A “ginger bug” is a natural soda “starter” you can easily make at home. In other words, like other fermented foods, it contains healthy bacteria and wild yeasts which convert sugars into things like acids, CO2, and alcohol.
In fact, alcohol in ginger bug sodas is negligible because of the short ferment times and limited sugars. On the other hand, you will find that a ginger bug soda will give commercial soft drinks more than just a run for their money when it comes to carbonation levels.
The ginger bug itself is a combination of ginger, sugar, and water. The healthy yeasts and bacteria on the ginger, as well as airborne yeasts which are incorporated into the ginger bug through contact, will cohabitate and proliferate as they consume the sugars added. The bug is therefore very much a kind of SCOBY, to use kombucha terminology (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast).
The bug can even be kept active for extended periods through routine sugar feedings (which is why it’s “alive” in a sense and can be called a bug). This liquid can be added to “worts” – sweetened and flavored liquids like teas and fruit juices to culminate in fizzy, gingery, sweet natural sodas.
Although there is some sugar in these drinks, unlike commercial sodas, you can limit the sugar, and you can add only the ingredients you want. This means the sodas are not only probiotic from the healthy bacteria they contain, but can also be made with only organic ingredients, and are a good source of vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients from the fruits (like berries) and other ingredients used.
This post is going to consist of two parts: 1.) making the ginger bug, and 2.) using the ginger bug to create a natural and healthy soda.
Let’s get started.
You will need: a quart jar; cheesecloth to cover (with a rubber band or the metal rim); wooden spoon; knife or grater or food processor to process the ginger
- 2 cups clean, filtered or distilled water
- 2 large ginger roots or “hands” (organic recommended)
- Sugar (in the first week you will use about 3/4 cup sugar)
Notes about sugar choice: Organic sugar to sweeten the wort is a great idea. However, when it comes to which sugar to use to start and feed your bug, in my discussions with and observation of others, there appears to be the most success through use of a variety of sugars, such as brown (which has molasses) and white. Perhaps to your surprise, unrefined, organic sugar is less easily consumed by the bacteria than refined white. That said, it’s good to be aware that the bug itself is a factory for converting sugars out and therefore you don’t really need to worry about empty calories from the bug or that the sugar type is one you normally might avoid. The bug itself is very low in calories, as the white sugar is just a fuel source consumed by the bacteria.
1.) In the jar, add the two cups water.
2.) Shred or finely chop two TBSP ginger root, and add to the water. If it’s organic (which is highly recommended), retain the peel. If you can’t find organic, remove the peel, as it can have additives which disrupt fermentation.
3.) Add 2 TBSP of your chosen sugar to the jar. With the wooden spoon mix it all thoroughly. Each time you finish with the spoon (or before you use it again), wash it thoroughly but make sure it’s not soapy or hot when it goes in the jar.
4.) Add the cheesecloth and metal rim, and store in a clean, room temperature environment.
5.) Each day for up to a week, add an extra 2 TBSP shredded ginger and a similar but slightly lower amount of sugar (e.g. 1 – 1.5 TBSP). Each time, mix the contents with the wooden spoon, and re-cover with cheesecloth or eventually move to a paper towel (with the metal rim as a fastener).
Notes: Most recipes out there call for equal proportions of sugar & ginger but I’ve seen so many reports of a stinky or failed bug, seemingly because the sugar level becomes too much for the bug to handle.
The bug doesn’t have to get super fizzy or bubbly to work (though many recipes make it sound like it does). If it does, that’s good… it’s a sign of good health and activity, but you could still get a very fizzy drink from a not-so-fizzy bug as long as it’s healthy. However, there should be some signs of life usually within 4-6 days: some bubbles, a yeasty smell (but certainly not a rotten or bad smell, which would be a bad sign), and if you’re using a paper towel to cover it, it may start to puff up a bit from the CO2 being released.
Usually after several days to a week (in some cases within even a couple days, and in other cases, beyond a week), you’re ready to take a portion of the ginger bug, add it to a bottle with your chosen wort, and allow it to ferment and get fizzy.
To keep your ginger bug going: Typically the ginger bug can be kept alive weeks to months or more. My current bug has been healthy for a couple years kept in the fridge. (When it no longer bubbles or shows any activity, becomes discolored and/or smells off, it’s time to start a new one).
To keep it alive and ready “on demand”, you will need to feed it every day, 1 tsp sugar. Periodically it’s also advised to add some fresh ginger.
If you only make soda periodically, you can also store it in the fridge (this is my preferred method), adding around 1 TBSP sugar per week (and periodically adding some fresh shredded ginger). When you’re ready to use it, take it out of the fridge, allow it to come to room temperature and add another 1 TBSP sugar (adding some fresh ginger here too is good). It will be ready by the next day.
Note! Whenever you remove the liquid from the bug, you need to replace that amount of water to maintain the volume of your ginger bug. It is also possible to increase how much culture you have by adding extra water, along with more sugar and ginger. I no longer rely on measuring anything; I merely feed a spoonful of sugar every week or two to my fridge-stored bug and it’s been alive and smelling great over two years.
To Make Your Own Wort You will need:
- A medium saucepan (if making your own wort with water, soft fruits like berries, and dissolved sugar) – I share one such recipes below
- Grolsch-style fliptop bottle (33.75 oz.) for fermenting and storing the soda
- 4-cup (one quart) measuring cup
- Bottling funnel
- Fine mesh strainer
Alternately, you can use store bought fruit juice or sweetened tea. This will eliminate the need for the saucepan and fine mesh strainer, and you won’t have to add more sugar (though it is an option). But you will still need to measure out 4 cups of liquid and it’s still advised to transfer it to your bottle using the funnel.
Another fantastic approach is to make your own juices for the wort using a juicer. Some fruits or veggies will work much better this way. Pulpy fruits like peaches result in a thicker bug with fruit foam at the top, even if you’ve taken efforts to strain it. (Doesn’t mean it’s not delicious, just good to be aware of.) But very juicy fruits like grapes and apples can make a good wort this way.
Berries, on the other hand, produce little juice in a juicer (and you thus end up needing to spend a lot of money on berries) and will work better boiled in water with sugar added. After the boil the liquid is strained out from the solids.
Although ginger works well when put through a juicer to make ginger-beer or ginger-ale style sodas, I’m going to provide a blackberry-ginger soda recipe (the featured picture above) that just requires grating the ginger and boiling it in the wort.
Blackberry – Ginger Beer (Non-Alcoholic)
- 4 cups filtered or distilled water
- 1/3 cup shredded ginger (about 40g); if you like a very strong ginger flavor, you can increase the amount – I would try around 50-75g (around 1/2 to 2/3 cup) and modify in future batches as needed
- 6oz. container of blackberries (or substitute with any other berry or a mix); omit the berries if you just want to make a regular ginger soda
- 1/2 – 2/3 cup sugar of choice (I use 1/2; use the higher end if you like a quite sweet soda, also noting that a small portion of the sugar will be lost in fermentation); organic sugar is a great option here
- 1/4 cup of strained ginger bug (liquid only)
1.) In the saucepan, add the water, sugar, ginger, and berries.
2.) Bring the mix to a boil while stirring occasionally. You can also mash the berries some. Then cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
3.) Uncover the pot. Stir the mix and, using the fine mesh strainer, strain into the quart measuring cup. Allow to cool until it comes to room temperature.
4.) Add the 1/4 cup strained ginger bug liquid to your fliptop bottle using the funnel.
5.) Now use the funnel to transfer the cooled wort to your fliptop bottle. Some funnels have a built-in strainer, and you can also use your fine mesh strainer (as shown in photo), as an additional means of clarifying your wort and reducing the sediments in it. (The more times you strain the wort, the nicer the final product.)
Note: It’s possible that not all of your wort will fit in the bottle, as you want to leave some room given the CO2 pressure that will build up. It’s recommended to limit the liquid to within two inches of the top. You can drink any excess, discard, or use for some other purpose.
6.) Close the fliptop lid, gently turn the bottle upside down so that the wort and bug are mixed, then let stand at room temperature, away from sunlight, usually for around three days for non-alcoholic sodas.
7.) After ~1-4 days (typically closest to 3), when carbonation appears very active in the bottle, place the bottle in your refrigerator and allow to stand overnight.
Refrigerated too early, and the ferment may not properly activate and carbonate. Grolsch-style fliptop bottles can withstand a lot of pressure so if you’re unsure you have sufficient carbonation, I’d wait a bit longer.
That’s it! After placing in the fridge, the ginger bug soda will be ready to drink the next day. A word of caution… there can be some serious pressure built up, possibly even if it appears inactive or only a few small bubbles up top. Open slowly, with some downward hand pressure on the fliptop, and consider doing it in your sink until you get the hang of things.