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As early as 500 BC, ginger was used as a medicine and for flavouring food in Ancient China and India. In the western hemisphere, ginger was used to spice up drinks. During the Victorian era, it was used to brew an alcoholic beverage termed "ginger beer".
Brewed ginger beer originated in Yorkshire in England in the mid-18th century and became popular throughout Britain, the United States, Ireland, and Canada, reaching a peak of popularity in the early 20th century.
Brewed ginger beer was brought to the Ionian Islands by the British Army in the 19th century, and is still made as a local specialty known as tsitsibíra (τσιτσιμπίρα) by villagers in rural Corfu. Today, ginger beer is usually produced as a soft drink. Ginger beer and ginger ale as soft drinks have been moderately popular in many parts of the world since they were introduced.
The similarities and differences between ginger ale and ginger beer are discussed in the history section of the ginger ale article.
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The original recipe requires only ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a fungal-bacterial symbiote known as a ginger beer plant. Fermentation over a few days turns the mixture into ginger beer.
Forms of live culture other than the ginger beer plant can produce a fermented ginger beer. Cultures used include brewers or baker's yeast, lactic acid bacteria, kefir grains, and tibicos. Brewing ginger beer generates carbon dioxide as in beer. The alcohol content, when produced by the traditional process can be high, up to 11%, although ginger beer is usually brewed with much less alcohol.
Brewed ginger beer often includes other flavorings, prominently lemon or lime juice. These juices are not merely ornamental, however, as they establish an acidic pH balance for the solution; this helps in both protecting the ginger beer from other cultures and facilitating sugar inversion to increase the availability of the more readily metabolised fructose and glucose. Other, more strictly flavoring-specific, elements have often included citrus zests, cayenne pepper and other hot spices, and admixtures from other brews, such as nettle or dandelion beers.
Ginger beer plant (GBP) is not what is usually considered a plant but a composite organism consisting of a fungus, the yeast Saccharomyces florentinus (formerly S. pyriformis), and the bacterium Lactobacillus hilgardii (formerly Brevibacterium vermiforme), which form a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It forms a gelatinous substance that allows it to be easily transferred from one fermenting substrate to the next, much like kefir grains, kombucha, and tibicos.
The GBP was first described by Harry Marshall Ward in 1892, from samples he received in 1887. Original ginger beer is made by leaving water, sugar, ginger, and GBP to ferment. GBP may be obtained from several commercial sources or from yeast banks.
Brewed ginger beer originated in the UK, but is sold worldwide. Shakemantle Ginger Ale has been around since at least 2001 if not earlier. Crabbie's is a popular brand in the UK. Other popular ginger beers include Stoney's. It is usually labelled "alcoholic ginger beer" to distinguish it from the more established commercial ginger beers, which are not brewed (fermented), but carbonated with pressurized carbon dioxide.
Luscombe Organic Drinks introduced two organic non-alcoholic brewed ginger beers, Hot Ginger Beer and Cool Ginger Beer, in the UK in 1998. Using traditional methods, Luscombe mills, rinses and washes the root ginger by hand to extract gingerols and adds lemon juice and cane sugar. Both Ginger Beers have won Great Taste Awards, most recently 2013.
The ginger beer soft drink may be mixed with beer (usually a British ale of some sort) to make one type of shandy, or with dark rum to make a drink, originally from Bermuda, called a Dark 'N' Stormy. It is the main ingredient in the Moscow Mule cocktail (although in some cases ginger ale is used as an alternative, where ginger beer is not available).
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