It’s been eighteen months since 2 Out of Three’s first ginger beer tasting was held in South Lake Tahoe. In that time the ginger landscape has changed. The old classics, Bundaberg and Cock N’ Bull, have seen their reign as ginger beer of choice challenged by a new breed. So it seemed like the perfect time to hold another tasting. This time the location was San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. We gathered the new upstarts (Fever Tree and Goslings) and got our hands on a few classics that eluded us during the first tasting.
Veteran judges, William Lavery, Robert Sostak, and yours truly were joined by a few new faces; Cory Morgan, Ashley “Hurricane” Dean, and Paul Spraycar. Together we set out to taste our way through a list of six ginger beers using the same criteria laid out in our first tasting. Each ginger was tasted solo and then mixed into a Dark n’ Stormy. Judges assigned a score between 1 and 10 and the average score was computed to assign an overall total. So, without further delay let the tasting begin.
It’s rather astonishing how a ginger beer can go so wrong with little more ingredients than water, cane sugar, and natural ginger flavor. You almost get the feeling the marketing department at Shipyard Brewery, the makers of Captain Eli’s, have never actually sampled their product. How else can you explain the outrageous claim that this is a “well balanced combination of spicy ginger and sweet sugar cane.” Our tasters found the sweet sugar cane was too strong muting the little bit of ginger flavour. Coming in with a weak spice scale (3) we were left scratching our heads when trying to compile a list of flavor notes, in the end we settled on describing the taste as “bad soda”. At least that was better than the runner up “lighter fluid”.
Brewed locally in San Francisco, Prince Neville’s is not your standard ginger beer. It contains “raw ginger”, lacks carbonation, and is stamped with an expiration date. In fact, this beverage may have more in common with raw drinks like Kombucha than a cocktail mixer. Packaged in a plastic bottle it has a dark brown appearance which differentiates it from anything else labeled ginger beer. Our first impression after taking a swig is a sweet flavor, with notes of pineapple and ginger candy coming through. But after the initial pleasantries things got a bit questionable. This sweet introduction led to a hardy spice. It keeps you warm but it can be a harsh–scoring an 8 on the spice scale. And without any carbonation it’s a poor partner for Goslings Black Seal Rum, too watery and too tropical. Our conclusion was Price Neville’s is a decent drink but due to its unique nature and tropical flavors its not suited for a Dark n’ Stormy.
Goslings has always made the preferred rum in a Dark n’ Stormy. In the past it’s always been noted to use Barritts Ginger Beer in the official D&S recipe. But all that changed in May of 2009 when Goslings released their own ginger beer. In partnership with Polar Beverages of Massachusetts, who actually produces the stuff, they’ve started to flood the market and I’ve easily been able to find this ginger at BevMo and many SF bars such as the Elbow Room. With all the hype surrounding this new entry, our tasters were excited to see how ‘Gosling’s Stormy Ginger Beer’ would hold up.
A great way to acquaint yourself with a ginger is to get your nose into it. Does the ginger clear out your sinuses? How about the carbonated bubbles, are they tickling that spot above your lip? As for Goslings we noticed an oddly smokey bouquet with a light trace of ginger. Stare into the glass and you’ll notice a slight yellow hue. Take your fist sip and you’ll notice a trace of chalky texture, reminiscent of a stone brew – although it’s not. The ginger flavour (a 3 on the spice scale) is modest and trails off very quickly at the end. Goslings has crafted a “serviceable” ginger beer and it fulfills its primary purpose as a mixer for a D&S very well. But it falls short of the favorites from our previous tastings.
Barritts is the grandaddy of ginger beers having been brewed since 1874. Keeping with its hundred year plus traditions it’s made with real cane sugar and stone brewed. It can be difficult to find on the West Coast and we only got our hands on a case thanks to the a shipment from the company’s Brand Manager who wanted to ensure we could make a “proper Dark n’ Stormy’. Looking at it in the bottle with a slanted logo design you might think you had a Miller High Life in your hands. All that changes once you twist the top. A pleasant ginger flavor with notes of citrus greet you at first sip. This is an easy drinking ginger beer (only a 2 on the spice scale), with low carbonation and very little bite. Barritts is a “straight shooter” that’s easy to drink on it’s own.
But this ginger has a secret. Mild mannered during the day–almost pedestrian–things step up, and the citrus breaks through with a shot of dark rum. And there you are, expecting an average cocktail and now a damn fine Dark n’ Stormy is staring you in the face. Well, drink up my friend, this is what you’ve been searching for.
First thing to do when you get your hands on the 6.8 oz bottle of Fever Tree’s Ginger Beer is to tip it upside down. That way the natural sediment mixes through the entire bottle turning the once clear liquid cloudy. Presumably, the spice cloud that sits at the bottom consists of ginger root which is sourced from Nigeria, Cochin, and Ivory Coast. The rest of the ingredients are refreshingly simple: spring water, cane sugar, natural flavor, ascorbic acid. The founders of Fever Tree, a British-owned company, have crafted an entire line of mixers designed to compliment high-end spirits. But along with the quality ingredients comes a premium price, costing close to twice as much as other ginger beers.
Immediately our tasters recognized this to be a contender for highest scoring ginger. The perfect amount of carbonation tickles the back of your throat with each sip. Neat, this ginger is the best drinker we came across. Starting sweet it lures you in, then wakes you up with a kick of ginger on the finishes. We applaud the brew master on the balance that was struck between sweet and spice. While you certainly taste the fresh ginger in each bottle at no point does it overpower or outstay it’s welcome. With and without rum this ginger beer is hands down the winner of our tasting. The only question that remained was whether or not it would score higher than our previous favorite Bunderberg? With a perfect 10 given by one of our judges, Fever Tree edged out Bunderberg moving into the top slot among all ginger beers tasted by our judges.
Finding a bottle of Sioux City was a bit of a coup for me. While the Sioux City brand is well known for making Root Beer I was surprised when I found a bottle of their ginger beer at the Bristol Farms Market below the San Francisco Westfield Mall. The makers at White Rock Beverages seem to be keeping this particular product on the down low because its not even listed on their website.
If you have a good set of eyes you’ll be able to read the small type on the bottle cap where the ingredients are listed. Unfortunately, second on the list is the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. Further along with you’ll find a couple head scratches like modified food starch and brominated vegetable oil. With ingredients like these it was not a surprise to find this ginger sweeter than most. Although its got some bite (a spice score of 4) it manages to find a nice balance creating an overall sweet ginger taste. While we find a few of the ingredients suspect, Sioux City is a decent ginger beer that manages to mix well with rum. Not our favorite of the night, but it had a difficult job following up Fever Tree.