Ginger Beer circa 1810

We are always on the hunt for new historic foods to add to our rotation of recipes both for enjoying at home and at events. Recently we’ve been going through a lot of store-bought ginger beer. Then, while searching for historic advice on my recent cider brewing experiments, I happened to read a ginger beer recipe that sounded too easy to be any good. Naturally I had to try it and see for myself though.

That recipe, from Esther Copley is only one of 5 that she includes in the 1810 edition of The Cooks Complete Guide. It’s also the shortest, taking only 36 hours total before the beverage is “fit for use”. How could anything labeled “beer” be drinkable in one day?

In the interest of research, I looked at as many ginger beer recipes as I could find to see if Copley’s fast recipe is unique. It’s not. While no other book included a 24 hour process like Copley’s, the ingredient and procedure were all identical. Making historic ginger beer is actually pretty simple, requiring only water, ginger, sugar & yeast. The biggest variations are in the amount of time the brew is left to ferment and the use of various additives to either encourage bubbling, or help clarify the finished drink.

So let's look at those additives. Cream of tartar is very common. A derivative of wine brewing, this acid is usually used to stabilize whipped egg whites or to prevent sugar from crystallizing when cooking. Historically it encourages the fizzing of ginger beer & other early “soft drinks” and could be used as a substitute for yeast. Although since these recipes also include yeast, it’s more of an enhancer than a replacement. Adding cream of tarter makes for an extra fizzy drink, in a shorter period of time than it would take for yeast alone. It also helps create a fizz without the resulting alcohol that yeast would also create.

This is important because while this is called “beer”, historic ginger beer isn’t like the moden beer you are probably thinking about. Even the longest brewing times aren’t long enough to produce much alcohol. This is especially true for the versions with short, day long brews like the one I tried. The longest recipes call for the drink to ‘remain in the barrel a fortnight” (Copley), while others suggest only that “in 10 days it will sparkle like champagne” (Rundell). Compare that to the two week minimum fermenting time for the average alcoholic beer or the years invested in aging wine or mead. Ginger beer is down right short & sweet in comparison.

Ginger beer bottle, 1820.
The next most common ingredients in historic ginger beer are those used to fine, or clarify, the final beverage. These range from Isinglass; a gelatin made from the swim bladder of sturgeon, or egg whites. Both work by grabbing onto any yeast residue and helping it sink to the bottom of your bottle, or as Rundell says “clear by ascent”. Which is a very nice way of saying they keep the junk out of your glass.

Many recipes specify that ginger beer should be stored in “stoneware bottles”. This is both aesthetic, but also practical. First, un-fined ginger beer is rather cloudy as you can see in the photos of my brew. Not the worst attribute, but one that could be seen as inferior. Even dark glass bottles that were common in the 18th century still show some measure of the final drink inside, making opaque stoneware a preferable way to hide any unattractive cloudiness in your ginger beer.

Another reason to use stoneware is the pressure that active yeast fermentation can create. Glass is sturdy, but not nearly as much as a solid stoneware bottle. Copley gives directions not just to cork your stoneware bottles well, but to tie them shut with a reusable string & loop arrangement. This method works in much the same way as the swing-top bottles I used in my attempt (which weren’t invented until 1847) and will, theoretically, allow the cork to pop free if the pressure builds up too much, without shattering the bottle. If you look at historic ginger beer bottles, you might notice the heavy rim at the top of the neck, which would have helped hold these early cork trapping strings in place. I tried this method on a stoneware wine bottle in my own collection and even though it doesn’t have as much of a “lip” as a proper ginger beer bottle, I was still pretty pleased with the result.

Lastly, many recipes include adding lemon juice or peel at various points in the brewing process. While the juice may have some added carbonation effect in the final drink, the peel is mostly for added flavor. You can add these to your liking but be cautious of using too much. The lemon flavor can easily overwhelm the ginger.

But what about the most important aspect of the recipe, how does it taste?

For starters, it’s fizzy. Really fizzy! Spray half a bottle all over your kitchen fizzy and that’s after only 24 hours. Given the amount of sugar, I was expecting a much sweeter beverage so clearly the yeast are doing their job. This is really no sweeter than modern ginger ale, and maybe a little less. There is a slight ginger-lemon scent that isn’t overpowering and the tiniest hint of yeast flavor. The latter dies down after a few hours of the bottle being opened & closed, so it’s most likely just built up from the bottle being shut for a long time. The color is milky-pail yellow and there is a lot of sediment at the bottom of a glass and at the bottom of the bottle.

Interested in making your own batch. Here is my interpretation of Esther Copley’s “24 hour” recipe.

Explosively Good 1810s Ginger Beer

1 gallon boiling water
1.5 oz Cream of Tartar (one small container)
½ oz peeled and sliced ginger (or more to taste, I used a lot more!)
Juice & peel from 1/2 a lemon
2 cups granulated sugar

Mix all the ingredients together on the stove and heat, just long enough for the sugar to mix with the water. Let sit, covered, for 6 hours to allow the mixture to come to “milk warm”, ie room temperature (Randolph).

Add in 1 tablespoon dry bread yeast, stir and allow to sit for another 6 hours at room temperature.

Finally, strain through a sieve and bottle tightly for 24 hours. Use bottles that can be opened periodically during that time to relieve some of the pressure. When ready to drink, store in the refrigerator to halt any additional fermentation & enjoy.

Finally, no, even though we normally drink store-bought ginger beer with booze, ala Moscow mule, Mamie Taylor or Dark & Stormy, we never managed to taste test this batch when combined with alcohol. We liked the flavor when straight so much, it was all I could do to manage to keep my boyfriend from drinking it all before we even reached the 24 hour finish line. Now I understand why Copley’s original recipe is for at least 2 gallons!

See you in the past!

Works Cited:
Copley, Esther. The Cook's Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort, and Elegance: Including the Art of Carving, and the Most Approved Method of Setting-out a Table ... Instructions for Preserving Health and Attaining Old Age ... Rules for Cultivating a Garden and Numerous Useful Miscellaneous Receipts. United Kingdom: George Virtue, 1810.

Gary. “Cream Of Tartar: the Link Between Cream Ale, Cream Soda, Cream Nectar and Egg Cream?” Beer Et Seq, January 16, 2020.

Ginger beer bottle, stoneware, made by Jonathan Leak, Brickfield Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1820, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook. N.p.: Applewood Books, 2007. 1838

Rundell, Maria Eliza Ketelby. The Family Receipt Book: Containing Eight Hundred Valuable Receipts in Various Branches of Domestic Economy, Selected from the Works of the Most Approved Writers, Ancient and Modern, and from the Attested Communications of Scientific Friends. United States: Randolph Barnes, 1819.

The New Family Receipt-book: Containing Eight Hundred Truly Valuable Receipts in Various Branches of Domestic Economy Selected from the Works of British and Foreign Writers of Unquestionable Experience & Authority and from the Attested Communications of Scientific Friends. United Kingdom: Squire and Warwick, 1811.