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We're Living in the Golden Age of American Ginger Beer

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How ginger ale and ginger beer have become the darlings of the modern craft soda boom.

Shutterstock/BarbaraDiniz

In this age of clickbait-happy internet culture, we’ve all endured the terrifying (viral) horror stories about unwanted entities finding their way into our food and drink.

Bugs crashed the party inside your Subway sandwich? Check.

A snake head showing up in a bag of frozen broccoli? Yeah, that happened.

While these kinds of gross-out stories might seem to be a novel phenomenon, the right to take legal action against a rogue animal in one’s food was actually birthed from a glass of ginger beer in the 1800s.

As court record (and urban legend) goes, a woman ordered a pint of ginger beer in a Scottish bar and fell ill when she saw the remains of a decomposed snail plop out of the bottom of the bottle. She sued the manufacturer for both shock and ensuing medical problems, setting up the court case that would shape our modern concept of legal negligence.

Beyond its importance in the courtroom, the case also reinforces a valuable cultural lesson: almost nothing is more precious to the sanctity of English life than a tip-top pint of ginger beer.

Since the 1700s, drinking ginger beer has been a birthright across the British Isles, with companies ensuring that the powerful soda is kept at the ready from Brighton to Glasgow.

A monument dedicated to the ginger beer snail (via the City of Paisley)

A monument dedicated to the ginger beer snail. Photo via the City of Paisley.

Similarly, the drink developed deep cultural roots in both the Caribbean and countries across Eastern and Southern Africa. Today, in places like Barbados and St. Vincent, ginger beer is fashioned into thirst-quenching shandies, while Stoney Ginger Beer (also known by its Swahili name, Stoney Tangawizi) is a too-hot-to-handle South African favorite.

The notable health benefits of ginger notwithstanding, ginger beer has become a go-to peppy pick-me-up in dozens of countries: The kind of nose tingling, tongue-singing drink that tastes like liquid vim and vigor.

... ginger ale—is now seeing a particularly bold crescendo in popularity ...

Attitudes have (historically) been markedly different in the United States, where ginger beverages walked the line between frumpy and obsolete. Ginger ale was something mothers forced upon their reluctant children (fizz stirred out) when they fell sick after one-too-many funnel cakes and a nauseating ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl—not a refreshing, beloved soft drink. Ginger beer? Relatively unheard of.

Over the past few years, ginger beverages' longstanding bad reputation has started to shift, as curious drinkers with more heat-appreciative palates have grown a burgeoning market for craft ginger beer and ale across the country. Thanks in large part to a renewed interest in both heritage recipes and small batch soda production, ginger beer—once regarded only as the strange, stodgy ancestor of ginger ale—is now seeing a particularly bold crescendo in popularity alongside its more familiar saccharine cousin.

Despite the ginger-based drink boom in recent years, the distinction between ginger beer and ale still remains a mystery for many fledgling ginger nuts.

Ginger beer is the more complex of the two, with a chemical makeup reminiscent of kombucha instead of a typical sugary soda.

A fermented drink in the tradition of a spicy mead variation known as metheglin, non-alcoholic (below roughly 2 percent alcohol) ginger beer was first brewed in England in the 1850s. A process of alarming simplicity, the means of concocting the earliest forms of ginger beer simply called for a combination of ginger beer plant (which is, in actuality, a yeast hybrid), sugar, water and lemon to be left alone in a barrel while bacteria danced its magical fermenting tango.

Soon, ginger beer found itself in taverns and pubs across England. Famed British plant pathologist Harry Marshall Ward (best known for his work fighting coffee rust disease in Sri Lanka) wrote of the drink’s popularity in an 1892 essay:

My attention [has been] directed to a curious substance popularly known ... as the ginger beer plant, from its association with the ... well-known summer beverage so often purchased in villages and towns in various parts of the British Isles.

Ginger ale, on the other hand, was born of a desire to create a ginger-flavored drink with an even lower alcohol content by completely skipping the fermentation process. Fashioned in Belfast in 1852, ginger ale brings together ginger flavoring, sugar and carbonated water, creating a drink that still scratches the ginger itch while smoothing out spice and—most importantly—avoiding any trace of booziness. Ginger ale’s creator, Dr. Thomas Cantrell, described his potion as being, "sparkling and clear as the choicest Champagne, as having a most agreeable odour [and] perfectly free from any intoxicating quality."

Thankfully, in recent years, high quality ginger beer and ale have moved beyond places where the Union Jack flies, with modern carbonated beverage lovers from California to Vermont now fully embracing the charms of this once stodgy soda. While New England has a legacy of ginger beverage appreciation (even during the drinks’ dark ages), the Pacific Northwest has established itself as the modern Mecca for locally crafted ginger beer and ale above any other region.

A rainbow variety of Rachel's Ginger Brew (via Rachel's Ginger Brew)

A rainbow variety of Rachel's Ginger Brew. Photo via Rachel's Ginger Brew.

In Seattle, Rachel’s Ginger Beer has been largely responsible for leading the drink’s comeback charge, setting up shop in the tourist-mobbed Pike Place Market and experimenting with creative flavors like guava and white peach. Seattle newcomers like Timber City Ginger Beer and Malus Seattle Ginger Beer have followed in Rachel’s footsteps, making personal ginger beer preference a point of neighborhood (and personal) pride.

... the distinction between ginger beer and ale still remains a mystery for many fledgling ginger nuts.

Portland hasn’t lagged far behind in developing a similarly frothy ginger beer scene. The drink has seen such a spike in popularity that renowned Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler outlined a step-by-step for brewing ginger beer at home on his blog, which inspired (among others) a local teenage boy to craft a backyard batch of the spicy stuff.

On the opposite coast, ginger beer has conjured up interesting recipes and functions that surprise even longtime brewers. "People are using our ginger brew for cooking, sauces and marinating meats to add more flavor. Bring a mouth guard and some sweet nunchucks because there’ll be a fight for the last bite," said Mark Seiler, president of Maine Root Ginger Brew in Portland, Maine. "Mixing our sodas with every kind of booze you can find also seems to be a fun thing for liquor warriors to toy with."

Sam Halhuli and HuHu's Ginger Brew (Photo: Sarah Baird)

Sam Halhuli and HuHu's Ginger Brew (Photo: Sarah Baird)

The cause and effect of the craft cocktail boom can’t be overlooked when discussing why ginger sodas are experiencing a rebirth. From Moscow Mules to the Dark and Stormy, the difference between syrupy store bought ginger beer and a finely tuned variety can make or break a drink. In New Orleans, Twelve Mile Limit keeps HuHu’s Ginger Brew—a particularly pungent version created by bartender Sam Halhuli—on tap to add a punch to cocktails like The Cardinal (gin, ginger beer, lime and cherry heering). The ginger beer at Drink in Boston has developed a cult-like following, breathing new life into classics and providing an alluring respite for non-drinkers (and designated drivers).

... the difference between syrupy store bought ginger beer and a finely tuned variety can make or break a drink.

Even bourbon country (where the Kentucky Mule reigns as queen) has latched onto the trend. Tim Jones—a creative director at a local ad agency—launched Gents Original Ginger Ale in late 2014 after finding inspiration from the recent boom of new craft spirit and beer companies across the Bluegrass State.

Bourbon-centric ginger ale is all the rage in Kentucky. (via Gents)

Bourbon-centric ginger ale is all the rage in Kentucky. Photo via Gents.

"All these beverages were popping up in this part of the country, but … there wasn’t really a craft soda offered in the area. We started dialing in a recipe [for ginger ale] specifically to go with bourbon. Our process is really unique—we use only fresh ingredients and charred oak to brew, which changes the flavor profile," said Jones. "We’re basically making it as demand calls for it, and so far, demand has been huge."

The enthusiasm for ginger beverages has likely yet to hit its tipping point, as sippers continue to desire spicier and spicier flavor profiles and fiery fastballs to the back-of-the-throat.

"We went through five or six thousand cups of our ginger ale at our latest festival, but the biggest question we hear is, ‘Are you going to make a ginger beer?’" Jones laughed. "I don’t think the public really knows the difference except that ginger beer is spicier. They don’t understand that ginger beer is fermented. Ginger beer is definitely the buzz right now—people want that heat."

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