Fermentation - The Ginger Beer Plant

Traditional ginger beer can be fermented three different ways:
  1. with regular brewer’s yeast
  2. with a ‘ginger bug’ starter
  3. with a ‘ginger beer plant’ culture
The first option is self-explanatory - regular brewer’s yeast will ferment a mixture of ginger and sugar just like it will ferment any solution containing metabolizable sugars.

A ‘ginger bug’ is a wild fermentation. To make a ginger bug, fresh ginger is ground and mixed with sugar and a little water. Every day, more ginger and sugar are added until the mixture bubbles furiously.  The wild yeasts and bacteria in this starter culture are then used to ferment a larger batch of ginger beer. The 'ginger bug' method is described in Sandor Katz' book, 'Wild Fermentation' and Sally Fallon's book, 'Nourishing Traditions'; both methods are discussed in Sandor Katz' book, 'The Art of Fermentation'.

But what is a ‘ginger beer plant’?  Once referred to as ‘Bees’ or ‘Yeast Barnacles’, the ginger beer plant is a symbiotic microbial consortium of yeasts and bacteria that grow together as irregular, translucent, gelatinous grains up to half an inch across. No one knows how the first ginger beer plant came about, but it formed the basis of an international food sensation in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. During this time, home fermentation of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and beverages was commonplace. But as the world embraced industrially-produced soft drinks, canned foods, and refrigeration, home fermentation fell out of favor.

Ginger Beer History

This post in the rec.crafts.winemaking newsgroup is the first online mention of the topic.
It was relatively vague and received no replies:

Nancy Jenner, 1995.03.11 (bpsb13c@prodigy.com)

We've been going through some family papers and have found a recipe for something titled "Bee Wine or Champagne." It comes from my great-great-grandfather, who was a baker in Victorian-era England. The recipe calls for copious amounts of molasses, crushed raisins, and "bees" (yeast barnacles). It also indicates that, according to tradition, the bees cannot be bought or sold, they have to be given, or they won't work....

Just a few questions, then. Has anyone heard of this particular beverage and/or recipe? If yes, what's it like? It seems that it would produce something very goopy and treacly. Lastly, what's this bit about the yeast barnacles? Are they a regularly occuring phenomenon? A usual part of fermentation? Has anyone heard this sort of folklore about them? And (of course) does anyone have any they might send on to me so that I can try out this family recipe?

Thanks for any insight--
Nancy Jenner

A year and a half later, a follow-up post by the same author drew some speculation from the crowd. The included recipe was very confusing to an audience that had never heard of a ‘ginger beer plant’:

Nancy Jenner, 1996.08.03 (bpsb13c@prodigy.com)

Some time last year I posted a note asking for some input on a recipe I’d found in with some family papers. A couple of people expressed interest and asked for copies of the recipe. Naturally, the day after I made the initial inquiry the sheaf of papers got misplaced, and I never did get back to anyone. The papers have resurfaced, and I’d like to start over.

Anyway, for a little provenance, this recipe was tucked in a cookbook that belonged to my great-grandmother. She had worked in a her father’s bakery in Victorian England, and the handwritten recipes in the book are for confections such as hot-cross buns and wedding cakes. The recipe itself seems to be of a later vintage, as it is a type-written carbon copy. 

My thoughts are that either this is some sort of sickly-sweet English "folk" beverage, or that it is from later, when the family moved to California, which means it could possibly be a Prohibition era home-brew. 

I could probably try to track down the brand name "Brer Rabbit Molasses" to see when and where it came from.

In any case, it looks like it would produce a rather thick, vile concoction. Nevertheless, I’d like to give it a try for curiosity's sake.

My questions are:

1)Does it look like it would work?
2)Has anyone seen this type of recipe, with the dried fruit and molasses, before?
3)Where in the world am I going to find these "Yeast barnacles," or "Bees" particularly since the folk wisdom is that I’m not supposed to buy them?
4)Is anyone familiar with the term "bee" applied to this sort of yeast formation? Is it an obsolete term? Is it regional?

The hard part, obviously, will be identifying and locating some "bees." I wonder if the term refers to a now extinct strain of yeast?

I’ve typed up the recipe. Aside from correcting a couple of obvious typing errors, I haven’t changed anything, as I rather like the style.
I think the title is supposed to be "Champagne" but on the off-chance that "Champagene" is a real term, I left it in.

I welcome any advice or general musings-- or donations of bees.

--Nancy Jenner (bpsb13c@prodigy.com)
Bee Wine Or Champagene (sic.)

The Bees or wine barrel barnacles should be given to you after being thoroughly washed by several changes of water until they are a white mass, i.e., they should have no odor of the preceding fermentation. They should be pure white and smell yeasty.

Two quarts of Bees makes four gallons and at the end of fermentation the growing of these strange multiplying joys will be nearly doubled. So: hand them (those you do not need) to some poor guy with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and make him do the work himself.

Tradition says: Never sell or buy or the strange work of nature will cease.

After bees are thoroughly cleansed, put in glass, earthen or porcelain receptacle and cover with water (cold) and add one half cup of cane sugar.

In twenty four hours pour off water and repeat. This is called resting and the required time is supposed to be 48 hours. 

Now gently put bees in a 5 or 6 gallon jar and pour in with them a two pound and four ounce can of yellow label light brown Brer Rabbit Molasses.

Now gently stir (the hand is best) until it all becomes one or thoroughly mixed. Let this stand 24 hours.
Now add four gallons of water (cold), also two pounds of small seedless raisins washed, stemmed, ground and put in a loose woven bag and three cups of cane sugar stirring gently; Repeat the three cups of sugar every day for seven days after which let it stand 48 hours. 

Filter through a cloth (the slime accumulated during fermentation makes this a tedious proposition). If the weather isn’t too warm it can stand in a five gallon bottle loosely corked until clear, bottle and cap or tie down corks, ready in three or four weeks.

Press the raisins in bag gently daily during fermentation.

The liquid must be removed from jar with dipper or something and poured through a strainer into the cloth filter to catch the bees.

The bees must then be washed by going through several changes of water, bulks of it at a time, then rested or sugared as described above before used again, or they can be dried; however if you dry them they must not be sugared after washing.

To dry them spread them out on a large towel or cloth placed in the hot sun with paper over them to keep flies etc. off. When dry they are very small and brown in color, put in a fruit can (glass) and screw down air tight. Be sure they are thoroughly dry or they will blow up. To use again soak and proceed as above.

Over the next few years, other people with recipes or memories of a ‘ginger beer plant’ would come forward. But no one knew what it was, or how it could be made or acquired. The ginger beer plant was lost to history.

Interest in the origin and disposition of this historical food artifact continued to grow online.
This article, rediscovering 19th century scientific interest in the ginger beer plant, was published in 2002:

“Marriage of Equals” - 2002.09.28 - NewScientist.com (Gail Vines)
full article: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17523625.800-marriage-of-equals.html

Summer was once the time to quaff ginger beer, served up in brown stone bottles. All over the British Isles people relished its frothy, fizzy gingery tang, enhanced by an alcohol content that temperance campaigners warned could rival that of strong London stout. Best of all it was virtually free: you could make it at home with just a bit of sugar, ginger, water and a ginger-beer “plant”.

No wonder, then, that this plant was a family heirloom, passed from mother to daughter and father to son. But it wasn't your typical green, leafy kind of plant. This was a sloppy mess of whitish, gelatinous lumps that typically lived in a jam jar. Exactly what this stuff was, nobody had a clue. It worked, and that was enough.

But in 1887, a 33-year-old botanist called Harry Marshall Ward became curious. When a famous friend at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, gave him a specimen, he was hooked. Unwittingly, he had embarked on a Herculean labour. “Had I known how long and difficult a task I had set myself,” he later remarked, “the attempt would possibly have been abandoned at an early date.”

The conclusive proof came when Ward made perfect ginger beer in his laboratory, using his own plant, reconstituted from his pure cultures of the right yeast and bacterium.

So the ginger-beer plant was a bona fide “dual organism”, rather like lichens. Everything pointed to a true symbiosis. For instance, when Ward tried to feed the bacteria with dead or feeble yeast cells, the experiments failed. The plant emerged only from a marriage of equals, which needed time: it took several days for the partners to find and embrace one another. No one could have predicted that the crude home brew of country folk would reveal a phenomenon new to science — what Ward called “symbiotic fermentation”.
Today's commercial ginger beer is also much altered, purged of both its alcohol and its symbiotic liaisons. It is possible that Ward's own lovingly reconstituted ginger-beer plant survived into the 1940s. Max Walters, now 82, says he made and drank the stuff in the Botany School at Cambridge just after the Second World War. But no one knows what happened to it after that.
The internet had not given up on the hunt. Members of fermentation forums tried everything to generate their own ginger beer plants from scratch, but with no verified successes.

Enter Raj Apte, a 1987 UC Berkeley graduate working at a tech company in the South Bay:.

full article: http://alumni.berkeley.edu/news/california-magazine/spring-2012-piracy/strange-brew

The first thing to understand about the ginger beer plant is that it is not a plant. The second thing is that it is not, nor does it contain, ginger. Given those two facts, it’s difficult to imagine how the “plant” got its name. And yet it is this combination of words that first caught the eye of Raj Apte ‘87.

“I wondered what plant meant in that context,” he says. “I knew all about sourdough cultures, and I knew I could ferment a simple version of ginger beer without the plant, but the description of it was intriguing.” He came across the term while searching for a way to re-create the ginger beer he’d drunk as a child, stuff so spicy it would make him cry.

For reasons unknown, the ginger beer plant all but vanished. Posts dating to the online group’s founding in 2004 reveal that none of the members knew how to get GBP. In fact, they barely knew what it was. A few remembered jars of the stuff from their childhood. Others had read enough to know that it wasn’t just yeast. The attempts to grow it yielded either a yeast-based brew (unacceptable), or a concoction of something that might or might not have been the real stuff. “The Ginger Beer Plant MUST be found!” wrote one member.

The group had identified a biological culture bank in Germany that was “hoarding the last known samples of the Ginger Beer Plant.” But attempts to obtain it failed; the company would only release its products to a research or educational institution. It seemed, then, that the group had hit a dead end—at least until August 2005, when Apte stumbled onto the scene.

Apte, who majored in electrical engineering and computer science at Berkeley, is now a mechanical engineer and inventor at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Using official company letterhead, Apte crafted a letter to the microorganism collection Leibniz Institute DSMZ in Braunschweig, Germany. “The excitement in the air is killing me!” wrote one group member. “I cannot wait to hear about the real thing!”

A month later, Apte received two test tubes filled with brown liquid containing about eight grains the size of pinheads. “I had no idea what to do with it,” he says. He’d promised members of the board that he would mail them samples if he could make it grow.

“Our DSMZ culture is now bubbling slowly,” Apte wrote on the message board. “At the same time, some slime is forming at the bottom of a second, nonsterile culture I started…. It’s rather membranous, not gelatinous, but we’ll see.” He had several containers going, each with a different recipe and technique. He autoclaved everything at the start to ensure sterility, prepared special laboratory-quality media and broths, and used hotplates with computer-controlled temperatures to grow and nurture the GBP. He took copious notes of everything he tried and used a microscope to see what was going on.

Within a short time, his efforts paid off. “I was growing thumb-sized chunks overnight,” he says. He mailed off samples to fulfill the requests on the message board.

One of the appeals of the ginger beer plant is its simplicity, Apte says. Upstairs in the kitchen, he pulls out of the refrigerator a canning jar of translucent, yellowish lumps, the results of his culturing experiments. When he unscrews the lid, the contents give off a sweet, gingery smell. The way you can tell it’s real is because of the gelatinous coating, he explains. The yeast creates a starchy covering to protect itself from the bacterial action. Sugar feeds the yeast, which in turn creates alcohol. The bacteria use that alcohol and secrete lactic acid, which could kill the yeast if not for the protective coating. By changing the temperature during fermentation, the brewer can alter the balance of sweetness and alcohol. The lactic acid adds a unique flavor, much like in the Flemish-style sour ales. And the starchy byproduct of the yeast gives the beverage a silky quality and a frothy head.

But whether his final product is the “real stuff” or not remains a mystery. Despite his inquiries, he never learned where the sample in Germany originated. His jar of ginger beer plant came from the original culture, but it’s unlikely to have remained pure. Ward, the 19th-century microbiologist, identified hundreds of species in his samples, probably free-living microbes that fell into the pot and took hold. There can never be a truly authentic ginger beer plant because it changes with its environment.

“And in my mind,” Apte said, “that’s a good thing.”

Three months before I discovered the articles and posts above, knowing nothing about ‘ginger beer plant’ except that I absolutely needed to have one, I came across Raj’s contact information on the GingerBeerPlant group site. Following his instructions, I mailed him a self-addressed-stamped-envelope containing a small plastic bag. Just before sealing the envelope, I hesitated: “If I show my appreciation for his time, maybe he’ll be more likely to get back to me,” I thought. I included $2 and a tiny thank-you notecard.

On January 7th, the day after returning to Berkeley after holiday break at home, I found an envelope in my mailbox addressed to me in my own handwriting. Confused, I tore the envelope in half to find a plastic bag containing a little handful of hard, irregular, translucent, amber-colored crystals: my very own ginger beer plant. Raj kept his promise.

When the culture arrived, I began doing my research to figure out how best to hydrate and  revive it. That’s when I came upon the original ‘Bees Wine’ newsgroup post:

"Tradition says: Never sell or buy or the strange work of nature will cease."

For a brief, irrational moment, I panicked. Had I inadvertently paid for it and ruined the whole thing? Would ‘the strange work of nature’ commence despite my unworthiness? What, exactly, was I thinking when I sealed that envelope?

“Relax,” I said to myself, “it was symbolic - you didn't pay for it.” There are several sites online that purport to sell cultures of the ginger beer plant; I’m glad, at least, I didn’t get mine there. As I prepared a growth medium of cane sugar, brown sugar, dried ginger, a pinch of cream of tartar, and a few drops of lemon juice and molasses - “this thing must have a serious sweet tooth,” I thought - I was still nervous. In went the little bag of crystals.

Several online sources suggested that ginger beer was traditionally fermented in containers left on the windowsill, heated in the sunlight as high as 32C (90F). Berkeley is in California and all, but February is not warm here - highs have been closer to 15C (59F), and the poorly-insulated apartments get downright cold at night. Fortunately, my previous fermentation adventures suggested a solution: place the culture in the oven, with just the incandescent oven light on. Provided no one accidentally turns the oven itself on (ouch), this works great for maintaining a stable, moderately elevated temperature. Within an hour, it stabilized at 29.5C (85F). In went the mason jar full of sugar and sleeping microbeasties, and off I went to bed.

It’s been three days now. Fortunately, it appears I’ve avoided the Curse of Capitalism and my ginger beer plant is bubbling like mad in its mason jar:
The ginger beer plant culture, in a pint mason jar
Close-up of the ginger beer plant 'grains' in the culture medium

Incubating at 30C, the culture is bubbling intensely (and smells delicious)
Not only is it clearly fermenting, it’s also clearly growing: to start, I was filling the jar to total volume of 100mL and the culture was totally submerged; as of this afternoon, the culture itself is above the 200mL line. Once I have cultured enough for my own use and I have verified a drying procedure and established my own backups, I would be happy to distribute small samples of the ginger beer plant to anyone who is interested  - when I have culture available for shipping, I will post about it.

Each night, I drain off the liquid with a strainer funnel and add fresh media. Though I haven't made a full batch of ginger beer with it yet, I have very much enjoyed the taste of the liquid I’ve poured off: the sweetness is highly attenuated, and there is a mild but very noticeable tartness. I can’t wait to experiment.  (Now I just need to find a good source of sassafras, sarsaparilla, licorice...)

Ginger Beer Recipe

The following ‘culture medium’ has worked extremely well for reviving and growing the culture, and the resulting liquid doesn’t taste half bad:
  • 1 TBsp sugar, white
  • 1 TBsp sugar, brown
  • 1 tsp ginger, dried
  • 1 drizzle molasses, blackstrap
  • 2 pinches tartaric acid (aka cream of tartar)
  • Add ginger beer plant, bring up to 200mL with tap water
The molasses provides micronutrient minerals such as iron and calcium. Dried ginger provides micronutrients and a source of nitrogen. Sugars provide, well, sugar - fermentation is much less efficient (10-20x) at extracting energy from sugar than aerobic metabolism, so anaerobic organisms like those in the ginger beer plant need to consume a very large amount of sugar to live and grow.

Once I've settled on a full-scale ginger beer recipe that I really like, I'll post it here.

Ginger Beer Biochemistry

Ward’s original paper on the ginger-beer plant: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/91748
Ward’s additional notes on the original paper: http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/os-11/2/341.full.pdf

An article by the American Pharmaceutical Association on “California Bees”:

Studies on the polysaccharide produced by Betabacterium vermiforme:

The Moral of The Story

The next time you're considering buying some plastic-wrapped microwavable crap meal, or you're thinking of stopping by Taco Bell and blowing your money on fake meat and cheese sauce in an overbleached toilet paper tortilla, don't.

Ask your relatives for a favorite family recipe.  Google a traditional dish from your ethnic background.  Get in the kitchen and give it a shot.

The foods we eat aren't just a means to an end - they are important cultural artifacts, a tangible reminder of our heritages and histories, culturally and personally.  If we don't make use of our food roots - ginger and otherwise - we just might lose them.

This article researched and prepared by Brandon Curtis; follow him on Google+
The National Yeast Culture Collection has a note on 'Bees Wine': http://www.ncyc.co.uk/beeswine.html