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.