Tag Archives: wild fermentation

Ginger Beer: Warmth in a Cool Drink

14 Dec

Last month I made my latest batch of ginger beer, a project which I tend to do once a year around this time.  Ginger is great at any time, but cool weather prompts me to use warming spices.  There are different ways to go about making ginger beer.  Three methods are listed below.

A few years ago, I invested in a ginger beer plant from a fermenter in England.  Ginger beer plant purportedly is the most “genuine” way to make ginger beer.   Unfortunately, my ginger beer plant did not last very long.  The process of using it is a little bit like fermenting with water kefir, but the grains of ginger beer plant reproduce more slowly and are much finer than tibicos.  With each ferment I did, I lost some of my grains.  I was using a kitchen towel to strain the grains out, and inevitably, the fine grains would adhere to the towel and I would not be able to recover them all.  I already have three other types of starter to play with, so I was only a little sad as I watched the ginger beer plant whittle itself slowly away.   The beverage that the ginger beer plant produced was pleasant and different, but not necessarily superior to my tastes.

If you have water kefir (tibicos) grains hanging around, this would be another way to make ginger beer.  The brew method would be comparable to making ginger beer with the ginger beer plant.

I’ve taken to the ginger “bug” method to make ginger beer.  It’s a wild-ferment way to create your own scoby culture.  I would compare it most to the concept of sourdough, as the process is about feeding a culture every day with the right stuff to attract the right local yeasts to your jar.  The ginger bug method I use method comes from my Nourishing Traditions Cookbook, by Sally Fallon.  Sandor Katz also offers an adaptation of Sally’s recipe in his book Wild Fermentation.  You could also get creative with ginger bug as a starter,

and create any number of flavored sodas with it.

Making a ginger bug:


That’s the ginger bug right before I decanted it. It got to a point where it was bubbly enough that I was keeping the jar inside a bowl in case of overflow, to save my countertop from stickiness.

Grate 2 tsp of fresh ginger.  Put it in a pint sized jar.  Get as much of the juicy stuff in as you can.

Add 2 tsp of white sugar, and 1 c water.

Seal the jar and shake it.  Let it sit.

Every day, add another 2 tsp of ginger and 2tsp of sugar, and shake the jar daily or more.

After a few days or up to a week, your mixture will get bubbly.  You will see the bubbles when you shake, but also beforehand.  This bubbly brew is your ginger bug.  You have effectively  invited the yeasts from the air to inhabit your sugar-ginger-water mix.

Making ginger beer from your bug:

Boil half a gallon of water.

Add 1 to 1.5 cups of sweetener to the water.  While the ginger bug is necessarily made with white sugar to attract your yeasts, this sweetener could be anything:  maple syrup, birch syrup, sucanot, brown sugar, molasses.  I recommend staying away from honey.  This last batch I did was with molasses, and it gave the whole drink a beautiful, rich color.

Mix well to dissolve your sweetener, then mix in another half gallon of water.  Your mixture should now be cool enough to comfortably touch.  Add the juice of 2 lemons, and the liquid from your ginger bug.  Taste your mix.  If you want it to be more gingery, grate some more fresh ginger and squeeze the ginger juice from your gratings into the pot.  Let this mixture sit for about a week, covered to keep out flies, and then bottle it.


The bottled brew. Notice how I have a couple plastic bottles in the batch. These are handy in testing your carbonation levels: when the plastic bottle gets more rigid to the touch, you know it’s ready to transfer to the fridge.

Depending on how active your culture is, you can leave the bottles out at room temperature for some time to build up bubbles.  A good test is to use at least one plastic bottle.  When the plastic becomes rigid from the pressure of gas build up, it’s time to “burp” your bottles and put them in the refrigerator.  Otherwise, you can end up with glass bombs that are quite dangerous!  (See my cherry explosion incident from last summer).  The safe bottle time at room temp could be as short as a few hours, especially if you do this in the summer, to about two weeks.  I have had batches at both extremes.

If you really dig ginger beer, you could now add another cup of water to the sediment left over from your ginger bug, and begin feeding it sugar and ginger every day again.  The culture may be ready sooner this time, as you have already gotten the organisms started.  I’ve never tried to keep my bug going, as I couldn’t keep up with drinking it.

If you want to make this an especially “warming” drink, add some dark rum to your glass, and an optional wedge of lime.  Now you have a dark n’ stormy!

Honey ferments: Jun and Mead

9 Oct

Jun just travelled again!  This time, congrats to faithful to Jesus in Kentucky on her new Jun adoption!

What is Jun?  It is a fermentation culture, very similar to Kombucha, that you make with honey instead of sugar.  I DON’T recommend ever using honey with your Kombucha SCOBY or with tibicos— honey contains lots of complicated stuff that can contaminate and kill your culture.  Somehow, Jun gets around this problem.  I figure she must be extra resilient to deal with the honey in the first place– surely the resulting SCOBYs are thick and robust, she seems to travel quite well, and the brew forms faster than kombucha.

In honor of fermenting with honey, I want to present one of my lastest batches of brew.  This one is a wild fermentation, which means no SCOBY is needed.  Wild fermentation depends on harvesting the yeasts that are already present in the surrounding air.  This is the third year in a row I have made a wild style mead.  My recipe is an adaptation on the “T’ej” recipe in Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermenation.

Wild Mead Recipe

In a large pot, combine 1 part raw honey to 4 parts water.   The honey to water ratio is not set in stone:  alter it to your taste.  I tend to start with a gallon of liquid.  Stir the mixture until it is homogenous– ala the honey has been dissolved into the water.  Let the mixture sit for a week or two, stirring it well a couple times per day.  After a few days, the mixture will start to bubble.   To help get the bubbling going and to flavor your brew, you can add fruit to the mix also.  Fruit tends to have some yeast coating on it, so the fruit serves as an extra way to innoculate the batch.   To my latest batch, shown below, I added apricots and dried hibiscus.  

Primary fermentation in a big pot, with apricots and hibiscus added.

Other flavorings I’ve tried have been:

1. nothing– just plain honey

2.  strawberries

3.  blackberries and sage leaves

Once it is bubbling super vigorously, you can decide when it is time to remove the fruit.  You can leave the fruit for up to a week.  When the bubbling starts to slow down a bit, it’s time for the secondary fermentation process— I left my last brew for two weeks.  At this point, you can try the wine as it is:  young mead is yummy, too!

Secondary fermentation:  Strain your brew as you put it into a carboy with an airlock.  A carboy is a narrow- necked bottle that’s just the right size to contain your liquid.  You can buy airlocks for a couple bucks from a brew-making supply store, of which there are many online.  I get mine from Brooklyn Kitchen.

If you don’t want to go out and get an airlock, a balloon set over the opening will do:  you just have to keep an eye on the balloon:  when it starts to fill with gas, it will need to be burped.  Apparently, my grandmother used to make wine this way.  She would keep it in a carboy in the bathtub, in case the fermentation got so fizzy that the brew bubbled over and made a mess.  Because of her balloon airlock, the resulting wine was always referred to as “balloon wine” in my family.

This picture shows the first bottle I used as a carboy.  I found this beautiful bottle at a discount store in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t resist using it.  The bottle came with a cork stopper that I screwed a hole through to insert the airlock.  What I did not realize at the time is that you are really supposed to fill any carboy up to the neck so as to minimize the liquid’s exposure to air.  That’s the whole point of the carboy!  Luckily, fermentation is a forgiving enough process that I still came out with something worth drinking.  This carboy was so large that I haven’t used it lately, since I don’t tend to make batches so huge:  I now stick to a gallon sized glass apple cider bottle.

The pretty, but too large, carboy.  It’s probably 5 gallons +.  For this batch,  I even added extra honey and water to fill the bottle more after my initial fermentation.

Once you have strained your slightly bubbling mixture into the carboy and set the airlock, let it sit for about a month.   At first, you will still see a generous amount of bubbles.  By the end of the month, not so many.  When bubbles have visibly subsided, it’s time to bottle the brew!  Collect screw top wine bottles in preparation of this step, or buy some stopper bottles, or get a corker and your own corks.

The best way to bottle your mead is by siphoning:  a process they call “racking.”  Siphoning the mead aerates it and gets rid of excess sediment.  I bought some plastic tubing from my nearby pet store in the aquarium section to use for this process.  Position the carboy up higher, like on a table, and your bottles down lower, like on the floor.  Put one end of your tubing in the full carboy, not touching the silt that’s formed at the bottom of the bottle, and use your mouth to suck the liquid into the tubing.  Once the brew starts to flow, quickly put the end of the tube into your empty bottles.  Pinch the tube or cover it with your finger as you transfer to the next bottle.  Be prepared to make a bit of a mess.  Finally, seal your bottles.

My racking siphon setup. I took this photo awkwardly during the process, while I was hunched over filling bottles on the floor.  Note, this is not my mead, but another brew I’ve yet to write about, blackberry wine. Stay tuned for that one!

Warning:  If you have not let the brew ferment long enough before bottling, you could be in for a bit of a surprise.  Last year after I bottled my blackberry-sage batch, I mysteriously found my corks on the floor two days later!  Pressure had built up in the bottles from the air created by the still bubbling brew, and the pressure was large enough to eject the corks.  Oops!

Each batch of mead I have made has been unique.  This is part of the adventure of a wild fermentation:  you are subject to the whims of the airborne yeasts in your brew-place.  Temperature certainly also plays a vital role, and since my kitchen is never air-conditioned, my temperatures have varied considerably.  If you find that once you’ve bottled a batch it’s still cloyingly sweet, you may want to let the brew age.  That happened with my strawberry batch:  it was very disappointing.  After my first bottle, I left the rest of the bottles in the back of the closet and forgot about them for most of a year.  When I came back to them:  surprise!  The aging process had created a wonderful wine!

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