Wild and Lazy Fermentation

Fermentation Basics – Ginger Beer

I just stirred, so there aren’t a ton of bubbles. Once strained, this ginger bug will yield an intensely flavored and fizzy drink.

In 2006 I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands for my best friend’s wedding.  It was an amazing and magical trip, mostly spent on the island of St. John, swimming, snorkeling, hiking and having fun with our friends in a super luxe villa provided by the extremely generous bride and groom.  The wedding was days after I finished my final, grueling semester of grad school, so this trip basically reminded me what it felt like to enjoy life.  There was also the goodness of seeing my best friend wed a very lovely and worthy man.

Foodwise, we mostly had communal meals of ridiculously expensive but wonderfully-prepared pasta (no one was gluten-free in those days), but a couple times we ventured to solid, cheap local spots on our own and tried some knockout dishes.  Fungi, which is not a mushroom but a kind of delicious mush made from cornmeal, sorrel and, of course, the “real” ginger beer were the stand-out menu items.  My immediate reaction was, “I have to learn how to make this stuff!”

Ginger beer I still make today, and let me just tell you, no store-bought ginger beer has anything on the stuff you make at home.  These days, I play around a little bit more (other ingredients, etc,), but the basic recipe is so simple that it’s hard to change.

One serious disclaimer: do not use a glass container for bottling this.  We’re talking serious risks here.  You are intentionally cultivating the pressure in your bottle and your container really can explode.   With plastic, this could be messy.  With glass, it could be dangerous.  Even once you’ve reached your desired fermentation level, you will notice that it’s still fermenting in the fridge (albeit much more slowly).  So again, glass is probably a bad choice here.

As with all ferments, the timing of the fermentation process will vary according to the season and the temperature of your home.  Keep your eyes and fingers (to test pressure) on it.  They won’t lead you astray.

 

How-to:

Knobbly, sexy ginger

Starter:

  • 4-7 T unpeeled, grated or finely-minced, unpeeled organic* ginger, divided (you will use 1-2 T per day of the culture-making process)
  • 4-7 T sugar, divided
  • 2 cups room temperature water
  1. Mix 1 T ginger, 1 T sugar and 2 cups water until sugar is dissolved.
  2. Cover it as you would a sourdough starter (cloth, coffee filter, etc secured with rubber band)
  3. Let it sit at warm room temperature, away from direct sunlight.  Stir whenever you think about it, or about once a day.
  4. Feed it with an additional T of sugar and a T of grated ginger every day
  5. Repeat this process every day until you see it bubbling.  In the summer, this takes 2-3 days in my house.  In the winter it’s sometimes nearly a week

Ginger Beer (Makes 2 gallons.  Recipe can easily be halved or quartered):

Grated is great! Snow on my garden, not so much.

I like my ginger beer REALLY gingery, and I like to make a big batch so that we can age some and drink some.  It’s a great thing to do before a party for a truly spectacular Dark and Stormy.

  • 2 gallons of water (separated)
  • Ginger, grated (I use 1.5-2 very large rhizomes.  A good amount to try for your first batch of this size would be one large rhizome.  Definitely reduce amount of ginger if you halve or quarter the recipe.)
  • Sugar (I use 3 cups for this 2-gallon recipe.  Some people like it sweeter.).  Remember to not freak out about the sugar.  Some of the sugar gets converted (which is the actual fermentation process).  If you fear sugar, let it ferment a bit longer.  You’ll just be an alcoholic instead of a diabetic.  Your choice. I kid.
  • Ginger beer starter, chunks strained out.  1 T of liquid or more reserved to continue feeding for future batches.
  • The juice of 1 large lemon
  1. Get out a very large pot, and pour in 1 gallon of water
  2. Add your grated ginger to the pot
  3. Bring to a boil
  4. Reduce to a simmer and cover.  Let simmer for 15-20 minutes
  5. Remove from heat
  6. Let it cool until it’s a comfortable temperature for straining out the ginger
  7. Once you’ve strained your ginger, add your sugar and stir until dissolved
  8. Add the remaining one gallon of water (this excellent quick cooling tip comes directly from Sandorkraut.  PLEASE buy his books.)
  9. Once the mixture is cool enough (room temp) add your starter liquid, straining out the ginger chunks.
  10. Squeeze in your lemon juice (if you’re going to make a dark and stormy with this, you might sub lime here).
  11. Mix it
  12. Put it in a large container and cover with cloth that will keep bugs out.
  13. Stir it whenever you think of it, and keep an eye out for bubbles.  Once you see those (1-5 days) it’s time to bottle your brew for full carbonation.
  14. Pour it into your prepared bottles and seal them.
  15. Keep the bottles at room temperature until they get hard.

Check bottles every day to see if they’re hard.  Once you can press them and they don’t give at all, stick them in the fridge!  Leave them to chill for at least 6 hours and then take a taste.  Be prepared for massive pressure when you open your bottle!  They’ll still ferment in the fridge, and you should periodically check them to see if they’re too pressurized.  Opening the bottle to release pressure and making sure they aren’t too full are good ways to prevent the big burst.  Again, this has NEVER happened to me.  I love ginger beer and I’ve made it many times.  I just want you to know about the risks.

I definitely age mine sometimes, and I’ve never had a problem, but if you want to be sure you won’t risk explosion, drink them within a week or so.

Enjoy!

*Why is organic ginger so important?  Well, ginger that is imported is sometimes irradiated, and irradiation will kill the bacteria that you need to kickstart fermentation.  If your ginger is organic, you know it hasn’t been irradiated.  My strong suspicion for any failed batch of ginger bug is that the ginger was not organic.  You also want to look for healthy, plump rhizomes with smooth skin.  Older wrinkly ones that don’t look fresh might not get you where you need to go.

23 Comments

  1. Randi
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    This might be a silly question, but will this produce an alcoholic product?

  2. Amanda
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    No, that’s not a silly question at all! I can tell you a couple things, though. If alcohol is present, it is there in very trace amounts, and it is likely that it has disappeared in the fermentation process before you ever eat your pickles. If you want to taste a slightly alcoholic ferment, to give you an idea of how NOT alcoholic your lactopickles are, you can throw some sugar water in a jar with a few chunks of fruit. Give it a week or so, stirring frequently. If you taste at about day 7 or 8, you will get a hit of some “wine” that is about to become vinegar. It will have a pretty low alcohol content, but you can definitely taste the alcohol, whereas with lactocpickles, whatever is there (if anything) is such a small quantity as to be completely undetectable.

    For the record, there are many super-processed, grocery store products that contain trace amounts of alcohol. As long as it’s under 0.5%, they do not have to claim it. This is a normal byproduct of food production, unavoidable even in the grossest, most over processed products.

    I hope that helps!

    Edit: Somehow this question showed up under pickles, not ginger beer, so my response is completely wrong. Very sorry about that. When we’re talking ginger beer, the answer is yes. There is a small amount of alcohol relatively early in fermentation (sugar converts to alcohol). The longer you ferment, the higher the alcohol content will be. If you want little to no alcohol, bottle it immediately, put it in the fridge and drink it quickly. The alcohol content will never be very high, but after a long (fridge) fermentation, you will definitely have beer level alcohol content (and some very tasty stuff to drink).

  3. Posted March 29, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Two elementary questions:

    1) what kind of bottles do you use, and
    2) when you have your carryover starter, do you keep feeding it in order to get several cups?

    Thanks very much!

  4. Amanda
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sarah!

    1) So, this is a little controversial! I bet you didn’t expect to hear that! I use two different kinds of bottles. If I’m going to age it (which I really enjoy doing because it gets a little boozier and much less sweet), I bottle it in recycled soda bottles. Smaller bottles if I have the fridge space, 2 liters if I don’t. If I’m doing a shorter bottling, meaning I know it will be consumed soon, I just use glass swingtop bottles, filled to about an inch below the neck. I bought a few from the housewares store in my neighborhood, Fante’s, but they are easy to find on-line. There is a vodka company, 360 Organic Vodka, that sells their product in swingtops, and I have a couple of those around as well, since they were basically free once the vodka was gone. Here’s the rub: when carbonation builds up too much, the container will explode. And you do not want a glass container exploding!
    Personally, I have NEVER had this happen. But I have read of enough cases to be wary. Sandor Katz recommends (in either The Art of Fermentation or Wild Fermentation, I can’t remember) a couple different methods for letting yourself know when carbonation is good. The first is to stick a raisin in your bottle at the time of bottling. When it rises to the top, you know there is carbonation in your bottle, and you should immediately move it to the fridge and consume it once it’s chilled (or within a few days). Another option he mentions is to fill a plastic bottle of the same size as your glass bottles. That way, when the plastic bottle gets hard, you know the other bottles are carbonated as well and you can move them all to cold storage and consume them quickly. Fermentation continues in the fridge, so they will continue to carbonate! Feel free to follow-up if that’s not clear.

    2) I always save a little bit of ginger starter and continue to feed it. It’s rare that I get an enormous quantity, because it is a very useful liquid. If my bowl is getting a little full, I might add a bit to a kvass or a pickle to help it ferment more vigorously and to add flavor. The other bonus is that I ferment a lot of things and many of them don’t smell awesome to my average houseguest (although to me they smell great). The ginger bug smells good to EVERYONE, however, so I never mind its perfume in my house and it gets a special spot in the center of my table. It’s intoxicating!

    Let me know how your next batch goes!

  5. Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Wow, thanks for the info! Will keep you posted!

  6. julie rohloff
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I followed instructions and my ginger bug just isn’t bubbly. Do I need to start over or add whey or maybe just wait longer. (I have waited 5 days)

  7. Amanda
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Keep feeding it and feed it more regularly (if you fed every two days, switch to every day, for example). Did you use organic ginger? As I mentioned, that is essential, because the necessary bacteria are on the surface of the peel, and they can be killed by irradiation (if they are imported) or sprayed with pesticides. Also, make sure you are stirring well. This is all in the post, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce. :-)
    You could also move it to a warmer spot in your house. The key elements are right balance of bacteria (from the skins of organic ginger), food for the bacteria (sugar) and a solid room temperature spot. You want it at least 65, but warmer is much better. Avoid direct sunlight.

  8. Susy
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Hi there! I am also not seeing bubbles. I’m on about day 5, I only use organic ginger, organic raw turbinado sugar, and filtered/dechlorinated water. I live in Tucson, and it’s been pretty warm here. On the first day it bubbled quite a bit, but I figured that had to be too soon. Then the bubbling stopped completely. It does not have an unpleasant smell, but is slightly viscous… it’s not watery. I made a ginger ale brew two days ago with the bug, and I have yet to see any bubbles in there either. No mold is visible– I’m stumped! Any advice for me?

  9. Amanda
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    You were using organic ginger, correct? That’s my first check. Second check, although I have NEVER had this issue, how’s your water? Did it smell super chlorinated? If you had bubbles the first day, fermentation was likely happening, and something stopped it, which is odd. Third check, how often did you feed it after the first day?

    Mine also gets pretty viscous, so that’s normal.

    Let me know about the above and I’ll help you troubleshoot from there. PS- Hope is not lost for this batch. Even if your bug didn’t work super well for the reasons above or any other reason you can do non-wild fermentation by adding a bit of yeast before bottling. Let me know how much liquid you have and I’ll tell you how much yeast to use.
    I have had my wild fermentations take longer than two days to bubble before. Just make sure you’re stirring regularly so you don’t get surface mold.

    I’m bummed that you’re having trouble, but we’ll crack the code. Everyone’s home and ingredients are different, but it’s interesting that multiple people were having trouble. Interestingly, Sandor Katz mentions in The Art of Fermentation that he gets comments about failed ginger beer also. He attributes it to the irradiation of non-organic, imported ginger. I have honestly never had a batch fail, but I have had some take a while to get going.

  10. Maya
    Posted July 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Hello! Thank you so much for all your wonderful recipes and advice! I just boiled my ginger tea and am eagerly waiting for the water to cool so I can make the brew. One question- when you talk about aging the ginger beer (to get it boozy!), how long are you talking? And should it be in the fridge? Thanks!

  11. Amanda
    Posted July 2, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Maya,

    After the initial aging it goes into the fridge. You can do it one of two ways: bottle immediately upon cooling and then once it’s carbonated, stick it in the fridge, or let it ferment in an open container (covered with a cloth) for a couple days until you see bubbles, then bottle it, let it fully carbonate and stick it in the fridge. It will only get so boozy, so don’t be expecting ginger beer vodka, but I’ve let some go for 6 months in the fridge and they get boozy, bone dry and delicious.

    PLEASE be cautious with your bottling. Even in the fridge, fermentation will continue. Explosion is a serious risk, especially if you bottle in glass. I STRONGLY encourage you to bottle in plastic for aging, and even then, be vigilant. I’m not trying to scare you. Nothing of this kind has ever happened to me, but I have heard and read horror stories.

    On a more fun note, be ready for a lot of liquid to escape upon opening, whether you age it or not. It’s good times to open it with friends nearby, glasses in hand to keep what comes pouring out!

    Good luck!!

  12. Sharon
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I am totally in love with homemade ginger ale, but keep having trouble getting past the first batch — my ginger bug does not want to stay “alive”, or at least is not getting bubbly again. Any suggestions? (I put it in the fridge bubbly; took it out, have been feeding, but no reactivation.

    Second question (and the one I’m hoping you’ll answer for sure) — I bottled my ginger ale in quarts. They are now sitting on the counter, but also not carbonating. What’s with that??? Anyway, you mentioned in #9 above that it is possible to add a bit of yeast. How much would you put in a quart of liquid?

    Thank you!

  13. Amanda
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sharon,

    So have you made previous batches and the same thing has happened? I find that my ginger bug gets finicky when the weather changes (see my post later today). Keep feeding it as normal after you take it out of the fridge. If you are really not able to get any new activity after, say, a week, I’m guessing your fridge is too cold for it. Some yeasts will die in the fridge cold, so if you could raise the temp of your fridge a bit next time and give that a try, it could be the key. I actually store mine at room temp. Once it’s bubbling, I only feed it once a week until it’s time to make a new batch. Then I ramp up the feeding for a few days before I make a batch. I hope that helps!

    As for your second question: I’m not seeing the part about adding yeast? I’ve never done that to ginger beer made with a bug, as far as I can remember. (which doesn’t mean I didn’t do it, just that I can’t remember :-)

    Quart jars won’t give you a carbonated brew. Recycled soda bottles work best for great carbonation in my experience. If you are a homebrewer and have a bottler, that will do it too! Some people also use grolsch bottles, bail top bottles and store-bought kombucha bottles. Be aware of the risks (above) of using glass. Good luck, and let me know if you have any more questions!

  14. Sharon
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the prompt answer. (The part about yeast IS there in question #9, it is in the 3rd paragraph as a PS.) Anyway – I was impatient and added a pinch of yeast…..and things got bubbly and nice. I don’t know if I no longer have a pure ginger bug, but used some of it, and I have carbonation at last! Don’t know if that was it or some other reason but I’m happy, lol.

    Your idea about the refrigerator temperature is a good one. Another thing I had done after writing was to set everything on a rack above a heat register — I have suspected that maybe the house temperature was too cool for things to get active. So, I may also just keep the bug on the counter rather than in the fridge, at least in winter.

    THANK YOU!

  15. Amanda
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sharon,

    No problem! Just one thing, this is driving me nuts! I still don’t see where I wrote about adding yeast, and that is a very un-me thing to say. What I see as number 9 is “Once the mixture is cool enough (room temp) add your starter liquid, straining out the ginger chunks.” If you have a second, could you copy and paste what you’re seeing? If not, no worries. It’s just making me nuts that I can’t see it!

  16. Sharon
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Amanda,

    Lol — miscommunication! You were looking at your own Step #9 — I was referring to comment #9. The third paragraph of that one (your reply) states: “Let me know about the above and I’ll help you troubleshoot from there. PS- Hope is not lost for this batch. Even if your bug didn’t work super well for the reasons above or any other reason you can do non-wild fermentation by adding a bit of yeast before bottling. Let me know how much liquid you have and I’ll tell you how much yeast to use.”

    But since I didn’t get back here to see your reply, I went ahead and added a pinch of yeast to my quart. Hmmm, it did get bubbly! But I didn’t like the yeast taste….so I made yet another batch of new ginger bug, and voila — it has now provided me with several yields of delicious ginger ale.

    I think my problem was the change of weather as you talked about in another post. Makes sense!

    Sharon

  17. Amanda
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Ah, thanks for clarifying, Sharon! Glad your next batch worked out and sorry the yeast one wasn’t great. Make sure and check out my most recent post. It’s on the ginger beer plant! I have only had mine for a few months, but it is amazing! Makes the best ginger beer ever with almost no fuss.

  18. Julie Morton
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Hello – I don’t understand how much starter to add to the brew – the sentence reads: Ginger beer starter, chunks strained out. 1 T of liquid or more reserved to continue feeding for future batches

    I’m just confused about the “or more” part – do I add 1 T to the recipe that has 2 gallons of water? Or more?

    Thanks for your help!

  19. Amanda
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Julie,

    You want to use all but the one tablespoon you’re reserving to continue your ginger bug. I hope that helps!

  20. Mardi
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Hi,

    I was hoping you might clarify this for me- your starter recipe calls for 4-7 tablespoons, but then it says mix 1 tablespoon…
    (Starter:

    4-7 T grated or finely-minced, unpeeled organic* ginger, divided (leave the skins, lots of good guys waiting for life to begin live there)
    4-7 T sugar, divided
    2 cups room temperature water

    Mix 1 T ginger, 1 T sugar and 2 cups water until sugar is dissolved.)

    What is the other 3-6 tablespoons for, is that for the everyday feeding?

    Thanking you.

  21. Amanda
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Mardi,

    Yes, the additional ginger and sugar are so that you have enough on hand to make a fully living starter.

    I hope that helps!

    Amanda

  22. Mardi
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Hi. Sorry to bother you again. I started my bug, but I fear something went bad! It started to bubble, then it stopped and now it has a white film around the edges? I did forget to remove it when I used my oven, but it was sitting on top of an oven mitt. Could it have collected some grease or something else while I was cooking?

    Can I save it or should I start again?
    Thanking you

  23. Amanda
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mardi,

    So without seeing it, I can’t say exactly what it is, but my best guess would be that you’ve got the beginnings of a mother of vinegar there, and that you need to restart. If you aren’t vigilant about your feeding schedule, or sometimes if the bug gets too hot, the wrong kind of bacteria start to take over. They’re not unsafe, they just make vinegar, which is not what you want. I would probably throw it in the compost pile and start again. It could also be mold, which would be a result of too much heat and not enough stirring.

    Again, I can’t see it, so I can’t say for sure, but that’s my best guess.

    Amanda

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