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Go For the Burn: A Ginger Beer Primer

Have you wandered the beverage aisle at the grocery store, or beer section of the liquor store and been a bit confused over the ginger beer offerings? What's the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale, for example? And if it's alcoholic, is ginger beer a 'beer'?

It can be a bit confusing admit consumers and even ginger beer makers. But with warm weather months here, and aficionados anxious to enjoy this refreshing, spicy and versatile mixer at the next backyard get-together - on its own or in a classic cocktail (Moscow Mule, anyone?) – it's time to get the 411 on this bold beverage.

Edmontonian Alison Phillips knows what she likes - and it's ginger beer. Tops on Phillips’ list, especially on a sweltering summer afternoon, "it’s the best drink to enjoy with fish and chips," she says. "I'm not a big beer drinker, so one of my favourite ways to use ginger beer is in a shandy; half a regular-type beer in a glass, topped up with crisp, fragrant ginger beer. For me, the spicier and hotter the gingery taste, the better."

At Edmonton's Sherbrooke Liquor Ottewell, which specializes in craft and imported beers, partner Erica Francis says she loves the kick of ginger beer too, whether it's the uber-strong, spicy likes of Royal Jamaican (Crabbie's from the U.K. is another popular choice) or a smoother, closer-to-home version, from makers like Phillips Brewing out of Victoria, B.C. Though some fermented brews use hops and malt, thus qualifying as 'beer', there isn't wheat or barley in ginger beer, Francis explains.

"For those who love ginger beer, it's really all about the burn. We carry up to a dozen brands, and they are popular year-round because the warmth of ginger works in all seasons," says Francis.

“I have been a fan of the cane sugar sweetened ginger beers since childhood, often treated at my grandmother’s place to the non-alcohol version from her ginger beer plant that bubbled away in the kitchen. A resurgence in popularity of recent years has seen a number of new craft soda ginger beers being produced here locally such as Grizzly Paw and Annex," said Andrew Paulsen, sommelier coordinator at Calgary's Coop Wine Spirits Beer. "Our nearby Alberta distillery, Eau Claire, has a cocktail in a can - EquineOx Mule - that combines Annex ginger beer with Eau Claire's Prickly Pear Vodka. It's a delicious treat on a warm day."

The local option

Calgary's Annex Ale Project is finding success with its soft-drink-style ginger beer. Using just whole, natural ingredients - ginger, lemon juice and cane sugar - small batches of ginger beer are made in a two-day process for tap room customers and those who find the canned artisanal brew at Sobeys/Safeway, Co-op, and Freson Bros.

"We follow the company ethos for all our products - handmade, small batch brews," says Andrew Bullied, Annex co-owner. 'It's a citrus forward ginger beer, with less of a burn than other brands. For the younger set or those who prefer a non-alcoholic option, it's a refreshing option."

Ginger beer origins

Originating with the colonial spice trade in Asia and sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean, ginger beer first became popular in Britain in the 18th century. Though ginger has been lauded as a treatment for medical ailments for thousands of years - as a digestive, to stimulate circulation and more - the ginger root plant also found favour as the basis for a beverage. Originally brewed with yeast and sugar to create a fermented swill, the refreshment has grown in popularity around the world, clocking in at around 4 percent alcohol.

Commercial, non-alcoholic ginger beer differs from its boozy brethren in that there is no fermentation - the ginger liquid is carbonated, canned and/or bottled and sold around the world as a spicy mixer, though you can also enjoy it straight up, over ice with a bit of fizzy water and slice of lemon or lime. Alcoholic or not, the ginger in the beverage contains the active compound gingerol, a natural oil and rich source of magnesium, potassium, copper, and vitamin B6.

United Distributors of Canada general manager Rick Anand, who imports Royal Jamaican Ginger Beer for the North American market, says Jamaican ginger has traditionally been recognized as premier among gingers for the quality of its flavour, oil content and appearance, contributing to that brand's characteristic bold, strong-ish (over 4 percent alcohol) profile.

"Ginger beer lovers who want the burn go for this one," says Anand, who acknowledges the brand is at the high end of the ginger beer spectrum for cost and flavour punch. Royal Jamaican ginger beer is made with malt, fresh yellow and blue ginger, hops, cane sugar and rum. "Bars tell us they like our bottles because it can go two ways - used on its own over ice with lemon, or to make popular cocktails like the Moscow Mule (with vodka, lime and mint) or Dark and Stormy (with dark rum and lime over ice)."

Royal Jamaican likewise has a non-alcohol version and will soon offer Canadian markets a ginger beer infused with hibiscus and sorrel. The notes of cinnamon and allspice conjure a mulled wine vibe, something Anand says will inspire year-round demand for the product.

Non-alcoholic ginger beer a grocery store staple

Don't confuse the ginger beer in the supermarket with ginger ale, even though it's usually sitting close by on store shelves. Ginger ale is a carbonated soft drink, with sugar, water, bubbles, and ginger flavouring (Canada Dry, for example). Non-alcoholic ginger beer is usually spicier and with varying amount of carbonation.

The ginger in the beverage contains the active compound gingerol, a natural oil and rich source of magnesium, potassium, copper, and vitamin B6.

Big players in this market include U.K.-based Fever-Tree and The Great Gentleman (formerly the Great Jamaican). Fever-Tree Canada marketing manager Alexis Green says at its core, the company's premium product is meant as a mixer, with a prominent level of carbonation that contributes to a pleasing mouth feel. The light product (available in 250 mL and 500 mL) is a standout, according to Green, pointing to Fever-Tree's use of all-natural cane sugar/fructose to tame the spicy ginger bite.

"By brewing a blend of three gingers from Nigeria, Cochin, and the Ivory Coast, we have created a ginger beer that isn't too sweet on the palate but still has a deep, long-lasting ginger character," she says. "We keep it simple for consumers, offering a premium mix they can add to a premium spirit, elevated with a garnish. If three quarters of the drink is the mix, make it the best."

Green says while there's increasing demand for the light product, Fever-Tree's regular ginger beer is a market leader for a reason, balancing the level of sweet with the fieriness of the ginger.

Food pairings on the menu too

Because of its bold character, ginger beer is a favourite for pairing with similarly zippy foods. Anand says Royal Jamaican goes well with Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Caribbean cuisine, as well as complementing rich or cream-based meals.

"If you buy a ginger beer and don't like drinking it, don't pour it down the drain," adds Phillips, who is also co-owner of Aligra Wine and Spirits in West Edmonton Mall. "There's lots of delicious chicken and pork recipes that call for ginger beer in the marinade or sauce."


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