Lacto-fermentation: it’s what puts the sauer in sauerkraut, the zing in kimchee, and the bubbles in… ginger ale?
Ok, so highly-fragrant cabbage-based condiments may not be the first thing one associates with soda, but, weirdly enough, you can harness the power of this seemingly-magical natural reaction to brew up some delicious (and non-alcoholic) bubbly. And the best part? It’s actually good for you!
Wait a minute, you say — soft drinks? Good for you? Well, sure, there’s sugar in this recipe, but the resulting soda is a far cry from the the kind of artificially-flavored, corn-syrup-laden stuff we usually think of. So, before we launch into a debate about the perils of sugary beverages, let’s talk a bit about what’s going on here…
We’re going to utilize heterolactic acid fermentation to turn sucrose-water into a healthy probiotic drink! Doesn’t that sound like fun?? Nah, we’re making soda pop!
It’s pretty cool what’s happening here, though — because this soda is actually alive. We’ve all heard about the benefits of probiotic foods, the “living” foods containing friendly microorganisms that aid our digestion, boost immunity, and help keep our internal ecosystems in balance. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and other lacto-fermented foods all contain what our friends (the fermentation-whizzes) Joe and Wendy call “your own personal probiotic army” — and the same goes for this ginger ale! Natural (and harmless) bacteria in ginger root will start the fermentation, munching up the sucrose we’ll feed them and transforming sugar-sweetness to tangy, fragrant, complex flavours that you simply don’t get in store-bought soft drinks. You’ll also find that this soda isn’t nearly as tooth-tinglingly sweet or aggressively carbonated as the stuff in a can, and you’ll know exactly what goes in it — no corn syrup, no weird chemicals, no artificial anything. Oh, and did we mention that ginger is really good for you?
And, in keeping with the slow-food philosophy, lacto-fermented ginger ale takes a while to happen, although very little of that time involves actual doing on our part — the bacteria take care of all the hard work! It’s a process with plenty of room for experimentation, variation, and all that stuff that makes it so much fun to, well, make stuff. So, let’s get started with…
Step 1: The Starter
The measurements here aren’t exactly exact; some of it is a matter of taste, and after you make your first batch, you’ll have a better sense of how sweet/spicy/fizzy you like your ginger ale to be. I start with a good-sized hunk of fresh ginger, a five or six inch segment of root, and I look for fresh, domestically-grown organic ginger, as you will put the whole thing, skin and all, into your brew.
In addition to the ginger, you will need:
• Fresh, filtered and/or non-chlorinated water
• Cane sugar
• A clean glass quart jar with lid
Start by grating up a couple tablespoons of ginger. Put it into a clean quart mason jar, fill about three-quarters of the way with water, and stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Put the lid on loosely, so air can escape, and set it in a comfortably warm place. I keep my starter on the kitchen counter, as it’s usually a little warmer there than the rest of the house, about 70°. If it feels comfortable to you, it’s probably just fine for your ginger starter too.
The next day, add another spoonful of sugar and stir. I don’t really measure it, but it’s probably a couple teaspoons. You can taste a bit of the liquid (don’t put a used spoon back in the jar) — it should taste lightly sweet. If you can’t taste the sugar, add a little more. Keep doing this every day; it’s kind of like having a strange little pet… and, like a pet, if you neglect it, it will starve to death. Of course, we’re talking bacteria here, so no major guilt necessary if something goes wrong — just start over again!
After a couple days, you should be seeing signs of fermentation. Look closely at the surface of the liquid — are there little bubbles around the edges? Does it smell pleasantly zingy? It can be hard at first to see if the starter is bubbling or not — shine a bright flashlight into the jar and you should see little bubbles rising up from the bottom, especially if you stir or shake the jar a bit.
Left: The starter — see the little bubbles at the surface?
Right: the next step — ginger ale in a gallon jug with airlock.
The starter usually takes five or six days to get good and fizzy. Let it go too long, though, and it will become too acidic for those little bacteria to live — you want to use it before it starts slowing down! And of course, if you notice any mold or “off” smells, dump it out and start over. It should have a pleasant, gingery, almost “fizzy” smell and a nice bright ginger taste.
When your starter is ready, it’s time for…
Step 2: The brew
• Your ginger starter
• Ginger root
• 1 1/2 cups cane sugar
• Fresh, non-chlorinated water
• The juice of a small lemon or lime*
• A pinch of sea salt
• A clean one-gallon glass jug
• An air lock **
• A fine strainer or coffee filter ***
• A large funnel
* You can also use grapefruit juice, mandarin juice, strawberry juice… just be careful not to make it too acidic, or it won’t ferment. More on variations and troubleshooting in a future post!
** An air lock is a bottle stopper that allows air out, but not in. This keeps oxygen and airborne nasties away from your brew. You’ll need to assemble a few parts and fill it with water before using it. You can improvise in a pinch by poking a pinhole in an uninflated balloon and stretching it over the mouth of the jug, but it’s worth buying an airlock for this — find one for a couple bucks at any homebrew shop.
*** I like to use a reusable metal-mesh coffee filter basket — it’s sturdy enough to stand up to plenty of squeezing and is easier to handle than paper coffee filters. Sometimes they’re called “gold” or “permanent” coffee filters. They are inexpensive and last just about forever; you can find them at kitchen stores or online.
Put the sugar into a small saucepan and add about twice as much water. Add a pinch of salt. Set over low heat to dissolve sugar. When sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat to cool a bit.
Meanwhile, grate up some ginger. The amount you use depends on how spicy you want your ginger ale; start with a couple ounces, or a couple inches of ginger root. (You can always taste the brew after you mix it up and add a little extra if you like.) Mix the ginger with a bit of water to make a nice soupy mixture. Or, if you have a blender handy, just chop up the root and whiz it to a fine puree with a cup or two of water.
Set your strainer or filter in the funnel, and set the funnel in the mouth of the jug. Pour the fresh-ginger slush into the strainer and press to expel as much of the liquid as you can. Pour a little more water over the ginger and repeat — you want to squeeze out as much of the flavourful juice as you can.
Scrape out the ginger pulp and discard. Pour your ginger starter into the strainer and press it out just as you did with the fresh ginger. Do the same with the lemon or lime juice.
Left: my funnel-filter setup. Right: making Bearss-lime-ginger ale.
Fill the jug about halfway with water, and pour in the sugar-water mixture. (Don’t pour boiling-hot water directly into your starter, or you might kill it!) Fill the jug almost to the top with water and stir or shake to mix. Now is the time to taste a bit of your brew to see if it needs anything — more ginger, lemon, etc. If it tastes too sweet for your liking, don’t worry; the sweetness will decrease as the fermentation does its work.
Top off the jug with water to the base of the neck, and add your assembled airlock. Now, let the fermentation begin! Set the jug in a warm spot, just like you did for the starter. This secondary fermentation will take a little longer; after a few days you’ll see tiny bubbles making their way up the neck of the bottle, and the airlock will start its happy occasional burbling. It will usually ferment vigorously for the first few days, then slow down a bit. You can set the jug on a heat pad or in a very warm spot to speed it up; just don’t exceed 90 degrees or so. At ambient room temperature, my ginger ale usually takes a week or two for its secondary fermentation.
When the bubbling slows down to almost nothing, taste the brew. It should be lightly sweet, not too sugary. If it tastes about how you like it, it’s time to bottle. You’ll need clean, empty beer bottles, something that can hold a bit of pressure — not thin glass bottles, as they may explode! Bottles with a flip-top stopper are easiest, such as Grolsch bottles, but you can also use empty Champagne bottles or heavy glass beer bottles with crown caps and a capping device. And start looking for good bottles to save — I’m always collecting interesting ones for brew projects!
I won’t go into the finer points of bottling here, but if you’re new to home-brewing, you can check with your local brew shop for all the details. (Here’s ours.) Simply put, you’ll siphon off the soda into the bottles, leaving the cloudy dregs that have settled to the bottom of your gallon jug.
There’s one important step, though: Before I fill them, I add about a half-teaspoon of sugar to each bottle (a teaspoon for the larger fifths, quart, or litre bottles, like the clear ones in the photo above). You can skip this step if your soda is still pretty sweet; it’s more necessary if your brew has fermented until it’s fairly dry. The “bonus” sugar gives the fermenting bacteria a bit more to work with inside the bottle, which produces more fizz. Incidentally, this is how Champagne gets its bubbles (although ours is a much-simplified version of that process)!
Set the bottles out somewhere warmish for a few days to ferment a bit more, and then park them in a very cool basement or in the refrigerator to halt the fermentation. I like to leave mine for a couple weeks to a month to develop a nice fizz. The soda will keep for months beyond that, getting gradually drier (less sweet) and fizzier as it rests. When you’re ready to try it, open a bottle carefully and taste-test; if you want it bubblier and less sweet, leave the rest of the bottles for another week or two before opening.