Ginger Kefir / Beer

April 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while! I’ve spent this whole time playing with my water kefir. It’s been growing slowly but steadily, maybe tripled in volume in two months. Lena has made nut cheese with some of the spare grains which turned out pretty good too!

My cycle at the moment uses two jars. Every two days tip out the liquids, but save a bit of the jar that smells/tastes better. Split this liquid between the two jars, fill each with water and add brown sugar (2-3tsp). This leaves room for experimentation. After a week the jars build up quite a bit of gunk, so I strain out the grains, put them in new jars with fresh water and add more nutrients and lemon. Some notes:

Time: It might be due to the heat here, but after more than two days the kefir starts to get distinctly vinegary and sometimes develops what looks like a vinegar mother. If the acetobacter seems to be taking over, adding musty fruit like sultanas seems to give it the yeast to balance it back out.

Nutrients: Calcium seems to be quite important. Dried figs work well – possibly too well since it just speeds up the process and you have to change the water sooner before it gets funky. Brown sugar or raw sugar with a bit of molasses keeps it going most of the time.

Ginger I try to keep some form of ginger in there so the culture gets accustomed to it. Powder works fine, but fresh ginger juice is tastier. I’ve found young ginger (soft, light colour) doesn’t yield as much juice but tastes better post-fermentation. To juice, peel with a spoon, grate it and mix with some sugar. After 10 minutes or so the juice can be mashed, squeezed or pressed out with a spoon.

I’ve tried three ginger beer brews using the kefir liquid. The first two were a lot like the ginger bug – overbearingly lactic.  Since then the kefir has gotten better, perhaps due to the cooler weather? The most recent brew I used my housemate Drea’s new super juicer, HEAPS of ginger and yarrow to hinder the lactobacillus (kudos to Home Brew Root Beer Blog for the idea).

1.25L brew
2 young ginger rhizomes
1tbsp allspice
4tbsp chrysanthemum flowers
2tbsp yarrow
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp tartaric acid
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup kefir liquid

Fancy juicer w/ kefir jar

Ginger beer w/ yeasty sediment

Straining the ginger beer. Still cloudy...

The juicer makes things super quick and pumps out a lot of ginger (though cloudy, but I don’t mind!). I had to add some sugar and kefir a couple times before it started to ferment. Perhaps the yarrow was working too well? I tried the rice malt trick again but I don’t think it worked. That aside, this ginger beer went down pretty well! It’s pretty dry but super spicy, almost throat-burny. It’s a little thick, like cloudy apple juice. Housemates cited a bit of mediciney taste. I think a bit less ginger and we might be onto a winner.

Ginger Beer 0.1

February 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

The ginger bug seemed to work! In two jars I had the juice and pulp of two lemons, 2tsp grated old ginger root, 4tsp raw sugar and 2 cups cooled boiled water. Then I added 8 organic sultanas to one jar. The one with sultanas took off in 3 days, the other took 6. They both looked and smelt pleasant, with the solids floating on top amongst white foamy goo (note to self: need to invest in a new digital camera). I used the solids and half of the liquids from each to experiment with nutrients and feeding but no crystals magically formed. I used the other half of the liquid from each as the culture for a ginger beer:

1 grated young ginger rhizome
1tbsp allspice (whole)
3tbsp dried chrysanthemum flowers
1 vanilla bean pod
3/4 cup raw sugar
1/8tsp tartaric acid

Boiled for 15 minutes in a liter of water, cooled and strained into two 1.25L PET bottles. Added the cup of culture to each, topped up with water and airlocked. The sultana one took off quickly again. After the carbonation started to slow down I had a taste. Real tangy! I was really excited about the chrysanthemum but mostly it tasted like ginger and tang. I found a couple websites that suggested that maltase (the enzyme that breaks down maltose) is inactive in acidic environments, which this brew certainly is. So I added 1/3 cup of rice malt syrup to each to see how it would ferment, but it didn’t seem to have a problem. In fact, after sealing, refridgerating, opening, drinking some and putting it back in the fridge, it continued to carbonate! The brew wasn’t bad, but I figured it’s time to get some ginger beer plant.

After much research, I’ve decided ginger beer plant is the same thing as water kefir, tibicos, California bees, etc. Some good resources for this culture are Dom’s site, this FAQ, here and here. I bought some water kefir from someone in Geelong on Ebay, and am experimenting with it now!

Tangent 1

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

So there was a flood! I had a whole week at home waiting for work to become accessible again, which gave me lots of time to do think about brewing.

Tried the root beer recipe again and added a bit of star anise tea for more spicyness. This time the two batches had similar colours, I guess the caramel wasn’t heated as much this time.

The rice malt took off quicker again, and ate all of the sugar pretty quickly. After 36 hours it had slowed down and had no sweetness at all! Which suggests that the maltotriose is fermented easily and it’s not sweet anyway! There goes that idea.

The caramel went a lot slower and took a lot longer to get past the maximum carbonation rate. Have tried capping it a couple times, even with dextrose for rapid carbonation, but haven’t managed to get the bottle to firm up yet. Something in the caramel must really be inhibiting the yeast. The fact that there’s plenty of residual sweetness is promising, though.

I suppose you’re wondering what they taste like? Well, pretty unappealing really. I really should’ve looked up the meaning of “phenolic notes” in the Belgian yeast description. I believe those are the flavours dominating all of the root beer. I’m sure disinfectant and band-aid flavours go just great with beer, but leave them out of my beverage! To be fair, these flavours are apparently enhanced by too-warm fermentation. Did I mention it’s been effing hot here?? The bottles have been under the house in a bucket of water, with added ice every few hours in the day. This, however, still yielded temperatures ranging from 23-25 degrees.

Which brings me to the first tangent in this crusade: why use Belgian yeast in a Northern Australian climate? Surely there’s wild yeast strains here that enjoy these temperatures. This will sound very wishy-washy coming from someone with a science degree, but I feel like a happy yeast will produce a happy beverage. Also, harvesting wild yeast is inexpensive and fun!

Here’s what I’ve learned in my week off (actually, I’m digesting brewing information so much I’m virtually still on holidays!). Most fermentation agents from the wild are bacteria, most of which produce lactic acid (lactobacilii in yoghurt, kefir, etc) or acetic acid (acetobacter in vinegar). This would be fine for some drinks, but probably not root beer. However, some of these pair up with yeast in a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), popular examples being sourdough cultures, kefir grains, kombucha and ginger beer plant.

This last one really caught my attention, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding it. Ginger beer plant seems to be similar to kefir grains, but more gelatinous and comprised of different organisms, namely Saccharomyces florentinus and Lactobacillus hilgardii. It has a long history in England, with a week-long feeding ritual of ginger and sugar, after which the liquid is added to a brew and the plant is invariably divided in two I assume to prevent overpopulation. Recipes for a starter often include organic sultanas as a source of wild yeast and lemon juice (as a buffer?). What remains most mysterious is the role of ginger in all of this… I was also very excited to learn that the aforementioned S. Florentinus does not consume maltose, which is potent food for one of my irrational obsessions! I will now try my luck at plucking ginger beer plant out of the air.

Root Beer 0.1

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our scavenger hunt has so far yielded

Brewing kit from a local homebrew store: 20L carbuoy, airlock, bottle cleaner and sanitiser, dextrose, manual (hammer) bottle capper. Haunted by visions of slicing our hands open, getting a proper bottle capper is on my to-do list.

wild cherry bark

All of these seem to be widely available except for wild cherry, which we got from Rainbow Wholefoods during a daytrip to Lismore.

After some research, we found two good sources of non-fermentable sugar:
Rice malt syrup is approx. 50% maltose 50% maltotriose. The former is made of two glucose molecules, is easily digestible by yeast and is the primary sugar in most beers. The latter is made of three glucose molecules and is less digestible by most kinds of yeast. Maltotriose is an oligosaccharide (“few sugars”, defined as comprising 3-10 sugar monomers) which is what we are looking for.
Caramelised sugar: when sugar begins to burn and turn darker, it is forming longer sugar chains which produces the distinctive caramel taste. Lightly caramelised sugar should have some sweet oligosaccharides. If left too long, the sugar can become very bitter. We will use raw cane sugar (sucrose, which is 1 glucose and 1 fructose).

To make the sodas last longer, we need a yeast that is inactive at fridge temperatures. The highest temperature yeasts we could find are Belgian ale yeasts which are active at around 19-23C. Classy! We got a vial of White Labs‘ Belgian Wit Ale liquid yeast for $16 which is good for a 20L batch. Still fairly expensive for soda but we’ll see how it goes.

We don’t want to do a 20L test batch, so we saved a couple 1.25L PET bottles to test and compare the two sugars. We then got a funnel, 2 rubber stoppers and another airlock. Now we’re ready to go!

Test batch:
2tbsp sarsaparilla root
1tbsp licorice root
3tbsp wild cherry bark
2tsp burdock
3/4 cup raw sugar
3/4 cup rice malt syrup
5mL Belgian Wit yeast

This is a procedure we’ve adapted from various root beer recipes. Our notes in italics
1. Boil two pots each containing 1L water. Add half the roots to each pot.
2. Simmer 20 mins
3. Caramelise 1/2 cup sugar until it starts to go brown, then quickly add one of the pots. Add 1/2 cup rice malt syrup to the other pot.
4. Let steep 4 hours and taste. Should be more than sweet enough.
Both tasted really really bitter! Added 1/4 cup of each sweetener
5. Strain each pot into a sanitised 1.25L bottle, fill to 80% with cold water and add half the yeast to each. Close bottles and invert a couple times.
Yeast is quite hard to measure without a pipette. Very inexact.
6. Put stopper and airlock in each bottle and move into a cool dark place.

The caramel concoction is a lot darker than the rice malt one. We let them sit in a water bath to slow the temperature variation. Generally the temperature was around 24C.
The rice malt took about 6 hours to get the fine foam indicative of the yeast activating, then bubbled away for about 24 hours until it slowed down to almost nothing. After capping for 12 hours the bottle got firm and went to the fridge. Was slightly fizzy but didn’t foam or anything, could’ve been firmer I guess. The taste was kind of cidery and unpleasant. Down the sink it goes…
The caramel didn’t seem to activate so we added a bit more yeast. It then went basically as above, EXCEPT it tasted even worse! Really chemically. Down the sink it goes too…

We decided to test all the ingredients individually, which in retrospect we should’ve done before the test batch. We found the culprit: the wild cherry bark. It’s disgusting. Perhaps it’s black cherry bark we needed, or maybe it was off. Either way, it’s outta here! Time to do a batch without it.


January 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a blog to document attempts at homebrewing original drinks with yeast, starting with a root beer.

Root beer:
There are generally three major ingredients (plus water):

Roots: Standards include sassafras, sarsaparilla, burdock, wintergreen (apparently the dominant flavour in artificial root beer), birch and dandelion. Many of these have medicinal properties but also many are specific to the US. We would like to find local and native alternatives where possible.

Yeast: Mass-produced sodas are made with force carbonation instead of yeast, but that’s no fun. Fermentation has been used for all of human history and releases all kinds of wonderful tastes and nutritious compounds*, and conveniently it can also make drinks fizzy! Root beer usually doesn’t have enough yeast nutrient to make the alcohol volume more than 0.5%, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Something to experiment with.
*We highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, a compendium on the uses of fungi and bacteria for food and drink.

Sugar: Lots of it… It’s a given for sodas to be loaded with diabetes-inducing amounts of sugar, but does that make it ok? Do I want to be producing large amounts of something that is obviously bad for me? Here’s a chance to really make a different kind of soft drink. I’m not talking about artificial sweetener mind you! That is certainly not our vibe. A little about yeast-carbonated sodas…
Sugar has two uses in yeast soda. Some provides sweetness and yeast turns the rest into carbon dioxide resulting in a sweet, sparkling beverage. Any alcohol brewer can tell you that such a beverage (eg, champagne) is hard to produce. This is because after bottling, yeast will eat the sugar you allocated for sweetness and produce enough carbon dioxide to blow up the bottle. For champagne, it is eventually killed by the alcohol but even then a special bottle is still required! For yeast sodas, the generally accepted way to mitigate this is to use a plastic bottle, whack it in the fridge when it’s firm (i.e. carbonated enough) and consume it soon. Plastic bottles can only be reused a couple times and are generally quite unsatisfying, but beats shards of glass in the face.

So, an immediate goal is to make a naturally sweet soda that is good for you and has a long shelf-life …and is delicious. One method is to use two kinds of sugar: a fermentable sugar for carbonation (consumed by the yeast) and a non-fermentable sugar for sweetness (consumed, hopefully, by us and friends).