Hops, malt, apples and grapes are the usual suspects when it comes to brewing and fermenting drinks in Western North Carolina. Even honey is making itself known as mead becomes more popular. But at least two new businesses are spicing up the WNC brewing scene by fermenting with ginger. Homebrewing enthusiast David Ackley and bartenders Max Karcheski and Jeff Daniels are creating both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks — and perhaps a new crop option for local farmers — using the tropical rhizome.
Ackley, who’s been homebrewing beer for about six years, began cooking up his alcoholic ginger beer, dubbed Ginger’s Revenge, a couple of years ago when he and his fiancée were living in Panama. “I was determined to make beer when we moved down there, but there weren’t any homebrew shops, so we had to fill our suitcases with malt and hops every time we went back to the States, which was really challenging,” he recalls.
Around the same time, Ackley’s cousin introduced him to alcoholic ginger beer, which can be made with ingredients that are plentiful in Central America — ginger, cane sugar and lemon juice. “I started making it and discovered that it’s really refreshing in a tropical environment, and it makes for a really good dark, strong ale,” he explains.
After moving back stateside, Ackley began taking his ginger beers to homebrew festivals with positive results, including nabbing the People’s Choice Award at the 2015 Just Brew It festival. “It was getting such good feedback from people,” he explains, that “I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we should make this commercially.’”
Behind the bar
Karcheski and Daniels developed their 4-month-old business, Good Bros. Ginger Brew, from a completely different place: behind the bar.
The two became close friends — the “good bros” of their product’s name — during the more than two years they’ve worked together at the Aloft hotel’s WXYZ bar. Fermenting nonalcoholic, house-made ginger ale for use at the bar sparked thoughts of becoming entrepreneurs.
“Ginger-based drinks are really popular right now, like Moscow mules and the dark ‘n’ stormy, and they taste really good, but we were going through cases and cases of Fever Tree and other brands of ginger beer,” Karcheski says. “So one day, Jeff said, ‘Why don’t we make our own?’ So we decided to give it a try.”
Their inaugural batch was just 1 gallon fermented in a plastic jug, but after a lot of Google searches and YouTube videos, they “started to experiment with it just like mad scientists,” says Karcheski. “It was a lot of trial and error — some of it was good, some of it was bad.”
After about a month and a half of playing around with different types of yeast, sweeteners (local honey vs. sugar), varieties of lemons, fermenting times and temperatures, they arrived at the recipe they are now marketing.
“It’s a top-secret recipe, but we don’t use anything crazy,” says Karcheski. “We just use ginger, some sugar, some lemon juice and lemon zest, then we add yeast and let it ferment for the perfect amount of time. … We wanted to create something sweet that finishes warm.”
Cutting off the fermentation process before alcohol can form, they bottle the brew, which is distinctly gingery but not overly spicy, sweet but not cloying, with a refreshing, lemony zing. And since it’s made without preservatives, they keep it ice-cold until it’s opened.
The ginger hunt
But where do they source those ingredients? Both Ackley and Good Bros. are adamant about their dedication to using all-natural processes and the freshest components — locally grown whenever possible. But both businesses acknowledge the challenge inherent in trying to source responsibly when the main ingredient doesn’t typically grow nearby.
Karcheski and Daniels, who started out brewing small batches in the kitchen at Aloft, go around to local grocery stores, “basically raiding all the ginger supplies in town,” says Daniels, adding, “We put pounds and pounds of it into each batch.” But after looking into partnering with local farmers and even taking a stab at growing it themselves, they’re now looking for a wholesale source, he explains.
Meanwhile, Ackley, who’s searching for a space to set up a full-scale brewing facility in or near Asheville, has his sights set on creating a local ginger supply. He reached out to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to connect with potential growers in the area, and he is in the trial phase of a partnership with a local farm.
“There is an interest in growing it,” he says. “I have picked up ginger from the local farmers markets. … But it’s a seasonal crop, and the harvest is toward the end of summer, so usually I just have to pick up organic ginger from the grocery store. But my goal would be to create demand, and I think there is — or will be — a lot of demand for organically grown local ginger.”
From the ground up
But how feasible is it to grow the warm-weather-loving plant in WNC?
“Because it’s tropical, it has to be grown in greenhouses here in the mountains,” explains Molly Nicholie, program director of ASAP’s local food campaign. Brewers, she continues, “need a lot more ginger than is grown in this region. Most local farmers who are growing it have very limited production.”
Eileen Droescher of Ol’ Turtle Farm in Marion does small-scale ginger production, marketing mostly to small businesses making baked goods, chocolate and ice cream. Droescher plants around 45 pounds of seed ginger each year on her 2-acre market plot, using methods she learned years ago while running a large Community Supported Agriculture operation in Massachusetts.
“It takes a good bit of effort,” says Droescher, “more than growing squash or cucumbers or something like that. It’s a long-season crop, so it has to be presprouted in a greenhouse, and the soil has to be warm when it’s planted, so we sometimes have to preheat the soil with row cover or black plastic.”
It’s a slow-growing plant that must have dirt hilled around it several times throughout the growing season, she continues, and it needs a lot of cleaning before it goes to market.
Nevertheless, says Droescher, “I see a great potential for young growers to hop on this. The breweries would have to be committed to buying local and be willing to pay the price for it. But Asheville really supports that, and people would be willing to pay for a product made with locally grown, organic ginger.”
Meanwhile, Ginger’s Revenge isn’t yet on the market. Ackley aims to start with a couple of varieties — one mild, the other stronger — and then experiment with different yeast strains and flavors, incorporating local produce, herbs and spices. His emphasis will be on making and bottling the product for retail sale.
Karcheski and Daniels, though, are closer to getting their business off the ground. They just finished having their product tested at N.C. State University, and at press time, Good Bros. was poised to move into a new production and sales space at the Asheville Food Park on Amboy Road.
Although they haven’t quit their jobs at WXYZ, the pair see Good Bros. taking off. They’ve been selling their brew for $3 a bottle (and selling out every week) at the River Arts District Farmers Market, and they’re kegging it for downtown businesses such as Aloft, Tiger Mountain and the Over Easy Cafe. Isa’s Bistro has even commissioned a watermelon-flavored ginger brew that its bartenders use to create a signature cocktail.
In the meantime, these budding entrepreneurs credit Aloft with helping them get started and Asheville with being fertile ground for sowing the seeds of such a venture. “Maybe you couldn’t do something like this in another town,” says Karcheski. “But for us — right here, right now — we’re very, very happy with the way the community has received our idea.”