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Last year 2 Out of Three provided a public service to all red blooded Dark & Stormy drinking Americans by tasting and reviewing as many ginger beers as we could get our hands on. With one notable exception our final reviews were well received by all who commented. Coming off this positive feedback we’ve taken our public service to the southern hemisphere where we recently traveled to taste and review the finest ginger beers that the great nation of New Zealand has to offer. The country has a long tradition of brewing excellent ginger beers and it was a pleasure to travel the island, easily finding this great beverage in most cafes and markets.
Searching both the north and south islands from the east to west coasts, we got our hands on six different ginger beers, tasted them, and compiled our notes. Because of the inconsistent conditions that traveling around a large country present, our criteria for sampling each drink was less formal than our American-based tasting. It occurred over a few week time frame and was not a side by side comparison. And in the interest of full disclosure I was unable to obtain a quality bottle of dark rum (ie…Goslings Dark Rum) so each tasting was undertaken in its virgin state. Nonetheless, we here at 2 Out of Three are confident that our meticulous tasting notes can serve as a valuable guide to you, our reader, the ginger beer buying public of New Zealand and aficionados traveling the great island. So here we go; the good, the bad, and the ugly of Kiwi ginger beers.
Gladstone’s Ginger Beer
Named after a road in the east coast city of Gisborne; Gladstone’s Ginger Beer is a locally batch produced by Knightsbridge Wine Co Ltd. A short story on the side of the bottle proclaims this drink is unpasteurised to lock in the full bodied flavor. This bold ginger story unfolds as soon as you crack open the bottle. Your nose absorbs the ginger preparing your mouth for the burst it’s about to receive. The beauty of Gladstones lies in its even pacing. The ginger starts strong and rolls throughout your mouth, soaking into your gums, and then eases out with an elegant spice finish. There is no burning here, just a fresh ginger flavor. With an ingredient label you can understand (Carbonated Water, Sugar, Natural Ginger, Citric Acid, Preservative (211)) and a great taste, Gladstone’s easily takes the award for best ginger beer I tasted while in New Zealand. It may be difficult to find anywhere outside of the Gisborne area but if you stumble across a bottle snatch up a case and consider yourself lucky.
Frank Damn Tasty Ginger Beer
Frank’s, the newest ginger beer in New Zealand, has quickly made a name for itself in the Kiwi market. It launched a few of comedic marketing campaigns in 2008 which probably helped it win the New Zealand Juice & Beverage award for “New to Market” in that same year. It was also one of the more readily available ginger beers I came across during my six weeks of touring – found in most supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores. It’s owned by one of the largest beverage companies in NZ, Frucor, known mostly for energy drinks. My suspicion is their food scientists were handed a bottle of Bickford’s (see below) and told to make the same thing “but slightly different”. Strong but pleasant flavors of ginger roll around the roof of your mouth with each sip, while a medium spice (a 4 on the spice scale) lingers on your taste buds for just the right amount of time. Light levels of carbonation and a good balance of sugar make it a good overall drink that I would not be ashamed to keep stocked next to a bottle of Goslings. My one concern is with the ingredients; I recognize the first three: carbonated water, sugar, ginger, but the next three seem to have come straight from a lab: Acidity Regulator (330), Preservative (211), Colour (carmel). Overall if you can get past the suspect ingredients, which can be found in a number of sodas, Frank Damn Tasty Ginger Beer holds it’s own with the top picks from 2 Out of Three’s first ginger beer tasting.
Phoenix Organic Ginger Beer
A simple drink, well crafted, and brewed with organic and GE free ingredients has been the cornerstone of this ginger beer since 1986. The ingredients contain nothing artificial or difficult to pronounce: carbonated water, organic cane sugar, organic ginger (1.5%) organic lemon concentrate, and yeast. That’s it. True to their humble beginnings the Phoenix company encourages amateurs to try their hand at home brewing with their comprehensive and educational Ginger Beer Project. The result of this commitment to excellence is a smooth and refreshing taste in the company’s flagship Organic Ginger Beer. It’s not as sweet or as carbonated as a Bunderberg, giving it an almost juice-like drink-ability. The one deficiency I’d list is the mild spice (3 on the spice scale) does not linger long enough. The moment you start to pick up the flavor notes they escape your taste buds. This short aftertaste keeps me from elevating Phoenix Organic Ginger Beer into the “great” category but it should not stop you from picking up a four pack the next time you find yourself in the beverage section of New Zealand’s Whole Foods equivalent: New World Market.
Bickford’s Ginger Beer
Although it’s an Aussie import, Bickford’s ginger beer can be found regularly at cafes and other shops throughout New Zealand. The label on the back of the bottle proclaims it’s made with their original award winning recipe dating back to the 1870’s, which is interesting, because this would mean the original recipe called for Colour (150d). The rest of the ingredients reads nearly identical to Frank Damn Tasty Ginger Beer so naturally the two are very close in taste and spice. With its classic turn-of-the-century styled label and milky pineapple color Bickford’s is attractive from the get go. I suspect the little bits of sediment floating around the bottle are pieces are ginger. The taste is smooth and refreshing; inviting you back for more. Hesitate between sips for a second and the spice will gentle say hello and twist away with a sweet fruity finish. Add Bickford’s Ginger Beer to your list of must trys when in New Zealand, although its origins lay across the Tasman Sea it sits in the upper echelon of ginger beers found in New Zealand.
Allganics Ginger Beer
Allganics is a popular New Zealand label owned by Simply Squeezed of the Hawke’s Bay region. Purchased last year by Frucor, the makers of Frank Damn Tasty Ginger Beer they produce some excellent fruit drinks so I was excited to sample their ginger beer offering. With a slightly cloudy appearance and little sedimentary particles suspended in the bottle it has the classic ginger beer look. But after the initial visual inspection this tasting went downhill. Ginger beers should jump up and introduce themselves when they hit your lips. A bit of spice or a strong bouquet of ginger should let the taster know this ‘aint plain old soda water or lemonade. But Allganices suffers from a poor combination of light ginger flavor and weak spice (a 1 on the spice scale). What stands out most with each sip is the organic cane sugar. The sugar combines with 1.5% of reconstituted organic apple to create an over the top sweetness. With one of the lowest carbonation levels of any of the NZ gingers it made our fellow taster exclaim “It’s flat and leaves me wanting something else!”
Schweppes Ginger Beer
A bit of advice I recently learned from Michael Pollin, of In Defense Of Food fame: “If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, then neither should you”. If my great-grandmother read the label of Schweppes Ginger Beer I think the first thing she’d ask is “Why isn’t there any ginger listed?” It’s got carbonated water, flavor, food acid (530), preservative (211), and colour (150d). My best guess is that the second ingredient of flavor is an amalgamation of lemon, ginger, and tin. My advice to the food scientist that concocted this drink is to mix in more ginger flavor and back off the metallic after taste. This is a flat drink that can’t decide if it’s a lemon soda or a ginger beer. Too sum it up, this is the worst ginger beer I tasted in New Zealand.
Bundaberg may be the most readily available ginger beer in New Zealand. We certainly sampled our fair share while traveling through the country but we’ve chosen not to review it in this tasting. It is identical to what can be purchased in the United States and was previously reviewed in part I of our American Ginger Beer Tasting