“Lashings of ginger beer…” – Five Go Mad in Dorset
I had never had a real ginger beer. Until I sat down to research this piece I hadn’t had one. I thought I had. I’d had ginger beer that I enjoyed, ginger beer that burned with goodness, ginger beer that other people turned and ran from because it was too strong for them. So being presumptuous, I presumed that sure, definitely, without a doubt, OF COURSE I’ve had real ginger beer.
I had so much to learn.
You see real ginger beer is alcoholic. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes now like that’s sooooo obvious given that the word “beer” is in the name. But I’d never made the connection. I put it in the same category as root beer: a soft drink, albeit one that leans more towards adults than children given the fact that it can take the skin off the back of your throat if you’re not careful. But I was wrong. Real ginger beer – the variety that puts the “kick” into your Moscow (or any other kind of) Mule – that ginger beer is most definitely alcoholic. And what make it alcoholic is a mysterious and wonderful ingredient called… you’ll never guess… ginger beer plant.
Ginger beer plant is a composite collection of fungus, yeast, and bacteria. It’s called other things – Bees Wine, Palestinian Bees, Californian Bees, Balm of Gilead – but whatever name you’re using, when you add it to sugar, water, and ginger, and then let the whole thing ferment for several days, voila – ginger beer. The fermentation is the key, that’s the process whereby the sugar is converted into the alcohol, and then the alcohol is converted into a good time. And while most ginger beer today isn’t alcoholic, it’s worth seeking out the real thing.
It’s thought that ginger beer originated in Yorkshire, England, in the mid-1700s. The spice trade was in full motion and all kinds of fanciful herbs and spices were making their way around the world, and to the strong and simple folk of the small towns of Yorkshire – a mere 10-minutes drive from my birthplace – the likes of bay leaves, paprika, rosemary, cloves, nutmeg, and other tasty treats were treated as mysterious, dangerous, and ultimately, delicious. Salt shakers filled with different spices could be found on pub tables up and down the Pennines and the patrons weren’t above sprinkling a little fennel or a little paprika onto their chips along with their salt and pepper. It wasn’t unusual to find a shaker of ginger sitting beside the others, and the English being the English, it didn’t take them long to sprinkle whatever was in it onto their pints. It also didn’t take them long to decide that they liked their new “gingered beer”, and this interest in a beer with the flavour of ginger led some brave adventurous types to try to brew the beer so that the ginger taste was built in. As far back as 1702 A History of the Royal Society of London mentions a method of brewing beer using ginger instead of hops. And in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park (a kind of competitor to the World’s Fair) a ginger beer stall claimed to have sold 1,092,337 bottles over the course of the six-month fair.
The appeal of the drink continued to grow, and to spread – it became popular across Britain, into the United States, Ireland, South Africa, and Canada, and by the mid-1800s flavored beers were increasingly common across North America. They included spruce beer, celery beer, persimmon beer, sorrel beer, dandelion beer, and, of course, ginger beer.
Today there are many brands of ginger beer available and they break down into two main families: golden ginger beer and dry ginger beer. Amongst the most popular are Fever Tree, Gosling’s, Fentiman’s, Regatta, Q, and The Ginger People. My ginger beer of choice is Fever Tree – it’s sweet but not overly-sweet and has a powerful ginger flavour. It ISN’T alcoholic though – so if you’re going to be a ginger beer purist, then I’d suggest Crabbies, pretty much the only one I can get here in Toronto. It’s not bad, on its own it’s a little boring, but it does go very well in the cocktails I’ve listed below. Keep in mind, however, it will boost the alcohol content and you should plan your evening accordingly.
I was going to include instructions on how to make your own ginger beer, but when the instructions include the term “storing this at room temperature can lead to explosions”, I figure best to let you go off and find those websites yourself. They’re not hard to find, just google “home-made alcoholic ginger beer”, but that’s as far as my insurance policy says I should go.
And now, the recipes.
(click each to open in a new window)
next issue: tequila