Making ginger beer from scratch

25 January 2012
We had a nice supply of ginger beer going over Christmas. It's a delicious soft drink for young and old, although there is an alcoholic version that can be made with a slight variation on the recipe. Ginger beer is a naturally fermented drink that is easy to make - with ginger beer you make a starter called a ginger beer plant and after it has fermented, you add that to sweet water and lemon juice. Like sourdough, it must ferment to give it that sharp fizz.

To make a ginger beer plant you'll need ginger - either the powdered dry variety or fresh ginger, sugar, rainwater or tap water that has stood for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate off. You'll also need clean plastic bottles that have been scrubbed with soap, hot water and a bottle brush and then rinsed with hot water. I never sterilise my bottles and I haven't had any problems. If you intend to keep the ginger beer for a long time, I'd suggest you sterilise your bottles.

In a wide-mouthed, sterilised jar, place 1½ cups rainwater and add one dessert or soup spoon of ginger and one of sugar. You don't have to be exact but be mindful that if you add a lot of ginger you'll have a strong tasting drink and if you add too much sugar it will be very sweet.  Every day for seven days add those amounts of ginger and sugar and mix it in well. Fermented foods and drinks thrive in aerobic conditions, so make sure you give it a good stir and mix in a lot of air.

Depending on how much natural yeast is floating around your kitchen, by about day three you'll notice small bubbles appearing in the ginger mix each day when you add the ginger and sugar (see photo above). That means the natural yeasts in the air you're breathing have colonised the ginger beer plant, they're eating the sugar and giving off carbon dioxide - the bubbles.

Leave the mix sitting out on the kitchen counter during the entire seven day process and cover it with a loose weave cloth or net to allow the yeasts to enter but keep out insects. This is an entirely natural and very healthy process. Fermentation needs a warm environment to flourish so any Australian or New Zealand kitchen in summer, or any northern hemisphere heated kitchen in winter would provide the right temperature.

On the seventh day, feed the plant, and using a wire strainer and some muslin, cheese cloth or loose weave cotton, strain the ginger mix through the cloth into a large bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible into the bowl. This is what flavours  the drink and continues to ferment it in the bottles. If it hasn't started fermenting, give it another week - keep feeding it and see what happens.

When all the ginger starter is in the bowl, add four litres of water, 2 - 3 cups of sugar and the juice of two lemons. Mix well until the sugar has dissolved.

Bottle this using plastic bottles and let them sit on the kitchen counter for a couple of days to continue fermenting and develop the fizz again. Then add the tops and put the bottles in the fridge.

When it's cold and you can see bubbles on the side of the bottle (see above), it's ready to drink.

If you want to make an alcoholic version of this, add ¼ teaspoon of brewers yeast that you can buy at the local brewing shop. The instructions and recipe for the River Cottage alcoholic ginger beer is here.

Once you have made the starter and strained the mix into your bowl, the remains of the starter can be used again to start off another batch. Throughly clean and sterilise the jar again, drop the old starter into the jar and repeat the above process. This time the mix will ferment quickly, probably on day two.

I know there a lot of germaphobes out there who are probably cringing while reading this post, but I encourage you all to try this. It's a similar thing to sourdough and yoghurt, using beneficial yeasts and bacterias to start the fermentation. This is better for you than a lot of the other soft drinks/sodas and it's a great drink to have over Christmas or at social events when you want to offer a non-alcoholic refreshing drink to both adults and children.