June 27, 2011
soda au gingembre
(ginger ale)
In 1960, as a 12‑year old Boy Scout, I travelled to Colorado Springs for the 5th National Jamboree. I wasn’t really sure what a Jamboree was, but my brother had attended one three years earlier in Valley Forge, and he seemed to enjoy himself. We travelled between California and Colorado by air in a United Air Lines DC‑6. My first jet plane ride wouldn’t be for another three years. For a couple of days before and after the Jamboree, we travelled around Colorado by bus. I’m sure we went more places than I remember. Now, when I look at my crumbling photo album, I can’t remember where all the pictures were taken. And I wonder what happened to my friend Dick Shelley. (I still have a picture that we poised for in the tintype studio at East Tincup, a touristy ghost town outside of Denver. Now it would be called an historic theme park, but in 1960 it had just opened. I’m sitting on a bench, dressed as a gentleman, and Dick is standing behind me in a frontier‑style dress.)
The Jamboree was held the last week of July in a hot, dusty field. There I was with 50,000 fellow Scouts. It had cost my Father $305 plus pocket change to send me on the trip. Our accommodations were tents, and once in a while there was a breeze for a little air conditioning and a thundershower for a little cooling. One of the memories that still stands out for me, besides seeing Eisenhower drive by in a car, was drinking Coca‑Cola.
In 1960, I wasn’t a big fan of Coke. I actually wouldn’t drink a bottle of Coke. My soft drink of preference was Bireley’s. It wasn’t carbonated like sodas. I liked the orange flavor, tolerated the grape, and absolutely disliked the strawberry. We never had soft drinks at home, but they always were refreshing when we bought them from some crotchety machine that would try to eat our precious dimes. The machines would usually be at a gas station that we would stop at on one of my family’s summer driving vacations. (My Father loved to drive, and we did so every summer.) You had to guide the bottle through a maze to get it out of the machine. There was a contraption on the side for removing the crown cap. The bottles would always be covered with condensation. You would stand next to the machine drinking straight from the 634‑oz glass bottle. When you were finished, you placed the empty bottle in the wooden crate sitting next to the machine. So what happened there in that hot, dusty Colorado field that had me drinking 4 or 5 paper cups of Coca‑Cola everyday?
The Cokes at the Jamboree tasted and had a mouth feel totally different than the few I had previously tried from bottles. It was made soda fountain‑style from carbonated water and syrup. Being served outdoors, it was the same temperature as the air, but it tasted cool. I was fascinated by all the tubes running from one canister to the next, and you could see the syrup and water mixing the clear plastic dispenser head. Sometimes, the dispenser didn’t work properly, and the red paper cup had mostly syrup in it. Once in a while, I could talk one of the Scouts selling the stuff for a free refill.
As I grew older, my drink preference changed to Canada Dry Ginger Ale, a much more “adult” drink. And after having drunk my share, I thought myself to be an expert. In 1963, at another Jamboree, this time in Greece, I was to get an education in real ginger ale. This Jamboree was held on the Plains of Marathon, but for three weeks before and after, us 72 Scouts from the United States toured Europe. On my first night in Athens, myself and a buddy were waiting in the hotel bar—I was now 15 years old—for one of his Greek relatives. I ordered a ginger ale. Wow. This ginger ale was nothing like the wimpy ones I was used to. Sure, it was just ginger‑flavored soda water, but never before had flames emitted from my mouth after taking the first swallow. This stuff was both spicy, cold, and sweet at the same time. I loved it. Canada Dry would never cut it for me again.
Fast forward to today, and I still like ginger ale although I rarely order it. Recently I’ve started making what I’ve been told are called Italian sodas. I’m making those because I’ve been also making a variety of flavored syrups. Last summer, my Italian sodas made with Meyer‑lemon syrup were very popular. So if I had some ginger syrup, I could make a soda, maybe even ginger ale, with it.
Luckily, there are a number of cocktails that are made with ginger syrup, and bartenders often make their own. I found a recipe on the Internet by Betty Fraser and Denise DeCarlo, owners of Grub in Hollywood, California. Using that as a starter, I worked out a slightly more sophisticated version.
I started by placing some washed, weighed, and chunked fresh ginger in my food processor. The ginger was not peeled, but I removed any overly dry, cracked, or spoiled portions. I pureed this initially without any added liquid, and then added an equal amount, by weight, of filtered water. When the puree was finely textured, I transferred it to a saucepan and added an amount of granulated sugar equal to the original weight of the ginger and more filtered water equal to twice the weight of the ginger. The mixture was brought to a strong simmer. I then reduced the heat so that a slow simmer could be maintained with bubbles barely breaking the surface. Except for occasionally skimming the scum off the surface, I left it undisturbed for about an hour. At the end, the syrup was stained though a single layer of muslin and set aside to cool. The amount of syrup obtained was roughly equal to twice the original weight of the ginger.
This is where the original recipe came to an end. I had lots of tasty syrup—lots of cloudy, murky, tasty syrup—not what I wanted to use to make a soda. So I weighed and reheated the syrup. As it was heating, I added 0.2%, by weight, agar. When the liquid was warm enough to hydrate all the agar, I gave it a stir and poured the mixture into a bowl which I set in my refrigerator. The next morning, the syrup had solidified but was still quit soft. It jiggled like a chilled stock. I whisked the mixture gently to break it up, tied it into a piece of muslin, and set it in a strainer over a bowl. I placed another bowl over the “bag” of syrup and added about 500 g (1 lb) of water to the bowl. After a few hours, the clarified liquid was no longer seeping from the bag, so I added another kilo (214 lb) of water to the bowl and returned everything to the refrigerator.
The next morning, everything that was going to be squeezed from the bag was. Unfortunately, there was also a few cloudy areas in the syrup. To further clarify it, I decided to use a coffee filter and a funnel. After two more days in the refrigerator, I had an amount of crystal clear, sweet, gingery syrup about equal in weight to my original pile of ginger. It was not overly sweet.
Now there is only one thing left to turn the ginger syrup into ginger ale: add sparkling water. This may not be considered a true ginger ale where the carbonation comes from bottling the liquid with a small amount of yeast, but the effect is the same. By mixing thoroughly chilled ginger syrup and thoroughly chilled soda water, I am able to make a very pleasing soda without using ice. And in small quantity, it is a pleasant interlude between a heavy main course and the cheese course that follows.

© 2011 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.