty ginger beer and kombucha without getting sick. That may tell you a bit about his food tolerances.
When I switched to 100% distilled water, the final drink was more pure tasting, without the farty fragrance. A mix of half distilled and half filtered also yielded a clean tasting brew. If you have a really good filter, something that filters out chlorine, it should be fine. (Boiling at least 10 minutes helps with chlorine too.) Switch to distilled if you notice any offputting smell or taste.