Mixed among the other special projects — between the falernum and the pimento dram, the grenadine and the gomme — I’ve been playing with recipes for homemade ginger beer, one that can hold its own against the formidable Gosling’s Black Seal in a Dark ‘n Stormy, and that can neatly balance with the gin and mint in a Gin Gin Mule. Unlike ingredients such as falernum and pimento dram, there are commercial versions of ginger beer on the market that are pretty easy to find; the problem is, many of them are nothing but an insipid ginger ale with a different-colored label and a modest — very modest — change in flavor, even among the brands that boast they’re muscular and spicy. If you’re fortunate, you can find a decent Jamaican ginger beer that has some backbone to it in a well-stocked specialty food store; Blenheim’s, from North Carolina, also enjoys a reputation for making an assertive ginger beer, but finding this brand can be almost as difficult as tracking down a bottle of Torani Amer.
Fortunately, the homemade version is easy to make. There are many recipes out there, some of them calling for an arsenal of ingredients and a short fermentation period, but the best two I’ve tried are pleasantly minimal, and can be made in less than a day. One of these recipes is from the ever-dependable Audrey Saunders; the other appeared in the New York Times a little more than a year ago. I’ve tried both, and they’re excellent; the version printed here is a hybrid of the two, based solely on my personal taste.
- 10 cups water
- 12 ounces fresh ginger, finely chopped (for a lighter colored ginger beer, peel the ginger before weighing it)
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- juice of 1 lime
- one bay leaf
Bring the water to a boil; turn off heat and add the ginger and the bay leaf. Cover the pot and let steep for no less than four hours, or overnight. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth, squeezing and pressing to express the last, very flavorful drops of liquid from the ginger. Add the sugar and the lime juice, stir, bottle and refrigerate.
Try to use the ginger beer within two weeks; the ginger’s flavor degrades rapidly, so it’s best to make smaller batches, if you don’t plan to use that much of it.
Note that in this version, the ginger flavor is much stronger than you’re likely to encounter in any ginger beer on the market. You probably won’t want to drink this straight, unless you’re accustomed to sipping on bottles of Tabasco sauce. Instead, try mixing equal parts ginger beer and club soda to create a spicy carbonated ginger beer for drinks such as the Dark ‘n Stormy, or other cocktails that call for ginger beer (notable exception: the Gin Gin Mule, which was developed with this industrial-strength ginger beer in mind). For recipes calling for ginger ale, aim for more of a 4:1 club soda-to-ginger beer ratio. This ginger beer is also pretty dry, so depending on the recipe, you may want to add a dash or two of simple syrup to the mix.