The Ginger Bug

I brew my own Ginger Ale.

I started doing this, I think, in February 2008. Melissa had bought a book called Wild Fermentation, which was about using bacterial/yeast cultures to brew drinks and make food through fermentation. I’ve made over a dozen batches, and although I’m still improving on my recipe, it tastes pretty good!

My Ginger Ale recipe is essentially three food ingredients + the micro-organism culture.

  • Ginger Root (grated)
  • Lemon (sometimes lime also, and I’m experimenting with other flavor additives)
  • Sugar (white)

That’s it.

The carbonation comes from the fermentation of sugar, via the Wild Yeast. This is the same kind of fermentation process that brewers use to make ethanol (drinking alcohol) although this particular process / yeast culture does not produce a substantial amount of alcohol. (If there is any, it is barely noticeable, and largely depends on how long you let it ferment). The main by-product is carbonation (CO2) and awesome.

Making the “Bug”

Growing the micro-organism culture is super-easy. It’s way easier than caring for pets. (and cheaper — although not really as entertaining, unless you’re the type of person that likes owning sea monkeys). All you need is three things:

  • Sugar (white, granulated)
  • Ginger Root, grated
  • de-chlorinated / de-ionized water (the local Richmond spring water works fine for this)

Combine about 1 cup of sugar with about 3″ of ginger root, and about a cup and a half or so of water. You want enough that the sugar dissolves completely and that the ginger gratings are floating with a small gap at the bottom. I put the whole mix into an empty Peanut Butter Jar, and then cover it with 2 layers of fabric scraps held on with a rubber band.

The covering is SUPER IMPORTANT if you have a fruit fly problem — they will infest and they will lay eggs if you don’t take precautionary measures. It has to have some air-flow though, otherwise it’ll taste vinegary from fermenting into Acetic acid. (Note: In the picture to the left, I used cheesecloth — some people prefer it, but I have found that fruit flies are far too persistent for it to be effective.)

Do not add yeast of any kind to this. There is Wild  Yeast already present on the Ginger root and in the air, and that is all you need.

My ginger bugLet it sit for 2-3 days and you should see bubbling; If you do, then you’re good, the yeast culture is alive and munching away on the sugar. After 2 or 3 days, you can either brew up the Ginger Ale immediately or just feed it 1/4 cup of sugar every couple days. If you wait longer than 2 weeks, just toss the culture (or keep a tablespoon of it as a starter) and start a fresh batch.

Brewing the Mix

A single batch will make one gallon of Ginger Ale, and it will need to be stored for at least 5 days (ideally 7-10 days for a good dry flavor). I find that swing-top bottles (the kind that Grolsch beer uses) are perfect for this, since they make an air-tight seal and are easily reusable. While you can buy them from brew-supply distributors, it’s far easier to just go to your local liquor store, and buy yourself (or your spouse, in my case) a 4-pack of Grolsch swing-tops.

You’ll need a few kitchen tools for this:

  • A stock pot (large enough to boil 2 quarts of water)
  • At least 1 strainer (I use two, one coarse-grain and one fine-grain)
  • At least 1 pitcher that can hold a gallon / 4 Liters of liquid (I use a second smaller one during filtration)
  • A stove, open flame, really large magnifying glass or some other sustained heat source for boiling
  • A timer
  • A funnel that can fit into your bottles
  • 8 Grolsch / Swing-top bottles (they are generally 16oz each)
  • Approximately 60-70 minutes of your time

And your ingredients:

  • Ginger root (3-6″)
  • 2 to 2.5 cups of white granulated sugar
  • Lemon, lime, vanilla, or whatever flavors you want to try
  • At least a half-gallon of de-chlorinated  water (i.e. Spring water)

Here are the steps — these are inspired by Wild Fermentation but are also from my own personal experience. (I highly recommend that book, if you enjoy doing this!)

  1. Grate the ginger into a stock pot (3″ minimum — 6″ for a real intense ginger spice)
  2. Add 2 quarts of tap water (the boiling process will boil off most of the chlorine)
  3. Add the sugar (and optionally, the vanilla, I’m still experimenting with that ingredient)
  4. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves, and let it boil for 15-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when you see a faint color change (it should look slightly more brown).
  5. Let it cool to room temperature (this takes 30-40 minutes), the liquid should feel lukewarm / tepid.
  6. Strain the liquid into a pitcher — do not throw away the ginger root (just set it aside)
  7. Add lemon, lime, and the ginger bug (just dump the whole jar into it), stir.
  8. Strain this mixture, throw away this ginger.
  9. Add enough de-chlorinated water to bring the volume up to 1 gallon, stir.
  10. Bottle this into the Grolsch bottles
  11. Add the ginger set aside in step 6 to your ginger-bug jar, add a cup of sugar, some de-chlorinated water, and re-cover it.
  12. Store the bottles for 5-10 days at room temperature.

That’s it!

Additional notes

Using de-chlorinated water is important since I suspect that the yeast culture wouldn’t like living in an environment intended to be hostile to micro-organisms. If you don’t have ready access to a source like this, you can make your own: Just boil water for 15 minutes or so, cool it, and use that.

In step 11, the new ginger bug mix should bounce back much more quickly than the intitial creation, depending on how much liquid you left in the jar.

When storing your bottled ginger beer in step 12, room temperature (68-70 F / 24 C) is a good starting point, but through some experimentation I’ve learned that higher temperatures (around 80 F) tend to make more carbonation, and longer times (10 days+) tend to make the flavor more dry. My optimal flavor, so far, has been 10 days at 68-70 F. Try it out for yourself.

When opening the bottles, especially if it’s your first time, you will want to do it over a sink. Preferably into a pitcher. Expect this stuff to shoot off like a champagne bottle (seriously! I’ve had the swing top blow off and shoot across the room). This recipe does some SERIOUS carbonation. On more than one occasion I’ve had to wipe off our cabinets because of spray.

You’ll see some sediment in the bottom of the bottles — it’s harmless but just looks funny. I suspect it’s ginger sediment and the yeast culture growing. When pouring (particularly for guests) you may want to leave a little bit of liquid in the bottom so you don’t accidentally pour out a bunch of chunky gross stuff.

More pictures