Following up on my summer goals, I recently made another batch of home-brewed ginger beer. Sweet, spicy, with a wicked kick, ginger beer makes a refreshing drink on its own or mixed half-and-half with lemonade. For an evening highball, try a Dark & Stormy: ginger beer with a splash of black rum and a squeeze of lime. Mmm, you can feel that summer breeze drifting your way, can’t you?
This is an ersatz ginger beer; real ginger beer requires a ginger beer plant, a symbiotic colony of yeasts that carbonate the drink through fermentation. I decided not to buy or culture my own ginger beer plant. Instead, I followed Dr. Fankhauser’s instructions for fermented yeast carbonation, which gives a nice fizzy lift to a syrup-and-water base.
For my long-ago first batch of homemade ginger ale, I followed Dr. Fankhauser’s directions carefully. The resulting drink was tasty and fizzy and exactly what he promised, but not spicy and dark as ginger beer should be. For my recent batch, I brazenly modified the ingredients and the prep technique to produce a richer spicier drink, but the brewing directions remain the same.
A few improvements I made: cooking the ginger and spices with the sugar extracts more flavor and also eliminates the need to dissolve the sugar after it goes into the bottle. Adding the lemon zest, cinnamon, and clove results in a more complex flavor profile, and the peppers and peppercorns add bite and snap. Straining the syrup makes a cleaner, less cloudy ginger beer that’s far more pleasant on the tongue — no shreds or ginger to tickle your throat! I also added a bottle-sterilizing step for extra safety.
Note that the fermentation process produces a trace amount of alcohol. Dr. Fankhauser estimates it at 0.04%.
homemade ginger beer
non-reactive funnel (plastic, rubber, stainless steel, or glass)
extra-fine strainer or standard strainer and cheesecloth
2-liter screw-top plastic bottle (do not use glass; I use an empty seltzer bottle, well rinsed)
scant 2 liters fresh water, plus 2 -3 cups
one large hand of fresh ginger
1 cup sugar (I used half white sugar, half rapadura sugar for extra flavor and color)
one stick cinnamon
6 -10 cloves
2 dried chile peppers
5 – 6 peppercorns
1 lemon, one lime
1/8 tsp instant yeast (in the baking aisle of your grocery store)
a spoonful of vodka
Wash your hands and equipment carefully. A little contamination at the beginning can affect the fermentation later. Pour the spoonful of vodka into the plastic bottle, cap it, and rotate the bottle to wet all surfaces including the cap. Uncap and drain the bottle and cap upside-down until vodka evaporates.
Wash ginger and gently scrape the skin off with a spoon or dull knife. Discard skin. Chop ginger fine and place in saucepan, along with peppercorns, crumbled peppers, crushed cinnamon stick, cloves, and sugar. Cover with 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently until reduced to one cup.
Mixture should be dark and syrupy. Taste your syrup (using a clean spoon each time!) to determine its spiciness. If you desire greater intensity of flavor, add the additional 1 cup of water and continue simmering to reduce to 1 cup. The longer you steep the ginger and spices, the more intensely flavored your syrup (and therefore your ginger beer) will be.
Juice lemon and lime. Remember that you get more juice from a warm or room-temp lemon than a cold one, and that rolling it firmly between your palm and the counter breaks up the fibers to release still more juice! Juice half of each and pour juice into sterilized bottle. (This is a question of preference: you may choose to add the juice of a whole lemon and a whole lime. I prefer a subtler citrus flavor.)
When syrup is reduced to 1 cup and slightly cooled, toss in citrus zest and let steep. The zingy citrus oils will release into the hot syrup to brighten the flavor.
When syrup is well-cooled, you’re ready to mix your ginger beer for fermentation.
Place the funnel in the bottle neck. Place the extra-fine strainer (or strainer and cheesecloth) in the funnel. Pour syrup into bottle through strainer and funnel, pressing gently on solids to express all the liquid. Add the tiny quantity of yeast. Don’t worry if some yeast sticks to the syrup’s residue — the water will wash it in.
Pour in slightly less than 2 liters of fresh water. Your goal: to almost fill the bottle, leaving a 1-inch headspace. Cap bottle tightly and upend gently to mix. Give the bottle a gentle squeeze so you’ll know how to gauge the difference later.
Put your sealed bottle somewhere out of the way (and ideally somewhere easy to clean in the unlikely event of an eruption). A guest bathroom makes a good fermentation spot. We put ours in the front hall. No bottle has ever exploded, but I swathe it loosely in a plastic bag juuuuuuust in case.
Let it sit for 24 – 48 hours at room temperature. During this summery stretch, I found that the latest batch fermented in just under 24 hours. Give the bottle a squeeze every 12 hours or so, checking to see if it’s building pressure. When the bottle is too tight to squeeze, put it in the refrigerator and thoroughly chill before opening. If you open it at room temperature, you may find it fizzing wildly, erupting in a foamy embrace up your arm!
When it’s thoroughly chilled, gently open over a sink — just in case! If it bubbles over, that’s okay; it has more than enough carbonation to keep you happy.