Real Ginger Ale

I’m really excited about this recipe. After three failed attempts at a potable ginger ale, I have finally found the method and ratio of ingredients that works for me. Now, I have previously posted how to cheat at making ginger ale, and that’s a fine method to use if you’re in a hurry, unduly afraid of explosions, and/or like buying seltzer. I’ve taught myself patience by getting into fermentation (I make year-fermenting miso, I’m remarkably patient!), and I hate buying seltzer. It’s heavy to lug around and uses too much packaging. I even bought a soda siphon to try to make my own seltzer, but I had to go and buy an antique and it doesn’t work. (Sometimes my love of old things backfires on me.) Since I hate buying soda even more than I hate buying seltzer (it’s always sickeningly sweet), it eventually dawned on me I was going to have to do this right.

Before you follow this recipe exactly, you should probably know something of my tastes in soda, because I’m not sure if they are conventional. First of all, I’m proud to say I was raised right: I was only given soda on special occasions: usually birthdays and trips to visit grandparents, and I still consider soda a treat, not a daily beverage. Second of all, I don’t generally like most sodas. I despise diet soda of all kinds; I think it tastes like chemicals and I think it’s extremely bad for you. But I also hate sugary soda as well; it makes me feel like my teeth are rotting. Pretty much I only like ginger ale, birch beer, and high quality root beer, and even the latter two are sometimes too sweet for me. You may be wondering why I even bother with soda in the first place if I’m so hateful of it, but I do sometimes want something bubbly. Obviously the only solution is to make my own soda and control the sugar. So the first thing to know about my ginger ale is it’s not very sweet.

The next thing to know about my ginger ale is it’s definitely an “ale” and not a ginger beer. I’m not sure why, because generally I like everything in its most potent form: red wine over white, dark beer over light, intense, spicy foods over subtle, delicate foods – and I love ginger – but I don’t like ginger beer; it’s too strong. So my ginger ale is not overly gingery or spicy. It DOES taste a heck of a lot more like ginger than Canada Dry or Scheweppes, though, neither of which I think even contain ginger.

It’s also a bit tart. When I first tasted it, I thought maybe I used too much lemon juice, but now I’m positively addicted to this stuff so I must like it tart. I think the lemon adds to its intense refreshing quality. But I don’t know, some people who are used to sugary soda might find it surprising upon first tasting it.

Anyway, on with the recipe. I scoured the internet for recipes, and the ingredients are pretty much the same in all of them, though the method varies, so there’s no one I really attribute this too, however I tested the methods and proportions of all the ingredients several times before coming up with what I found satisfactory, and this is it:

Ginger Ale

scant 1 cup sugar (any kind will work: white, brown, agave nectar)
9 cups warm water, separated
4 – 6 oz fresh ginger, chopped (depending on your love of ginger)
juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (I use an entire lemon and the result is fairly tart)
1/8 tsp champagne yeast (from a brewing supply store)*

* About the yeast: several sources, including Alton Brown, say you can use bread yeast. I tried this once a couple of years ago and the result was so nasty it turned me off from trying to make my own soda again for over a year. So try it at your own risk: I’m perfectly willing to believe I did something wrong that time. I ordered champagne yeast – as well as birch and root beer extracts and empty bottles from Jay’s Brewing and they were great.

Chop or slice the ginger. There is no need to peel it.

I pureed the ginger for one batch and the result was so strong I couldn’t tolerate it. This method is much easier and tastier, to me.

Put the sugar and one cup of the water in a small saucepan and heat over medium high heat, stirring. Add the ginger slices.

Juice the lemon and add the juice to the pot. Don’t worry about the seeds; you’ll be straining the mixture later.

Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, sterilize your bottles. The easiest way to do this is by running them through the dishwasher, but if its inconvenient to do a load, just boil them in a stockpot for 10 minutes. As I mentioned, I got my bottles at Jay’s Brewing. This recipe is scaled to make 4 16-ounce bottles.

Most web sites I visited recommended newbies use plastic two-liter soda bottles, due to the possibility of glass exploding. One charming character trait of mine, though, is I never do things the easy way. For one thing, using a plastic two-liter soda bottle would involve buying and drinking two liters of soda: gross! For another, apparently sterilizing plastic involves bleach: scary! I want to make you very aware, however, that the possibility of explosions is very real. It happened to me the first time I made a batch of root beer.

When the ginger solution is finished steeping, let it cool for about 5-10 minutes (you don’t want it to be so hot it kills the yeast), then place the remaining 8 cups of water into a large pot or bowl. Whisk in the yeast, then pour in the ginger solution through a strainer.

Pour the soda into the bottles through a funnel, whisking it before each addition to keep the yeast evenly distributed. Important!: Make sure about an inch and a half of air remains at the top of the bottle, or you’re guaranteed an explosion. (You don’t want to leave too much air, though, or the soda will be flat.)

When all the bottles are full, seal them tightly.

Now, after my explosion event, I am very careful and I stick my bottles in a plastic bag in the laundry room. I sincerely suggest you do the same. So far I haven’t had any more explosions, but if I do, it will be contained.

Let the bottles sit for 48 hours, then move to the refrigerator and chill for at least 24 hours before drinking. Note that there will be some sediment in the bottom of the bottle. This is normal. If your pour the soda from the bottle fairly carefully, it will stay at the bottom and won’t go in your glass. It’s harmless if it does, though. Open the bottles very carefully! I’d do it – at least the first of the batch – outside or over a sink as it’s hard to gauge how carbonated they are. My last unsuccessful batch foamed so much upon opening that only a few ounces were left in the bottle!

It’s particularly picturesque with a slice of lime!

By the way, if a cup of sugar (I actually use slightly less) seems like a lot to you, you should be aware that the yeast entirely consumes 1/3 of it. That means that after fermentation, each 16 ounce bottle contains 2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Which means one bottle is still a source of your daily sugar intake that you should be aware of, but it’s far, far less than the average soda. One of these days, I’m going to try to substitute some of the sugar with stevia, but honestly, I don’t consume that much sugar from other sources and I’m so pleased with the way this tastes I’m wary of messing with it.

This was the perfect accompaniment to pho tonight, and when this next batch is ready, I’m going to try it with some whiskey and see how it mixes.

I hope my talk of explosions and foaming didn’t put you off making your own soda. You do need to be aware of the risks, but it’s really a surprisingly quick and easy – and very cheap – procedure and I found it very rewarding. The only downside is I don’t think I can ever drink store-bought soda again. And I’m kicking myself for not making this batch sooner because I drank my last bottle of the previous batch tonight and I can’t wait for more!

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Quick and Easy Ginger Ale

I hope everyone has had a great holiday season, regardless of the holiday you choose to celebrate. Myself, I have been sick since Christmas evening, when the “too much sugar” diagnosis I gave myself in the car on the way home from the parental homestead turned out to be wrong, or more likely, not the full story, and now I have a full-blown something-or-other that is not going away. I haven’t been sick in years, so I was a little surprised by this. For nearly a week, I’ve been lying around the house doing nothing but reading. Fortunately, my aunt gave me a bunch of books for Christmas that have kept me busy, including two cookbooks (Vegan Planet, which I feel like I should have had for years and Real Food Daily), although it has been frustrating to lack the energy or the appetite to make any of the 40 or so things I’ve marked in both of the cookbooks. (I have managed to make the mac and cheese and the veggie quinoa soup from RFD, both of which were good; Mark really liked the mac and cheese.)

One of the few times I crave soda is when I am sick. I usually like either water or wine with my meals, and water throughout the day. Most soda disgusts me. I used to like Coke as much as the next person, but now I really only like ginger ale (and birch beer, which is very hard to find for some reason). And it has to be real ginger ale, with actual ginger in it. And it can’t be overly sweet. Mark got me this Grown-Up Soda ginger ale, which I like, to help me feel better, and that was great while the 4-pack lasted. But since I was feeling well enough yesterday to finally make it to the grocery store and pick up some seltzer water, I decided I’d make my own ginger ale, which I like even better, today.

I’ve been making this for a while and I think it is the perfect soda. Others seem to like it as well, although it’s definitely tailored to my tastes and is not nearly as sweet as people may be expecting when I offer them a “soda”. But this is only a basic formula: you can certainly add more sweetener if you prefer. The only downside to it, that I can see, is that currently I still have to buy seltzer in bottles because the antique seltzer bottle I found still doesn’t work, even after I got the missing part. I think I need to replace a gasket or something. It’s on my list of things to do. I once tried carbonating on my own with yeast and that was…bad. So bottled seltzer it is for now.

I’ve made the vanilla optional because you should only use it if you have access to Trader Joe’s brand vanilla, which is alcohol-free. You may be able to substitute vanilla paste or whole vanilla beans, although I don’t know the quantities you’d use for either. What you don’t want to do is use an alcohol-based vanilla extract. I tried it once and it was NASTY, and it wasn’t because I have anything against alcohol, because trust me, I don’t.

Quick and Easy Ginger Ale

3 cups water
1 piece of fresh ginger, about 4.5 – 5 ounces
1 cup agave nectar
2 1/2 Tbsp non-alcohol based vanilla flavoring (such as Trader Joe’s) (optional)

Roughly chop the ginger. You don’t have to peel it.

Place in a pot with the water. Begin heating over medium-high heat.

Measure the agave nectar …

… and add to the pot, as well as the vanilla flavoring if using.

Bring to a fairly rapid boil.

Reduce heat somewhat so the boiling doesn’t get out of control and let cook at a steady simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes or until reduced by about one third.

Get a strainer and a receptacle ready …

… and strain the contents of the pot into the receptacle.

Don’t throw away the leftover ginger; you can use it again – more on that in a bit.

You should have about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of ginger syrup.

Transfer to a refrigerator-friendly container. I don’t like plastic, but it’s all I had and was the perfect size…

Store the syrup in the refrigerator until you are ready to make a glass of ginger ale. To prepare a glass of ginger ale, place some ice cubes in a glass. I used a lot here because the syrup was still warm.

Add 1/4 – 1/3 cup of the ginger syrup.

Top off with seltzer water.


Garnish with a lime round if you’d like. I only had lemons. Limes are much more picturesque.

And enjoy! As for the leftover ginger pieces, as I mentioned you can re-use them. What I will do with them today is make ginger tea, which I like all of the time, but particularly when I’m not feeling well. I’ll just simmer the ginger pieces in about a cup and a half of water, with some agave nectar to taste, for about 15 minutes, then strain and drink as a tea, perhaps with some lemon.

Mark and I have a long-standing tradition in which one of us is always sick on New Year’s Eve. In our early years together, it was always me, because my body would revolt at the end of a semester of working full-time, going to school nearly full-time, and commuting a few hours a day. Once I graduated, I never got sick again (until now), so in the following years it was Mark’s turn to end up sick for New Year’s for one reason or another. This year, I guess because I’ve been thinking about, and preparing for, going back to school, the illness pendulum has swung back towards me. I bought a bottle of champagne in case I made a miraculous recovery today, but since Mark doesn’t like champagne and I’ve been too sick to make plans with anyone else to share it with and I don’t think people who desperately want to stop being sick should necessarily drink an entire bottle of champagne by themselves, it looks like I may be having ginger ale at midnight. It’s better than water anyway!

And on that note, I’d like to wish everyone a very merry new year! I have some plans for revamping this site in the new year – at a minimum finding or creating a theme that displays all the tags I’ve been meticulously applying to each post and which you can’t see. I hope 2009 finds you all happy and well-fed!

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