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I've been attempting to use a ginger bug to make non-alcoholic ginger beer, but I manage to kill the bug each time, either while it is cultivating or after I add it to the ginger syrup.

Overview of my process:

  1. Put cup of distilled water in a jar or glass bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of fresh ginger with peel. Add 2 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of ginger at the same time each day, say the evening, and stirring each morning. Stirring may occur
  2. Once there is considerable bubbles, make the ginger tea/syrup in a stainless steel pot. Let it cool. I usually use 2 quarts of distilled water, 1 and 1/2 cup of white sugar, and a lot of chopped/grated ginger, like at least "4 inches", usually close to double that.
  3. Once cooled, filter into a larger stainless steel pot. Add another 2 quarts of distilled water, and then filter the active bug into the same pot. Add strained juice of two lemons.
  4. Stir, then immediately bottle the contents.
  5. ...
  6. No carbonation 2 weeks or even 2 months later.

My question simply is: what can actually kill the ginger bug? Some things I've read/thought about:

  1. Does contact with stainless steel or other metal kill it? Including the strainer, spoons, pots.
  2. Does using distilled water instead of filtered water affect it? Does the chlorine from tap water affect the bug?
  3. I've seen so many different recommendations for the type of sugar used, from white sugar to unrefined sugar to rapadura, does any of that make a difference?
  4. I live in a cold climate this time of year, does that matter? It seems to start OK.
  5. Can too much sugar kill it, in the same way that sugar often helps canned preserves avoid botulism?
  6. Stirring is meant to agitate a bug while cultivating it, but at some point does it hinder instead of help?
  7. Does the amount of water used to start the bug matter?
  • For step 2, I assume you're also using distilled water? I ask only because boiling isn't enough to remove the majority of the chlorine, and will remove almost no chloramine. – piojo Feb 25 '15 at 7:01
  • Yes, using distilled water. – gdoug Feb 25 '15 at 18:20
  • Sugar in canned preserves does not help avoid botulism. Acidity is a much better factor to avoid botulinum poisoning. – barking.pete Feb 17 '18 at 10:03
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You're probably not getting fermentation in the bottle.

"make the ginger tea/syrup in a stainless steel pot"

What are you doing in this step? If you are boiling to make a syrup you are killing the ginger plant (bug). It won't be around to make CO2 when you bottle.

"Stir, then immediately bottle the contents."

Are you also adding (boiled) sugar at this time? There may not be anything for the ginger plant to eat and turn into CO2

To answer the rest of your questions:

Does contact with stainless steel or other metal kill it? Including the strainer, spoons, pots.

No

Does using distilled water instead of filtered water affect it?

Probably not. It probably needs some trace minerals for long-term health, but it may have access to them from the lemon juice.

Does the chlorine from tap water affect the bug?

Quite possibly. It is added to kill microorganisms. If your tap water actually has chlorine, simply boil and cool the water to drive it off. If the water is dosed with chloramine instead you'll need to RO filter that out. If you still see activity after dosing with tap water you're probably fine.

I've seen so many different recommendations for the type of sugar used, from white sugar to unrefined sugar to rapadura, does any of that make a difference?

Doubtful. Sugar, unrefined sugar and rapadura are all mostly sucrose, which is really easy for Saccharomyces florentinus to metabolize. The more "unrefined" the sugar the more flavours will be left behind after the yeast and bacteria are done with it.

I live in a cold climate this time of year, does that matter? It seems to start Ok.

Yes. Fermentations will be slower, but won't kill off the microorganisms.

Can too much sugar kill it, in the same way that sugar often helps canned preserves avoid botulism?

Probably not. However, eventually the yeast and bacteria will be swimming around in their excrement. They're making alcohol and lactic acid and the more sugar, the more they'll make... until they make enough to be toxic.

Stirring is meant to agitate a bug while cultivating it, but at some point does it hinder instead of help?

Nope.

Does the amount of water used to start the bug matter?

In all likelyhood, no.

  • To clarify, I've been boiling ginger and sugar (not from the bug) in water, letting it cool completely, then adding the bug. Its after this that the fermentation stops. Is boiling the sugar a bad idea? Its usually at this point that the fermentation stops. – gdoug Feb 23 '15 at 17:55
  • Boiling the sugar is good. – Dean Brundage Mar 2 '15 at 1:07
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My first impression is, since ginger grows in the ground, these bugs are used to have a lot of minerals around, but they are now forced to live on distilled water and (refined?) sugar. So the first thing I would try is to replace the distilled water with used boiled tap water (or other ground water if you can get something clean). Other points:

  1. One of the benefits of stainless is that it kills bacteria by releasing chromium in the presence of acids. While the juice from a couple lemons will do a great job cleaning a stainless pot, I don't know how the rest of the material is affecting the pH. (Do you bugs produce acid in their normal metabolism?)

  2. Chlorine is there to kill bugs. That's the only reason it's there.

  3. According to wikipedia, unrefined sugars contain protein, fats and minerals, so maybe its a great way to keep the bugs happy.

  4. Temperature absolutely matters. I fact your culture should contain a mixture of bugs, and the temperature will affect which ones grow and which ones go dormant, and thus probably have a huge influence on the taste of the product. Just like we do for beer, keep it at the same temperature that the recipe was developed for.

  5. It can kill/inhibit yeast, so technically yes. But I think anything in the range of fruit juice (~10%) would be fine.

  6. Shaking that results in foam can be bad for bacteria, but your bugs probably like oxygen. Stir often, but gently.

  7. Some microorganisms like to have a bunch of their friends around. For example, for optimal yeast growth we avoid dilutions of more than 10:1; the yeast cooperate by making "growth factors" for each other. Many bacteria do this too, so it might be smart keep the initial volume low and diluted slowly. OTOH, if the traditional recipe says something else, do that.

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I would suspect that any "Ginger bug" prepared in the described manner is most probably some wild yeast and friends - which is not so far from the real ginger beer SCOBY. For more predictable results it might be an idea to invest in some real ginger beer SCOBY (Google it). That looks something like water or milk kefir - small "grains" of opaque mush. This SCOBY is a stable mix of a particular yeast and a particular lactobacillius.

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