Our kitchen was like a mini-spa on a February day last winter: boiling water steamed up the windows and the sharp, seductive smell of fresh ginger wafted through the air. We were on a mission to make a home-brewed batch of ginger beer. As we peeled the ginger root from its beige, furry skin, the creamy yellow flesh began to pile up on the counter. A mountain of yellow and green rinds was soon added to the colorful mess as we juiced lemons and limes. We dumped everything into the pot of water, along with lemongrass and coriander, and dipped our noses down into the fragrant steam.
We siphoned the golden liquid, along with yeast and sugar, into a thick-glassed jug called a carboy, and started a process that's been repeated millions of times around the world: making booze. The waiting began.
Because it's easy to make with a basic set of ingredients, ginger beer and similarly flavored fermented drinks have been enjoyed for a long, long time. The basic combination of yeast (or another activator), sugar, water, and flavoring such as honey, cloves, or ginger produces a strong, tasty alcoholic beverage with not much fuss. At the peak of its popularity in the U.S.—right before Prohibition—there were over 500 ginger beer facilities in the U.S.. England had more than 4,000. In fact, ginger beer was the most popular alcoholic drink in England for over 200 years.
Here in the Valley, the obsession with ginger, and ginger beer, is growing. We have our own local source for an alcoholic ginger brew. There's also a local farm that grows ginger root, normally a tropical crop. You could say the root has become a bit of a sensation.
Old Friends Farm in Amherst began growing ginger in their farm's hoop houses six years ago as an experiment. They wanted to find a way to make use of the structures, used for seedlings in the spring, that sat empty for most of the summer. Why ginger? "Because we love it," says Casey Steinberg, co-owner. "Which is the main reason to decide to grow anything, really." Although their ginger can't be stored for long periods of time, the farm has found great success selling the crop to local customers.
Ginger Libation, the fizzy ginger drink produced by Green River Ambrosia in Greenfield, has a flavor kick and an alcohol content that has made it popular with all kinds of residents—not just those who love fruity stuff. Libation has a loyal, ever-growing fan base in the Valley and regions beyond. It can be found on tap at several restaurants, and by the bottle or glass at many more.
On a recent visit to the source of this heavenly elixir, I pushed my way through the heavy metal doors of Ambrosia's wing of the Franklin County CDC's Food Processing Center. I was greeted by a wave of fermentation fragrance and a jovial bunch of middle-aged Valley residents, sipping honey colored liquid out of tiny plastic cups.
The Valley Fermenters are a group of home brewing enthusiasts and practitioners that had gathered at the first stop on their local winery and brewery tour. Ambrosia co-owner Garth Shaneyfelt was pouring them Ginger Libation. The first ounce of pale yellow liquid splashed into a cup with a fizz. "Wow, that could be dangerous!" a man proclaimed after he'd sampled it. He thinks a minute. "But there's a burn in the back that would slow you down after a minute."
I wish I could agree. A fan of Libation myself, I've learned that this drink—technically a bubbly ginger wine—cannot be gulped like juice without making you go a little crazy a few minutes afterward. Reader be warned.
When asked why the drink has become so popular —it's only been available to the public since last spring, and Ambrosia expects to nearly double their production of it this year—Shaneyfelt explains: "It's easier to drink than mead. It has a little fizz and is a little bit sweeter, but because we use fresh ground organic ginger there's a pop, so it's not like a wine cooler. It's got enough zip." The recipe also includes pineapple, lemon and lime juice.
Once the Fermenters have cruised off to their next tasting, I ask how Green River Ambrosia—primarily a meadery—came to make ginger beer.
"One of our employees had been brewing beer at home and found out he had a gluten sensitivity," Shaneyfelt explains. "He researched various pre-Prohibition ginger beer recipes and suggested we try his batch." The first tastings were a hit. The gluten-free aspect of ginger beer fit perfectly with the company's gluten-free mead, and the short fermentation time paired well with the long, wine-like process of mead.
At the end of the summer, a special Libation edition will hit the shelves in limited quantity, incorporating all local ingredients: Clarkedale Orchard cider, tangy schizandra berries from South Deerfield, and ginger from Old Friends Farm.
Back in our home, our own ginger beer experiment sat for a week and a half in the living room near the wood stove, bubbling viciously. Eventually it hit its stride and found a kind of rhythm. In a few more weeks, I stood on the basement steps and held out my glass expectantly, the first pour emerging out of the metal keg like juicy sunlight. It glittered as we raised it up, and the taste exploded in our mouths. This is ginger dynamite, sweet but not too sweet, with a tangy bite and an alcoholic content that rivals wine.
At Ambrosia's aromatic headquarters, Shaneyfelt sums up the magic of brewing: "It's a craft, and every batch is always a little different. It's an artisanal kind of product, and we're always tweaking and testing as we go along." He admits that the fun of home brewing, as I and the Valley Fermenters have found, cannot be beat: "It's kind of cool that you can make alcohol in the safety and comfort of your own home." I would agree.
The Ginger Beer Plant
Brewed ginger beer—unlike the carbonated soda of the same name—is alcoholic, sometimes strongly so. It gets its fizziness from the fermentation process, unlike ginger beer soda that is carbonated with carbon dioxide. Most of the time, yeast is used to start this fermentation process. But in the 1800s, another kind of organism was widely available.
Referred to as the Ginger Beer Plant (or GBP), this symbiotic composite of yeast, fungus, and bacteria was passed down for generations of home brewers before falling out of favor several decades ago. It’s believed to have originated in England but no one really knows where it came from. The live culture of GBP, much like the starter for a sourdough recipe, can be split, fed, and saved for future batches. Most brewers now use yeast, but there are several sources where truly authentic ginger beer lovers can obtain a culture and try it at home.