Homemade ginger beer. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade ginger beer. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

To make naturally fermented ginger beer, you’ll first need to make a ginger “bug” out of grated ginger and sugar. Photo: Kate Williams
To make naturally fermented ginger beer, you’ll first need to make a ginger “bug” out of grated ginger and sugar. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

I use a coarse grater to grate ginger, peel and all. Photo: Kate Williams
I use a coarse grater to grate ginger, peel and all. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

Fully fermented ginger bug. Photo: Kate Williams
Fully fermented ginger bug. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

 To finish brewing the ginger beer, you’ll need more sugar and ginger, plus a couple of lemons for acidity. Photo: Kate Williams
To finish brewing the ginger beer, you’ll need more sugar and ginger, plus a couple of lemons for acidity. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

Strain the ginger bug through a fine mesh strainer into the cooked ginger mixture. You’ll know its good to use when you see bubbles on the surface. Photo: Kate Williams
Strain the ginger bug through a fine mesh strainer into the cooked ginger mixture. You’ll know its good to use when you see bubbles on the surface. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

I like to use a mix of recycled bail-top bottles and plastic soda bottles to bottle my ginger beer. You can also purchase new bottles at brew shops. Photo: Kate Williams
I like to use a mix of recycled bail-top bottles and plastic soda bottles to bottle my ginger beer. You can also purchase new bottles at brew shops. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

Homemade ginger beer on ice is a perfect afternoon treat. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade ginger beer on ice is a perfect afternoon treat. Photo: Kate Williams

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.

    Ingredients:

  • 6–10 inches fresh ginger
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • Distilled water (or boiled and cooled tap water)
  • 2 lemons
  • Ice
    Equipment:

  • 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
  • Small funnel
  • Large pot
  • Fine mesh strainer
    Instructions:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Transfer fully fermented ginger beer to the fridge to chill completely before opening.
  • Ethan

    Hi Kate,
    I am also a fan of ginger beer, and I like how straight forwardly you have laid out this guide.
    A couple of questions:
    when you add the lemon rinds, do you peel or micro plane the rinds or just add the lemon halves with the remaining pulp? And is there an alcohol content resultant from this technique? If there is, how would one go about removing it?

    Thank you!

    • williaka

      Hi Ethan,

      Thanks for the questions! I throw the whole lemon halves into the pot with the grated ginger — it’s easiest that way 🙂
      As far as the alcohol content goes, I did not test it, so I can not be sure of the exact percentage. I can tell you from experience that it is very low. However, if you would like to test for alcohol, you’ll need to use a hydrometer (they’re available at brewing shops). To use it, take a measurement of the ginger beer mixture before it’s bottled as well as after it has finished fermenting in the bottle. Subtract the second reading from the first, and you’ve got your alcohol percentage. It will likely be very low.
      If you’re very concerned about the alcohol content, I’d suggest skipping this recipe, and try making ginger ale by mixing a concentrated ginger simple syrup with seltzer water. It won’t be exactly the same, but it’ll still be gingery and fizzy and delicious!

      Good luck!
      Kate

      • Michael Kurtz

        How do I raise the alcohol content

        • williaka

          Hi Michael,

          I haven’t tried to make the ginger beer noticeably alcoholic, but I think what you’d need to do is to go up on the sugar (more food for the yeast to turn to alcohol). Then you’ll want to let the mixture ferment longer. I’d probably bottle the ginger beer in a large bottle or jar with an airlock so that the carbon dioxide can escape. It’ll probably need to ferment for at least 10 days. Then I’d re-bottle it with a little extra sugar in smaller, capped bottles to carbonate.

          This is just a guess, though! Maybe try looking at some DIY beer recipes and adapt this to look more like those recipes!

          Kate

          • Michael Kurtz

            thanks I’ll try that

          • Andrew

            Try a different yeast, like bread or Brewers yeast. I’m not sure this natural yeast will be able to handle the toxicity of the high alcohol content.

          • Alex Leslie

            I’ve been doing this for about 5 years, and the natural yeast gives mixed results. If you’re canning/bottling in glass, skip the natural yeast or you’re likely to create “bottle bombs.” These are nasty to clean up, and glass can potentially get everywhere. If you leave the natural yeast too long, it can give a bad flavor and ruin the batch.

            It’s much better to use a champagne yeast to make your plant/bug, because you get reliable results, and can more easily predict your sweetness. The last batch I made was with no primary fermentation, carbonate in bottle. This current batch is a short (3 days) primary fermentation, and instead of starting the batch by boiling the ginger , and the sugar/syrup, I dissolved raw brown sugar and put the ginger through a juicer after peeling it to make a completely raw batch. I used 2 lbs of ginger, 4 gallons of water, and 4 pounds brown sugar, with two large lemons (and 1/4 of a lemon peel), and two granny smith apples. I’ll be bottling them in 12 oz beer bottles and hand capping.

            with 4 lbs of sugar (the brew totals 5 gallons), the theoretical alcohol content is about 7% if it all ferments. In reality, it will be about 2%, because I intend to keep it relatively sweet.

  • Karen G

    Thanks for this recipe, Kate. I’ve just started my first ginger bug!

    I have a question about bottles: what is the significance of using bail-top bottles (if not bottling in a plastic 1-2 liter)?

    • williaka

      Hi Karen,

      I prefer using bail-top bottles over beer bottles with a permanent cap because they make it easier to monitor the progress of the carbonation. (It’s easy to open up a bottle and then re-cap if you want it to carbonate longer.)

      If you can’t find bail-top bottles and don’t want to use plastic, I’d suggest using glass canning jars.

      Of course, you *can* use beer bottles and cap them if you’d like — you’ll just have to drink your tester 🙂

      Have fun!
      Kate

      • Karen G

        Thank you!

      • elizabeth clark

        I get my bail-top bottles from Aldis, they have a french sparking lemonade in them that is really good. My Aldis currently has these and a pumpkin cider that is in an amber bail-top bottle (not that fond of the cider but love the bottle). These are only about $2.50 each which is well worth it for the bottle alone imo.
        I’m excited to start my bug though and try this!

  • Gary Woods

    Should there be a type of residue once you bottle it? Is this the white substance that your suppose to let get into the bowl before bottling?

    • Daniel Alan Snead

      You’ve quite likely already figured this out by now, but for the sake of others with the same question, this is most likely flocculated (settled) yeast that did its job and then went into hibernation at the bottom of the bottle. This also happens in home-brewed beer as well as certain commercially available beers. You can choose to either leave the last bit of liquid in the bottle, which will look better, or you can drink the whole thing, which will be the healthier of the two options.

  • I love this recipe — but am not crazy about lemons, so used limes in my second batch, Perfect!

  • Prewitt Family

    Do you think one could stir the ginger bug, then only pour about half of it in with the rest of the brew in order to save the culture and add more sugar/water/ginger so the next brew won’t take as long to get started? (I’m thinking like a sourdough starter)
    I’m trying to read as much about ginger beer as I can before I get started… there’s a great deal of information out there! Yours is quite unique and I like it!

    • williaka

      I don’t see why you couldn’t save some of the ginger bug. Sounds like a smart idea to me!

  • So, I found this recipe AFTER I started my ginger bug with a recipe from wellnessmama’s website. Can you share with me a recipe for JUST the ginger beer? I don’t have sugar “left over” because that isn’t how I did it. Also, I saw one recipe where some mint was added to the boil. Any ideas about adding mint? Finally, I am only doing a test with a 2 bottle brew today. I want to make sure my ginger bug does its job and that I like the result before I bottle a whole gallons worth. SO….rather than pouring my WHOLE gingerbug through a strainer and into my mixture, how much should I use?

    • williaka

      Hi Emily,

      Here’s what I would do — Follow my recipe starting at step 3, using 3/4 of a cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar. I don’t know how much of the ginger bug you should use for two bottles, but you should be able to just pour the entire amount through the strainer (per the recipe) and then keep the solids for another batch. It’ll be more than you need but it shouldn’t hurt anything. You can reserve the strained solids for another batch (mix it with water and 1 teaspoon sugar and keep it at room temperature). Also, yes! Mint sounds like a great idea to me.

      • Mirjam H.

        How long would the strained solid stay well? Do you have to take care of it at all (refresh the water, add more sugar)? Does it need to ‘breath’ or should it be covered with a lid, when you’re not actively brewing a ginger bug?

        • williaka

          Think about the ginger bug like a sourdough starter — you’ll want to add clean distilled water to the strained solid and then continue to feed it sugar and ginger. If you want to make soda regularly, keep the ginger bug at room temperature, covered with cheesecloth, and feed it as directed in step 2 of the recipe above. If you want to keep it for long-term storage, cover it with water and a lid and refrigerate. Feed it 1 teaspoon of sugar and ginger every week or so. Remove the bug from the fridge a couple of days before you want to use it and feed it at least once or twice before proceeding with the recipe.

          • Mirjam H.

            Thank you! Very helpful! I’ll be out of town for a month and can’t take the ginger bug with me (..not sure about finding a ginger-bug sitter ;)) So I’ll leave it covered in the fridge with water and some sugar, and see if it keeps (without being fed for a month) …if not, I can always start over. It wasn’t that much work to start the ginger bug. I like your recipe!

  • Sick_Pleasure

    Chlorine is removed by boiling or agitation or sitting out. Most municipal water systems use chloramines which are much more difficult to remove.

  • Jonathan Trang

    Hi Kate, Is your “ginger bug” the same as a “ginger beer plant (gbp)”?

  • Charlene Jacob

    I’m wondering, wouldn’t the ice contain chlorine?

  • Maricela Hinojosa

    I’ve been trying to make a ginger bug that ferments, but after my second try I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong since I have not had success. I have been using tap water since I thought our home filtration system eliminates the chlorine. So, I am going to try distilled in hopes of getting it to ferment and finally make soda. My question is, most recipes call for 1 tbsp. of each sugar and ginger, why do you suggest using 1 tsp. instead?

    • Bunghole Stench

      Use organic ginger. I usually stop feeding it around day four and give it time to catch up. I think you could even add a weeks worth at once and then just stir it twice a day. My current bug took about 10 days to get fizzy and foamy on top. I also use turbinado sugar.

      • Dilworthdude Charlotte

        Bunghole Stench,
        I like your advice but more importantly, you have the coolest user name I’ve seen in a very long time! I Sweet!
        Now I’ve got to think of a username that is cool as well! My compliments!
        Mark Charlotte

        • Bunghole Stench

          Thanks man. How about the avatar?! Now that I’ve been doing this a while, I don’t add much ginger at all. I add maybe a Tablespoon a week and probably about 2-3 TBL of sugar and that seems to be plenty. If you have a juicer and use it for ginger you can throw the pulp in. My favorite recipe right now is the juice of 3 lemons, 4 limes, 2 habanero peppers to 1 gallon water and 1 cup bug. Happy brewing!!

          • Max’s Human

            Wow, I didn’t even see the avatar! You’re just a Bunghole full of fun! I don’t think I’ll even try to match your wit!
            Thanks for the response and keep the fun coming!
            Max’s Human
            Charlotte

Author

Kate Williams

Kate Williams grew up outside of Atlanta, where twenty-pound baskets of peaches were an end-of-summer tradition. After spending time in Boston developing recipes for America's Test Kitchen and pretending to be a New Englander, she moved to sunny Berkeley. Here she works as a personal chef and food writer, covering topics ranging from taco trucks to modernist cookbooks. In addition to KQED's Bay Area Bites, Kate's work appears on Serious Eats, Berkeleyside NOSH, The Oxford American, America's Test Kitchen cookbooks, and Food52.

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