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Yahoo – and the peculiar tale of the missing Ginger Beer Plant

From what I have read ginger beer plants were very common in England at one time.There must be someone who still has it growing. I’m sure one will be found eventually. : -), Bruce Stordock, Yahoo GBP Group, September 2004

What a mysterious organism this GBP is, I wonder what happened to them all and where they came from in the first place? Beau, Yahoo GBP Group , September 2004

The ginger beer plant MUST be found!, Yahoo GBP Group

You’d have thought – wouldn’t you? – that the ginger beer plant, common amongst home brewers in Britain for hundreds of years would have been sourced and found within a matter of months. Wrong.

The ginger beer plant was, indeed, very common in Britain probably up until the 1970’s. To this day everyone in the UK still remembers an uncle, a grandmother, a friend or a neighbour brewing their own ginger beer. No children’s picnic was complete without lashings of the stuff. Most homes had a stone bottle of ginger beer in their pantry or cellar. A whole swathe of English legal principle rests upon what went on inside a ginger beer bottle. There is no doubt that this delightful, effervescent, fizzing drink plays a staring role in the heritage of British food and drink.

Yet, to this day – eleven years on from Bruce Stordock’s original optimistic message on a yahoo notice board – not a single original ginger beer plant has been sourced from within the British Isles. Much to everyone’s astonishment a traditional recipe that was used, relied upon and propagated for at least 150 years (if not longer) has, in effect, been erased from our shores. All it took was one or two generations to lose interest for a traditional recipe to be expunged so completely from our books.

Harry Marshall-Ward, a Victorian botanist who first recorded the composition of the GBP and who seems to be the definitive source that the GBP actually existed, noted in the very first paragraph of his work on “The Ginger Beer Plant and the Organisms Comprising it” that he “has been engaged for some time in the investigation of a remarkable compound organism found in home-made ginger-beer fermentations. It occurs as jelly‑like, semi‑transparent, yellowish‑white masses, aggregated into brain‑like clumps, or forming deposits at the bottom of the fermentations, and presents resemblances to the so‑called Kephir grains of the Caucasus, with which, however, it is by no means identical.”

It is important to note that Marshall Ward was investigating “home-made” ginger beer as opposed to commercial ginger beer. See also this remark made by one of Marshall Ward’s Professors, Thiselton Dyer, who in an obituary for Marshall Ward written in 1906 noted: A curious organism had been sent me from the Eastern counties, which was used in the rustic manufacture of ginger beer. I showed it one day to Marshall Ward, and suggested his examining it. This he did in the most exhaustive way, bringing to light the important fact that its action was due to the symbiotic work of a yeast and a bacterium. This is so vigorous, under favourable circumstances, that Marshall Ward narrowly escaped a severe accident from the blowing up of his apparatus.

So popular was ginger beer in Britain that by the time Marshall-Ward began and completed his research into the GBP in 1891, there were an estimated 3000 commercial breweries of ginger beer in the UK. The commercial outfits relied on cheaper, cultivated yeasts to ferment their beer not the GBP, which would have been too difficult to maintain in large factories or on production-line premises. It was, after all, at around this time that commercial breweries were able to use packaged, cultivated yeasts as opposed to wild yeasts since it was at around this time that inventors patented methods to separate yeasts from LABs, dry then, package them and commercialise them.

Commercial ginger beer, brewed by yeast alone was hugely popular in Victorian and Edwardian Britain – as indeed it was in the Caribbean, America, Canada and Australasia. The consumption of commercially brewed beer aside, home-brewed ginger beer using a GBP remained popular.

The fact that Harry Marshall Ward investigated a “plant” as opposed to a “wine bee” or “barnacle” as they were colloquially known can, in all likelihood, be attributed to his academic background in botany rather than his background in home cooking. Don’t forget Marshall Ward was the first to identify and scientifically record the composition of these living organisms which we now call a SCOBY but which were yet to be identified. The fact that he decided to name it a “plant” has, in the meantime, led to much confusion.

The grain-like substance is nothing like a plant as commonly understood by most of us. Nor is it related, in any shape or form, to the plant that gifts us the ginger root. (For an explanation of what a SCOBY is and other similar examples see here). The loss of the GBP in the UK is a classic example of how we neglect, dismiss and ridicule our traditional recipes at a huge cost to our nutritional heritage and overall well being. It is often amateurs and enthusiasts who are left to piece best practice back together again. With many older generations passing away the next generation’s musings are speculative rather than factual. Rather like trying to piece Humpty-Dumpty back together again – there is a risk there’ll be lots of cracks in the story.

The yahoo ginger beer plant group gathered together just such a bunch of amateur enthusiasts. The original founders of the group wanted to re-connect with the authentic ginger beer of their child-hood memories. The group’s founders (mainly Canadian, American and British) wondered if anyone still had some of the original ginger beer plant so that they could revive the lost art of brewing ginger beer on the kitchen counter. Everyone remembered how delicious the home brew tasted. Some group members had vague memories of there being some kind of a “plant” or “barnacle” involved that used to float, lava-lamp like, up and down the brewing ginger beer. Being children they never really bothered to enquire too deeply. Nor, as they reached adulthood did they seek to maintain what their parents had nurtured.

Are we not all of a generation that believed traditional recipes were out-dated, unsafe and better alternatives could be found in the burgeoning chain of super-markets which propagated faster than a sugar fed SCOBY in 1980’s and 1990’s Britain? Have we not all at some point been seduced by funky packaging and BBB (big business branding)? Did we not all believe the health claims on the label rather than question the provenance of fast food? I know I’m guilty as charged.

Over a period of twenty to thirty years the British Isles succumbed to the convenience of micro-wave meals, store bought soft drinks and ready-made meals and in so doing slowly but surely snuffed out our traditional food heritage. After years of purchasing pre-packed food and beverages and ignoring what our elders had to say about food and drink we are now left scratching our heads about authentic methods and ingredients.

Eleven years after the GBP group was founded an original, authentic, traditional GBP is yet to be sourced in England – regardless of what Bruce so confidently predicted in September 2004 . Whilst the search continued, conversations within the group give us a good indication of how little understood the ginger beer plant actually is.

There is still much confusion so here, in summary, are some of the main facts about what the GBP is and what it is not.

The GBP is not the same as tibicos or water kefir

Water kefir or tibicos are quite distinct to the GBP. They thrive or perish depending on what environments they are placed in. Water kefir grains can die if left to ferment in ginger, lemon and sugar and vise versa.

The GBP is not the same as a ginger “bug”

Most recipes for a ginger bug stem from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions Book or Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. I have been unable to find an older recipe for the bug so am not sure what the provenance of this recipe is. What can be said for sure is that there are no British recipes, as far as I am aware, that prepare ginger beer with a “bug”. The recipe for a ginger bug is a form of lacto-fermentation the principle being to cultivate wild yeasts and LABs in the same way one can with a sourdough starter. The ginger bug, like a sourdough starter, is propagated by regular feeds and a small percentage of the bug is then added to the greater, sugary, whole. It is not the same as the GBP which is a jelly-like grain.

From what I have read and heard anecdotally it can be very difficult to ferment ginger root in this way and produces less satisfactory results though I have to confess I have never tried it.

Can’t you just make a GBP by fermenting yeast, ginger and sugar? There are lots of old recipes that suggest it is possible.

Yes, it is possible to ferment ginger beer with packaged yeast alone. It’s what the commercial breweries were doing in nineteenth century Britain and what one or two breweries still do.  A yeast only fermentation, however, is only half of the equation. A GBP (SOCBY) fermentation includes yeast and LAB fermentation. Yes, it is true that LABs live naturally in the air on the surface of plants. Yes, it is true that yeasts live naturally in the air and on the surface of plants. The chances of the two joining forces in a symbiotic relationship to form a jelly-like grain are very slim if non-existent. It is practically impossible to grow a GBP from scratch. The symbiotic nature of a GBP is unique.

How or when the GBP – or indeed any SCOBY – first emerged out of the fermentation soup is a matter of speculation, guesswork and investigation. I have speculated elsewhere that the sugar SCOBYs, of which the GBP is one, emerged out of mankind’s historical leap into the production of whole cane sugars some 300 years ago. What can be said with certainty is that the “old” recipes which require yeast and sugar to create a new GBP produce nothing that resembles Harry Marshall Ward’s “jelly‑like, semi‑transparent, yellowish‑white masses, aggregated into brain‑like clumps”.

Whilst the serach continued the yahoo group found and published the great work of Harry Marshall Ward. An elderly gentleman from Cambridge was found, Max Walters, who remembered making and drinking ginger beer brewed from Marshall-Ward’s original GBP in the Botany School at Cambridge just after the Second World War – but he couldn’t remember what had happened to that sample. Another dead end.

All in the group were agreed that their memories of drinking ginger beer brewed with a plant delivered the best taste – the only problem – not a single plant could be found the length and breadth of the British Isles, the Americas, Caribbean or Australasia. Many were beginning to wonder if this GBP even existed or whether it was just a figment of their childhood imaginations.

After a year of searching one member of the group discovered that a culture bank in Germany retained what appeared to be the last remaining sample of the GBP. Responsible for a huge variety of stored cultures (pathogenic as well as beneficial) the German culture bank were not about to hand out their last few precious samples to a bunch of amateurs on a yahoo group page. It looked like the members of the yahoo group had reached the end of the road, when out of no where a new member joined the group who just happened to head a research institute in Palo Alto. Result!

The Leibniz Institute sent Raj Apte a sample and readers may be relieved to hear that the only existing ginger beer plants being propagated in modern Europe, America and Australasia today stem from this last remaining source in Germany that were reactivated some ten years ago now. Four weeks ago I received my hydrated batch of GBP from Jim Macdonald at the gingerbeerplant.net whose cultures originate from Raj Apte and the Leibniz Institute.

The gingerbeerplant.net is an authorised yahoo GBP vendor so I am confident that I am using a proper GBP as opposed to some of the fakes on the market. Many vendors will sell water kefir grains which are not the same. Naturally, I would prefer it if I had a heritage plant from a verifiable source in the UK but that, seemingly, is no longer possible. Still, I have been brewing my ginger beer with a GBP from gingerbeerplant.net for over three weeks now and I can testify to how wonderful this drink tastes. I am happy to share mine once it begins to grow.

At the moment I’m able to maintain what I was sent from the gingerbeerplant.net but it has not yet doubled in size. I’m hoping that my batch of GBP will begin to grow when the weather turns warmer and fermentation typically speeds up. The moment it does I am more than happy to share my excess ginger beer plant.

What I can say is that the batch I received is performing magnificently and unlike my buttermilk (which I still swear by and love to drink) everyone I offer it to loves it. My youngest has taken to calling it “Manta” short for “Mum’s Fanta”. Whilst it is true that it can take some time to prepare and maintain original home-brewed ginger beer the results are so rewarding you’ll end up loving your new pet so much that neglecting it would be about as despicable and heinous as abandoning your favourite, fluffy pet in the wilderness.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: KA POW – the explosive power of fizzy ferments! | Master in the Kitchen

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