Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brewing Ginger "Beer"

This week, I finished another fermentation project: brewing ginger beer.  It’s quite tasty, and actually pretty good for you, since it has many of the health benefits of live lacto-fermented foods and beverages.  It’s also a great alternative to commercial sodas since it is a healthy homemade beverage, and by the end of the lacto-fermentation process, most of the sugars have been consumed by beneficial microorganisms (however, if you need to watch your sugar consumption, please do your own research to determine whether consuming homemade ginger beer is right for you).

Despite the name of ginger “beer,” the drink is considered to be non-alcoholic, unless you let it ferment for a longer period and allow the sugars to covert into alcohol.

The brewing process consists of a number of steps that can take several weeks (brewing time varies based upon the room temperature, with cooler conditions lending to a longer fermentation time), beginning with the creation of a “ginger bug.” The “bug” acts as your starter culture from which the ginger beer will brew and will help to control what microorganisms thrive there.

Similar to cabbage when making sauerkraut, ginger roots naturally contain the microorganisms that will grow into an active starter culture when making ginger beer.  Once you get used to the process of making ginger beer a few times, you can branch out and make many other flavors of lacto-fermented sodas using your ginger starter “bug” and infusions of many other fruits and herbs, including strawberries, pears, cinnamon, elderflower, sassafras, and more.  I haven’t yet tried to make any other type of lacto-fermented soda other than ginger beer, but I’m hoping to experiment with that in the future.

To make my last batch of ginger beer, I used a hybrid combination of the recipes and directions from both The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  I like the general recipe from Sally's book, but I prefer the open fermentation method given in Sandor's book

You may find that you prefer the jar method from Nourishing Traditions, but the particular method that you choose really comes down to personal preference and the equipment that you have on hand.   Just make sure that whichever method you choose to use, your hands and your equipment are very clean to reduce contamination with other microbes.  I ran my baletop bottles through my dishwasher prior to bottling, and had my bottle tops sitting in hot soapy water for a couple of hours to ensure that they were all clean prior to use.

Due to the pressure that can build up in your containers after bottling, you are going to want to invest in some sort of bottles that are intended for the storage of fermented beverages, such as ones that have wire-held corks or stoppers.

A Word of Caution: Always keep an eye on the fermentation of your ginger beer.  Keep it at room temperature during the brewing process, and not in a particularly warm place such as on top of your refrigerator.  With very warm conditions, you can have a lot of fermentation that happens quickly with a lot of carbonation pressure building up, and your bottles could explode!  I don’t want to scare you away from trying ginger beer brewing, as many people (including myself) have made these things quite successfully without any issues.  Just know that this can be a possibility, so please just use some common sense during the process.  I also recommend learning more about the brewing process by checking out Sandor's or Sally's books.

Ginger Beer
Makes about 8 quarts

Ingredients needed for the entire process:
  • 14 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 14 teaspoons white sugar (non-white organic sugar works okay too, but may take longer to ferment than white sugar does)
  • Filtered water
  • 3 cups Rapadura, sucanat, or organic non-white sugar
  • Juice of 4 lemons


The equipment and ingredients needed to make a "ginger bug" starter culture

1.  First, you will need to make your “ginger bug” starter culture.  White sugar is often recommended for this process, since it encourages the best fermentation for the microorganisms naturally present in the ginger.  Although the fermentation process might not be quite as efficient, I personally chose to use an organic non-white sugar to make my bug, since there has been a lot of bad press lately about sugar beets being genetically modified.  It is recommended that if you wish to avoid consuming genetically modified sugar, you can use cane sugar. 

Grated ginger, organic sugar, and filtered water used to create my ginger "bug."

To make your “bug,” place 
1½ cups filtered (non-chlorinated, non-fluoridated) water, 2 teaspoons ginger, and 2 teaspoons sugar in a clean jar.   Cover the jar with a tight lid, shake everything well, and leave it to sit for 24 hours undisturbed at room temperature. 

My ginger "bug" ready to ferment for 7 days

2.  “Feed” your bug every day with 2 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of grated ginger every day for 7 days, continuing to keep it at room temperature.  After adding your sugar and ginger each day, you can gently stir the "bug" mixture with a non-metallic spoon or other utensil to mix it together.  Supposedly, metal utensils can somehow negatively interfere with ferments, so you should avoid using them throughout the fermentation process. 

My bubbly ginger bug after about a week of fermentation, ready to be added to a ginger and sugar water solution.

3.  After your ginger bug has been fermenting for about 7 days, it should contain bubbles.  If it has developed mold, throw it out and start a new ginger bug.  Also, if it has not developed bubbles by this point, the fermentation was unsuccessful and you’ll need to throw it out and start the process over again (go ahead and compost the "dud" materials if you like). 

Another view of my ginger bug.


4.  Peel and finely slice or chop your ginger, about 2-6 inches (5-15 cm) of ginger root for every gallon/4 liters of ginger beer you plan to make.  Add this ginger to a cooking pot filled with filtered water in the amount of half of the total volume of ginger beer that you plan to make. 


Sliced ginger that will be added to my cooking pot to make a boiling ginger infusion

Sliced ginger in boiling water
 5.  Bring the water with the sliced ginger to a boil, cover, and then simmer gently for approximately 15 minutes.  You can experiment to figure out how strong you like your ginger solution by adding different amounts of ginger.  Start with a smaller amount of ginger, taste it after you boil it, and if you want to have a more potent ginger flavor, add additional ginger and boil for an additional 15 minutes.

Straining off the sliced ginger from the hot ginger water.

6.  After your ginger water is done boiling, strain the cooking liquid into whatever fermentation vessel you are using to ferment your ginger beer in.  You can use many different types of containers for fermentation, including crocks, wide-mouth jars, or food-grade buckets.


7.  Add your remaining sugar, rapadura, or sucanat to the hot ginger water, and stir well.


 8.  Add the remaining amount of filtered water to reach your desired volume in your fermentation vessel.  This should cool your ginger-sugar water down quite a bit.  You want to make sure that for the next step, your solution is no longer hot to the touch, essentially no warmer than body temperature.


My fermentation bucket.  A regular food-grade bucket would also work fine.


9.  Add the juice of four lemons to the mixture, being careful to remove any lemon seeds prior to adding.  Stir well.


Adding the lemon juice with seeds removed to the ginger-sugar water.



Straining the ginger bug before adding the liquid to the ginger-sugar water mix

10.  Once your ginger-sugar water mixture is cooled to room temperature, you can add your ginger bug.  First, pour off the liquid from your bug and add it to your ginger-sugar water mixture.  Stir well.  Reserve about half of the sediment from the bug’s container to make your next “ginger bug” from. 

Adding more sugar to the ginger bug to start the process for the next batch of ginger beer.


To make your next ginger bug, take the reserved sediment, add 1 ½ cups water and feed it with 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons ginger for 7 days, just as you did before.


Stirring everything together prior to fermentation.


 11.  Cover your fermentation vessel with a cloth to keep flies and other insects from getting in, and leave it to ferment, stirring from time to time until the ginger beer is visibly bubbly.  This can take anywhere from a few hours, a few days, to over a week or more, depending upon how warm your room is and how potent your ginger bug was.  

 You can periodically taste the fermenting ginger beer to find out how it is coming along.  The ginger beer should taste less and less sugary as time goes by, and develop a slight sour taste.  The more experienced you get with this brewing process, the more you’ll get to know when it is ready for bottling.

My bubbly ginger beer.  The bubbles did not appear until the ginger beer was stirred.

12.  Once your ginger beer has bubbles, you can go ahead and put it into bottles. 

Getting ready to fill the baletop bottles.  The stopper lids for the bottles can be seen in the clear glass bowl.

My husband, filling the baletop bottles with ginger beer to prepare for the carbonation stage.  I have found that a ladle, a funnel, a glass bowl or other container to catch spills while filling, as well as keeping a towel underneath are all helpful things to use during the filling process.  The bottles can get quite sticky, so you’ll want to wipe down the outside of the bottles afterward.

The longer the ginger beer ferments, the greater the opportunity is to develop a more alcoholic brew, so you be the judge, based upon your personal preferences.  Check your bottles daily to gauge how much your brew has become carbonated.   

The ginger beer in the baletop bottles during the carbonation stage.  The plastic bottle at the front is used to gauge the level of carbonation of the batch.

You can check the level of carbonation by filling one plastic soda or plastic water bottle with ginger beer and seeing how much resistance you get when you squeeze the bottle with your fingers.  According to Sandor Katz, when the plastic bottle no longer yields easily, it is carbonated.  

When your ginger beer is carbonated, put your bottles in the refrigerator to cool them and to prevent further carbonation.  The ginger beer will continue to ferment and pressurize, albeit very slowly, in your refrigerator, so you will want to drink them within a few weeks.

I’m learning that gauging the level of carbonation is somewhat of an art form, and one that I haven’t quite gotten down yet.  This last batch that I made could very well have fermented for a little while longer, since it didn’t turn out as bubbly as I would have hoped.

From start to finish, the batch of ginger beer that I made took me about a month to make.  This is about twice the time that it typically takes for me to make kombucha from start to finish.  As previously mentioned, the time that it will take you to make ginger beer will vary, based upon the temperature of your room that you are brewing in, and the potency of your starter culture.  




  1. This is an interesting alternative to ginger ale which I love but don't drink because I no longer drink soda. This may be worth a try, although waiting a month....

    1. Hi Diane. Thanks for the feedback. I can really appreciate the sentiment that this can be a lengthy process. As I mentioned in the post, the time that this process takes can vary a lot, especially based upon how warm the room is that you are fermenting in. During the summer when it is warmer, your ferments will take less time, since the microorganisms are more active when it is warm.

      One way to think about it is that when creating these types of foods and beverages through wild fermentation, it is somewhat like creating a piece of art, where it can take some time to create something beautiful. When we ferment our food and beverages, we are participating in a time-honored process that people have been doing for thousands of years. I think that this is pretty cool actually, as it connects us to our ancestors on the planet, and we are also connecting to nature, since these "critters," the microorganisms, are naturally all around us. All we are doing is creating the right kind of environment for them to thrive in.

      I would like to encourage you to give this a try, or to explore other types of ferments. They are a great way to increase the nutrition of our food and to help our digestion. If you haven't read them yet, you can check out some of the other posts that I have written about fermenting sauerkraut and kombucha, or there are plenty of other ferments to try out there. I have a couple of great resource here on the blog as well. Sandor Katz is great, as is Sally Fallon's book, and Kombucha Kamp (I have an ad on the right side of the blog) are all great places to start, or find whatever resource works for you.