When it comes to fermented drinks, most people think kombucha or water kefir, but good old-fashioned ginger beer can be just as beneficial for gut health and really easy to make yourself.
It might seem unintuitive, but the link between fermentation and good health is bacteria. And they’re everywhere, from the start of a fermentation process to the insides of your stomach, and responsible not only for digesting things inside our intestines, but things outside them, too. Not content with breaking down our food for digestion, bacteria reduces it into molecules more easily absorbed by our bodies: this is called bioavailability.
Besides that, the microbial community makes vitamins, breaks up toxins and medicines, and strengthens our immune systems. All things which are a great advantage for our health and wellbeing.
Modern life has endangered the balance of our gut flora, mostly due to our hygiene-conscious tendencies. Unfortunately, when we think about the microorganisms in food, the first that come to mind are disease-causing ones.
We consume many antibiotic or antibacterial products, we’ve all been guilty of disinfecting a lot lately and, through pasteurising of our foods, we don’t leave any room for bacteria to thrive. Only now are we starting to understand it’s not in our best interest. The key is finding a healthy balance between a sufficient quantity of good bacteria and a non-dangerous amount of bad; it’s an intelligent way to protect ourselves and to encourage beneficial bacteria in a targeted manner.
A clear conclusion can be drawn from our actions over the last few decades: species of good bacteria are disappearing. Gut flora imbalance occurs frequently these days and affects everybody differently. Researchers believe it can be linked to obesity, inflammatory disease and digestive pain.
Science is revealing the extent to which maintaining gut microbiota can help improve our health. This consists of feeding bacteria that already exists in our gut with prebiotics, plus a few probiotics to give them a bit of help from time to time because the more diverse bacteria is, the more beneficial they become.
We can care for our gut microbiota by consuming small quantities of fermented food each day, enriching it with other populations of microorganisms. Fermented food and drinks help the gut to retain sufficient quantities of friendly bacteria to protect us should a rogue pathogen try to colonise our organs.
However, it’s important to understand the microorganisms in our diet won’t necessarily settle in our intestines permanently. These days, probiotics are a treatment more than a cure. After taking a course of antibiotics, it’s better to repopulate your intestinal flora rather than to leave that space vacant. That’s what probiotics are for: they help rebalance the intestine after the dangerous microbes have been eliminated. When we stop taking them, it’s up to our gut flora to keep us safe.
The Right Balance
You don’t have to be swallowing capsules to introduce probiotics. By varying the fermented products in your diet, like drinks, vegetables, yoghurt, etc., you can ingest beneficial microorganisms from natural sources.
Fermented foods offer a wealth of health benefits, but they’re most effective when consumed in small quantities, and often. Make sure you eat a varied and balanced diet containing raw, cooked and fermented foods – just a little of the latter every day is enough.
If you’re completely new to fermented products, begin by introducing them gradually. They are full of bacteria, so suddenly flooding your digestive tract could have unwanted side-effects. Start with half a small glass per day and, once your body has become used to this, increase the quantities until you start to feel the benefits.
Like any recipe, starting with the best-quality ingredients is the best way to ensure optimal results. This is particularly important with fermentation because the outcome depends not only on the types of microorganisms used, but also on the food to which they have access. Use ingredients that have been grown with minimal chemical intervention; organic is ideal.
Springwater will return the best flavour to your fermented drinks, but it’s expensive and difficult to obtain in large quantities. Rainwater is great, too. If you’re using tap water, you can use an activated-charcoal filter or decant it and let it stand for at least 12 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate. Distilled water won’t work because it’s void of the minerals required in the fermentation process. And make sure your sugar is as unrefined as possible in order to be effectively assimilated by the microorganisms.
Ginger bug, or ginger yeast, is the starter culture that is used as a base for ginger beer, probiotic tonics and other fermented sodas. It originated in the Caribbean, where the warm climate is favourable both to sugar cane and fermentation.
The process works well with fresh ginger as it has a naturally occurring fermenting agent on its skin called endogenous yeast. You’ll know the fermentation has been successful when the ginger bug is bubbly and smells well fermented. If bubbles aren’t visible and there’s mildew on the surface, it hasn’t worked. If you need to put your ginger bug on hold, pop it in the fridge. You can get it going again by returning it to room temperature and adding more ginger and sugar.
Once the starter has fermented, it can be used as a base for all sorts of drinks. To store your ginger bug for future drinks, strain it and feed the strained liquid with water, ginger and sugar every three days.
1 large piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
8–10 tbsp sugar
500 ml water, room temperature
Rinse the ginger and grate enough for one tablespoon (freezing it first makes grating much easier). Add the ginger and one tablespoon of sugar to an airtight jar, then pour in the water. Stir vigorously using a stainless steel spoon, or seal the jar and shake well. Open the jar again to let in some air, then repeat the process twice more. The ginger bug needs to be exposed to oxygen in order to start fermenting.
Allow the ginger bug to ferment in a warm place for three days. Ideal temperature is 30 ºC (try putting it on top of your fridge). Once a day, grate another tablespoon of unpeeled ginger into the jar, stir in another tablespoon of sugar and mix well. Seal the jar and shake a few times, and open the jar between each shake to allow in more air. On the third day you should see bubbles beginning to appear. Continue the feeding and oxygenating process for two more days.
500 ml bottled mineral water, rainwater
or decanted tap water
50 g fresh ginger, grated
50 g organic sugar
1 lemon, juice only
1 lime, juice only
150 ml ginger bug
1 dried bird’s eye chilli (optional)
Add the water and ginger to a saucepan and bring to the boil, if you’d like an extra kick, add the chilli to the boiling water, otherwise leave it out. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the sugar until dissolved. Once cool, add the citrus juice and the ginger bug, then stir well for several minutes to oxygenate the mixture. Strain into a bottle and seal tightly. Leave to ferment for three days, releasing a little gas from the bottle at regular intervals. Chill for 24 hours before serving.
Cucumber and mint
600 ml cucumber juice
1 bunch fresh mint
150 ml ginger bug
5 cm fresh ginger, cut into three pieces
40 g organic sugar
Juice the cucumbers and the mint using an electric juicer. Transfer the juice to a flip-top bottle, straining it first if you prefer a smoother texture. Add the ginger bug, fresh ginger and sugar, then seal the bottle and shake well until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside to ferment for up to 48 hours. Chill before serving.
This article represents the permaculture principle USE AND VALUE DIVERSITY.