Everyone loves a ginger
Monday 05 March 2018
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Armed with a 19th century recipe, a box of ginger root and a baggie of dubious-looking crystals, we attempt to brew a traditional Yorkshire ginger beer
While ginger beer can be made using simple brewer’s yeast, the traditional Yorkshire recipe calls for a mystical substance, colloquially known as Ginger Beer Plant (GBP). Contrary to the name, GBP is not a plant at all, but a symbiotic culture of yeast (Saccharomyces florentinus) and bacteria (Lactobacillus hilgardii) first described by botanist and mycologist Harry Marshall Ward in 1892. Although the idea of deliberately introducing a bacterium into a brew may seem odd, this particular bug is more at home in wine and diary products than it is being injected into the brow wrinkles of ageing celebrities. Phew.
Aside from the distinctive caramel flavour it produces, the beauty of GBP is that the yeast and bacteria form a microscopic lattice, which clumps together into gelatinous blobs, making it easy to extract and re-use at the end of each brew. As it has been feeding and reproducing, you will also end up with more GBP than you started with.
GBP was once fairly easy to get hold of, until home brewing of ginger beers and lemonades fell out of fashion, at which point pure sources of the culture almost disappeared. Luckily, a sample from one of the few surviving cultures was imported into the UK around eight years ago, and is now available online at www.gingerbeerplant.net. Have at it.
1 If you order Ginger Beer Plant (GBP) online, it will almost certainly arrive in its dried, crystalline form, which is best for long-term storage. Seven grams is around enough to make two litres of ginger beer.
2 Before the GBP can start turning sugar into alcohol and CO2, it needs waking up. Over the course of several days, ‘recovery brews’ of sugar and lemon will get your GBP ready for action.
3 Fresh (rather than powdered) ginger is the only way to go. Once your GBP is back up to strength, grate some ginger into a muslin cloth, and squeeze it into your brew. The more ginger, the more fiery the result!
4 Transfer your brew to a container from which gas can escape (a demijohn with a bubble valve is ideal) top it up with water and add sugar. As well as sweetening the final product, this will feed that hungry colony. Leave for a couple of days for some of that sugar to turn to alcohol.
5 Once a couple of days have passed, use a seive and funnel to transfer the brew into an airtight bottle. A plastic bottle allows you to test how much gas is building up by squeezing it. A strong glass bottle looks cooler. Swings and roundabouts. Leave for another few days to build up some fizz, then pop in the fridge.
6 Serve chilled, with ice and a slice of lemon, or as a mixer. Makes a mean Moscow Mule.
I’ve long been a fan of brewed ginger beers, root beers and lemonades, so was naturally over the moon to discover that ginger beer orginated from Yorkshire. It was the perfect excuse to make a refreshing lunchtime drink and call it work. But this is Ferment, so of course we had to take it the extra mile, tracking down the original, traditional recipe to brew an authentic 19th Century Yorkshire ginger beer.
Having ordered some guaranteed pure Ginger Beer Plant (not a plant - see the science, left) I was slightly alarmed to receive what television would suggest was a small bag of crystal meth.
The included instructions explained that this was indeed the Ginger Beer Plant, safely dried and dormant, and that it would need several sugary ‘recovery brews’ to become fully active again.
The weekend is duly spent watching a jam jar, changing its water, keeping it fed and feeling an odd sense of satisfaction when the lid came off with a ‘pop’ of carbon dioxide gas.
In many ways, it’s like having a baby. But a baby that excretes booze and looks like someone has sneezed tapioca into a puddle.
Once my murky brew was fizzing with microbiotic lifeforce, it was time to transfer the whole lot into a kilner jar for its first real fermentation. Two litres of chlorine-free water, plus the contents of the final recovery brew and 200 grams of white sugar.
It’s perfectly possible to make ginger beer using ground ginger, added at the end of fermentation, but where’s the fun in that? Our brew contains only pure, fresh ginger root - grated into a piece of clean muslin and then squeezed into the jar.
It’s very important at this stage to remember not to seal the container, unless you’re a big fan of picking shards of glass out of your walls/body. As with any fermentation, your brew will be producing a fair amount of carbon dioxide, and if that pressure is allowed to build up it can be pretty dangerous. Once we’ve removed the GBP, this will produce a natural fizz, but for now it’s just too potent to put a lid on.
After days of intensive care and monitoring, the idea of leaving my big jar of fizzing ginger syrup water alone was a little disappointing. As if to compensate me though, the puffy grains of GBP jelly did their best lava lamp impression, dancing up and down in the jar to the lazy rhythms of their own fermentation. Tasting a spoonful every now and then confirmed that there was a slight fizz and just the beginnings of an alcoholic tang.
Bottling time! A delicate operation, involving a seive, a funnel and the fire escape at Ferment HQ. Once several stoppered bottles are lined up safely on a shelf, I remove my GBP from the seive (there is definitely more of it than I satrted with) and place it in my fermenting jar with more chlorine-free water and sugar. Ginger Beer Plant is a living organism, and cannot survive for more than a few days without sustenance. Besides, I’m keen to make some improvements in my next batch.
After an hour in the fridge to bring my ginger beer down to a more palatable temperature, it’s the moment of truth. As a great believer that no feat of human endeavor was ever diminished by the risk of public humiliation, I’ve invited the entire extended Beer52 team to pass judgement.
“The stuff that’s been sitting open in the meeting room for the past week?” asks head of customer experience Rob Brown. “That’s the one,” I reply.
The bottle, covered with beads of condensation, opens with a satisfying pop and fizz. So far, so good. The first pour is equally promising; the brew is pale and cloudy, and bubbles cling to the sides of the glass. Social media manager Ben Black is the first to dive in, while the others await his verdict.
“It’s... actually really nice,” he says, with a frankly hurtful amount of surprise in his voice
“There’s not a lot of alcohol there, but it’s a good balance of sweet, bitter and fiery,” adds head of marketing and analysis James Taylor.
I agree, and it might just be the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I can pick up the slightly burnt caramel notes that the GBP is meant to impart.
“It’s really refreshing,” says craft beer advisor Tyler Mortimer. “But do you know what it needs? Whiskey.”
Nods of agrement. Purely in the interests of science then, we make up a round of Horse’s Necks (including a twist of lemon peel - it’s a Friday, but we’re not heathens).
Meanwhile, the next batch is ready to come out of the fermenting jar and into a bottle. I could get used to this.
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