Friday, January 1, 2010

Ginger binger

He's the colour of nutmeg and the heat of ginger.

—William Shakespeare, Henry V

Exactly when and how the tradition started I no longer remember, but for years our family's New Year's Eve ritual was to stay up late, playing Monopoly and drinking ginger ale or ginger beer. My dad, whose usual beverage of choice was Coca-Cola, may have started this, or it may have originated with my grandfather, but in any case I have become the keeper of the flame and do my best to uphold the family tradition.

This year's year's twist: Throw caution to the wind, sample as many different brands and varieties as I could get hold of, and post tasting notes for the benefit of the ginger-loving public—or at least such of them as may read Flyover Country.

I was fortunate in this endeavour to have the assistance of Damian Barton, owner of Rocket Fizz, Lincoln's new and very impressive soda shop. It's a good place to find "vintage-style" candy (clove-flavoured chewing gum, even!) as well as toys (for example, Jesus and Albert Einstein action figures), but carbonated beverages are their mainstay. I discovered several new brands here, and they carry several of my old favourites, which saved me an infinity of driving.

There are three basic types of ginger soda. Ginger beer (hereafter GB) is the most "authentic" (as with ethnic food, that can be a positive or negative attribute depending on one's tastes) and usually has the strongest ginger flavour. In its most traditional form it is brewed from a live culture of yeast and/or bacteria, but may also be produced with pressurized carbon dioxide as are, for example, most colas. Traditional GBs are cloudy, as small particles of chopped ginger root are suspended in the liquid; when artificial flavouring is used, artificial colouring will often be used as well to attain the cloudy GB appearance.

Golden ginger ale (GGA) is darker in colour than GB, but usually clear. Again, it may be either brewed or artificially carbonated, naturally or artificially flavoured, and may contain any of a variety of sweeteners. The ginger taste of a GGA is usually not as strong as that of a GB, but more pronounced than that of a dry ginger ale (DGA). DGAs are lighter in flavour as well as in colour, and are the most familiar to Americans, Canada Dry and Schweppes being representative brands. The most recently developed of the three ginger sodas, DGAs are much likelier to be artificially carbonated than brewed, but may contain any combination of flavour and sweetener types. As most readers will already be familiar with DGAs, I did not expend great effort to seek them out for the binge.

Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger be hot i' the mouth.

—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

On to the tasting notes...

AJ Stephans Jamaican Style Ginger Beer hails not from the Caribbean but from Boston, where the brand has apparently existed since 1926. At first glance, this looks authentic enough: brown glass bottle, GB cloudy to the point of being opaque, decent heat. But I can't help noticing that the label makes a big deal out of "pure sugar & pure water" without mentioning pure ginger. A glance at the ingredients list tends to confirm my suspicions: just "flavor", without reference to origin; I therefore assume that someone in Boston has been playing with their chemistry set. Overall, okay but not a standout (though my second impression was more favourable than my first).

Blenheim Ginger Ale, I'm told, comes in several varieties, all in clear glass with a white-painted label (extra point for style!) bearing an American eagle-and-shield design. The one we sampled, with the pink bottle cap, is supposed to be the hottest, and indeed it was nicely spicy. The clear glass shows off the nice, almost crystalline, colour of this South Carolinian GGA. Sucrose, natural flavour.

Buderim Ginger Authentic Australian Ginger Brew is excellent. Slow-brewed using an open-kettle process, cane sugar, and locally-grown ginger (extra points for that), then bottled in brown glass with a kangaroo on the label. (I think there must be a law requiring that all Australian foodstuffs produced for export bear a marsupial on the label.) Good heat, but very smooth.

Bundaberg Australian Ginger Beer is another outstanding and very traditional GB. "Naturally brewed to be better", using cane sugar and ginger root—in fact, the label advises that the bottle be inverted before opening in order to get all the little bits of ginger back into suspension. It's a great little bottle, too, short but stout ("shrub bottle", I think I've heard it called?) in brown glass, with a unique peel-off cap and, of course, the obligatory kangaroo on the label. Unfortunately, my one "local" source (actually an hour away in Omaha) has gone out of business, so I'm hoarding my dwindling supply, but Rocket Fizz may be able to order it in. Cross fingers for me...

Capt'n Eli's Ginger Beer, made by the Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine, seems to have everything going for it: cane sugar, natural ginger flavour, brown glass bottle with a nautical scene on the label. But it's very clear, with mild spiciness at best. In fact, what it reminds me of most is a slightly punched-up Canada Dry. ("Not that there's anything wrong with that," he hastened to add.) A DGA sheep in wolf's clothing.
The DG in DG Genuine Jamaican Ginger Beer stands for Desnoes & Geddes, the makers of Red Stripe lager. Actually, DG started out in soft drinks and only later began brewing beer, so this might be a better candidate as a flagship product. In any case, it is a wonderful example of a Caribbean-style GB: cloudy with a fiery but smooth ginger bite. Made with Jamaican ginger extract (extra point for local ingredients) as well as natural and artificial flavours. Sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup—a concession, I suppose, to volume. Bottled in brown glass, but in a longneck bottle rather than the short bottle associated with Red Stripe. (Thanks to my brother Greg for sending a couple of these along.)

From the same brewer comes DG Old Jamaican Ginger Beer Twist. This one comes in a green glass bottle, the better to harmonise with the lime slices on the label. Quite a few GBs contain citrus flavour, but this one comes right out with it, and it's a refreshing difference. Still plenty spicy, as one would expect of a Jamaican GB. (Actually, my bottle says "Product of Canada", but it is bottled for a Jamaican company to their standards, so let's agree it's Jamaican.) No high-fructose corn syrup in this one; the label lists simply "sugar".

Dr. Tima Honey Ginger Ale is a DGA from California. And in case you missed the name, the honeycomb on the clear glass bottle's label highlights its claim to distinction, along with two textual reminders (both with exclamation points!) in addition to the ingredients listing. All natural, "from an old European recipe", this does have a bit of a citrus zing.

Empire Ginger Beer comes from the Empire Bottling Works in Bristol, Rhode Island. Made with pure cane sugar and "natural and/or artificial flavor extracts". The indecision strikes me as odd—perhaps it reflects seasonal availability of ingredients?—but this is a pretty good DGA. In a unique pale-green glass bottle, reminiscent in colour of some old Coke bottles.

Filbert's Old Time Quality Ginger Ale is distributed by the Filbert Root Beer Co. in Chicago. I hope their root beer is more distinctive. There's nothing really wrong with this one, but apart from its slightly darker colour, this is a garden-variety DGA. Sugar and/or corn sweetener—more indecision—with natural and artificial flavour in clear glass.

Jackson Ginger Beer is made by the Jackson Hole Soda Co. in Wyoming. Batch brewed with cane sugar and natural flavours, bottled in brown glass, all as nature intended. Pale, ever so slightly cloudy, good flavour without being noticeably hot. A mild GB, this might be a good stepping-stone for the GB-curious drinker more accustomed to DGAs.

I first bought Maine Root Ginger Brew, more or less out of desperation, on an occasion when my late lamented Bundaberg supplier was temporarily out of stock. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that this Yankee GB was actually a worthy substitute. Brewed, as the name implies, using real ginger extract and cane sugar—in fact, extra points for using fair-trade certified organic cane sugar! Great cloudiness, fine carbonation, great spicy flavour. In green glass rather than brown, but then nothing's perfect.

One drink I couldn't round up in time for the binge, but will review from memory, is Old Tyme Ginger Beer. The pirate on the label serves as fair warning regarding the take-no-prisoners style of this GB. Hot! Hot! Hot! There is good flavour here as well as grab-the-back-of-the-throat heat, but it may not be accessible to those who prefer a less fiery brew. Work up to this one...

In Atlanta, Georgia, in 1885, a soft drink with purported health benefits was the original product of what later became a more diverse company, and eventually one of the world's most recognised brands. Not this one, however. Unlike its neighbour and contemporary, Coca-Cola, Red Rock Golden Ginger Ale has remained relatively obscure, and in fact disappeared for several decades before being revived. It's fortunate that Red Rock has returned, for it lives up to the slogan "Just the Right Bite!" Carbonated water, pure cane sugar, natural flavour. A very good GGA, nicely presented, as the clear glass bottle with painted label (style point) highlights the clear, deep amber colour.

Reed's Original Ginger Brew is a Jamaican-style GGA brewed (key word) in Los Angeles. As the label on the green glass bottle notes, it is all-natural, with 25% fruit juice (pineapple, lemon, and lime) as well as fructose and fresh ginger root. Unsurprisingly, this one has a distinct citrus character to it; otherwise it is a GGA with DGA leanings.

Reed's Premium Ginger Brew is, by comparison, a GGA leaning toward GB. Also in green glass, with similar ingredients (the ginger content is identical) except for the sweeteners: Canadian white clover honey and raw cane sugar. Again, the 25% juice content gives it a genuine citrus taste.

Big brother to Reed's Original and Reed's Premium (closer to Original than Premium) is Reed's Extra Ginger Brew, which adds more ginger (did you guess?) and again tweaks the sweetening formula: fructose and honey (no information on origin) in addition to the standard one-quarter juice. Hotter, but definitely a GGA and not a GB. Like its siblings, a good drink that nevertheless suffers somewhat in comparison to the genuine Caribbean GBs.

By the way, Reed's also offers several fruit-flavoured GGAs: Reed's Cherry Ginger Brew, Reed's Raspberry Ginger Brew, and Reed's Spiced Apple Ginger Brew. Juice content varies from one to the next (anywhere from 20% to 60%), as do the ginger content and sweetening formula, which to me indicates a craftsman's approach as opposed to blindly throwing in new flavours and changing the labels. It is difficult, however, to make direct comparisons with the more traditional flavours—like apples and oranges, if you'll forgive the obvious play on words.

Next up is Regatta Authentic Bermuda Stone Ginger Beer. Regatta has a zesty character with strong notes of ginger and secondary notes of citrus, apple and banana. The finish has a ginger bite without the burn. Does this sound a bit too stereotypically food-critic-y? Sorry, it's a direct quote from the label, easily the wordiest in the lot. The label also mentions the use of GB in the Dark 'n Stormy ("Bermuda's National Drink") and the Moscow Mule, alcoholic concoctions I won't be mentioning again; our purpose here is to see how our GBs stand on their own. This, however, Regatta does quite well. Traditional GB cloudiness, Caribbean-style flavour but with a bit less bite than the Jamaican versions. Fructose, natural ginger extracts in green glass bottle. (This is Damian's favourite, by the way.)

Sioux City Ginger Beer might be better classified as a GGA: darker in colour and stronger in taste than a DGA, but not cloudy like a traditional GB. Made with high-fructose corn syrup and natural flavour. Not really a standout, but pleasant enough, and as the Sioux City brand is widely distributed it has the virtue of being easily obtainable. My primary suggestion, should anyone from Sioux City ever happen to read this, concerns not the drink but the packaging: Re-work the bird on the label! I think it's supposed to be an eagle, but it's awfully hard to tell...

Sprecher's Ginger Ale hails from Glendale, Wisconsin, and comes in a stout 16-oz. brown glass bottle (as opposed to the 12-oz. servings of the competition) with a penguin-in-hell motif on the label. Ooookay... I would re-classify this as a GB, pale and slightly cloudy—honestly so, as it's made with real ginger. The fire-brewing process gives Sprecher's a very nice, fine carbonation readily discernible from its pressurized-CO2 counterparts. Interestingly, Sprecher's seem to have hedged their bets on the sweetener, as this GB contains both high-fructose corn syrup (boo!) and raw Wisconsin honey (yea! and bonus point for local ingredients). A very good ginger drink, and one that I find popping up in more and more places, even somewhat out-of-the-way places.

Thomas Kemper Ginger Peach, like the fruitier offerings from Reed's, defies easy comparison with most of the other entries. (I'm sure Kemper has a standard GA, but somehow or other I missed it.) But I don't want to dismiss it too easily, because it stands well on its own. Brewed with cane sugar, peach juice, northwestern honey, and natural flavour; bottled in brown glass. Certainly fruity, almost feminine, but the ginger doesn't get lost.

Vernors bills itself as "The Original Ginger Soda—a Michigan Original Since 1866", and is in fact the oldest surviving American brand, but was not actually the first commercial GA in the States. It is, however, fairly widely distributed and was a frequent New Year's Eve selection when I was younger. While I have heard that Vernors is available in glass bottles, I've only ever found it in aluminum cans; presentation suffers somewhat accordingly. Still, an interesting GGA, aged in oaken barrels for three years, and with a unique note of vanilla. Made with a combination of natural and artificial flavours, as well as the high-fructose corn syrup you'd expect of a mass-produced brand (now owned by Dr. Pepper/Snapple).

Zuberfizz Rasberry Ginger Ale is made in Colorado by the Durango Soda Co., known mainly for cane-sugar sodas. Had I read the label carefully enough, this one would have been disqualified before purchase—not because of the fruit flavouring, but because it is a "zero calorie soda" sweetened with "ZSweet" (erythritol, described as "a natural sweetener" but evidently highly derived). I had a hard time getting past the ZSweet aftertaste, but will concede that the raspberry bouquet (natural flavours throughout) was rather more delicate than expected. Otherwise, the most notable quality (not apparent in brown glass) is the exceedingly pale, almost watery appearance. Might be someone's favourite drink...and they're welcome to it. I'll pass from now on.

The one major shortcoming of this first annual (?) ginger binge is that it didn't include any drinks from England, the historic home of GB. With that caveat, however, some regional observations: Australia (Buderim, Bundaberg) and the Caribbean (DG in either formulation, Regatta) have the most consistently excellent GBs, with a couple of American entries (Maine Root, Sprecher's) breaking into the top tier. If the quality of ginger drinks from the States seems spotty, it should be borne in mind that there may be selection bias at work—Australia and the Caribbean could have their share of mediocre drinks as well, but those are far less likely to be imported to the States. And GB is, after all, an acquired taste for Americans, who are far more accustomed to DGAs and may find the very notion of a spicy soft drink unsettling. (This may also go some way toward explaining the identity crises posed by GAs labeled as GBs and vice-versa.) Still, the States can lay claim to some very good GGAs (Blenheim, Red Rock, Vernors) in addition to the two GBs cited above.

Well, it's been fun. Time for some sleep, and possibly a shot of insulin. : ) A happy New Year to all...
And had I but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread.

— Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost

6 comments:

Rachel Stewart said...

The Aussie Bundaberg bottle is typically referred to as a 'stubby' or sometimes shortened to 'stub' - which maybe what you are hearing thinking it sounds like 'shrub'? Hope this helps.

Mark Churchill said...

Thanks, Rachel, and happy New Year! Your suggestion makes sense, but I'm still not ready to rule out "shrub" which I'm almost sure I've heard here in the States. Regardless of terminology, it's a nice little bottle—especially when it's filled with Bundaberg!

KIKI said...
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Anonymous said...
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Chas S. Clifton said...

Lucky you. All we see around here are the two milder varieties of Reed's, even at the organic grocery.

Anonymous said...

If you're lucky enough to find it, there's a fantastic Ginger Cola out there from Across the Pond called Curiosity Cola made by a company named Fentiman's. You can find it here in the States on occasion at places like Whole Foods or other organic places or you can also buy it online at Amazon (dubiously expensive that way, though). Easily my favorite cola.