The roots of the ginger root go back a long, long time. Over 5,000 years ago, wild ginger plants were used by Southeast Asian healers for joint pain and indigestion. Uses of ginger just spread from there. Sufferers of nausea, travel sickness, colic, irritable bowel syndrome, chills, cold, poor circulation, and stomach cramps through the ages resorted to various treatments made with ginger.
So it was only a matter of time before someone decided to incorporate zingiber officinale into an alcoholic beverage. Makes perfect sense. If you’re going to get tanked, why not be sipping the cure at the same time?
Ginger beers came first, showing up sometime between the mid 1700’s and early 1800’s in England. Ginger beers would probably have come along a lot sooner if ginger hadn’t been so expensive. In the Middle Ages in Europe, a pound of fresh ginger would buy you a live sheep. No one knows who exactly brewed the first ginger beer or where in England it originated, though anecdotal evidence points to the area of Yorkshire. Those first ginger beers were powdered ginger added to regular beer and stirred with a hot poker. There was a refinement in brewing techniques as the beverage became more popular. The tasty ginger beers of the day were brewed with fresh ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice, and a ginger-lemon extraction. Ginger roots are rich in lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. Combined with water and sugar, these yeasts convert the sugar into ethanol alcohol and carbon dioxide.
In ginger beer’s early days, everybody was happy to let this fermentation process occur. That was the entire point. Alcoholic counts of up to 11% were not uncommon. The drink took off in North America, and by the 1840’s, thousands of taverns in the UK, USA, and Canada were brewing their own local alcoholic varieties.
Around this same decade appeared the non-alcoholic homemade tonics made of sugar water and ginger root for the underaged and the teetotalers. In 1852 in Belfast (Northern Ireland), the American pharmacist and surgeon Dr. Thomas Cantrell crafted a non-alcoholic version with carbonated water and ginger. Cantrell called this unfermented ginger soda water version ginger ale. In 1868, Cantrell went into partnership with Alderman Cochrane, and the two opened up a Dublin factory to manufacture the beverage. Cantrell & Cochrane, now referred to as the C & C group, is still a major beverage producer and distributor and owns the Tennents and Magners brands.
These first ginger ales, now known as the golden style of ginger ale, were identical to ginger beer save for the alcohol and the ginger strength. Ginger beers were cloudier in color and had a stronger ginger component. As ginger ales were easier to produce – they required no fermentation or brewing expertise – they became extremely popular and led to a decline in ginger beer consumption.
The 1860’s saw widespread acceptance of golden ginger ales throughout the USA. The sweet, bubbly texture and strong ginger taste were embraced by all types of consumers, making ginger ale one of the most popular beverages in America. In 1866, Detroit pharmacist James Vernor introduced his own brand of “deliciously different” ginger ale which remains the oldest surviving ginger ale brand in the U.S.
A number of lower quality brands surfaced in the 1870’s and 1880’s to cash in on the trend. Many of these fakes were just sugar water with capsicum to imitate the ginger spice. By 1890, ginger ale began to be produced in a more sophisticated quality controlled fashion that yielded a taste similar to what’s available today.
The nail in ginger beer’s coffin was the introduction of the dry ginger ale style by Canadian chemist John McLaughlin in 1904, still available today as Canada Dry. This new paler style came along at the right time. With the American ban on alcohol in 1920, bootleggers required a strong dry soft drink to mask the uneven alcoholic taste of their bootlegged liquor. The much less sweet dry ginger ale mixed well with alcohol, something neither ginger beer nor golden ginger ale could do. The dry ginger ale style became synonymous with ginger ale. The golden variety nearly faded from view along with its ginger beer predecessor.
Ginger ale’s popularity peaked around the conclusion of World War II. Colas had emerged as the most popular soft drinks. Modern food science disparaged the use of natural ingredients and herbal beverages like ginger ale became yesterday’s news. The smaller amounts of ginger ale that continued to be produced by the majors were formulated from chemicals, artificial flavors, and sugar, just as they are to this day. All the top beverage makers, like Seagrams and Schweppes, have a typically dry ginger ale in their lineup.
The craft brewing ethos has been kind to ginger beer’s recent fortunes. The beverage never entirely died. Crabbie’s Ginger Beer, one of the few with measurable alcohol content, has been produced in the UK for over two hundred years. Elephant Ginger Beer out of Sri Lanka is naturally brewed using the same recipe from 1896. Bundaberg has offered its signature ginger beer in Australia since the 1960’s and now exports to 32 countries. But up until the last few decades, it’s been a little seen concoction, particularly in the USA. Not anymore. From near extinction, ginger beer has become trendy enough for the popular Time Out magazine to run a story in 2014 about the best ginger beers to sample on a hot Singaporean day. Because ginger beer actually involves brewing, craft brewers and other drink specialists have eagerly gotten in on the act. There are now countless varieties of ginger beers to choose among, from Phoenix Organic to Australian Bickford’s to New Zealand’s Frank Damn Tasty. Britain’s Fever-Tree claims to use ginger from Nigeria, India, and the Ivory Coast.
Ginger beer’s resurgence is in the soft drink market alongside ginger ale rather than in its former arena of pubs and beer halls. Modern brewers bottle and refrigerate the ginger beer quickly before significant fermentation can occur. Today’s ginger beers measure in at less than 0.5% ABV, so low that most countries don’t categorize them as alcoholic beverages at all. You might say that after three centuries, ginger beer has finally sobered up.