• Chop the ginger up
  • Mix the ginger and sugar in a  jar
  • Store the ginger and sugar in a jar with water
  • The bubbles indicate that fermentation is happening
  • Making the ginger stock
  • Straining out the ginger stock

The Ginger Bug

posted in: Recipes | 27

I brew my own Ginger Ale.
two pitchers, with sliced ginger in a strainerI started doing this, I think, in February 2008. Workign from a book called Wild Fermentation, which was about using bacterial/yeast cultures to brew drinks and make food through fermentation. I’ve made over a dozen batches, and although I’m still improving on my recipe, it tastes pretty good!

My Ginger Ale recipe is essentially three food ingredients + the micro-organism culture.

  • Ginger Root (grated)
  • Lemon (sometimes lime also, and I’m experimenting with other flavor additives)
  • Sugar (white)

That’s it.

The carbonation comes from the fermentation of sugar, via the Wild Yeast. This is the same kind of fermentation process that brewers use to make ethanol (drinking alcohol) although this particular process / yeast culture does not produce a substantial amount of alcohol. (If there is any, it is barely noticeable, and largely depends on how long you let it ferment). The main by-product is carbonation (CO2) and awesome.

Making the “Bug”

Growing the micro-organism culture is super-easy. It’s way easier than caring for pets. (and cheaper — although not really as entertaining, unless you’re the type of person that likes owning sea monkeys). All you need is three things:

  • Sugar (white, granulated)
  • Ginger Root, grated
  • de-chlorinated / de-ionized water (the local Richmond spring water works fine for this)

jar full of sliced gingerCombine about 1 cup of sugar with about 3″ of ginger root, and about a cup and a half or so of water. You want enough that the sugar dissolves completely and that the ginger gratings are floating with a small gap at the bottom. I put the whole mix into an empty Peanut Butter Jar, and then cover it with 2 layers of fabric scraps held on with a rubber band.

The covering is SUPER IMPORTANT if you have a fruit fly problem — they will infest and they will lay eggs if you don’t take precautionary measures. It has to have some air-flow though, otherwise it’ll taste vinegary from fermenting into Acetic acid. (Note: In the picture to the left, I used cheesecloth — some people prefer it, but I have found that fruit flies are far too persistent for it to be effective.)

Do not add yeast of any kind to this. There is Wild  Yeast already present on the Ginger root and in the air, and that is all you need.

 

closeup of of a jar of sliced ginger, with bubbles forming
The bubbles indicate that fermentation is happening

Let it sit for 2-3 days and you should see bubbling; If you do, then you’re good, the yeast culture is alive and munching away on the sugar. After 2 or 3 days, you can either brew up the Ginger Ale immediately or just feed it 1/4 cup of sugar every couple days. If you wait longer than 2 weeks, just toss the culture (or keep a tablespoon of it as a starter) and start a fresh batch.

Brewing the Mix

A single batch will make one gallon of Ginger Ale, and it will need to be stored for at least 5 days (ideally 7-10 days for a good dry flavor). I find that swing-top bottles (the kind that Grolsch beer uses) are perfect for this, since they make an air-tight seal and are easily reusable. While you can buy them from brew-supply distributors, it’s far easier to just go to your local liquor store, and buy yourself (or your spouse, in my case) a 4-pack of Grolsch swing-tops.

You’ll need a few kitchen tools for this:

  • A stock pot (large enough to boil 2 quarts of water)
  • At least 1 strainer (I use two, one coarse-grain and one fine-grain)
  • At least 1 pitcher that can hold a gallon / 4 Liters of liquid (I use a second smaller one during filtration)
  • A stove, open flame, really large magnifying glass or some other sustained heat source for boiling
  • A timer
  • A funnel that can fit into your bottles
  • 8 Grolsch / Swing-top bottles (they are generally 16oz each)
  • Approximately 60-70 minutes of your time

And your ingredients:

  • Ginger root (3-6″)
  • 2 to 2.5 cups of white granulated sugar
  • Lemon, lime, vanilla, or whatever flavors you want to try
  • At least a half-gallon of de-chlorinated  water (i.e. Spring water)

Here are the steps — these are inspired by Wild Fermentation but are also from my own personal experience. (I highly recommend that book, if you enjoy doing this!)

  1. Grate the ginger into a stock pot (3″ minimum — 6″ for a real intense ginger spice)
  2. Add 2 quarts of tap water (the boiling process will boil off most of the chlorine)
  3. Add the sugar (and optionally, the vanilla, I’m still experimenting with that ingredient)
  4. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves, and let it boil for 15-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when you see a faint color change (it should look slightly more brown).
  5. Let it cool to room temperature (this takes 30-40 minutes), the liquid should feel lukewarm / tepid.
  6. Strain the liquid into a pitcher — do not throw away the ginger root (just set it aside)
  7. Add lemon, lime, and the ginger bug (just dump the whole jar into it), stir.
  8. Strain this mixture, throw away this ginger.
  9. Add enough de-chlorinated water to bring the volume up to 1 gallon, stir.
  10. Bottle this into the Grolsch bottles
  11. Add the ginger set aside in step 6 to your ginger-bug jar, add a cup of sugar, some de-chlorinated water, and re-cover it.
  12. Store the bottles for 5-10 days at room temperature.

That’s it!

Additional notes

Using de-chlorinated water is important since I suspect that the yeast culture wouldn’t like living in an environment intended to be hostile to micro-organisms. If you don’t have ready access to a source like this, you can make your own: Just boil water for 15 minutes or so, cool it, and use that.

In step 11, the new ginger bug mix should bounce back much more quickly than the intitial creation, depending on how much liquid you left in the jar.

When storing your bottled ginger beer in step 12, room temperature (68-70 F / 24 C) is a good starting point, but through some experimentation I’ve learned that higher temperatures (around 80 F) tend to make more carbonation, and longer times (10 days+) tend to make the flavor more dry. My optimal flavor, so far, has been 10 days at 68-70 F. Try it out for yourself.

When opening the bottles, especially if it’s your first time, you will want to do it over a sink. Preferably into a pitcher. Expect this stuff to shoot off like a champagne bottle (seriously! I’ve had the swing top blow off and shoot across the room). This recipe does some SERIOUS carbonation. On more than one occasion I’ve had to wipe off our cabinets because of spray.

You’ll see some sediment in the bottom of the bottles — it’s harmless but just looks funny. I suspect it’s ginger sediment and the yeast culture growing. When pouring (particularly for guests) you may want to leave a little bit of liquid in the bottom so you don’t accidentally pour out a bunch of chunky gross stuff.

27 Responses

  1. Evan Agee

    Thanks for posting! I cannot WAIT to try this! Love the Iron Maiden “Piece of Mind” style header too!

  2. Aaron

    Thanks!

    Let me know how it turns out for you.

    If you click on the “Fermentation” tag above, there’s a recipe for a Rootbeer prototype — it’s a little more involved though because some of the ingredients (wintergreen, for example) are difficult to come by.

  3. shannon

    It’s been three days and no bubbles in my bug. Should I start over or wait?

    • Aaron

      Give it a few more days. It might take as much as a week for the bubbles to start.

      A couple troubleshooting notes:
      – You didn’t wash the ginger first, right? The Wild Yeast is going to come from the environment; you must overcome your sanitary compulsions and allow it to be a little “dirty” going in. 🙂
      – Avoid using city water, if possible. If you don’t have any alternatives, boil the water for about 10 minutes to get the dissolved gases out. If you have access to Distilled / De-ionized water, that’s ideal.
      – “organic” ginger, if possible. USDA Organic ginger should be pesticide-free — I don’t know for CERTAIN that this is an issue, but it’s something to consider.
      – Be sure the culture can get a little air circulating. A few layers of cheesecloth works fine.
      – Keep it room temperature — cold temps are non-optimal for the microbial growth. I’ve found that slightly warmer than room temp (just under 80 degrees F) works well.

  4. Tom

    Thanks, I just got started and I got the bug in the jar already. I will brew tomorrow. How does it taste? Do you still taste the sugar or no? Is it similar to kombucha, such as that you don’t taste the tea or the sugar? I still don’t know what kind of health benefits you get from ginger beer. I am sure it’s great, but I wouldn’t mind reading something about it though.

    So the Grolsch bottles are the way to go huh?

    Thanks again, I just needed more clarification after the bug. I also got the Wild Fermentation book and it’s a pretty good book.

    • Aaron

      When the bug is ready, you’ll see little bubbles interspersed in the sliced ginger root — the sugar and ginger will make the water somewhat syrupy. Usually 48 hours is long enough for the bug to start — keep it in a room temperature climate, and keep it warm.

      Grolsch bottles — or rather, swing-top bottles — are great simply because they form an airtight seal so that it can become pressurized, and since it’s swing-top, it can be reused. 🙂

      The flavor of the ginger beer will depend partly on what sorts of bugs are living in it, how long it ferments, what you mix with it, how warm the environment is during fermentation and even where you get your ginger.

      I’ve found that longer ferments tend to make it taste a bit dryer, shorter ferments are much sweeter. Carbonation should happen pretty quickly, if your bug is alive. Alcohol should NOT form the first time around, since the carbonation should limit the bug from fermenting further.

      Give your first bug 10 days to ferment, and resist the urge to open the bottle prematurely. Be sure you open outside, or over a sink, or in a shower — sometimes they can get REALLY pressurized.

      • faye

        I disagree about not opening the jar for several days. My bottled Ginger Bug had only went for maybe 3 to 4 days and the side of the bottle blue off. Grape juice Ginger Bug shot out of the cupboard and all over my kitchen. Now we check the carbonation every day.

  5. Miro

    Thanks for posting this. How did you sterilize/sanitize the grolsch bottles? I was able to get some. Would boiling the bottles and gaskets separately work?

    • Aaron

      I would suggest boiling the bottles and gaskets, yes — no one wants botulism. 🙂 You probably don’t need to do it separately though, the only part that isn’t exposed when their connected is the socket where the hinge connects, and that’s on the outside. Try to avoid sterilization methods that could leave a residue, such as anti-bacterial soaps, and definitely don’t use the dishwasher. Boiling the bottles, or using an autoclave, or any sort of temperature / pressure based sterilization method should be fine.

      Part of using wild yeast is that you have to accept a small amount of “dirtiness” in the process — after all, you’re using the yeast in the air around you — those sorts of bacteria are good 🙂 A completely sterile environment will likely result in no fermentation. If you’re a germophobe or have a poor immune system, or simply aren’t comfortable with that, you can always purchase brewer’s yeast from a store or on the Internet, and then add that right before bottling.

      But definitely avoid residues. That would be yucky.

  6. kgg

    hi, i tried a bug that is based on another recipe (less ginger and sugar) but i didn’t have precise amounts and i think i put too much water (2 c instead of 1 c to 2 tsp sugar and water every day) and it molded. so when i found yours i thought it would be great to try. on about day 3 there was a tiny bit of action (veeerrry small bubbles around the rim of the jar but nothing more, so i thought i should wait a bit longer. now, about 2-3 days later, the mix is starting to taste sour and there are no more bubbles, so i guess it’s going to be flat ginger lemonade for this one.
    your recipe differs from the one on wild fermentation in that you put so much sugar in at the start.
    do you think i should have started a bottle of ginger beer on day 3 when i just saw that small amount of action?
    i did wash the ginger a bit but only to get the dirt off the skin between the knobs as i thought introducing bacteria from soil wouldn’t be the greatest idea. otherwise i just grated it, skin and all. should i just wipe it off next time?
    your thoughts welcome, i would really like to get a ginger beer going without using commercial yeast.
    thanks!

    • Aaron

      It may sound gross, but you probably just shouldn’t wash it at all. If you feel you absolutely must, then leave the ginger root (un cut) out in open air for at least a day or two — or, alternately (and this is only if fruitflies aren’t a problem for you), once you make the mix, leave THAT out in the open. The wild yeast has to get in there somehow.

      Typically, when I would make it, the ginger would go straight from the store into the jar (after being cut). There are concerns about pathogens getting in, of course, so perhaps your caution is a good idea and I’m being too cavalier. 🙂 You could also try setting your ginger bug (in the jar) outdoors for maybe a half-hour each day.

      The amount of sugar that’s in there doesn’t need to be super precise — the yeast will only survive as long as they have sugar to feed on, but will be ultimately limited by the concentrations of other things (such as the yeast itself, the CO2 in the solution, etc.) The jar should have enough water in it the ginger can move about freely if you agitate the jar. Sort of like how a washing machine looks with clothes in it.

      3 days is typically enough; if you don’t see any bubbles, rinse it out and start over.

      One thing to consider: if you are using tap water, be aware that the chlorine and other chemicals used in the water treatment may be adversely affecting your wild yeast. Try boiling the water first, letting it cool down to room temp, and THEN adding it to the ginger/sugar. Boiling the water will help liberate any gases that may be dissolved in the water. A few minutes at a rolling boil should be plenty.

  7. Cayenne

    hi, just trying ginger beer for the first time and I added the bug to a brew that was still pretty warm. I’ll see if it works out!
    I see different suggestions for initial fermentation – some say seal it right away, others say close it loosely.
    I do kombucha root beer that’s pretty great, so it’s fun to be starting this – ginger beer and root beer are two of my faves, but not that sugary storebought stuff.

  8. Jami

    Okay…I made it 48 hours ago and its not bubbly but REALLY…thick. Like syrup. I have been making soda for a while with kefir and then suddenly it died so I went back to the basic ginger bug. Would it have made it that thick because I added about 2 cups of the ginger bug? Should I keep letting it ferment? I am soooooo frustrated because I had SUCH beginners luck i thought I had it down….now I can’t figure out what I am doing wrong…Please help me.

    • Aaron

      Can you be more specific about what you did? Did you create the stock solution? The Ginger Bug (that weird slurry of shredded ginger, sugar, and whatever yeast happens to land in it) is going to be pretty thick, largely because of how much sugar is in it. That should all be diluted when you add it to the stock solution, though — I think you may have overlooked one of the steps in the dilution process, so here’s a quick reminder:

      1. Create Ginger bug (in an old PB jar or something of similar size)
      2. Create stock solution (2 quarts) in stock pot
      3. Add 2 more quarts of water (you will want to boil this for a few minutes, then let it cool, to make sure all the chlorine and other trapped gases can escape)
      4. Mix it all together
      5. Distribute into 8 pint bottles, seal, and store somewhere away from direct sunlight for about a week

      Does that sound like what you did?

  9. Sadassa

    I am making a very similar recipe using a wild yeast ginger bug. The one I am using requires the boiled/cooled liquid + bug mixture to sit for a couple days covered with a towel before straining/bottling. I am doing so, it smells wonderful and is bubbly on top. Any ideas as to what this step is doing, if anything? Thanks!

    • Aaron

      Sure!

      The bubbling is from the yeast consuming the sugar (C6H12O6) and converting it into gaseous Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and (I think) Pyruvate (CH3COCOO) — pyruvate is a metabolic “middle step” that the yeast takes in producing energy.

      Bottling it sooner will dissolve more of the carbon dioxide in the liquid, making it fizzier, but you won’t get the pleasant ambient aroma 🙂

      • Sadassa

        Thank you, I’d like it fizzier so next time I will skip the wait between mixing and bottling. Do you ever use a heating pad to keep ideal temperatures? Do you know what the temp range is for ginger ale? I have found some info online about brewing beer but not ginger ale. Both my bug and my mixed (yet-to-be-bottled) ale definitely like a heating pad but I don’t want to have it on at night, and I am wondering if the bubbling activity will rise and fall acceptably. Thanks!

      • Aaron

        I actually did some testing on temps; somewhere between room temp (27 C) and body temp (37C) has been ideal. I used to ferment it under my sink because the dishwasher would drain through there and the warm waste water helped keep that cabinet warm. Im pretty sure that the warmer temp will only accelerate the fermentation, as long as its not too warm.

  10. Geraldine

    I have tried making the ginger bug twice now, and each time it will bubble slightly after two days, and then the next day it will end up with a thick white crust and no bubbles. I let it sit for another day and it just got worse. Assuming it’s molding?
    I sanitized everything carefully before I began, used distilled water, kept it at around 75 degrees, and shook it carefully a couple of times a day. Any ideas what would be causing this?

    • Aaron

      Where is the crust appearing, on the top? It *might* be mold.

      What you might want to do is let the jar sit on the counter, completely empty, open, and dry, for a day or two, to let some of the ambient yeast collect in it. If you keep a REALLY tidy kitchen (ie. you wipe down your counter tops with antibacterial wipes more than once a week) you may need to take your jar somewhere less sanitary, such as outside. Remember that the wild yeast has to come from the air, so overly-sanitary habits could be working against you here.

      Also — don’t worry so much about the temperature; room temperature is fine, and you shouldn’t need to shake it, either; that might be preventing the yeast from growing more.

      As I’ve told other people in these comments, you have to be willing to relax your inhibitions about ambient bacteria a little (and this is at your own risk, though I’ve brewed dozens of batches and never had any adverse effects). Using controlled laboratory conditions is kind of the antithesis of brewing with wild yeast. The other thing is that de-ionized water is different from distilled water. If you do not have access to DI water, you can emulate it by just boiling some water for about 10 minutes, letting it cool, and using that. You want all of the chlorine/fluorine and any other anti-microbial chemicals that are dissolved in your water to be liberated beforehand, otherwise it may inhibit growth.

      Try doing this instead:

      1. Use a peanut butter jar, clean it out with dish soap, rinse well with tap water, and then leave it in an open area. Your ktichen is ideal, since the yeast will piggy back in on other foods, but if you keep your kitchen SUPER clean, then set the open jar outside for a couple days. DON’T WASH IT. Hopefully this will prime it with some wild yeast.

      2. Chop / grate up some fresh ginger (however much you want to use — I would do 2-3″, but that’s my own preference), and put it into the PB jar. Add ~1/4 cup of white sugar, and fill the jar up with enough deionized water (*NOT* distilled) that everything is completely covered. It will probably kind of look like soup. Stir it with a wooden spoon just so the sugar is evenly distributed, then leave it. Cover with a cheese cloth or stocking — something that will let air through but not bugs. Fruit flies are the enemy, but it needs to be ventillated.

      3. Put the jar somewhere that is “room temperature” — 75 is fine, but don’t sweat the temp too much. I used to put mine in a cabinet under the sink. Light is unnecessary (and depending on how your water is, may actually be a bad thing if your water has algae spores in it, since they use sunlight for energy). After it’s in place, you can check on it, but don’t agitate it — just let it sit. You should see bubbles in a day or two, and at 3 or 4 days there should be “more bubbles” — if that’s the case, then you’re ready to go.

      Our society is ingrained with anti-microbial habits, so be mindful of those habits when doing this. Being overly clean or using water / other things that are prepared to kill bad bacteria may end up hurting your yeast growth as well.

      Good luck!

  11. Sharon

    It puzzles me as to which ginger you toss and which you keep in this whole process. It would seem to me that the ginger you boiled would have lost any fermenting qualities, yet that is how I am reading step 6 (saving the boiled ginger). Does it really work to save and re-use this as your new ginger bug starter? I’m new at this and struggle past the first past of ginger ale for some reason.

    • Aaron

      The boiled ginger still maintains some flavor in it — but it’s the sugar in the water that feeds the yeast, and the yeast is in the air around you (if you do it in your kitchen, it’s probably baker’s yeast). You don’t HAVE to save your ginger — I just did it because I dislike wasting stuff. 🙂

      • Shannon

        I, too, have a problem with the ginger ale being thick/syrupy… I filled the directions exactly, made the ginger ale and bottled. After about 3-4 days, the ginger ale was thick and syrupy. Any thoughts? Thanks!

        • Aaron

          Shannon, I suspect the syrupy consistency is because there was inadequate yeast populations in it. I had that happen a few times. Was your ginger bug bubbling happily before you added it to the cooled stock mixture?

          • Shannon

            Seemed to be… I also have water kefir going, so it could be a cross-culture thing, too. Thanks!

  12. Sharon

    Did you ever experiment with adding vanilla — and how did it work out? That sounds tasty to me, but I hate to ruin a batch if it’s already been proven not to work, lol!

  13. Kai

    I made my first bug three years ago, and kept it alive ever since. Recently, I moved, and had to start a new one. However, every single time I try, after the first three days or so it is bubbling along nicely, then suddenly it starts growing mold. Every single time. I’m not doing anything different and am following the same procedures you outline here. Any ideas?