Ginger Beer Plant (GBP)

I apologise for this somewhat long winded post, but it’s on a subject which I’ve recently become interested in and there seems very little information written about online.  It’s only really come to my attention over the past couple of years due to the increase in the self sufficient and green revolution.  Many celebrities and websites are currently promoting what I call the homemade revival – traditional skills that have fallen into disuse and are only now being revived.  It’s quite a telling sign that progress has killed many of the things thirty or forty years ago we may have taken for granted and people are beginning to harp to simpler times.

When I was very young I can remember my father making ‘normal’ beer in the house.  The process stank something rotten and put me off for a number of years.  Then at school (probably about 12-15) I got a taste for beer and other than pinching my fathers stash, I thought about making my own.  My first attempt was quite frankly awful and it put me off brewing for a number of years.  By the time I got to about 20 I decided to give it a go again, this time I read up on it – I was pretty poor at the time as a student at university and wanted to either make good batches or not make it at all.  My first few batches were a success and I found myself in the unusual position of being an out of hours off license – people would pop by quite late to pick up a few often paying for the whole batch just by getting a few bottles.  This enabled me to buy more.

By chance while working for Norwich county council I came into contact with another brewer who was getting rid of all his gear.  I doubled my brewing equipment and also managed to get about 20 glass carboys which I sold at a boot sale.  I retained a few and used them to brew smaller batches of beer which wouldn’t go off so easily – I could use two or three in a cobbled together bar (which was a half whiskey barrel and hand pump) and people would come round to my outdoors pub which was in our small courtyard between several houses.

When I moved back home I stopped drinking so much and started experimenting with other ingredients.  Nettle beer wasn’t much of a success and whilst plenty of my friends liked the ‘espresso beer’ it wasn’t something I really enjoyed.  Then I stumbled upon ‘Ginger Beer’.

I’ll admit I’m too young to remember ever being able to buy ginger beer in anything other than cans or cheap plastic bottles.  Ginger beer to me was a fairly fiery drink which was prone to a) make me gassy and b) give me indigestion.  I remember reading an article probably on selfsufficientish or somewhere similar and I gave it a go with brewers yeast, ginger powder, lemon, sugar and water.  The results were much nicer and everyone liked it and I believed that I’d made something dead easy, tasty and ‘authentic’.  One of my relatives told me that it was usual process to half the ‘plant’ and pass another to a friend or family member (or bin it).  But it did make me wonder, because in brewing we don’t tend to use yeast after more than a couple of brews for various reasons so I dug a little deeper.  It did seem odd to go to a friend who was interested in home-brewing to give him a sample of which was pretty much a supermarket branded yeast in a jar.  I didn’t do much until one day I read a post on the blog ‘beansprouts’ (which was pretty much the first blog I followed – http://bean-sprouts.blogspot.com/2007/10/ive-got-real-ginger-beer-plant.html) which told me in black and white that brewers yeast wasn’t the traditional ginger beer making material, but rather a heritage yeast passed down in families called a ginger beer plant (GBP)

It turned out that this process of dividing up a ‘plant’ was because it used a different strain of ‘yeast’ because the yeast wasn’t really a yeast at all, but a number of different organisms co-operating which produced real ginger beer.  It wasn’t even really understood until a particular scientist called Harry Marshall Ward took a interest.  He did a lot of interesting work much of which was detailed by new scientist magazine – you can read the article on newscientist.com – http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17523625.800-marriage-of-equals.html

There are a few people whom still provide the proper ginger beer plant.  There is currently one active yahoo group called ‘gingerbeerplantarchive’ (the original group still much detailed by the web is defunct due to a loss of owner and plenty of spam) which puts people into contact with each other and gives people the ability to ask questions on the process and get/swap strains.

Fermented treasures (http://www.fermentedtreasures.com/) in the US sells cultures as does http://www.gingerbeerplant.net/ in the UK.  There is also a company manufacturing ginger beer plants for sale over the counter – the company Selsey Herb & Spice Co. resells to many companies which also have internet stores.

There is what seems a murky history to ginger beer production in the UK.  It seems widely accepted that it is a traditional drink drunk over many centuries and up until its seeming death in the last half century.  I believe this is attributed to the lack of essential ingredients during the war.

I’m confused by the lack of documentation online about the production and sale – I am no newcomer on the net and casual google searches turn up very little about ginger beer other than the mysterious fact that no-one knows the origin of this strange transparent plant and it could be many centuries old.  During the last few hundred years it has been made by families, bottled and given to friends, sold from fountains at the sea side or in chemists by the bottle.

Ebay gives you pages and pages of different stoneware bottles from manufacturers all over the country which were eventually replaced with glass and then sometime later during wonderful government legislation the commercial sale was restricted because of the alcoholic content.  It seems strange that all this history has just disappeared – no pictures of the original fountains, sellers etc.

I’m currently awaiting delivery of a plant to me and it’s my intention to pass it on.  If you want some, ask me and I’ll see what I can do.  Otherwise if you have history/stories/recollections etc about ginger beer let me know, I’d be strangely interested.

19 Comments »

  1. Ben said

    The so called GBP from Selsey is nothing but baker’s yeast with some powdered ginger. At 8 quid for a little bit I don’t think it’s good value either as yeast or as a GBP. But Ginger Beer Plant it is not. Yeast is just yeast.

    Cheers
    Bem

    • Hi Ben, thanks for the info – I guessed as much. If Selsey want to disprove the above comment (and happen across this page) they’re always welcome to send me some :)

      Thanks for visiting!

  2. Brian said

    Hello Tim,
    I am searching the net for information to make my own original GBP without having to purchase one from a supplier, but have not had much luck, seems like it could be a secret..?
    I read somewhere that crushed ginger added to sugar and lemon juice is the way to start…? Could you add to this please? Any further information would be most appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Brian

    • Not a secret Brian, sorry but it’s just not possible. Ginger beer plant is a culture of yeast and bacteria in a symbiotic relationship. It’s not mystical, it’s not secret, it’s just not profitable for scientists to investigate how to make it when the plant reproduces well on its own, you just need to find one. If you lookup on http://gingerbeerplant.net/ there is an article from New Scientist magazine about a man who spent most of his lifes work investigating it and was unable to draw conclusions on its origins.

      By adding crushed ginger and lemon juice to sugar water solution you will get ginger beer as most plants have wild yeasts on them – it just won’t be ginger beer plant. Hope that clears it up for you.

  3. karen said

    Thanks for the interesting article…I am from South Africa now living in the states and have been making ginger beer with yeast for years…very yummy…but I am fascinated to find out about an actual ginger plant….I also grow mushrooms, kefir and other weird but interesting things. I am searching all over for a genuine ginger plant, but no luck. Your one website changed to liposuction etc.
    Do you have any ideas or links for me to get a little genuine ginger plant?

  4. How about http://www.kefirshop.co.uk/index.htm who sell both a yeast based culture and original ginger beer plant which they call Water Kefir. That name might also yield more search results. Kefir is used as a live probiotic.

  5. Dick Hurts said

    I now have “some” listed on eBay. let me know what you think I got it from

    • If you’re going to resell my GBP that’s fine but you cannot use my reputation. I cannot bear responsibility for what you’ve done with the GBP. Also the Kefir Shop UK are selling WKG not GBP. They simply feed it ginger. That’s like saying my dog is now a cat because I feed him fish. Absolutely crazy.

      [editor note: This relates to the previous comment, not Waark!com as I don’t sell it]

  6. David Kelso said

    Hello Tim
    Thanks for the great BLOG. I’m trying to live as self sufficiently as possible, it’s an obsession of mine! Sourdough bread, Pastas, cheese, chutneys, jams and more all from scratch.
    The next thing i wanted to try was making Ginger Beer, that is to say “real ginger beer”. For some reason the other BLOG’s, links and web sites i have tried are not selling at the moment even the ones you have links to!
    Do you or someone you know have some Ginger beer plant (bug) that i may beg, borrow, steel or swap with.
    Thanks for any help you can give me.
    David

  7. Louie Gomez said

    Hello there Tim. Like so many other desperate people out there, I would love to get hold of some of your GBP – if you have any going that is. Naturally I would pay for your service. Hope you can help.

    Louie

  8. Carol Hamilton said

    Tell me what makes the difference between GBP and yeast – are they both still carbonated drinks – how do they differ – taste, longivity , would love to know the difference to see if it is worth me trying to recapture what my mother made 50 years ago . I can still remember her plant that she used to feed but most of all – the sound of bottles exploding at nighttime – Carol

    • admin said

      Mostly it has a slightly soured taste which offsets the sweet. It makes the brew much softer and fuller bodied.

  9. Jelmer said

    Hey there, great story about the ginger beer plant. I would love to get a sample of a real GBP. However, everywhere I go it seems to be based on yeast based stuff. Can you help me to get some of the real GBP to the Netherlands? I promise to spread it to anyone who want to get a share of my future plant!

    Ciao!

  10. Trevor said

    Hi Tim,
    I am interested in getting hold of GBP for my own ginger beer making.
    If you have genuine GBP or can let me know where to get hold of it I would be grateful.
    Trevor

  11. Roy Hills said

    I came across your blog because my wife was having a problem with our GBP. Recent brews had become a little bitter but we found that by resting and feeding the plant with sugar and then splitting it in half has cured the problem.

    My wife bought the plant about a year ago and it has grown, if that is the correct phrase, from about half a cup to something around three times that volume. Many people seem unaware what the plant looks like and my best description is wet rice pudding. I was going to attach a photo. If you would like one please email me.

  12. Luke said

    Hi Tim,

    i realise this thread is bit old now, but thought I’d try my luck. I’m trying to get hold of some gbp and finding it incredibly hard to find a reliable/reputable vendor. If by any chance your gbp is still going – would you be willing to sell any?

    Best regards

  13. annie said

    hello,50 yesrs ago i won my first gbp at my local girlguide tombolla,i had great fun feeding my plant daily with powdered ginger as my mum had never seen real ginger,every 10 days or so i made lovely if a little cloudy gingerbeer,then i would divide my plant and give it away ,and went on doing till i left home,and of course lost my plant.now am living in spain trying to live as self sufficiently as possible and am searching for a new stater plant,i grow my own ginger ,so hoping when i get started it will be gorgeous.please can you tell me where i can order one,?best regards annie

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