Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ginger Beer Test #1

Those who know me well know that one of my favorite things in life is a good ginger beer. Not sugary-sweet ginger ale, but real, spicy, knock-you-off-your-feet ginger beer. I've been wanting to make it for a couple of years now, I just hadn't gotten around to it. Well, this week I finally got off my butt and gave it a try. This batch was a test run, to help me get my bearings. There will be more.

But first, we need to define what exactly makes a good ginger beer. It depends on who you are really, and I'm going to guess that my definition is probably not the same as yours. My three favorite brands are, in order:

Okay, so Vernors is really a ginger ale, but it's still up there. There are a few properties to look for in ginger ale and ginger beer. First of all, ginger ales are generally divided into two categories: golden and dry. I've found golden to be a little darker, sweeter, and more strongly-flavored. Unfortunately, it's near-impossible to find. Dry ginger ale is lighter, and extremely common. Being a Utah boy, I grew up on Canada Dry and Schweppes, but when I lived in New Hampshire I got used to Seagrams too.

But these really lack something in my opinion, and that's real ginger. I like mine spicy, but not harsh. Smoothness is also important to me, but not so much as spiciness. And that's where ginger beer comes in. It's stronger, tastes more like ginger, is often brewed, and the good stuff almost always has little fibers of real ginger in it.

I've tried a lot of different kinds of ginger beer, and I've divided (most of) my favorites into two categories: Jamaican-style and Australian-style. Jamaican ginger beer is spicy, strong, and has been known to make me cough, just getting a whiff of a newly-opened bottle. Unfortunately, it generally seems to be harsh, overly-spicy, and flavored with other spices in addition to ginger. In the small, relatively unknown world of ginger beers, this seems to be the most common, and I've probably tried a good 20 or 30 different brands, but few more than once.

Australian ginger beer is different. I've had a good dozen or so different types of this, and few of them miss their mark. They're strongly-flavored, spicy, but also smooth. They seem to be true to the ginger flavor, and when I get ahold of a few bottles, they don't remain full for long. It was this variety that I was looking to reproduce.

The first task of course was to find some recipes. I wasn't sure yet whether I was going to make a composite recipe, I was just looking to see what I could find. Most of the recipes I came across were long and ridiculously complex. One of them had a longer list of equipment than actual ingredients. Finally, I found a recipe on Recipezaar that was simple, but kind of long and very poorly-written. It seemed to be more of a Jamaican recipe, but I figured you've gotta start somewhere.

I didn't use the recipe as-is of course. I made a few changes, and then took notes while I more or less followed their directions. My ingredient list was as follows:

1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110F)
1 3/4 liter water
3/4 oz/wt freshly-grated ginger
1/4 tsp anise
5 whole cloves
1/2 cup sugar

I sprinkled the year in the 1/2 cup of warm water and set it aside. I then mixed together all of the other ingredients in a sauce pan, brought it to a boil, and then dropped it to a simmer for 5 minutes. I then killed then heat and let it cool on the counter to 110F (actually, 112F to be exact, but anything below 120F is fine), and then poured in the yeast/water mixture.

I poured all of this (whole spices and all) into a clean 2-liter bottle, pressed in the sides a little, screwed on the cap and let it sit overnight on the counter. In the morning, the bottle was completely inflated, and you could tell by feeling it that there was a lot of pressure inside. I moved this to the fridge and let it sit until the next evening.

I tasted the brew before I added the yeast, and I knew I was already in trouble. It was extremely spicy, and the anise overpowered everything. But I was determined to let it age for a couple of days so that I could get a good idea of what it would be like.

When we uncorked it, there was a lot of sediment. This is to be expected with home-brewed drinks. But it's not something I would want to drink, so I poured it through a tea strainer into some cups and tasted it with my wife and her friend visiting from Wisconsin. Unfortunately, this means I also strained out the ginger fibers, but since we were just about to drink it, I figured it wouldn't be adding any more flavor anyway.

First of all, the color. It was more cloudy than I expected. I'm okay with that. Next, the carbonation. It was lightly carbonated, not as much as commercial ginger beer, but still decent. Finally, the flavor. It was very spicy, but not as bad as I had feared. The anise still overpowered everything, but it still had a lot of ginger in the finish, to come back and bite you. I suspect the clove was about right (if you like that sort of thing; I'm currently undecided), but that anise just screwed it all up. It was just a little bit sweet for me, but not bad.

Just a quick note on drinks carbonated with yeast. This is exactly how beer is made. When the yeast gets going, it produces lots of carbon dioxide and a little bit of alcohol. That's what makes bread rise, and makes beer fizzy. Since my brew had only a tiny amount of yeast, and was only allowed to ferment for a couple of days, the alcohol content was negligable. If that is of concern to you, this is the wrong recipe for you.

I will be starting another bottle tomorrow night, when this one is used up. Now that I have my bearings, I think I have an idea of where I want to take it. I'm going to try multiple changes at first, and then fine-tune it as I get closer to what I want. The next batch will have no anise. That was just a bad idea. I will leave the cloves in there, and probably use the same amount of ginger. This time I'm thinking I may add some lemon juice, and drop the sugar down to 1/3 of a cup. I hope to post results this weekend.


  1. Here in Japan you can buy actual ginger beer - beer (lager, usually) flavoured with shredded ginger. It's OK, but I still prefer a dark beer for flavour.

  2. I wonder how the alcohol content compares to bread. I'm betting it's not a huge difference.

    Did you come across this page in your search? It looks scientifically sound and not too complicated, certainly in the ingredients category.

  3. elg: That page looks familiar. I think I came across it a couple of years ago when I first started thinking about it, but I didn't see it this time around. I'm going to spend some time on it, thanks!

  4. Hey, another food item that I share a love of with you (I am planning on using your baklava instructions to concoct some of my own). This actually seems far easier to make than I would have expected. Ginger is right up there on my list of great spices. Garlic and a nice warm curry mixture are in this same upper echelon.
    Thanks for the post and I'll be checking for the results of your anise-less trial.

  5. Alcohol boils at 64°C and bread is done at about 85°, so I doubt that any alcohol remains in bread. And after only a few hours rising, I can't imagine it creates a whole lot in the first place.

    I made a yeast-based root beer a few years back (pretty sure it was Fankhauser's recipe). After 3 or 4 days there was no discernible alcohol flavor. After 2 weeks, the container had swelled considerably and it had a slight boozy flavor.

  6. Have you tried Blenheim Ginger Ale? That's some seriously hot stuff (don't breathe in while sipping!) without non-ginger flavors. You'll probably have to order some online if you want to try it, though.

  7. Is this the Joe Hall from Seaford High School?

  8. Never heard of Seaford High School. Sorry.


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