"Human beings have recognized the magic and power of fermentation for as long as we have been human" -Sandor Ellix Katz
Last month I took a class at Nevada City's fabulous herb shop HAALo that focused on super-hydrating and nourishing herbal drinks, most of them fermented. Since it was late August and we were all dealing with the consequences of this county's less-than-stellar summer air quality (the dirty air from California's central valley pools here in the foothills), plus an unusual heat wave, plus smoke drifting in from nearby wildfires, emphasis was put onto the kinds of plants that help to quench and cool the body during this fiery season.
The lovely & amazing Anna taught the class. She hosted the herbal bone broth making gathering that I posted about a few months ago too.
(Photos from the class are courtesy of Bonny- thank you!)
As with most herbalists, Anna emphasized using wild local herbs that are at their peak potency right now to treat conditions that are also specific to this very place at this very time. Blackberries and manzanita berries are ripe in late August? Use them to cool the heat and ease the inflammation of Northern California's scorching Indian Summer.
Anna often makes jello from her herbal sodas by adding highly nutritious organic gelatin. She then often makes popsicles for her two sons from the jello! Pretty genius, and man she must have the best-nourished kids in town. (Locals- these metal popsicle molds are available at Kitkitdizzi- as are my St. John's Wort oils, I might add).
I must've looked at this picture of these captivated women at least a dozen times before I realized that was me on the left.
Okay, but this is what we're here for- the ginger starter, or ginger "bug". You put a week's worth of effort into getting your culture going using filtered water, fresh ginger root, and sugar (don't worry sugar avoiders- the skin of the ginger digests the sugar, and the byproduct of this process is what creates the fizzing, bubbling nutrients that make lacto-fermented ginger soda what it is).
"Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods, microbial foods included, possess a great, unmediated life force, which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere, and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible." -Sandor Ellix Katz
I am super grateful to HerbMentor for posting these videos so that I don't have to sit here and type out how to start your ginger bug. This is exactly what I did to make mine...
I really appreciate the part at about 4 minutes in on this second video where they talk about the fact that the starter can last indefinitely as long as you keep feeding it. Anna has fed, dipped into, re-filled, and re-fed her same jar of ginger starter for years.
Here's a peek at mine.
So what they didn't get to in the videos is what comes next. What comes next is you add 1 part ginger starter (straining out the pieces of ginger) to 4 parts any herbal or fruit juice or syrup you like. I used four kinds of local berries bought at the farmer's market- raspberries, strawberries, boysenberries, and blueberries. I blended them up and strained out the gritty parts, then added my ginger brew. I then bottled it all into used kombucha bottles and allowed them to sit out overnight. Usually you let them sit for one to two days. But the next morning when I checked I could tell mine were ready by the pop and fizz the bottles made upon opening, so I took Anna's suggestion and put them into the fridge to settle a bit. She also suggests "burping" your bottles at least once a day- opening the lid a bit so that some CO2 can escape.
Which brings me to what is perhaps the biggest deterrent for people who want to make their own lacto-fermented drinks- the possibility of a major explosion.
Which, as you can see, sure did happen to me. I had left one bottle out overnight and kept the rest in the fridge, just to test if it would be different (fermentation is an ongoing process- once they're bottled, they're still fermenting and changing). Next day I opened a refrigerated soda and it was PERFECT. So effervescent and bubbly and alive! It was exactly what you're going for with something like this. I felt damn proud. When it was time to test out the bottle that had been left out, I took precaution, knowing it would be further along in the fermentation process. I put a large bowl under it, a large bowl over it, and I put it in the sink. I opened it as carefully as possible and BAM! the next thing I knew I heard a loud pop and felt a strong force throw my hands off the bottle. When I opened my eyes I saw this.
Okay it actually happened twice, which explains the disparities in these photos. Well, lesson learned. It was, after all, an experiment to test this very thing. I wanted to learn as much as I could from this first batch. I get the impression from reading and hearing about other peoples' adventures in culturing that it is a constant learning process. It's always subject to change- depending on ingredients, time of year, length of time, the bottle, etc. No one really knows what they're doing when they start out, and even experts are constantly being surprised by what the microbes reveal to them.
One thing I learned from this is to use bottles with twist off caps from now on instead of the kombucha bottles pictured above so that I can have time to open the bottle more slowly and, even if there is some overspill, prevent any major explosions.
"The science and art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture." -Sally Fallon
Here are some other great resources to get you started:
Full Moon Feast (my favorite food/cook book, with an awesome section on "alewives" and ale-making)
The Art of Fermentation (Sandor Ellix Katz' new book on the subject- basically the Bible of fermenting)
I should point out here that you will read many different ratios in many different recipes. Fermentation as a process is more of an art than a science (though the health benefits and the knowledge of the organisms are backed up by hard science), and the more experience you build up the better you'll be able to know which exact proportions to use. I am still at the very beginning stages of this, and look forward to becoming a more seasoned fermenter.
Next up for me and my ginger starter is ginger beer, from the recipe on page 139 of Wild Fermentation. And after that is beet kvass fermented with whey from Suuzi's goats in place of the ginger starter. I'll keep you updated on my experiments, and please share any of yours with me!
(Speaking of our good friend Suuzi- her underground music hero husband Spencer Seim and local legend Aaron Ross's new band Solos finally released their album Beast of Both Worlds last week! Read a rad review here and listen to a track here).