Introduction: Hard Ginger Ale
Alcoholic ginger ale is gaining popularity today, but has been around for centuries, long before Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale in the United States. The good news is that alcoholic ginger ale is very easy to make, and it’s easy to adjust a recipe to suit one’s own particular tastes.
This article will walk you through the basic ingredients of alcoholic ginger ale and give you a simple, easy-to- modify recipe for your first batch. Using basic techniques that even beginning brewers can master, a great alcoholic ginger ale is just a fermentation away!
Step 1: You're Going to Need Some Ginger Root.
Ginger comes in a lot more forms these days than just the ground powder on grandma’s spice rack. For brewing ginger ale, you’ll get excellent results from a mix of fresh ginger root and crystallized ginger. Ginger root is a branchlike rhizome made of fat knobs or “lobes” found in the produce section of most supermarkets. It gives an unmistakable bite, crispness and flavor to ginger ale that makes for a very refreshing beverage. To use it in ginger ale, break off a lobe at a time, scrape the peel off with the tip of a spoon, and then dice it very small (but big enough to strain out later) and add it to the hot – not boiling – water before fermentation.
Though fresh ginger root is a key ingredient, it is not concentrated enough to give the strong ginger punch that you may be looking for. Crystallized or “candied” ginger will add that punch and take your ginger ale from tasting like the fizzy soda in the green can to a pungent and well-rounded fermented beverage. Crystallized ginger is usually found in the bulk section of organic and gourmet groceries, near the dried fruits. Please don’t confuse crystallized ginger with ginger candy chews, which are a taffy-like candy flavored with ginger.
Crystallized ginger should also be diced to maximize surface area of contact with the “wort”, but be prepared to wipe your knife clean frequently … it’s sticky.
The earlier you add ginger in the brewing process, the less aroma you are going to get in the final product, due to evaporation of volatile oils during steeping and the escaping of gases during fermentation. Be prepared to add more ginger to the ginger ale after fermentation, just like dry hopping a beer.
Step 2: Fermentable Sugars
Unlike malt, fruit juice, or honey, ginger does not contain much sugar. So it is best to think of it as the primary flavor of your ginger ale, rather than the source of fermentable sugar.
To build a fermentable base for your ginger ale “wort”, you’ll need to dissolve sugar in water. You can use any fermentable sugar, but consider that using anything other than simple sugar will make something other than alcoholic ginger ale (i.e., honey = ginger mead, apple juice = ginger cider, etc.) so simple light-colored sugars are recommended. True cane sugar from evaporated cane juice is better than table sugar (white sugar, beet sugar). Dextrose (corn sugar) found at HomebrewSupply.com also has a very neutral flavor that works well with ginger. Whatever you use, make sure it’s light and fermentable. Brown sugars like piloncillo or demerara will add too much molasses flavor for most ginger ales, though that might make for a nice holiday version. Non-fermentable sugars like lactose or maltodextrin will add body and creaminess, which are not recommended. So stick to light, fermentable sugars and feel free to experiment. Golden syrup? Light candi sugar? Why not?
Step 3: Flavoring & Accents
Ginger and sugar alone will make a one-note and somewhat uninspired ginger ale. Additional flavorings are a great way to add a little character.
Citrus is an excellent companion for ginger. Limes, lemons, and oranges are all good choices, but you can use any citrus you can get your hands on. Zest the fruit and add it (just the zest, not the white pith) along with the juice of the fruit to the hot water before fermentation. You can also add additional zest after fermentation. Spices can also be added, and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Grains of paradise or pink peppercorns make excellent additions to a summer ginger ale, while holiday spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove would make a wonderful holiday ginger ale in the winter. Always add spices in moderation. Remember that you can add more later on if the flavor isn’t strong enough, but if you add too much and brew a spice bomb, there’s no way to take it out.
Step 4: Yeast for Fermentation
Ginger ale is a light, refreshing beverage, so neutral ale yeasts that throw off minimal esters and phenols are best. There’s no need to get fancy; simple dry yeasts like S-04 and US-05 are great choices, with S-04 producing a slightly fruitier version and US-05 a little cleaner. If you use dry yeast and keep the OG around 1.050-1.060, there is no need for a starter, but if you use a liquid yeast or more sugar, a starter would be best.
Adding yeast nutrient to the ginger ale “wort” is always recommended. Unlike beer wort, the simple sugar solution at the heart of your ginger ale is lacking in yeast accessible nitrogen, amino and fatty acids that yeast need to thrive, and it’s such a light beverage that off-flavors from stressed yeast will be noticed. In a pinch, if you don’t have yeast nutrient, take a tip from mead makers and add a handful or two of chopped raisins prior to fermentation. Aerate well by shaking, stirring vigorously, or using an aquarium pump/oxygen system, and keep fermentation temperatures within ranges suitable for ale fermentation. Again, it is crucial to set the yeast up for success.
Step 5: Bottling & Back-sweetening
The simple sugar base of your ginger ale is virtually 100% fermentable. After fermentation you will have a very dry ginger ale with an FG in the 0.996-0.999 range and a flavor reminiscent of champagne, so you will probably want to back-sweeten the brew. If you’re bottling, any sugar you add will ferment and cause bottle bombs, so you’re limited to artificial sweeteners. The recipe below calls for granulated (baking) Splenda, which measures out like sugar and produces a good ginger ale that any brewer can make.
If you keg, however, the best way to backsweeten would be to use potassium sorbate to stabilize the ginger ale after fermentation is complete (potassium sorbate will not halt a fermentation in progress) and add sugar at kegging time. Whatever sweetener you use, it should be dissolved in water first so it will mix evenly.
Step 6: The Recipe Outline
This will yield 5 gallons of medium-flavored alcoholic ginger ale with an ABV of 6.4%. For a lighter, crisper ginger ale (like alcoholic Canada Dry) use about 2/3 of the ginger and limes recommended below.
For a fuller “craft” ginger ale flavor, use about 1-1/2 times as much ginger and citrus. The recipe below takes 3-4 weeks from brew day to bottle. Primary fermentation will be done long before that – properly cared-for yeast make short work of those simple sugars – but as with beer, extra time will give the yeast time to clean up after themselves.
- 2 lbs peeled, diced ginger root
- 5 lbs organic cane sugar • 5 limes (zest and juice)
- Water to make 5 gallons
- Yeast nutrient (dose per manufacturer instructions)
- 1 packet S-04 yeast
Boil 2.5 gallons of water, then remove from heat. Stir in sugar and yeast nutrient until well dissolved. Once the sugar is dissolved add the ginger root, lime zest, and lime juice. Steep for 15 minutes. Strain and pour the mixture into primary fermenter and top off to 5 gallons. OG should be about 1.045. Aerate and pitch S-04 yeast. After 2 weeks, you should have reached a FG of around 0.996 and you’re ready to back sweeten.
- 2 cups of water
- 3 oz peeled, diced ginger root
- 4 oz diced crystallized ginger
- 3 cups granulated Splenda (for baking)
Boil the water, then remove from heat. Stir in sweetener until dissolved, then add both forms of ginger and steep for 5 minutes. Strain and add directly to the fermenter, or to a sanitized carboy and then rack the ginger ale onto it. Let the ginger ale rest for 1-2 more weeks for the flavors to marry and mellow. Then rack to a bottling bucket with priming sugar, following usual beer bottling procedures. Target 2.5 volumes of carbonation. Give the yeast at least 3 weeks to carbonate in the bottle.
When carbonated, chill and serve for a refreshing ginger ale that is sure to please all your friends!