18th Century Ginger Beer.. the improvement on Lizzie’s Hellbrew

February 16, 2015 in Feast or Famine, Living history, Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Uncategorized by M C

The 18th century householder was on a first name basis with two things rarely found in a modern kitchen: patience, and active yeast fermentation.

Since this is New England, and New England is not a warm and cozy place a good 8 months out of the year, chances are your average householder was quite friendly with their yeast cultures.  We’ve already looked at one of the most common cuture: yeast culture kept alive to make bread, or “sourdough.”  The culture in my kitchen dates from the late 1700s and can still be purchased through one of America’s oldest companies, King Arthur Flour.  (learn more about 18th century bread recipes and sourdough)

But my 18th century ginger starter is a byproduct of the day buying ginger turned into A Great Quest.. and when I finally found the ginger.. I bought a lot of it.  First I tried drying it, creating quite an exciting adventure into 18th century spices.. then I tried planting it (because why not, right?) and it actually grew! I have a little ginger plant coming along on my windowsill.

Then I decided I needed to brew up some ginger beer. Ginger Beer, or any of these recipes call for starter.  Except one.  I’ve included, as my last recipe, a “fast version” of 18th century ginger beer made in a pop bottle, in case you’d like to try fermentation without the commitment of making a starter.  You see, starters are addictive.  They’re alive, so they rather become pets.. as long as you feed them and treat them nicely they’ll live forever.  If you don’t want the commitment of having a pet starter you can skip down to the recipe in a pop bottle.

18th-century-ginger-beer1Ginger Starter (often called a “Ginger Bug” online) are made with ginger, sugar, and water.

You’ll need a good chunk of ginger, some un-chlorinated water, sugar, and time.  There’s a distinct preference online for “organic ginger.”  Good luck with finding that in my part of the world.  Plain old imported from somewhere fresh ginger will do nicely.

Wash your ginger then grate off 4 tablespoons worth of ginger.  Put this into a quart jar along with 4 tablespoons of sugar and 4 tablespoons of water.  Set this out to capture some wild yeast.  Every day, for a week, add 2T grated ginger, 2 T sugar and 2 T water.  Your starter should start to bubble cheerfully. If it doesn’t.. or worse, you see mold, discard and try again.  If you’re horribly impatient (or can’t catch wild yeast) dip a knife into a packet of dry active yeast and pull out 5-6 grains to seed your starter.  That yeast will happily take hold and bubble its little heart out.

Store your starter in the fridge, taking it out once a week to warm up when you’re not using it regularly, and feed it a few T sugar and some fresh water.  When it is happily bubbling along again, put it back in the fridge to slow it back down again.

 My grandmother’s recipes, which, of course, belonged to her mother.. which in turn.. going back to heaven knows when include a recipe for Spruce Beer.  I’ve had spruce beer.  It tastes like distilled pine tree, with fizz.  I happen to like the taste.  I also like the taste of spruce gum.. and if you come across any spruce gum in your travels contact me, because I can’t find it any more.

A brief word about brewing in general, and this type of brewing in particular.  What we’re doing here is called open fermentation as opposed to closed fermentation.  Open fermentation is very 18th century appropriate, it is brewing where the surface is open to the air.  Poor Lizzie may have been producing hellbrew because an open fermentation under the conditions on the Ridge likely meant her barrels were being contaminated by wild yeasts, pollen, little boy fingers, and the odd fly that fell into the barrel if there wasn’t a lid on it.  Lightly capping a canning jar simulates the conditions of closed fermentation where the brew is sealed from the outside air with a one way valve which allows the gas to escape, but keeps air from the brew.  I usually allow a pot of new brew to set about 24 hours with a lid loosely on it (I rather doubt enough pressure could build up in 24 hours to lift the lid of a cast iron pot.. but do we really want to find out it could?), then decant into quart canning jars with the lids loosely fitted on.. 24-48 hours after decanting I’ll tighten down the lids and either leave it out to continue working at room temperature, or refrigerate it to slow down the fermentation.

Today open fermentation is done by craft brewers, but they don’t like to do it because done on a commercial scale, with vast amounts of expensive ingredients involved, if the fermentation doesn’t go as planned, that’s a lot of wasted suds.  And it is rarely recommended by home brewers, again, because it can yield uneven results.  The use of canning jars gives you the best of both worlds… a form of open fermentation with the benefits of a closed fermentation system, without the expense of an airlock or carboy.  If you don’t have to spend money to have fun and get good results, I’m all for it.

Spruce beer, made in an experimental quantity, is a blend of 1 pound of white sugar, and 8 ounces of molasses, 2.5 gallons of water, 1/2 a cup of starter, and spruce essence.  Which can now be purchased, of all places, on Amazon.  Or you can make your own by simmering spruce twigs for a few hours then straining out the twigs.  If you’re using the concentrate do be cautious… there’s “distilled pine tree with fizz” as an interesting flavor experience.. and there’s “turpentine.. with fizz.” Which is a less appealing beverage.

In any event, you mix the ingredients together and set them in a temperate zone (around 70F will do nicely) to ferment.  Within 24 hours bubbles will start to form along the edge and the ginger will start to rise to the surface.  If the brew is really working you can actually hear the bubbles popping like rice crispies.  When the brew has simmered down (36-48 hours later) bottle it into sealable bottles.. people who brew often (or give the stuff as gifts) will use bottles like these self capping bottles, which I’ll admit, are really nice and  someday…  meanwhile, I use canning jars, but those have limitations.  The seal on a canning jar is not as effective as those on these bottles, so I’ll lose carbonation over time.

Spruce, by the way, was used by the northern tribes as a source of vitamin C during the winter months by brewing up a strong tea of the needles, a source of chewing gum up until the mid-20th century, and, if eaten by deer or goats, will flavor the meat or milk.  I once spent an entire winter eating venison we’d taken from around a cedar swamp… the meat had a fine texture and decent taste, right up until you exhaled.  Then your nose and mouth was full of a strong taste of pine.  Nothing, not stewing, nor roasting slowly, nor drowning in strong spices, fixed the problem.  I am fond of the flavor of spruce, but I’ll admit.. that was a bit much.

Ginger beer, made in an experimental quantity, is made with 2 T grated ginger, 1 gallon of water, 1 pound of sugar, and a sliced lemon.  Put the ingredients into a pot and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved and the lemon slices are tender (about 30 minutes).  Allow the brew to cool until it is lukewarm, then add 1/4 C starter, and stir.  Cover, and allow to ferment in a warm spot for at least 24 hours.  At this point I pick out some of the lemon slices (I leave a couple per jar for pretty) and decant the brew into mason jars.

I have a preference for canning jars for a secondary fermentation because they’re cheap and come with an “early warning system.”  Canning jars are a nice compromise between using a carboy and airlock during fermentation (called “closed fermentation”) and open fermentation. In the 18th century closed fermentation was possible, but open, then as now, was easier, if slightly less reliable because wild yeasts could get into your brew. The canning jar lid covers your brew, protecting it from wild yeasts or contamination, and if you screw the ring down loosely, the gas generated during the brewing will escape easily. After 24-36 hours of brewing I tighten the lid down to lock in the carbonation. The canning jar lid, when I screw it down, can easily be depressed with the thumb.  As the contents continue to ferment the pressure builds up.. and you can feel the pressure when you try and depress the lid. If the lid is hard? Unscrew the jar to release some of the pressure.

Refrigerating the jars will slow the fermentation and if you want a bubblier brew (or one with more alcohol in it) you can take a jar out of the fridge, unscrew it to release the gas, screw the lid back on again, and leave it out at room temperature.  The yeast will happily start up again, until the sugar is gone, adding fermentation (and alcohol) to the jar as it does.  You can fine tune your brew exactly to your taste simply by taking it out of the fridge, and putting it back in.

Wonderfully bubbly ginger fruit beer or naturally fermented soda.Fruit beer, in a mason jar: This is so easy I do a batch every few days.  You can make a fruit beer out of preserves if you want to.  Simply stir several tablespoons of jam into a quart jar with warm water and a couple tablespoons of sugar.  Add a couple tablespoons of starter, put the lid on loosely, and set  on the counter for 48 hours.  Tighten the lid, let it work for another 24 hours… presto, carbonated fruit beer.  If you’ve got fresh berries fill a jar half way will fresh berries, add 4 T sugar, and pour boiling water over the lot.  Give it a shake to dissolve the sugar and set aside for a few hours.  Top off the jar with 2 T starter and water… and let it work for 48 hours.

Once you have a starter going you can make a carbonated “soda” or beer out of just about anything, plus sugar.  The more sugar, and the longer your beer works, the higher in alcohol content your beer is going to be.  In 48 hours of working the alcohol content is minimal, and the beverage a bit sweeter (because not all the sugar has been converted to alcohol and bubbles).  But with a high sugar fruit, and a long brew time (because you forgot to refrigerate the jars).. a full quart mason jar of red currant brew might leave you incapable of operating heavy machinery or legal to drive.  Consider yourself warned.

And keep an eye on these bottles of brew.. the contents are under pressure, and the yeast will continue to work, even when refrigerated, until the sugar runs out.  So check those jars and bottles and release the pressure if necessary!

Lastly.. if you want to skip the starter altogether you make make a reasonable facsimile of 18th century ginger beer using a 2 liter plastic pop bottle:

Ginger Beer.. the fast version

Make a Ginger syrup grate 2 T ginger and add it to a small pot with 1 C sugar and 1/2 C water. Heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, then set aside for an hour to steep and cool.

Fill your 2 liter bottle half way with non-chlorinated water.  Add 1/8 t dry active yeast.  Pour in your ginger syrup and add 2 T fresh lemon juice (if desired).

Put the top on, screw tight, and shake until the yeast dissolves. Top up the bottle with water to the shoulder, give it a little shake again, and set it on the counter, out of the sun, for a couple of days.

Bubbly beer will happen.  Do NOT forget about this bottle because the pressure will build up to the point where it will blow.  The fermentation process is slowed by refrigeration, but unlike the pop that originally came in that bottle this ale will keep brewing, and forming carbonation, until it runs completely out of sugar to grow on.  So release the pressure, cap it again, and if you want a stronger “hellbrew” let it continue to work.  If you want a natural ginger ale, refrigerate, and serve over the next week.

Fruit and ginger beers are one of those 18th century skills we’ve lost to the efficiencies of bottling companies and plastic bottles.  Yet, as with the 18th century hand cream or the 18th century method of waterproofing boots, it’s surprisingly inexpensive, and very gratifying.  If you can make your own hand cream, waterproof your boots, and put fresh ginger ale in your larder you’re well on your way to living an 18th century life.

Except you get to enjoy indoor flush!

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