The Peace in Knowing Yeast: How to Brew Your Own Ginger Beer

The Peace in Knowing Yeast: How to Brew Your Own Ginger Beer

by Doro

Homemade Ginger Beer Fermentation

I knew there was something wrong when the fraternity brothers put codeine in the keg, when my friends got so sick that they went splat, when thirteen year old me took a sip of every wine bottle in the house when mom and dad weren't looking and I felt like I had done something naughty. European culture is renown for serving alcoholic beverages to children, yet in the USA where I grew up, something about alcohol is taboo. The cultural history reflects just that. Alcohol in Native American early history is absent, contraband could put you behind bars or blind you, prohibition made speakeasies a mischievous and alluring excursion, and even today a cultural lag in how we enjoy alcohol still exists. 

It became very apparent to me in college that with alcohol, etiquette falls flat on its face. Why? Japanese tea ceremonies, to draw a stark comparison, dedicate hours to enjoying a tablespoon of liquid in the most refined fashion, yet the common bar pumps out wasted resources, wasted fools, and wasted dreams. People may drink so much as to make themselves sick, both physically and mentally.

The Origins of Homemade Hooch

Alcohol is actually an ancient substance that has been intentionally brewed since the beginning of mankind itself. Some people even go as far to claim that alcohol IS the reason for civilization. One theory suggests that contaminated drinking water in Europe warranted humans to grow grains and ferment them to cleanse the water. In this process, humans needed to orient themselves to the earth's growing cycles, work together to organize and specialize in different tasks, then celebrate communally with a drink because clever Homo sapiens managed to retrofit their pollution problem. 

Health is a major benefit to why people drink. Medicinal plants have traditionally been brewed into alcoholic beverages and can prevent or cure illnesses. In the "blue zones"- regions of the world where people have measurably longer lifespans--one of the factors is that residents enjoy moderate alcohol intake. Blue zone residents also benefit from strong social relationships, so community is a major piece of healthy alcohol enjoyment. Sharing drinks with other people also lubricates and warms a gathering. So-- yes! You can have your brew AND drink it too. Alcohol gets the psychological, physiological, and sociological stamp of approval. Where did clever man go astray?

ginger beer fermentation

Time is the essential difference in how we relate to a drink we make ourselves and share compared to a drink we buy commercially. Like many good things in life, it takes a lot of time to see a good brew from start to finish-- or in the grand scheme, from seed to chalice. Modern "conveniences" allow people to buy Budlight from the cornerstore, then smash a can to the forehead before thinking twice about going for more. Woah, Nelly! Lack of restrictions on consumption could cost an eye, a tooth, and a frontal lobe if you're not careful, and then what kind of Homo sapiens would that be? Anthropologists suggest that it's our frontal lobes that allows our brains to use foresight and therefore be more aligned with the process of time. My suggestion goes beyond sipping more consciously, more graciously; start from the beginning and make the whole brew yourself.

Meet your Microorganisms

Did you know that one in ten cells of your body share the same human DNA. As for the rest, they are trillions of bacteria and yeasts that live symbiotically with your body. Microorganisms are a great tool for living in your body, or they can be a great tool for brewing the brews that will satisfy your body. There are numerous strands of yeasts that eat sugar and through their metabolic processes, they create alcohol as a waste. What a life! Some of these yeasts are more effective at creating alcohols than others. For example, the yeasts that you can buy in the grocery store were grown in sanitized laboratories to ensure that a very specific strain is repeatedly created. This is an effective means for getting a brew consistency. If you live in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle and cannot access such luxuries, or if you have pride in your local yeasts as San Fransciscans have in their sour dough bread, then you can easily grow your own brewing yeast.

The Ginger Bug

ginger harvest costa rica

A ginger bug is the first step in brewing your own alcohol. Think of it as a little pet, like a fish in a bowl that you feed everyday. You nurture your ginger bug, and your ginger bug will nurture you. This is how you can deepen your awareness for the beverage that gave rise to humanity, and could propel it forward, or send it tumbling back down to dust.

Step 1: Locate fresh ginger. We happened to dig this rhizome up in our Zone 2 garden. The fresher the better, as it means more active enzymes that ultimately will nourish your bug, and in turn your body.

Step 2: Grate the ginger to increase the surface area. You're going to want about 2 tsp of ginger for 8 oz of water, which will yield a decent size ginger bug.

ginger costa rica

Step 3: Add 2 tsp of sweetener to your bug. If you can avoid heavily processed and pasteurized sugars, then do so. Honey, maple syrup, and fruit syrups are excellent choices. For this recipe, I used our locally preferred option, tapa dulce, or sugarcane. Bleached white sugars can impose genocide on your microbial populations and are best to be avoided.

Step 4: Stir your water, sugar, and ginger "bug" gently, then cover with a cloth and rubber band. This will allow yeasts in the air to get in, but keep larger creatures out.

Step 5: Carefully observe the nature of your bug. If it starts bubbling, this is a great sign that "it's working". Carbon dioxide, like alcohol, is a process of the yeasts' respiration, and it creates a fizzy bug.

ginger bug

What's happening is that you are creating a mini ecosystem that allows local yeasts from the air a free place to get some lunch (sugar), hang out in a safe environment, maybe meet some cool other microbes; and if all goes well, fall in love, divide, and start a yeasty family. That's right, you are creating a yeast breeding ground, and because ginger tea is the base of the medium, the antibacterial properties of the ginger are keeping the population of "bad" microbes at bay. You can feed your ginger bug once every two days with the same ratios of sugar and ginger as before, but only if necessary. Avoid over feeding your bug and creating a viscous solution. Your bug is your pet. Know it, feed it, and it will reward you with love and affection. If your bug has some fizzy action-- congratulations!-- your pet is ready to use.

Fermentation Experimentation

Ginger bugs are good for inoculating teas with yeasts that will allow them to ferment into alcoholic beverages. The next step in creating a brew is to find a tea recipe or make one up using locally available resources. Fruits and herbs make great tea flavors. I brewed two separate teas for this occasion. The first is a ginger sour guava tea, in which the ingredients were chopped, boiled, and strained. The second is a cacao tea that used the same process except using the fruit that bears the infamous chocolate seed. 

Once the tea is prepared, add a sweetener, just as in the ginger bug process. Sugars will continue to feed the microbial populations you are brewing. Like mentioned before, the less processed the sugar the better. Sometimes sugars even carry wild yeast colonies. This will encourage your brew to ferment.

Once you have your ginger bug and sweet tea, you can use the bug's yeast to inoculate the tea. Like a small fish released from bowl to small pond, your ginger bug yeast is off to fend for itself. Ensure that it is going into a safe, clean environment, and that your tea is not too hot. Room temperature to 105 degrees F is a safe range. Since you know that the health of your yeast will ultimately intertwine with the health of your own being, you continue to monitor the brew. 

Thus, you have entered the experimental phase. The ultimate flavor and quality of your brew is at fate's discretion. Proceed valiantly! Check your brew at least once a day to ensure nothing is growing inside of it except for good microbes, that the texture is liquid and not thick, and that there is enough sugar. 

It may take one day, it may take ten, but you will try your home brewed alcohol and realize that all that time you spent caring for your ginger bug and your brew was very well worth it. "This is delicious!" you'll say one day, "And my gift to humanity." A successful brewer is an artist-- one who reorders the chaos of water, sugar, plants, and airborne yeasts, and transforms them into a product that brings humans together. It turns out that it was never about the buzz, or the story the morning after-- it was always about the process. As humans face the coming challenges of the environment that our culture has shaped, it is important that we remember that each of our actions continues to evolve our relationship with the natural world. Even something as simple as brewing gives proof that the things we provide care for will in turn care for us. Sit back, sip back, and celebrate the pleasure of good brew and good company. Cheers!

News and Notes from around the Permaculture World

We are scheming and dreaming about expanding our chicken program in 2017. More eggs, meat, better breeding strategies, and figuring out how to get the birds to weed our orchards has got us motivated. If any of you are trying to do the same, you should check out the Permaculture Chicken Film from the guys and gals at

One of Scott's past PDC students, Levi Gardner, from a course taught in Nicaragua, is doing some excellent urban farming work in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Check out this article about Urban Roots. Levi states that for him, "a big turning point was going to Nicaragua for a month last year to study permaculture. I left there going, ‘I’m not just a guy that wants to be an urban farmer anymore. I want to build something.'" We are inspired!

As you know we practice agroforestry at the Ranch and love sharing our experiences with others. The USDA Inside Agroforestry publication is full of similar experiences from the states and around the globe which we are hope to contribute to in the future. Considering signing up for their quarterly publication to up your agroforestry skills!


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