Bit by the Ginger Bug
A number of years ago while wandering through the farmers’ market in Charleston, I passed a table with various vegetables wilting in the summer sun. Alongside there sat a big glass jug, sealed with a cork stopper, in a melting metal bowl of ice. The yellow liquid inside was cloudy, and upon close inspection, I could see its effervescence dancing and rippling inside the bottle. The liquid looked more like a lab experiment than a beverage. So naturally,I bought a cup. The flavor was intense and mesmerizing. I couldn't believe how deliciously sweet and spicy it was. On the spot, I became a ginger beer fanatic.
Thus began my years-long quest for the perfect recipe to make this naturally carbonated beverage at home. Ginger beer is traditionally carbonated and fermented with what’s called a “ginger beer plant.”Not a plant at all, it’s a bacterial-fungal symbiotic organism, once referred to as “Bees” or “Yeast Barnacles.” It’s not quite clear how the first ginger beer plant came about, but it was popular in the 18th, 19thand early 20th century.
My first attempt was using the method described by Sandor Katz in his book “Wild Fermentation” to establish a “ginger bug.” Different than a ginger beer plant, this is a mixture of ginger, sugar and water that is allowed to ferment and bubble, like a sourdough starter, which becomes the base for making ginger beer. I didn't have a lot of success with this method, nor did I have the patience to wait weeks for the results. Instead, I decided to use commercial yeast and cut the fermentation time for a ginger bug from two weeks to about three days.
The process to make this drink is straightforward. Once you get the hang of making it, you can experiment with flavor variations. Ginger beer is typically non-alcoholic, though it works well as a mixer. It is commonly used with dark rum (Dark and Stormy) or with vodka and lime juice (Moscow Mule). If you happen to pass a table with a big glass jug at one of our local farmers’ market, stop by and say hi —I’ll gladly offer you a glass of my freshly made ginger beer.