Ginger beer is a beloved summer refresher - by itself, in a cocktail, or even with iced tea. It’s a unique beverage, befitting its unique main ingredient - but how is it made?
Kyle McKnight, the co-founder and head brewer at Timber City Ginger Beer in south Seattle, explained that as its name would suggest, ginger beer is brewed. But the process is different than the way beer is brewed. McKnight starts with fresh ginger from whatever part of the world happens to be picking it at that time of year - Peru, Brazil or Hawaii.
“Hawaiian comes in in the fall and the spring, but this year the volcano messed with that,” McKnight said. "So we didn’t get our spring shipment of the Hawaiian ginger, which is a bummer because it really is the best.”
Apparently you can tell the difference.
“Hawaiian, it’s still going to be spicy, but it has this really light body,” co-founder and general manager Kara Patt added. “We’re happy to use whatever is the freshest and the nicest.”
When the ginger arrives at Timber City, it’s minced by a machine called a buffalo chopper - McKnight said it’s similar to a food processor powered by a car engine - and mixed into hot water. It takes half a pound of ginger to get a gallon of ginger beer.
How long does it brew for?
“I can’t tell you that,” McKnight explains. Seriously - that’s the secret.
In a departure from beer brewing, no yeast is added to the mix, which means no alcohol. (The company also recently released a pair of alcoholic ginger beers; these brew with sake yeast) The only additions are sugar (not very much, just a gram per ounce), lemon juice, sage and thyme.
The herbs were introduced in the fourth or fifth batch McKnight brewed. He started crafting his elixir while working as a kitchen manager at The Unicorn in Capitol Hill. The bartenders wanted ginger beer but the available product was expensive so McKnight started making it, ten gallons at a time.
“Within four or five batches,” McKnight recalled, “I had added some of the sage and thyme and figured out that it enhanced the flavor, made it more aromatic and didn’t make it taste like chicken, which I was worried about because those are the main herbs you use in making chicken.”
Patt added that the herbs also provide health benefits. “Sage and thyme are anti-fungals,” she said. “Our ginger beer is actually very, very good for you, because we use such a small amount of sugar and such a large amount of ginger.”
Another departure from beer brewing is the source of the ginger beer’s bubbly fizz. Timber City force-carbonates their non-alcoholic line after the brewing process because naturally carbonation proved to be unpredictable and hazardous.
“We don’t put preservatives in our ginger beer. It’s similar to a fresh juice in that way, it does need to be refrigerated all the time,” Patt explained. “If we were to naturally carbonate our ginger beer, it would make it even more volatile.”
So keep it cold, and enjoy it any way you like. “I really love it with tequila in the summer time,” Patt said. “Our peach ginger beer with silver tequila and a nice, big wedge of lime.”
How does McKnight drink his?
“By the gallon.”