Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Taste Tests: Ginger Beers, Part I

As I've mentioned periodically, I have accumulated quite a stash of ginger beers over the last few months. I've picked them up all over the place, and sweet talked a few bar managers out of bottles from their secret stashes.

I got the total up to 10, although 2 of them were technically ginger "ales" rather than ginger beers. Going into the taste tests, I thought those two had enough punch to hold up to the other ginger beers (as it turns out, one of them did, but one of them didn't).

Brief Background on Ginger Beer
As you probably know, ginger beer nowadays is typically just a soft drink with more ginger punch and spice than ginger ale. It was originally a fermented drink (using something called the ginger beer plant that isn't really what I think of as a plant). A few of the ones you can find on the market now are actually fermented, but most of them are a blend of water, sugar, real or artificial flavors and colors, carbonation and maybe some preservatives.

I don't really hear much about ginger beer, except when people are discussing the Dark 'N Stormy or the Moscow Mule. So you might wonder how I got started in collecting them. We had a party awhile back where we served classic cocktails from the 1930's and 40's, with live entertainment from that era, and we served the Moscow Mule. It has a fun story, and is a fairly accessible (and easy) drink if made with a decent ginger beer, so I was off on a search for one. The first one I bought, Stewarts, was simply too much. Way over the top on the spiciness, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to finish a drink, no matter what I made with it. So I ruled that one out.

I tried two others that were relatively easy to find in the Chicago area: Sioux City
and Ginger People (check out their cute logo at right - the label explains it). At the time, we ruled out the Ginger People - it has a really nice, true ginger flavor, but it didn't mesh well in the cocktails. So we went with the Sioux City, which had some spicy bite, but not as much as the Stewarts, and worked pretty well in our Moscow Mule.

Here's the rundown on the ones we tried, in no particular order:
  • Cock 'n Bull - the ginger beer that made the Moscow Mule famous. I'm not sure it's the same formula as the original, since it now includes "sugar and/or corn sweeteners," "caramel colors" and "natural flavors." Interestingly, the website on the bottle doesn't seem to work (, and I found two different pictures of this brand on the web. The one linked above is the one I have, not this one. I got this bottle from Neyah at Nopa in San Francisco, its not sold in Chicago as far as I can tell.
  • Bundaberg - Australian ginger beer, which it appears is at least partially fermented and flavored with real ginger root. It lists yeast as an ingredient, but also carbonated water. I found this one at my local Cost Plus World Market.
  • Barritt's - This is the ginger beer that the folks at Gosling's Rum say you have to use to make a proper Dark 'N Stormy (and you have to use their rum too, at least according to them and a Bermuda trademark they were issued). My friend Adam at the Clark Street Ale House donated this one to my collection (thanks Adam!). I'd heard about it around town but never seen it in a store. It is made with high fructose corn syrup, "natural and artificial flavoring" and other equally exciting sounding ingredients.
  • Ginger People - mentioned earlier, its made with ginger juice and ginger extract, cane sugar, and "natural flavors" among other ingredients.
  • D&G Old Jamaican - the beverage gurus at Tavern on the Park sold me a bottle of this one for my collection. I'd never seen nor heard of this one, and the guys would only tell me that the "have a guy who gets it for them." I was excited about it, until I noticed that it proclaims on the front that it is a "naturally and artificially flavored carbonated beverage."
  • Fentimans - This was the last addition to my collection, and I found it at Sam's Wine & Spirits in the South Loop store. I happened to notice it in a shopper's basket while I was roaming the store, and so I asked about it. My favorite cheesemonger, who happens to work at this store, highly recommended it and said its very hard to find. Their website says its at Cost Plus, but I haven't seen it there.
  • Sioux City - mentioned above, and made by the folks at White Rock Beverages according to the cap, although its not listed on their website. Like some others, it contains HFCS, "natural flavor," "caramel color" and a few other ingredients, including, notably "brominated vegetable oil." What the heck is that doing in there?
  • Reed's Original Ginger Brew - not technically a ginger beer, its labeled a ginger "ale." I understand they make an Extra Ginger that is labeled ginger beer, but I could not find it anywhere. This one has some unusual ingredients, including "fructose, pineapple juice from concentrate and honey," as well as "lemon and lime juices from concentrate" along with spices, ginger root and sparkling water. All natural ingredients at least!
  • Fever-Tree Ginger Ale - also not a ginger beer. When I tried it previously, I thought it was spicier than most ginger ales, so I thought it might be able to compete in this category. I was wrong, it was totally overpowered by all of the other competitors. Its still a lovely ginger ale though.
In Part II, I'll post tasting notes and rankings of our favorites. Stay tuned!


deshi said...

can you please tell me where you buy sioux city ginger beer in chicago??? dominick's stopped carrying them sometime last summer. any other places you know of? thanks!

~Sonja~ said...

Hi Deshi,

I found the Sioux City at Jewel, and I've also seen it at Cost Plus World Market recently. Good luck finding it!

Anonymous said...

There is another that I find the best for Dark and Stormys. I cannot recall the name but it is either brewed or imported in Hyde Park Mass. Any ideas?

~Sonja~ said...

Don't know that one. I did try a new one recently that I liked - Maine Root Ginger Brew made in Maine info here-

Good luck!

Zap said...

Ages ago a pub here in South Jersey featured Moscow Mules. I'm not much for Vodka but I mixed the brand they used "Old Tyme Ginger Beer" with Jack Daniels... delish! I haven't seen this brand around for some time, but I recommend it.