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Strange Brew

March 17, 2012
by Anne Pinckard
A man with a bow and arrow brewing something

A small group of enthusiasts revive a forgotten beverage.

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.

The ginger beer plant, also called bees wine, is in fact a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or a SCOBY. Those who know about it say it makes a beverage superior to one made with yeast alone. As the online Yahoo! group GingerBeerPlant, the most prominent site devoted to GBP, puts it, “If you want to make ginger beer using yeast, that’s great—but note it isn’t a GBP.” The group provides links to purchase the real, authentic GBP, with warnings to call out non-genuine suppliers.

By all accounts, GBP seemed to be everywhere 150 years ago. Stoneware pots of it bubbled on windowsills and mantels throughout Europe and the United States. In England, street carts offered cups of brew for sale. And GBP’s history might suggest the origins of the name, in that plant is used synonymously with factory, said Apte in a 2006 interview.

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.

Apte kept one sterile test tube intact and placed it in the refrigerator. This would be his reserve in case he contaminated the bit he was trying to grow. For guidance, he primarily relied on what remains the most thorough scientific investigation of the ginger beer plant: a 79-page article published in 1892 by British microbiologist Harry Marshall Ward.

“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. “I stopped after I realized it was likely to die long before I could give it away.”

Although new to ginger beer, Apte had a lot of experience doing “everything authentically.” “There’s a purism to it, but there’s also a strong anticonsumerism and a cheapness—a Yankee, penny-pinching approach—because many of the things you can make at home are very inexpensive,” he says. He grew up eating convenience food. “Back then, we thought cooking was when you had Hamburger Helper and added a few of your own ingredients to it.”

About 12 years ago, he says, he wanted to make bread, so he built a mill to make his own flour. To improve the texture of his loaves, he malted his flour. “If you’ve got malted wheat, you might as well make wheat beer,” he says. Forget the fact that he was a self-described teetotaler.

Today, he is an avid amateur brewer (and drinker) who approaches the hobby with scientific rigor. He’s published research papers and given presentations at home-brewing conventions. And he pioneered a new technique he calls the $1 Homebrew Oak Barrel now adopted by the amateur brewing community.

In the basement of his Palo Alto home, Apte points to his invention—a wooden stopper (a modified furniture leg) fitted into a glass carboy. He explains that with the wood plug, he can grow specialty yeast and create a Flemish-style sour beer with medium acidity.

It’s July and hot outside, but the basement stays cool, a good temperature for fermenting brews. The room looks like a mechanic’s workshop. A voltmeter sits on a nearby workbench. Machine parts, most of which could be bought at the local hardware store, litter the tabletops. In the center stands a metal frame, much like industrial shelving. But these shelves hold burners with all kinds of valves. It’s what he uses to brew beer, he says. He points to the burners. “That’s like a whole house heater, and this is like a three- or four-burner kitchen stove,” he explains. “I was a little worried the first time I operated it because I didn’t have this heat shield on,” he says, tapping a metal plate secured to one side. “I was operating it out here in the backyard patio, and I was still worried that I would burn the house down.”

He picks up another item that appears to be made of a copper float from a toilet tank. Yes, he confirms, he used plumbing parts. “It’s a coffee roaster,” he explains. He’s also made his own espresso machine, a design he is considering packaging as a kit for other do-it-yourselfers.

Apte keeps his brews in a closet adjoining the basement. A vinegary smell fills the small room. Lining the walls in neat rows and stacks are vessels of various shapes: carboys filled with dark amber liquid, jars of honey vinegar, and containers of cider. He keeps a black book to record his recipes and techniques.

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.

The symbiosis of the yeast and bacteria makes the plant difficult to kill. Once Apte figured that out, it became more about perfecting “the art” of brewing than about the science. He began playing with different flavors—hibiscus, rose, vanilla, citrus (ginger, incidentally, is not a necessary ingredient). He figured out a way of manipulating the organisms to obtain the perfect brew: Ferment at room temperature for a few days, with a period of rest in the refrigerator. “At one point I made it every week,” he said by phone. “My son loves it. He asks for it.”

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.”

Associate Editor Anne Pinckard ’02 has yet to taste the elusive ginger brew.
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