A number of years ago, I was browsing in an independent book store (back before they all closed down) and a certain fluorescent colored book jumped out at me from the cooking section. Yep. The book was Wild Fermentation. It was like being given the key to a candy store, you know, if candy was my thing instead of crocks and jars full of weird bubbling contents. I tried my best to keep from hopping up and down while I paid for it, then took it back to my apartment and read it cover-to-cover. And then got to work.
I had some prior experience with fermenting before this book. I’d started making my own yogurt in college to save money. I had one of those yogurt incubators and I’d plug it in and then in the morning voila! fresh yogurt. Then I’d moved on to kombucha. Then a fellow student traded me some of his kefir grains for one of my kombucha mothers so I switched from yogurt to kefir. I had my little corner in my various rental situations with big jars of fermenting kombucha tea and culturing dairy. And they made me very happy. But then! Wild Fermentation came along and things got really exciting.
So over the years I’ve fermented just about everything in the book except meat (I draw the line at fermented goat) and alcohol (well, except for my first miso-turned-sake fiasco). And I definitely have some favorites. Sauerkraut, quarts and quarts of it, appears on our table throughout the year. It’s the one vegetable I can always, always depend on my children gobbling up. And fermented dairy or dairy alternatives are another standby. Kimchi, beet kavass and miso are also personal favorites. None of them are hard (except culturing the koji rice for the miso).
But the easiest possible ferment, in my humble opinion, is a ginger bug. It’s basically fool-proof (yes, even for beginners) and it uses only sugar, water, fresh ginger, and the wild yeasts present in the air. It’s short-term so you don’t have to keep caring for a jar on your counter for years. You can make one again and again any time you want. And with it you can turn ordinary herbal teas into a slightly carbonated, sophisticated sweet-dry beverage that will be a favorite even with the kids. It’s like those crazy-expensive artisan sodas, only good for you.
Because it’s cultured with wild yeasts, it’s excellent for repopulating your digestive tract with beneficial microorganisms. There’s a lot of talk about beneficial bacteria and hardly any about beneficial yeasts. But just as there are helpful bacteria, there are helpful yeasts. And it’s important for us to have a regular (preferably daily) intake of these microorganisms in order to keep our gut walls healthy and ensure good nutrient absorption. When there are many vibrant strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts in our digestive tracts it is much harder for one microorganism like candida (responsible for ‘yeast infections’) to proliferate to unhealthy levels.
I should mention that naturally fermented ginger beer is not an alcoholic beverage; it’s more along the lines of a soda. Because it is a naturally fermented beverage it does contains minute fractions of a percentage of alcohol similar to what bread dough, kefir, and kombucha contain. It’s perfectly safe for children but those strictly avoiding alcohol for addiction reasons might want to take this into account. To add any significant alcohol to ginger beer you’d have to add a much higher percentage of sugar and be prepared for much more vigorous fermentation.
So want to make some? There are two parts to the process. Making a ginger bug. And brewing the ginger beer.
Part 1: Making a ginger bug
Put 1 Tbs freshly grated ginger and 2 tsp sugar in a glass jar with one cup of water. You have to use sugar for this part. Later on you can use honey to sweeten the ginger beer but the bug is best started with sugar. It’ll be a minimal amount and the vast majority of it will be eaten by the yeasts so don’t worry.
Stir vigorously until the sugar dissolves. Then cover the top of the jar with a clean cloth and a rubber band. Put in a warm (but not hot) spot like a sunny window sill. Every day add either 1 more tsp sugar or another generous pinch of grated fresh ginger. I like to alternate days, one day sugar, one day ginger. Each time stir vigorously and re-cover the top of the jar. In 3-5 days (it might take up to a week if your house is cold) the bug should be bubbling and smell kinda ferment-y, in a good way. If it grows mold or smells rotten throw it away and start again. I’ve never had a well-tended ginger bug go off on me. Only once when I forgot to feed it and the weather was really hot did I have one die and begin to grow mold. So if you pay attention, you should have no problems.
Now you have your ginger bug! On to brewing ginger beer…
Part 2: Rose Hip Ginger Beer
1 cup sugar or honey (or 12 oz herbal syrup, like rose hip syrup)
3-5 inches fresh ginger root, grated, depending on how strong you like your ginger beer
1.5 quarts filtered water (not tap, the chlorine in tap water can prevent fermentation)
1 lemon (or 1 cup fresh, raw pineapple juice, super yummy!)
3 cups dried rose hips or 5 cups fresh rose hips (omit if using herbal syrup)
1/2 vanilla bean (optional but delicious)
Place your sugar/honey, fresh ginger, rose hips, vanilla bean (if using) and water into a pot and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve any remaining sugar. Turn heat down to a simmer and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Add herbal syrup at this time if you’re using it in place of sugar and rose hips. Let cool until it reaches room temperature.
Strain the liquid from the herbs using a kitchen strainer. Strain again by pouring through a piece of muslin lining your strainer to remove any of the irritating hairs from the rose hip seeds. If you’re using bought, cut-and-sifted rose hips you can omit this extra step since they’ve already removed the seeds. Likewise omit if using herbal syrup.
Strain your ginger bug (using a stainless steel or plastic, non-reactive strainer) into the now-cool liquid. Do not add your bug when the tea is hot or you risk killing it. Squeeze the juice of one lemon into the liquid (or add 1 cup of raw pineapple juice). The tartness from this helps balance out the flavors.
Add filtered (not tap) water to bring the total volume to four quarts/ 1 gallon. Pour into glass bottles. I like to use repurposed one liter glass bottles that held sparkling juice. My extended family often has these at holiday events and I wash, dry and save them to reuse. Cap tightly and let sit at room temperature for two weeks.
Open one bottle after two weeks and taste. It’s a good idea to open it over the sink, especially if using pineapple juice, as sometimes they can be very carbonated and can fizz a lot at first. It should taste slightly sweet and bubbly. If it’s still very sweet, recap and let ferment another 3-5 days and then check. Repeat until it’s to your liking. At this point chill the bottles to halt fermentation and store them in the refrigerator until used. DO NOT store them at room temperature or they could eventually explode due to the build up of pressure from fermentation. I’ve never had one explode on me. But I always store them in the fridge after they’re done.
Enjoy! And share liberally with family and friends. People love to get homemade ginger beer.