Roamer: Do you have the recipe for ale plant?

Ginger beer plant with no soil or roots
Ginger beer plant with no soil or roots

A short note to Roamer from News Letter reader Ernie Levin rekindled memories of a brief era in the late 1950s when many families in my locality ‘grew’ a fizzy drinks plant at home.

A short note to Roamer from News Letter reader Ernie Levin rekindled memories of a brief era in the late 1950s when many families in my locality ‘grew’ a fizzy drinks plant at home.

At the time, ‘growing’ drinks, whether fizzy or flat, was unheard of.

Drinks came in bottles, or in a soda syphon!

The latter tended to be a special treat during a childhood illness, and was one of the few advantages of being sick!

The responsibility of growing was devolved to mustard and cress seeds on a water-logged blotter in the classroom, or to the garden, where I planted pansy seeds and dug them up every few hours to see if they were sprouting.

My father grew potatoes on raised ridges in the garden and woe betide Jumbo my dog if he ventured anywhere near them!

Mum grew prickly cacti in flowerpots on the windowsill and I loved the one that looked like Mickey Mouse!

She also grew Busy Lizzies which lived up to their name and threatened to engulf the house until a plague of greenfly pruned her beloved Triffids!

But when my parents announced that our next-door neighbour was giving us a ginger ale plant I didn’t know what to expect.

It was duly delivered in a jam pot - a mysterious, sweet smelling, murky, yellow-brown liquid which dad decanted into a large stoneware jar that was put on the sideboard.

It didn’t look like plant - there were no prickles or pests - but dad assured me it was ‘growing’ and that it produced a nice, fizzy, ginger drink.

I wasn’t convinced! When he wasn’t looking I poked a spoon into the jar but couldn’t find any soil or roots.

Thereafter mum topped it up every day (with water, I think) and we enjoyed drinking its sweet, tangy, liquid harvest.

It was regularly transferred around the neighbourhood in bowls and cups until it seemed like everyone had a ginger ale plant in their parlour.

The phase fizzled out, and the plants withered or drowned and were forgotten.

Until Ernie Levin contacted Roamer!

“Around our area between Garvagh and Coleraine it was a common thing,” 76-year-old Ernie told me.

The retired motor mechanic remembers that it was “a lovely fresh drink. I’d love to taste it again,” he added.

That was over 60 years ago, and in Ernie’s area it was called an ‘ale plant’.

“My mother kept it in a glass sweetie jar,” he explained, “it was three quarters full with water. She added ginger, or treacle, and some people put sugar into it,” he explained, “and you’d see wee bits floating to the top. I think that was the yeast.”

The Levin’s ale plant was kept on their kitchen windowsill when Ernie was “only a bit of a cub” but recently, when he was visiting his cousin in a nursing home on a very warm day “my cousin’s brother arrived for a visit,” he told me “and we were all feeling thirsty and we remembered our ale plant!”

They started discussing the ingredients and wondered if anyone still had a plant so that they could get the process going again.

“My problem is,” Ernie told me, “how do you start it off? What’s in the mixture? I just can’t remember.”

Three or four houses in his district had an ale plant when he was a child “and I think you had to get it from a neighbour,” he sighed.

I told Ernie that we’d one too, with ginger in it

“Maybe it was called a ginger ale plant,” he surmised, adding “I think we put a spoonful of sugar into it every day. The taste sticks in my memory.”

So if anyone knows of, or is growing, an ale plant, or ginger ale plant, Ernie would love to hear from you via Roamer’s mailbox.

“I’ve already bought a jar to put it in,” he admitted optimistically, “and I’ve got two ounces of yeast ready and waiting but I need to know the proper ingredients and quantities.”

He’s evidently very enthusiastic to trace the brew, though he told me “I’m diabetic and I don’t drink much of anything these days. I maybe wouldn’t be allowed to drink it!”

Roamer has searched around on Ernie’s behalf for information about the plant, and has discovered that back in 2008 the News Letter’s Geoff Hill embarked on a similar assignment, which he recounted under the headline ‘Ale Plant Mystery’!

“What is it?” Geoff’s article opened. He suspected in his own inimitable prose that it was “a sort of fungal growth like a miniature coral reef, except without the tropical fish, obviously, which grew in the bottom of a jar filled with water, which it slowly transformed into a refreshing drink which, looking back as an adult, tasted vaguely of English bitter ale.”

Geoff didn’t reveal in his article if the ale was, or wasn’t, alcoholic, but Ernie Levin agrees with Roamer that to the best of their combined indulgence, their childhood brew was non-alcoholic.

“A lot of people had ginger ale plants where we lived,” a 91-year-old Roamer-reader told me, “but all those folk are dead now. We added water to the jar every day, and the plant produced the taste and the smell.”

Hopefully a reader can produce the recipe, or a sample, for Ernie Levin!