My love of bubbly water began overseas with the confusion over how to answer a waiter when asked frizzante? or naturale? A bottle of bubbling mineral water arrived after I ventured a guess. Since then, I’ve grown to believe real, effervescent mineral water to be superior, digestively, to flat water, and it has taken the place of sodas in my life in an all-of-the-fun-but-none-of-the-sugar kind of way.
It turns out that carbonated soft drinks have origins in traditional lightly fermented, mildly alcoholic or nonalcoholic brews made from grains, barks, roots and spices.
Cultures all around the globe have produced myriad and distinctly flavored sodas unique to their surroundings—the most familiar to us, of course, being root beer (which uses any combination of sassafras, sarsaparilla, ginger, licorice and burdock roots) and ginger beer. Regardless of the flavor or alcohol content, though, there are two ways to get those beverages fizzing: by forced carbonation or by the natural carbonation created when microorganisms ingest sugars and produce carbon dioxide in an enclosed space.
Naturally carbonated ginger beer is not only relatively simple to make, but delicious. And true fermented ginger beer, as described below, is a probiotic—perhaps the best reason for making it at home. The enzymes, live cultures (lactobacilli) and lactic acid present promote metabolism and digestion, enhance immune function and build our oft-deprived intestinal microbiota. And fermented soft drinks—to use the term in its original sense and not the high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden meaning we associate with it now—supply electrolytes, which are mineral ions that get depleted through perspiration. A delicious homemade beverage with tangible health benefits!
This fermented soda method involves using a ginger “bug” to get things going. Ginger is rich with lactic acid, bacteria and wild yeasts (which make the ginger bug an ideal sourdough starter, as well). Using organic ginger is essential, as conventionally grown, imported produce is irradiated—which kills the bacteria and yeasts necessary for fermentation. For my recipe, keep in mind that two teaspoons of grated ginger equals a piece of the root about the size of a thumb from the tip to the first joint. The amount of ginger in my recipe produces a very zingy ginger beer, but use less or more based on personal flavor preference.
While researching the different ways of making ginger beer, I learned that letting it ferment in an open crock for a few days speeds up the process and makes the carbonation time shorter. This drink is not typically an alcoholic beer, though it can be if left to ferment beyond the point when the bubbling subsides in the open crock (longer than three to five days). The bottling process is the same regardless of alcohol content.
Safe carbonation and bottling practice is key; use sealable bottles—Grolsch-style swing-top bottles, mason jars with newer lids or repurposed screw-cap plastic soda bottles—and be sure at least one of the bottles is plastic in order to properly gauge carbonation. Plastic is the safest bet because it is easy to feel the amount of pressure that has built up inside. When the bottle no longer gives when gently squeezed, the carbonation process is complete. Yeast fermentation takes place at different speeds in varying temperatures, faster in warmer environments. Bottling the ginger beer in all plastic bottles is the safest way to ensure carbonation for beginning soda makers.
Makes about 1 gallon
1 c. plus 4 qt. filtered water, divided
2 T. plus 2 c. sugar, divided
4 T. tightly packed grated organic ginger, divided
Juice of 1 lemon, strained (optional)
Start the ginger bug by filling a pint-size mason jar with one cup of the room-temperature water and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Stir to dissolve and add 2 teaspoons of the grated ginger. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or a flour-sack towel and secure with a rubber band. Let sit for 24 hours. Stir in 2 teaspoons each of the ginger and sugar and let sit for another 24 hours. Then stir in another 2 teaspoons each of the ginger and sugar and let sit for another 24 hours. Bubbles should begin to form after the second day.
When the ginger bug starter is foamy, make the ginger beer decoction by bringing 2 quarts of the water to a boil with the remaining 2 tablespoons of grated ginger. Boil for 15 minutes. Strain out the ginger and pour the hot liquid into a gallon-size jar or crock. Dissolve the remaining sugar in the hot liquid, then add the remaining room-temperature or cold water. Check the temperature of the mixture; when the jar is no longer warm to the touch, strain and add the ginger bug starter. Add the strained lemon juice, if using, and secure cheesecloth over the jar or crock.
Allow the ginger beer to ferment in the jar for up to 3 days. Stir well to incorporate the live cultures evenly and decant the ginger beer into sealable bottles (using at least one plastic bottle). To avoid the possibility of over-carbonation causing a glass jar to shatter, use all plastic bottles.
Allow the sealed bottles to ferment at room temperature for 12 to 36 hours. Check the carbonation periodically by gently squeezing the plastic bottle. When it no longer gives when gently squeezed, the process is complete. Once carbonated, place the bottles in the refrigerator and drink within 3 weeks.