My family was not a soda drinking family. We had a stockpile of seltzer water in the pantry at all times, but we’d only drink Coke or Spite at the movies. The only exception to the rule? Ginger ale. My mom kept it on hand for the days that my siblings and I fell sick with a cold, flu, or stomach bug —whatever the ailment, ginger ale was part of the cure. Schweppes and Canadian Dry were both acceptable brands at the time, and I grew to associate their sweet, barely spicy flavor with healing and comfort.
Many years later, I still turn to ginger-y beverages when I’m not feeling at my best. But instead of mass-market soda, I tend crave the spicier, drier brews made in small batches and bottled at a premium. It wouldn’t be long before I decided to make it at home.
Most homemade ginger beer recipes call for adding champagne or brewer’s yeast to a sugary ginger tea. The yeast eats the sugar and creates carbonation. It’s a simple recipe that gives decent results, but we can do better. Capturing wild yeast from grated fresh ginger and the air that surrounds it is not much more difficult and it creates a far more flavorful and unique beverage. The only drawback is that it takes about an extra week, but I’m willing to plan ahead for a better ginger beer.
To start the ginger beer, you’ll first need to make what’s called a ginger “bug.” This “bug” is a strong fermented mixture of ginger, sugar, and distilled water. If you don’t have distilled water handy, you can boil and cool tap water — the main concern with plain tap water is that it can contain chlorine, which will interfere with the fermentation process. Chlorine is evaporated upon boiling.
Combine a teaspoon of grated ginger with a cup of water and a teaspoon of sugar in a glass jar. (I like turbinado sugar, but you could use plain granulated if you prefer.) Mix well, cover with a towel, and place in a dark, room temperature spot in your kitchen.
Much like a sourdough starter, a ginger bug needs to be fed in order to thrive. Every other day, add another teaspoon of ginger and sugar to the bug mixture, stirring well and covering after each addition. After about a week, the bug will have fermented and become active. You’ll know it’s ready when it smells slightly fermented, the ginger has floated to the surface, and there are bubbles floating on the surface. You’ll also notice a white residue building up on the bottom of the jar.
Once the ginger bug is active, you’re ready to brew your ginger beer. If needed, you can hold your ginger bug for several more days. Simply continue to feed the bug as before.
To brew the ginger beer, you’ll need two lemons, ice, and more ginger, sugar and distilled water. Juice the lemons into a large pot. Add their rinds to the pot as well. Grate anywhere from 2 to 4 more teaspoons of ginger into the pot. If you prefer a milder ginger beer, stick with 2 teaspoons. If you’re looking for something spicier, increase the amount by up to 2 additional teaspoons. Add a scant cup of sugar and four cups of water to the pot.
Bring it all to a boil and cook the mixture for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool the mixture to a warm room temperature by adding 7 cups of ice water. I like to measure out 7 cups of ice in my large (8-cup) measuring cup and then add water until it fills in the space between the ice cubes. Mix the ice water into the ginger mixture until the ice melts. Take the temperature of the mixture. If it is already below 80 degrees, move on to the next step. If it is above 80 degrees, let the mixture cool for 15 more minutes and take its temperature again.
Once the ginger mixture is cooled, strain it through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Stir the ginger bug to release the white residue on the bottom of the jar and pour it through the strainer into the ginger mixture. Make sure to pour all of the residue into the bowl — it contains most of the natural yeast. You can save the strained ginger bug for future batches of ginger beer. Add it back to the jar with a teaspoon of sugar and a cup of water.
Carefully transfer inoculated ginger mixture to glass or plastic bottles using a funnel. I prefer to use bottles with bail-top lids so that I don’t need to use separate crown lids. Leftover kombucha or beer bottles work well. You can also use plastic bottles or even canning jars if you are careful with them. I actually always like to use at least one plastic bottle because it will expand as the ginger beer ferments and carbonates, making it easy to monitor the beer’s progress.
The only danger with using glass jars is that the run the risk of exploding as pressure builds up from carbonation. To prevent explosions, make sure to leave at least 1 inch of headspace in each bottle. I also like to store the bottles in a lidded cardboard box to catch any spills.
Place the bottles in an out-of-the-way room temperature spot in the kitchen and let them ferment for at least 5 days. Depending on the temperature of the room and the amount of yeast that made it into the bottle, your ginger beer can take up to 10 days to fully ferment and carbonate. Check on the plastic bottle after 5 days. If it is firm, the soda is likely carbonated. Open the bottle and give it a taste. Too sweet and flat? Let the bottles ferment for another couple of days. Lightly fermented and only slightly sweet? Your ginger beer is ready. Transfer all of the bottles to the fridge and let them chill completely before drinking.
Recipe: DIY Ginger Beer
Makes 4–6 bottles (16–22 ounces each)
Note: In step 3, you can choose to add more or less grated ginger depending on your desired level of spice. Two teaspoons of ginger will yield a ginger ale-like flavor. Four teaspoons will be much stronger.
6–10 inches fresh ginger
1 cup turbinado sugar
Distilled water (or boiled and cooled tap water)
1 (8- or 16-ounce) glass jar
1 clean dish towel or triple layer of cheesecloth
4–6 glass or plastic bottles, preferably with a bail-top, thoroughly washed
Instant read thermometer
Fine mesh strainer
To make the ginger bug: Grate about 1 inch of the ginger, unpeeled, to make 1 teaspoon grated ginger. Combine ginger with 1 teaspoon of the turbinado sugar and 1 cup of the distilled water in glass jar. Stir to combine. Cover with dish towel or a triple layer of cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Place the jar in a dark room temperature area (around 75 degrees).
Every other day, add another teaspoon of grated ginger and sugar. Continue to feed the bug until it becomes active. It will take 6 to 8 days, depending on the temperature of the room. The bug is active when ginger has floated to the top, bubbles have formed around the floating ginger, white residue forms on the bottom of the jar, and the bug smells sweetly fermented.
To make the ginger beer: Halve and juice the lemons into the large pot. Add the rinds to the pot as well. Combine the lemon juice and rinds with 2–4 teaspoons grated ginger, remaining turbinado sugar, and four cups of distilled water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Continue to boil over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
Combine ice and distilled water to measure 7 cups. Add to boiled ginger beer mixture and stir to melt the ice. Once ice is melted, take the temperature of the mixture. It should read 80 degrees or below. If it is warmer than 80 degrees, let the mixture cool for 15 minutes, and check the temperature again.
Once mixture is cooled, pour through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl, preferably with a spout. Use a spoon to agitate and stir the ginger bug and pour it through the strainer into the ginger beer mixture. Make sure that all of the white residue in the bottom of the jar makes its way into the bowl. Stir to combine.
Carefully transfer the ginger beer mixture to clean bottles using the small funnel. Leave at least 1 inch of headspace in each bottle. Place bottles in a cardboard box, cover, and place in an out-of-the way room temperature area. Let the ginger beer ferment for 5 to 10 days. Keep an eye on the plastic bottle. Once the plastic is completely taut, open the bottle and taste it to test the fermentation. When the soda is ready, it will be lightly carbonated and will have a balanced sweetness. If you’re not happy with the test bottle, close it and return it to the box. Let the ginger beer continue to ferment until you’re happy with the flavor.
Transfer fully fermented ginger beer to the fridge to chill completely before opening.