March 16, 2010

New Zealand Ginger Beer Tasting

Frank Ginger Beer Relaxing On The Beach in Golden Bay

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

Gladstone's Ginger Beer

(score 9)

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 Damn Tasty Ginger Beer

(score 8)

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

Phoenix Organic Ginger Beer

(score 7.8)

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

Bickford's Ginger Beer

(score 7.8)

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 Ginger Beer

(score 4)

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

Schweppes Ginger Beer

(score 2)

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.

Editors Note:

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

17 comments

  1. Ilya Snowdon on

    Hey, you didn’t try my Ginger beer in New Zealand.
    It is a real ginger Beer, no carbonated water.
    naturally Brewed and bottle conditioned
    My Brand is Smokey Thunder.

    If you email me I could send you a sample

    Smokey Thunder
    PO Box 199 88
    Woolston Ch Ch 8241
    New Zealand

  2. Steve on

    I agree that Gladstones is the best out here – better than Mac’s (my second favourite) and Bundaberg. Sadly it is getting hard to find, and I can no longer locate any in the Auckland area.
    Phoenix is good and in most cafes, Schweppes is in all supermarkets but a waste of time…
    I have yet to see any Frank or Bickfords anywhere.

  3. Abraham on

    @Steve, thanks for the comments. I tried Mac’s and remember it being good. Unfortunately I lost my tasting notes so I could not include it in my write up.

  4. Regan Hawea on

    Bro?! No Hardieboys? You will have to return, this is the best Aotearoa has to offer and when in Hawkes Bay Roosters or the Bug will suffice. Bring plenty of Ron Zacapa 23, 10 Cane White, Green Island Light and some Wray & Nephew just for fun.

  5. John Hudson on

    I have just found Gladstones Ginger Beer. It is now owned by Bulmers Harvest Ltd in Gisborne. Chapel Bar in Ponsonby sell it. One of the best Ginger Beers out there.

  6. Abraham on

    @Roger, I would love to try Hakanoa Handmade. Unfortunately I didn’t come across it on my trip to NZ. If you want to ship a sample to the states I’d be happy to do a tasting.

  7. Steve on

    Gladstones now seems to be available in Auckland from The Warehouse, of all places! I’ve been stocking up.

    Hakanoa I discovered in Howick market a few weeks back – I think it is relatively new on the scene and is very tasty, although a bit pricy. The person selling it was the actual maker herself, so its not produced in large quantities I think. They also do a ginger concentrate which is rather nice mixed with hot milk…

    I’d send you a bottle but shipping would be prohibitive.

  8. Abraham on

    @Steve, Thanks for the update on the Kiwi ginger beer landscape. Happy to hear Gladstones is getting more exposure outside of Gisborne. I’d love to return to NZ for a number of reasons – one being to sample Hakanoa.

  9. Jonathan Cameron on

    George’s ginger beer in Taranaki is the best i’ve ever had [and i’ve had afew!]Not too sweet and with a good hit of ginger.Awesome!

  10. Stu Kawowski on

    I agree on the organic Phoenix not packing the punch. When Phoenix still owned Phoenix, and before they started making “organic” ginger beer, they made a superior brew in a green label that kicked ass. It was much more flavoursome and when they introduced the organic brew, I couldn’t figure out why it was so insipid. Now Charlie’s own Phoenix and the green label Ginger Beer recipe is sadly just a faded memory.

  11. Lukas on

    Stoke ginger beer from Nelson! Barely available but after trying heaps of different ones that was the one to stick with ??

  12. John on

    I have tried very few of those listed here. I used to get 360 Ginger Beer (sweetened with sugar and Stevia), that was nice but is now gone, the company that put it out makes a new Ginger Beer under a new label, but it has almost no ginger in it. I also loved Saxby’s Ginger Beer (From Oz) , it has a crisp clean taste I loved, a bit subtle but awesome after taste! Sadly that too is no longer being imported. Signature Range Ginger beer is Ok. I tried Frank for the first time today and it is I think the best yet! Mac’s is very Blah, as is Stoke and Schweppes and Bunderberg in my book. I’d love to try some of the others listed here. There is also Home Brand Ginger beer which is too weak and screwed up by Neotame or Aspartame, there is also Pam’s Ginger Beer which is totally overcome by the harsh chemical “tame” sweeteners effect even though there is also sugar in therm.