Ginger is a superfood that has been enjoying a great deal of popularity recently. It is a close relative of turmeric, which is another food superstar. The two are often combined in recipes for healthy drinks like golden milk or smoothies. Ginger tea is a classic way to enjoy the health benefits of ginger, and I do enjoy a hot cup on a cold winter’s night. But in summer, my ginger drink is ginger beer.
When I was a young student, many of my classmates were adult learners who came from the Caribbean. I was fortunate to have been taken under the wing of a couple of these lovely ladies when it came to their delicious cuisine. One lady from Jamaica taught me how to make an authentic ginger beer, and I’ve followed her method ever since.
What is Ginger Beer?
If you’ve never had ginger beer, it’s tough to describe it to you. It’s a sweet, spicy, pungent drink – much hotter than any ginger tea you’ve probably had. You can buy it bottled from a West Indian grocery or similar import shop if you want to try it. We recently discovered that President’s Choice also has a carbonated ginger beer. You can get it in Loblaws, Extra Foods, and related stores in a 2-liter bottle. It’s not quite as good as the West Indian stuff that comes in the little brown bottles. But it has a nice bite to it, and it’s great for a sore throat! I nursed my last case of the flu with a big bottle of PC ginger beer.
Although the word “beer” is used in the name of this beverage, it’s usually non-alcoholic. It’s like a strongly flavoured ginger ale. It’s sweet but spicy. The heat of ginger beer comes from the gingerols in the fresh ginger root. These chemicals are related to the capsaicin that makes chili pepper hot and the piperine that gives black pepper its pungency.
Why is Ginger Beer Spicy?
Gingerols are transformed when ginger is cooked and the gingerol content is lowered when fresh ginger root is dried. So using fresh ginger that is only infused in hot water briefly gives ginger beer a different taste from gingerbread or foods that are cooked with ginger. It retains its bite and you’ll definitely feel the warmth in your mouth. But served cool in the summer, ginger beer is cool and soothing like lemonade.
Homemade ginger beer made with fresh ginger root is a real treat, but very simple to make. Ginger is easy to find in any market; you won’t have to find a speciality store to try this wonderful Caribbean drink! Serve ginger beer warm or cold in winter. In summertime, refrigerate and serve it in a chilled glass with a lemon or lime wedge and a little ice.
Non-Alcoholic (or “Soft”) Ginger Beer Recipe
8-10 inches of fresh ginger root, peeled
juice of 2 limes
1 cup sugar, or to taste
about 4-6 cups boiling water
cool water to make 1 gallon
- A lot of recipes for ginger beer start with the grated root. Others use a juicer or blender to extract the juice from the fresh ginger root. But I was taught to mash the ginger roots with a heavy kitchen implement. It’s a good outlet for your frustrations! I like to use a marble pestle. A meat tenderizing hammer or a heavy rolling pin would work too. This step is just for the purpose of exposing the inside of the root, so you can extract more of its zippy flavour. This way, you don’t have to boil the root. Boiling would begin that transformation I mentioned above. It also tends to extract more of the bitter compounds than if you infuse your ingredients in got water. Infusing the mashed root gives you a sweeter taste, and it’s less work than a lot of the other methods.
- Put the mashed up ginger root in the bottom of a large heat resistant jug or a teapot. Pour the boiling water over the ginger root. Cover with the lid or a clean dish towel, and let the brew steep in a warm place for about an hour.
- Strain the liquid through a tea strainer or a few layers of cheesecloth. Pour it into a gallon jug or divide it evenly between a couple of pitchers. Squeeze the mashed root to get all the flavour and liquid out of it. (I was actually told to leave the ginger in the jug if it’s not for a fancy occasion. That works just fine for me!)
- Stir in the lime juice. If you prefer, you can use lemon instead. I even found a recipe that suggested pineapple or even grapefruit juice for a slightly different taste. Use what you have on hand.
- Add the sugar a little at a time, stirring well to dissolve it. Taste a bit of the ginger beer after each addition. You can use more or less than the 1 cup, according to your tastes. Stir lots to be sure it’s well dissolved before you cool it down.
- Add cool water to make up one gallon total. Refrigerate, covered, overnight or a few hours until the ginger beer is cold. Serve chilled, over ice. Garnish with a wedge of lemon or lime.
Variations on Traditional Ginger Beer:
- To make a milder drink for children or adults who are sensitive to the spiciness of fresh ginger, reduce the amount of ginger root you use. You can also reduce the brewing time by up to half or add a little more water when you dilute the ginger infusion. This recipe was taught to me as more of a method. Everything is eyeballed and then confirmed by taste. So feel free to tweak!
- To serve the ginger beer hot, top up the ginger infusion with boiling water. Serve in a mug with a cinnamon stick.
- Apple ginger beer is wonderful around the holidays. Heat the water in a saucepan with a few cloves and a piece of star anise. Boil gently for five minutes with a lid on the pan, before pouring the water over the prepared ginger root. Substitute soft apple cider for up to 8 cups of the additional water. Serve cold or hot, with a splash of vanilla or rum and a pinch of nutmeg.
- If you like bubbles in your ginger beer, you can cut it with club soda and serve it chilled with ice. Make it stronger than you would normally if you plan to have a lot of bubbles in it.
- You can produce a carbonated ginger beer or a probiotic version using recipes that include instructions for fermentation. Both these types of ginger beer produce a bubbly soft drink over the course of several days or weeks, rather than a flat drink made in a few hours. Because fermentation can also produce a hard ginger beer that contains alcohol (and because some nasty microbes can get into your beverage if you don’t follow the right steps for fermentation and storage) it’s best to get a recipe specifically for these purposes. Follow the instructions to the letter to avoid unpleasant results.
The recipe and method used in this video below are slightly different, but you can see the principle is very similar. Each cook has her own recipe for ginger beer. And I’m sure once you’ve made it, you’ll be making it your own way too!
Jamaican ginger beer is a simple, non-alcoholic drink. If you like this simple homemade ginger recipe don’t forget to read also the health benefits of ginger.