The Brew That is True: Ginger Beer

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davew's picture

My mother was a huge fan of Vernor's ginger ale to the point where I remember taking detours on family vacations to pick up the occasional sixer. She passed this proclivity on to me, although not to the same extent. I too will grab a Vernor's when I am in the right part of the country which isn't too often. To those of you who haven't had the privilege it is more or less like conventional ginger ale with a slightly more complex flavor and a tad more spice.

This state of affairs lasted until one day I came across something completely different in our grocery store in Alabama. It said Ginger {something} from Jamaica {somewhere}. Intrigued, I was. It was cloudy, fizzy, and nearly took the top of my head off! Wow, talk about spicy. Me likey spicy! This was the day I learned the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer. The usage of the terms is not perfectly consistent, but in general ginger ale is bubbly water flavored with ginger and sugar while ginger beer uses a rather massive dose of ginger as well as other spices and is usually not filtered. The two dollar per bottle price tag kept my indulgence to a minimum and leaving Alabama removed temptation.


This state of affairs lasted until last week when I was browsing through a local gourmet store, Capers and Co, and chanced across a bottle of Fentiman's Ginger Beer. It's "Botanically Brewed." Says so right on the label. It was delicious, not quite as strong as the Jamaican stuff, but thick and tasty nevertheless. The word "brewed" caught my eye. I've been known to brew before. Could I make this? How hard would it be? The answers are "yes" and "dead easy". Easier than making bread. Easier than making biscuits. Really. And now you have read this you are under a geas (a quest of sorts) to try it as least once. You can't argue with a geas, man.

Ingredients:
1 ginger root (the whole thing)
15 cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground anise (optional)
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon (optional)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon yeast
2 liters water

Equipment:
2 liter plastic bottle
1 gallon pot
funnel
strainer

Skills:
grating
boiling

Grate the ginger root. Take the zest off the lemon (if you don't know what this means feel free to skip it) and then juice it. Combine the grated ginger, cloves, lemon juice, (lemon zest, anise,) sugar, and water in a large pot or pressure cooker. Either simmer for 30 minutes or pressure cook for 10 minutes . Let cool. Ideally you let the mixture cool to 120F (tepid) before throwing in the yeast, but it is not critical. If you don't feel like measuring, just let it cool to room temperature. This ain't rocket science. There is plenty of food and plenty of yeast. Fermentation will happen unless the liquid is too hot when the yeast goes in.

Now you want to filter out the big chunks and get the liquid into the bottle. There are a lot of ways to do this. I used a strainer over a funnel over the bottle. The result was a little tippy so I held onto the strainer and ladled the beer into the funnel with a 1 cup measure. There are many other techniques that would work as well. Bear in mind we're not looking for clear here so don't go nutty with the cheese cloth. We just don't want Aunt Marge to choke on a clove. You want to leave some room at the top of the bottle for the gas to build up so it can get reabsorbed so your beer will be fizzy. You'll also need that O2 to get the yeasties off to a healthy start. I recommend about 2 inches down from the cap, but feel free to play with this. Once again, it ain't rocket science.

Tighten the cap firmly, shake well, and let sit on the counter. Give it a squeeze. It should be soft and supple. In a day or so it won't be. Once the bottle is nice and firm (as firm as Miss America's... never mind), put it in the refrigerator and leave it there for at least 12 hours. You want to chill the brew and give the CO2 a chance to dissolve. A couple of days is better, although it never lasts this long around my house. Best to open this with care -- over the sink at least or outside if you're more cautious. Depending on how firm you let the bottle get and how quickly you open it the results can be spectacular. Serve with love.

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Notes:

I think this would make a way cool thing to do with kids. It's got food, sugar, biology, chemistry, and the risk of an explosion. What could be better? (I was kidding about the explosion, but your offspring need not know this.)

You can start a 2 liter bottle of water if you like, although I really hate encouraging those folks. I made mine with a leftover soda bottle and tap water.

You'll notice I didn't specify what kind of yeast. It really doesn't matter. I used instant bread yeast although ordinary bread yeast will work as well. I assume beer yeast will also work. You'll also notice I didn't call for "proofing the yeast." Two liters of warm sugary water is yeast heaven. There is nothing nicer you need to do for them beforehand.

Did I mention sanitation? No I didn't. Don't worry about it. You've got a bunch of sugar (yeast food on the half shell) and a bunch of yeast (a few trillion by my count.) There may be a bacteria or two hanging around. Actually, I guarantee there will be a bacteria or two hanging around, but the yeast will have such a massive head start that other beasties will not have a chance and everything is going into the fridge in short order where nothing is going to grow particularly well. If the bottle was previously used just give it a good rinse and you'll be right.

Home brewers will note that the technique above is a recipe for what we know colloquially as a "glass grenade". There is more than enough sugar for the yeast and nothing really to stop them. Eventually enough pressure will build up to cause a catastrophic failure of a glass bottle. This is why the recipe calls for a plastic bottle. Plastic bottles can handle way more pressure, and if they do fail they will pop the cap or split a seam. The most you risk with plastic is a little mess. The most you risk with glass is, well, just don't use glass.

On a diet? Don't sweat it. This stuff has about 50 calories per 12 oz glass. You could substitute all but 2 tablespoons of the sugar for sweetener if you like and make something comfortably close to zero calories. I recommend living a little.

On the wagon? Don't sweat it. A small amount of alcohol will be produced, but all the commercial brands say "less than 1/2 percent" and this recipe is probably less than that.

Shelf life? Nearly indefinite. At least a couple of months. It will even recarbonate itself every time you put the cap back on. I'd like to see a cola that can do that!
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