The other root beer

Home-brewed ginger beer to beat the heat

Photo by Joyosity (via Flickr)

It’s summer again, and for me that means three things: marathons of old Simpsons episodes, praying for death every 100-plus-degree day, and ginger beer.

I am not talking about Canada Dry, which, although kind of similar, is a ginger ale. Ginger beer is a brewed beverage—as opposed to being flavored carbonated water—that can contain anywhere from very low to a moderate amount of alcohol, and features far more of the rhizome’s spicy flavor than ginger ale. And it’s easy and cheap to make yourself.

But be forewarned, brewing is more lab experiment than cooking. This will become evident if, like me, you do a shoddy job cleaning old Grolsch flip-top bottles for bottling your brew, only to come back a week later and smell something so rotten it could easily be weaponized by the military. (Worse, you could run into a multicolored fuzz on top of your brew that might be evidence of the toxic mold strain stachybotrys.)

My home brewing started as a failed attempt at making regular beer. It turns out brewing beer takes dedication and far more elbow grease than I will ever be able to dispense. Thankfully, for the weaker among us, ginger beer is far less laborious.

Still, there’s no getting around cleaning bottles (the fancy resealable flip-top bottles of Lorina French Lemonade are ideal, but you can also use common plastic, twist-top soda bottles) and everything else that will touch the soon-to-be-fermenting beverage. Lots of warm, soapy water, followed by rinsing and sanitizing with a diluted bleach solution (or easy-to-use Star San, available at your local brew shop).

I adapted my recipe from a very basic Alton Brown/Food Network “ginger ale” recipe (I doubled the ginger, replaced lemon with lime and added vanilla). First step is the syrup, which not only flavors the beer but provides the fermentable sugars for the yeast. I put about 3 ounces grated ginger root, 6 ounces sugar, the juice and zest of one lime, one split vanilla bean and half a cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar was dissolved, I removed the pan, covered it, and left it to steep overnight.

The next morning, I strained the golden syrup through cheesecloth. At this point, if you’re impatient, you can just dilute the syrup with carbonated water (or filtered water if you like it flat) and serve over ice for a ginger ale-like beverage.

To continue to beer you’ll first wake up about an eighth-teaspoon of active yeast (I use champagne yeast) with a little warm water (according to yeast’s temperature specifications), then stir the yeast mixture and syrup into 7 cups of water (room temperature) and funnel the batch, carefully, into bottles and leave at room temperature for at least 48 hours.

The wait is the most difficult part of the process. You’ll have to suffer through lesser beverages for two or three days while the yeast eats the sugars and converts them into tasty CO2 bubbles and alcohol (though it is minimal—in the 2 percent ABV range).

After three days, I chilled it, then took a bottle from the fridge and presented the fruits of my craft toward the heavens and cried, “I made this with my hands!” Turns out there’s plenty of pride in having spent a few days toiling over a simple but very delicious and satisfying drink.

But my family still prefers Canada Dry.