Ginger Beer – first batch

First bottle

Just Bottled

My mother used to make ginger beer. She got the recipe over fifty years ago, from – she believes – family friends the Goodsons, when we lived in Totton (near Southampton). I’ve tried many commercial ginger beers in England, none as good as what she made. Over here in the states, ginger beer is almost impossible to come by. American ginger ale is not the same thing at all.

Last summer in England we discovered Fentiman’s ginger beer, which is Good Stuff. When we returned to Texas we found that World Market carries Fentiman’s, and we’re happy. But I still have a desire to make ginger beer like my mother used to.

So I did some googling and learned that there’s a good-sized community of people who make ginger beer. The biggest roadblock to getting started is that traditional ginger beer isn’t brewed from yeast. Ginger Beer Plant is a mix of a specific yeast and lactobacillus. The yeast produces alcohol; the bacteria turns some of the alcohol into lactic acid. People do brew ginger beer with brewing yeast, or by leaving ginger and sugar open to the air and picking up opportunistic yeasts, but traditional ginger beer requires obtaining Ginger Beer Plant from another ginger beer brewer. The plant has been around in its current form since at least the mid-19th century. My mother got hers from Mrs. Goodson way back when.

Fortunately there ways to contact other brewers. I had no luck with commercial Ginger Beer Plant vendors; brewing has become more popular and it’s hard to keep stocks, apparently. There’s also a risk that the vendor will sell brewers’ yeast as Ginger Beer Plant. But there’s a Yahoo group dedicated to Ginger Beer Plant, with contacts and recipes. I contacted someone in England with starter plant, and received it just over a week ago.

The recipes that I’ve found on the net don’t look much like my mother’s, so I called her. She still has the recipe, now with fifty years of crumples and tea stains, so it took a while to figure it out. I used it exactly as written, but I will probably tweak it some for the next time.

Most of the recipes I’ve seen start with fresh ginger, sugar, plant and water, left for a few days and then bottled. My mother’s uses dried ginger fed to the plant over the course of a week. Fresh ginger might make for better ginger beer, and I’ll certainly try it, but my suspicion is that over the last hundred and fifty years ginger has been mostly available in its dried form anyway, and traditional ginger beer likely hasn’t used fresh ginger. (I could well be wrong.)

Here’s what we put together.

First batch only:

Starter plant

Just starting, no fermentation yet.

First time only: take your newly acquired Ginger Beer Plant, mix with four cups of water in a clean jar, cover with clean cloth. (I used a 1/2 gallon fermentation bottle with fermentation lock.)


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Every batch:

Bubbling plant

Fermentation progressing well after a couple of days.

Every day for a week: feed the plant one level teaspoon dried ginger and two level teaspoons sugar.


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Bottling:

At the end of the week, swirl the jar to mix well, then strain through muslin, reserving both the strained liquid and the sediment in the muslin.

In a 2+ gallon container, mix the liquid with 18 cups of water and the juice of three lemons (strained).

Dissolve three cups of sugar in four cups of hot water. Stir the sugar solution into the ginger liquid. (Don’t put the hot water in before the cold, or you’ll kill the dissolved plant.)

Mix well and bottle. (About 14 pints.)

The recipe doesn’t say how long to leave it in bottles, but you have to open all bottles daily to release pressure. When there’s plenty of pressure it’s drinkable. If you refrigerate it it should stop fermenting, but if the bottle explodes in your fridge it ain’t my fault 🙂

Starting the next batch:

Once you’ve finished bottling, put the muslin with the sediment in eight cups of water and swish all of the sediment into the water. Remove the muslin, swirl to mix, and divide the cloudy mix into two equal parts. Use one part as your plant for the next batch, throw the other half away or give it to a friend to make ginger beer.

My notes and changes:

I only had twelve pint bottles. I pressed a SodaStream plastic bottle into service, and still had a large glass left over. I’m not sure how big the SodaStream bottle is, but I must have had about two pints left over. Using 26 cups of water should be 13 pints; I can’t imagine the lemon juice or dissolved sugar change the volume that much. Probably I didn’t fill the bottles full enough, and I’ll fill them to 1/2″ of the cap next time.

Anyway, I drank some of the leftover liquid to see how it tasted. It reminds me a lot of the ginger beer my mother made, fragrant and delicate. But now that I’m hooked on Fentiman’s, I think I’d like my ginger beer to be stronger, so next time I’m going to double the amount of ginger I feed the plant every day – two level teaspoons each of ginger and sugar.

Also I’ll cut the added water to 16 cups (plus 4 cups hot) instead of 18.

I don’t trust Texas tap water, especially after reading about Naegleria occasionally being found in the water supply (apparently it doesn’t cause a problem if consumed, but can using a neti pot, where it can infect via the nose). I have no idea whether an amoeba would thrive in a fermenting liquid, but since it’s designed to keep a yeast and bacterium alive I don’t want to take the chance of brewing a colony of brain-eating amoebae. So I’ve used 100% filtered tap water.

Closer to summer, of course, our water’s pretty undrinkable anyway, and using unfiltered tap water would taste terrible, so during summer I would definitely want to use filtered or bottled water, whether or not the local water supply can be trusted.

Ginger Beer Plant is apparently quite robust, and is not likely to admit any other fermentation source, so it isn’t really necessary to brew ginger beer with a fermentation lock. A clean cloth cover is fine. Since my plant would be weakened by shipping, I decided to treat it as I would have treated a more sensitive yeast; I carefully sanitized everything I used and grew the plant in a fermentation jar with lock. Now that the plant is doing well I will probably not bother with sanitizer, I’ll just keep all of the bottles and bottling equipment clean.

Update: I’ve found it as easy to continue with sanitizer as to clean the bottles, and it’s good to have some ready when I need to use an extra bowl or spoon that I hadn’t thought I’d need, so I’ll stick with it. I sanitize the bottles and all the equipment in the mixing bucket, then pour some of the sanitizer into a large pan when I’m done. I need some for the fermentation jar after it’s cleaned out, and the pan is big enough to soak anything else I need.

I am very much looking forward to trying this batch.

If you’re looking for a Ginger Beer Plant to start brewing, leave a comment. I’m keeping the extra GBP from the split after bottling and will be happy to share.

2 Comments

  1. Shawn
    Posted June 17, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Do you still have GBP available? My son in law’s mother has her last remaining sibling coming to visit from England at the end of August. I am hoping to provide a surprise meal that includes bangers & mash, and ginger beer.

  2. iain
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry I didn’t read this earlier. No, I don’t have any GBP right now, but I’d recommend http://www.gingerbeerplant.net/. It costs UK £17. (Jim’s prices have gone up, but the quality has improved, too. These days he ships dried GBP which keeps for a while)

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