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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Homemade Ginger Ale Experiment

I hadn't planned on making ginger ale, much less writing about it, but sometimes when life hands you a bowl of simple syrup that's too dark for making limoncello, you make the best of it, and the best of it was ginger ale.  It happened this way:

Steve and I have been buying organic sugar for a few years now, and I've never really had an issue using it for anything, so when the limoncello recipe I was using said to make a simple syrup of granulated sugar and water, I did so.  But it came out pretty brown, and I thought, I can't use that for limoncello! It will completely spoil the lovely lemon color!  So as I stood there regarding it, wondering what the hell to do with it, I thought to myself, 'well, there's your caramel coloring'.  And then I flashed on it: send Steve to the store to get regular white sugar and some ginger, and make ginger ale!'  Which was pretty brilliant, I thought.

The ginger he brought back was nice- no blemishes and nice and juicy.  I weighed it: six ounces.  I peeled it with a spoon, which is the absolutely easiest way to peel ginger.  Then I sliced it all up as thinly as I could and set it to boil with a gallon of water (sixteen cups).  I also threw in one star anise, one clove, and the seeds and scraped half of a vanilla pod.  It takes awhile for that much liquid to come to a boil, but it finally did and then I boiled it for maybe ten minutes.

The dark simple syrup was added to the ginger water and boiled for a minute or so, and then the whole thing was ladled through a fine mesh strainer and funnel into a gallon jug to cool.   What didn't fit in the jug was put back in the big glass batter bowl.

At this point I should probably admit that I wasn't using a recipe, and from this point on was relying heavily on Steve's brewing experience.  He also bottled beer the day before, so there was still a large bowl of sanitizing liquid on the counter.   Star-san is a couple of acids that sanitize brewing equipment, and doesn't need to be rinsed out of, or off your equipment.  I used it for sanitizing ladles, and funnels, and fine mesh strainers, etc.

To a quarter cup of filtered water (we don't have spring water running from the tap), I added a quarter teaspoon of baking yeast. Steve says that baking yeast is the same strain of yeast that is used for ales, but the difference between baking yeast and ale yeast is that they've been selected (as in horticultural selection) for different jobs. It bloomed, and because the ginger ale hadn't cooled enough yet, I added a gravy ladle full of the ginger ale to the yeast to feed it.  Once the ginger ale cooled into the eighties, I pitched the yeast and stirred it into the ginger ale.

I bottled it in flip top beer bottles right away (Steve had some clean ones leftover from the day before's bottling), and left it on the counter to start carbonating the ginger ale overnight.

Bitten by the homemade soda bug, I started researching root beer the next morning, and this is where I scared myself.  Most home soda makers bottle in plastic bottles because it's too easy to have a glass soda bottle explode and become extremely dangerous. One fellow said he came home to find his glass bottles had exploded and shards of glass were imbedded in the walls at eye height.  Also, most home soda bottlers don't leave it at room temperature longer than twelve hours; I was past that by several hours and in glass, so I quickly and gingerly (no pun intended) put all the bottles away in the refrigerator.  You may be wondering why the danger with soda and not so much with beer.  At the point beer is bottled, the yeast are pretty much dormant because they've eaten all the sugar in the malt in the beer.  The beer gets bottled with a controlled amount of sugar, a teaspoon, and the yeast wake up again and eat that sugar creating bubbles.  They're done when the teaspoon of sugar is all gone.  In soda, you have a great deal more sugar, and the yeast will go nuts at room temperature.  If left out long enough, they'll keep eating and producing gas to the point of explosion.  The trick with soda making is to let them eat enough sugar to create the right amount of bubbles and very little alcohol, leaving most of the soda sweet, and then get the bottles cold quickly to make the yeast go dormant again.  One of the things that I also learned in my research was that a quarter teaspoon was about twice what I needed, and then I'd further grown my yeast prior to pitching by feeding it.  So I was very nervous about my ginger ale.

We tried the first bottle yesterday.  With both of us wearing safety goggles, I held a clear proofing bucket over the bottle over the kitchen sink, while Steve pushed open the flip top. I'd have taken a picture of it, but both our hands were full.  It went poof! But he's opened beers that made more noise than that. Actually, when Steve opens a flip top of beer, it usually sounds like a champagne bottle.  As you can see, the bubbles were pretty perfect.  The effervescence was just right, however the soda was a little sweet, and there was an odd, faintly sulfurous bouquet to it.  All in all, it was still pretty good and had a nice, lingering, gingery bite.  We are going to share one of these a day until they are all gone, which should be in a little over a week, since I had enough for eight bottles.

I think I ought to wait until all the soda is gone before I decide to do this again, but I'm pretty sure that I will.  The next time, I will not make it quite so sweet, and I'll use less yeast, more like an eighth of a teaspoon, and I'll use a proper ale yeast and not baking yeast.  I would also use vanilla extract at the end, rather than using the bean, because I had to filter against those tiny little seeds to keep them out of the beer bottles.  The whole process has me intrigued though, and I'm researching root beer from scratch, which is fairly difficult, because the FDA has taken sassafras out of the consumer loop due to the presence of safrole in it which is a carcinogen.   Well, it is for lab rats; you'd have to drink like fifty root beers a day to have it start being a problem, but I think the ensuing obesity-related diseases or diabetes would probably get you first.  One fellow said that his grandmother had a cup of sassafras tea every day and lived to be eighty-nine, and did not die of cancer.  I'll have to come up with a recipe that doesn't use it though, because I probably will not be able to get my hands on it; I can't buy it and I don't live in the right part of the country where it grows wild.

Once I have a recipe for ginger ale that works and a process that's not so scary, I'll post about it again, if you want to try it at your own risk.

The limoncello?  It was a complete success, and I'll post about that another time.

11 comments:

Rae said...

Sounds tasty! Can't believe you did it without a recipe! Well, truthfully, I can believe it. Very cool!

Paula said...

Thanks Rae. Yeah, I do a lot of things by the seat of my pants, which is not always a good thing....

becky3086 said...

I have been messing around with soda lately too, but have to say that it all has a really yeasty flavor to me that I don't like. However one day having nothing to drink I put some of the root beer in some glass bottles and took it to work. After the rebottling, it tasted so much better so I may rebottle to glass from now on and just make sure to not get the stuff on the bottom. By the way, I tried to make orange soda with orange extract, it changes it somehow, gets little solid bits in it and does not ferment. I have tried it twice now.

Paula said...

Hi Becky- Steve usually pours and he's used to not emptying the bottle because of the yeast sediment, but decanting it into different bottles sounds like a very good idea. How much yeast are you using?

So are you saying that when you make orange soda with the extract, you can't get it to make bubbles?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand.com said...

Nice work! The one time I tried soda (root beer), I left the yeast doing their thing WAY too long and they ate WAY too much of the sugar. The root beer tasted like medicine.

Next time, I'm taking the coward's way out -- I'll make the syrup, and just use seltzer.

Miriam said...

Aren't you clever? (Well, I already knew that!) I am always admiring of people who aren't afraid to experiment in the kitchen - I don't seem to be much good without a recipe, myself...

Paula said...

Thanks Tamar. I have a root beer recipe for using with soda water, if you want it. I haven't tried it, but thought I'd start there.

Not really, Miriam. My experiments frequently are born of being too lazy to follow a recipe....sometimes I hit, sometimes I miss.

Diane said...

I have made many batches of sima from the Time-Life Scandinavian cookbook (70's?). Lemons and sugar steeped in boiling water, yeast added when cool enough, bottled the next day with a bit of sugar and raisins. Refrigerated after the raisins rise, about 2 to 3 days. I have only ever had one explode because I left it on the counter too long in hot weather. I also winged a root beer from scratch many years ago which popped its tops, the kind with bails and rubber gaskets. The survivors were delicious, though.
And we have sassafras trees all over the place including in my yard. Maybe I'll have a go again.

Paula said...

Honestly Diane, I think going forward I'll make syrups and we'll add fizzy water. The ginger ale is still good every time we have it, but the yeast settled out, and since we're keeping them on their sides, it's kind of iffy.

Swamp Thing said...

Took me two tries - I love it! But you must keep it refrigerated!

http://rivermud.blogspot.com/search/label/ginger%20beer

Heidianne said...

Yum! I want to try that! We brew up hard cider every fall, and some of this years batch ended up spraying itself all over the utility room, the cats, and my hubby when he went to see what the hissing sound was..One of the cornelius cans was about to blow! So Hubby pressed the release valve and I spent all morning cleaning sticky brown cider off of everything...fun..Safety glasses are always a good thing when brewing.I find.