In my local Indian food market, I recently came across a horn root. Shiny and fat, it appeared to have little nubs, or horns, protruding from the sides. It almost looked like exotic drift wood. “It could be a small animal,” I thought, “but it isn’t moving.” In my mind’s eye, I imagined it to be a giant snail with multiple heads, a rising star in a series of science-fiction flicks from plankton-alley on the other side of the Milky Way.
This root was actually a fresh ginger rhizome. Ginger can be peeled, then grated or sliced. Once harvested from the ground, it is washed. You can keep it for 3-4 months in an airtight bag in the fridge, or for about a year in the freezer, before it begins to lose its flavor.
Ginger is one of the oldest “spices” used by humankind. It is thought to be a native of South Asia and followed trade routes to Greece, eastern Africa, and eventually the Caribbean. The Ginger plant, Zingiber officinale, is a subtropical reed-like perennial with clusters of white or pink buds that bloom into yellow flowers. When the stalk dies back, the rhizome is harvested. In processing, it may be scalded to prevent further growth, or washed and scraped. Those you find in the store may still have the horns and outer skin on them, and can actually be cultivated.
Throughout history, ginger has woven its way into all forms of literature, touted for promoting spiritual well-being in Ayurvedic and Chinese chronicles. Hailed as a sexual tonic in the writings of Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, ginger may have been used as an aphrodisiac and was, undoubtedly, the first “Viagra.” Written between 50-70 A.D., Dioscorides’ text was used as an herbal reference for more than 1500 years. Who could argue with that kind of endurance?
Ginger Beer may have originated in England during the mid 18th century and grew in popularity, spreading to Canada and the United States, where production peaked two centuries later. According to Sanborn Brown, author of Wines and Beers of Old New England © 1978, Ginger Beer was the most popular style of beer prior to the introduction of lager in America. In fact, recipes that included nettle or dandelion were usually variations of Ginger Beer.
Although a few brewing companies still make Ginger Beer, it is a rarity in the craft beer world these days. Viewed as a refreshing Summer Seasonal, it is not generally marketed for winter consumption. Pity that, because ginger stimulates circulation and may have a warming effect for those who endure cold hands and feet in the winter months. In addition, the anti-inflammatory effects of ginger seem to give relief to those suffering from migraine headaches; good reasons to promote beer as a supplement to a healthy diet.
Traditional Ginger Beer is made with water, sugar, ginger, lemon juice and ginger beer plant. Ginger Beer Plant is not actually a plant, but a symbiotic white culture of different microorganisms. Although the make-up of these cultures varied from one household to another, they all seemed to have two components that facilitated the fermentation process: Saccharomyces florentinus (formerly called Saccharomyces pyriformis), a fungus, and Lactobacillus hilgardii (formerly called Brevibacterium vermiforme), a bacterium.
Since Ginger Beer was a homemade beverage, this Ginger Beer Plant propagated in a jar with the liquid which was siphoned off from time to time, bottled, allowed to ferment for a week, and enjoyed. Then new ingredients were added to the Ginger Beer Plant. As the Ginger Beer Plant grew, it would be halved and passed on to other members of the family. Today, brewers typically use brewers’ yeast, lactic acid bacteria, or tibicos to ferment Ginger Beer. They may also purchase products sold as Ginger Beer Plant, but these tend to be little more than yeast, since there are no regulations guarding this appellation.
The lemon juice in Ginger Beer was not merely a flavor enhancer, but created an acidic pH balance which facilitated sugar inversion and protected the culture from contamination. Other ingredients could be added for zest, including citrus peel, pepper, and zesty spices.
And what about Ginger Ale? In the United States, the term Ginger Ale generally refers to a non-alcoholic soft drink that has been force-carbonated and sweetened with sugar or artificial sweetener. Brewers who make ales with ginger are careful to label them as “Beer made with ginger,” or avoid the confusion with wording like “Ginger Pale Ale, Ginger and Cranberry Ale, Ginger 6,” or some other phrase that defines the beverage as alcoholic. Some examples are Good Juju (Ginger Ale) from Left Hand Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado; Ginger & Juice from Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Massachusetts (which appears to be Gluten free); Big Island Ginger Beer by Kona Brewing Company, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (on tap and in growlers only); or Ginger Beard by Wychwood Brewery Company Limited, Oxon, England, UK.
Rather than brewing in the traditional style of “Ginger Beer,” modern brewers prefer to use ginger as an ingredient in herbed/spice styles. This work-around is less limiting, ensuring a fuller flavor for those who have come to expect an assertive balance between malt and hops or herbs in their beer, but still want the flavor and benefits of ginger.
If you can’t find a true Ginger Beer in your region, simply add Ginger Ale to the lager or ale of your choice. Island dwellers call dat a Shandy, Mon! Mo’betta’.