The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer

The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Ale on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipe

Ginger, with its zippy and refreshing taste, is listed among the world’s oldest spices.  As far back as 500 BC, this native plant of China and India was used for medicine, food, and flavoring. For most of the Western world, ginger was used to spice up drinks. Up until the Victorian era, beer was the drink of choice in England, especially herbal and spiced low-alcohol “small” beers such as ginger beer.

I would be willing to bet that most us were introduced to the flavor of Zingiber officinale through ginger ale. I don’t know about you, but the zingy soda pop was my mom’s go-to cure for tummy aches. This non-alcoholic ginger ale made its American debut in 1866 when a Detroit, Michigan pharmacist named James Vernor installed a soda fountain in his drugstore. Vernor began playing around with ginger extracts, and in 1870 perfected his recipe, which included mellowing the syrup for four years in wooden casks. It’s not surprising that a pharmacist would chose ginger, as the rhizome was (and still is) known as a stomach soother.  In fact, Vernor’s ads often touted “Mothers tell their children to ask for Vernor’s Ginger Ale because it’s wholesome and healthful.” Vernor’s Ginger Ale remains just as popular today.

The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipe

Ginger ale and ginger beer are both basically the same thing. It’s easy and inexpensive to make old-fashioned ginger beer at home, and some (me included) would say you get more of a gingery taste than you do from the store-bought stuff. A bit of fermentation is involved, which produces a very slight alcohol content (not noticeable, but important to point out for those sensitive to alcohol). Some manufacturers ferment the mixture longer and make other adjustments to increase the alcohol content, but for our purposes this ginger beer is more akin to ginger ale. If you’re concerned, make the ginger syrup as noted below, but skip the fermentation process and mix it with seltzer water instead to produce a fermentation-free beverage.

The fermentation of the yeast creates the bubbles. You’ll need to release pressure from the bottle every day or two, otherwise the bottle could explode! That’s why in the recipe below we recommend using a plastic bottle for the fermentation process. We’ve used a glass bottle in the photos for aesthetic purposes only; the ginger beer itself was fermented in a plain 2-liter plastic bottle.

Here’s how to make ginger beer the old fashioned way– no soda machine or brewery required. The drink is nice and refreshing on a warm day; it’s also one of the main ingredients in the popular Moscow Mule cocktail. It’s easy, really, and surprisingly fizzy. Just look at those bubbles!

Food Photography and Styling by Tori Avey

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The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipe

Homemade Ginger Beer

Ginger Syrup Ingredients

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tbsp grated fresh ginger

Ginger Beer Ingredients

  • 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
  • Ginger syrup (above)
  • 3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 7 cups filtered water

You will also need

  • Clean 2-liter plastic soda bottle, funnel
Servings: 2 liters
  • Peel a chunk of the ginger with the tip of a teaspoon—the papery skin scrapes right off—and grate it, using the fine side of your grater. Place the ginger, sugar, and water in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to steep for an hour.
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipeStrain the mixture (discard the ginger solids) and allow to cool.
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipeYou’ve now made ginger syrup (or gingerette, as the Brits call it). Stop right here if you’re looking for a short-cut to ginger ale and you don’t want to mess around with the fermentation process. Pour three or four tablespoons (more or less depending upon how gingery you like it) of your syrup over ice and add 8 ounces of seltzer water or club soda. Bottle the rest of the syrup and store it in the refrigerator.
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipeFor the full ginger beer experience, place a funnel in the top of the bottle. Sprinkle the yeast in, followed by the syrup, lemon juice, and water.
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipePut the lid on the bottle and shake the concoction until the yeast is dissolved. Stow it on a shady shelf or in your pantry out of direct sunlight for 2-3 days, or until fizz is achieved. At this point it is ready to drink, and must be stored in the refrigerator to prevent further fermentation. Don't forget about the bottle, or the pressure will build up so much that it may explode!
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipeAs with any yeast-powered beverage, the fermentation process continues unless you prevent it from happening. Refrigerating will slow the process down but not stop it completely, that's why it’s best to treat ginger beer as a perishable beverage. Consume within 1-2 weeks. CAUTION: be sure to open the bottle every day to release the extra gas, otherwise the bottle might explode and you’ll have a big mess on your hands! Note that as the beverage ferments, sediment will settle at the bottom of the bottle. You can strain it out if you wish.
  • Serve over ice and savor the spicy taste of your very own homemade ginger beer!
  • Note: the "beauty" photos in the blog post above were taken using a glass bottle, however due to the volatile nature of ginger beer we recommend using a plastic bottle instead, as indicated in the recipe.
  • The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Ginger Beer on The History Kitchen #vintage #recipe

About Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller writes about historical and vintage cooking techniques for The History Kitchen. She is a historical young adult novelist and freelance magazine writer for Urban Farm, Hobby Farms, Hobby Farm Home, and Chickens. Viking/Penguin will release her debut historical novel, A Mad, Wicked Folly, in 2014. Read more...

Comments (163)Post a Comment

  1. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    This sounds great! I know the sugar is also an important part of the fermentation process, but will this work with less sugar than in the recipe?

    1. I think less sugar would be fine. You don’t need that much to awaken yeast in usual recipes so go ahead and give it a try. And let us know how that goes.

    2. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
      This is a fantastic recipe. It takes me back to my childhood in England.

      Originally, I tried the recipe with half the sugar because I thought it would be too sweet. I was wrong, it worked and was fizzy, but lacked taste. The next time I made it I used the recipes proportions (which I should have done in the first place) and it was perfect.

    3. I’m making this recipe right now, but I’m substituting agave nectar for the sugar. Agave is slightly more diabetic friendly, and it’s what I had on hand. Agave is roughly twice as sweet, so I’m using a 1:1 ratio to make my syrup. I’ll let y’all know later this week how it turns out.

    1. After you put it in the fridge. Just release the cap a bit, you’ll hear a fizzing noise, and then tighten the cap up. : )

  2. That´s funny. I made up a pitcher of Ginger Beer last week for the night staff here. They loved it!! Will ck out your recipe but I went by Jamie Oliver´s recipe. Thanks! :)

    1. Hi Rita,

      Just a wee bit of alcohol is produced and that slows down once you put the bottle in the fridge.

    2. If you want alcohol in the mix you must brew for a long time and you must put alot of sugar to start with and may need to add sugar after a week or so and keep bleeding the gas off. Just tighten the cap up a day before you want to finish to build up the carbonated effect.

  3. Plastic is full of carcinogens, you should use glass. It will have a crisper flavor anyway since plastic adds it’s own flavor to the mix. Thanks for the recipe, sounds good. I don’t drink anything with sugar in it but I am sure I can tweek it with Stevia.

    1. I agree, use glass.
      Brewing supplies stock plastic stoppers for champagne bottles so I’m currently saving some to try that.



    2. i agree about plastic being a carcingogen and imparting negativley on the flavours of whatever is stored within. however plastic would be safer in terms its flexability during expansion. glass would break under pressure. if avoiding both glass and plastic for very different safety reasons. what container would you suggest please?

    3. You can use glass bottles to make this. You need to swap out that vast majority of the sugar for something like Stevia or Xylitol and only use a little bit of sugar to carbonate the drink.

  4. I made ginger syrup, lots of it, so I could make homemade ginger ale. Now I want to investigate making other syrups so I can make other drinks, like Orange or Lemon, or Lime syrups!

    1. Steve, they’ve also got rubber stops that fit a bubbler (basically a one way water valve). I made wine not to long ago and it works perfect. I, also, have to motion to go with glass. Lastly, Karen, let me know how your other syrups turn out! I’d love to do the same!

    1. Of course will work with beet sugar. Beet sugar is sucrose as well, the more sugar the better it works.

    2. I combined a recipe for beet kvass and gingerale (they looked pretty much the same anyway). I sliced up 3 med beets and put in a 1/2 gal mason jar. I boiled 4″ of chopped ginger (wondering if I should grate instead?) w/ as little water as I could for that amount of ginger for 10 mins, took off the stove and added 1/2c of honey and after it got to room temp, I poured on top of beets, then filled the jar w/ whey after making kefir cheese. 7 days on the counter. It’s delicious! Not as fizzy as I thought it would be, but it’s fizzy enough. I wonder, could I add a few kefir grains to it also instead of the ginger root plant?

  5. Just wondering if the yeast (active dry yeast) is the same as the stuff you use in bread? Also, does it produce alcohol because I didn’t think it did?

    1. Yes Max– as the yeast ferments it creates a very small amount of alcohol, it’s really negligible in this recipe however I wanted to mention it in case any readers are concerned about it.

    2. Oops, computer glitch!

      I was going to say that bread yeast might impart some odd flavours, you probably wont pick them up though. I’m an all grain beer brewer and we use dedicated yeasts designed to ferment clean (i.e. no off flavours).

      As for alcohol, if this is a concern you can buy a hydrometer. They are cheap and there is plenty of info on the web on how to use them.

  6. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Hi there, this recipe looks great I can’t wait to give it a try.
    I am also interested in making some alcoholic ginger beer, just the strength of regular beer 4-5%.
    Is it just a matter of letting it ferment longer, or do I need to adjust the yeast and sugar levels?
    Thanks :)

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