Making Ginger Beer

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Here are all the ingredients you need for making ginger beer.

Folks who prefer a self-sufficient lifestyle are
always looking for ways to “do it themselves” and
avoid expensive store-bought items. That rule
applies to Australian back-to-the-landers as well
as to those of us in North America! In fact, when I lived
“down under” for a time, I learned the secrets of making
ginger beer from a neighbor who used to share the
fruits of such efforts on warm afternoons.

I was quite impressed by his method of beermaking: the
superior quality of ingredients used, the loving care
he lavished on the starter (or “plant”, as it’s usually
called by Aussies),  and the surprising ease of the
beverage’s preparation. The hazy, pungent drink —
which has only a small alcohol content — is
also an effective thirst quencher, so I made sure to
memorize my friend’s techniques before I left the southern
continent.

Ginger beer — as it’s made down under — has its
simple beginnings in the plant, which combines Sultana
(or golden) raisins, fresh lemons, raw sugar, spring water,
and freshly ground ginger. (The spice is available in most
any food store, or you may, if you live in the eastern
portions of the U.S. or Canada, be able to forage for wild
ginger — Asarum canadense
on your own acres. Just dig up the long horizontal roots,
which lie right below the surface, and chop them fine.) The
starter for ginger beer is allowed to ferment for a week
before the brewing process can begin. And — as is
done in the American method of making sourdough — a
portion of that plant is always set aside to initiate
future batches.

Start the Starter

In a quart jar, stir together 8 raisins (in a pinch, you
can always substitute darker varieties for the golden
Sultanas I’ve specified), the juice of 2 lemons, 1 teaspoon
of grated lemon rind or pulp, 4 teaspoons of raw sugar (I
prefer to use turbinado), 2 teaspoons of ground ginger
root, and 2 cups of spring water. Allow the mixture to
stand in a warm place — where the temperature will
stay between 70 and 80°F — for two or three days,
until it starts to ferment. (The process may take a bit
longer in cool weather.)

After the plant has begun to “work”, you’ll need to feed it
once a day, for a week, with a mixture of 2 teaspoons of
ground ginger and 4 teaspoons of turbinado sugar. At the
end of seven days, the starter will be ready for use in the
brew.

To make a batch of ginger beer, you’ll need a large mixing
bowl (or a blue enamel canner) and one case of clean,
sterilized beer — or soda — bottles. Pour 4
cups of boiling water over 4 cups of sugar, and stir the
mix until the granules are dissolved. Then add 3 quarts of
cold spring water, the juice of 4 lemons, and the starter.
Strain the resulting liquid through a muslin square placed
in the bottom of a colander … then squeeze the cloth
dry, into a separate container, and save the “salvaged”
moisture to begin the “plant” for your next batch of ginger
beer.

Bottle and Brew

Stir the strained lager well, and fill each bottle to
within an inch of its top. (This recipe should produce
enough to fill 20 to 24 bottles.) Then cap each container
tightly with a metal top using a beer bottle capper
(which you should be able to buy for under $15 at a good
hardware or homebrew supply store). Because of the
“explosive” nature of the stored liquid, it’s essential
that you use returnable bottles, not the
thinner disposable containers (which simply can’t stand up
to the pressure).

After three days at room temperature, the Australian brew
will be ready to be cooled and consumed. However, if you
don’t drink it all right away, be sure to store your ginger
beer in a refrigerator or root cellar where it will remain
cool. I once tried stashing my hoard in the basement during
a spell of hot weather and was rudely awakened in the
middle of the night by the sound of exploding bottles! I’ve
also learned — from experience — to open each
bottle inside a wide-mouthed pitcher, just in case that
particular “vintage” is especially bubbly.

In addition, don’t forget to care for the leftover plant,
so you can use it to start your next batch of the
effervescent potable. Just pour it into a clean quart jar
and add 2 cups of spring water, 2 teaspoons of ground
ginger, and 4 teaspoons of raw sugar. Then lovingly watch
over the mixture — and feed it with the same daily dosage you
gave the original starter — until you’re ready to concoct
another round of ginger beer. The plant will “die” after
about a week, though, so you’ll need to use it for a
new batch within seven days, or throw out the spent starter
and begin all over again.

Because of differences in weather, bottling conditions, and
ingredients, you’ll find that no two batches of the
Australian beer turn out exactly alike … but that’s
part of the fun of making it yourself. At any rate, my
guess is that — once you’ve produced your
first bottles of the spicy, tingling drink —
you’ll often gather with friends to share a glass of this
delightful brew and exchange a rousing “Good on ya, mate”!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ginger beer is only one of dozens of
unusual beverages you can brew in your own kitchen using
natural ingredients. For some other ideas, you might like
to try one of the recipes in S.M. Tritton’s book,

Guide to Better Wine and Beer Making for Beginner’s
(Dover Publications, Inc.).