By Sharon Biggs Waller
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.
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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- 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.
- Strain the mixture (discard the ginger solids) and allow to cool.
- You’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.
- For 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.
- Put 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!
- As 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.