March 24, 2012

2012 Ginger Beer Tasting

Empty bottles of ginger beer. From left to right: Bruce Cost, Squamscot, Rachel's, Artisan Elixir, Jackson Hole

After four separate reviews I’d begun to worry that I’d written all there was to write about ginger beer. But during the second half of 2011 my luck began to change as I stumbled upon a handful of new varieties. A chance discovery at Mission Cheese Shop, a couple overlooked gingers, and a bountiful trip to Seattle led to a full cooler of five beverages yet to face the gauntlet that is a ginger beer tasting.

With the product lineup established, an esteemed panel of tasters gathered in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Representing a cross section of experience, our judges, seven in total included veterans William Lavery, Beatrice Leung, and yours truly along with rookies Andrew Stewart, Peter Rive, Natasha Dvorak, and Wendy Wallin. In order to calibrate each judge’s palette a pre-tasting was undertaken to establish where previous ginger beers had been ranked. The criteria remained the same as our first tasting two years. Each ginger would be sampled solo and next mixed into a Dark ‘n’ Stormy – dark rum and ginger beer over ice. Judges then assigned a score between 1 and 10. Finally, an average score was computed to arrive at an overall total. After weeks of hype we settled down to the task at hand and a couple hours later the results were in.

Jackson Hole Ginger Beer

Jackson Hole

[score 2.6]

Immediately our tasters were suspect of the Jackson Hole ginger beer as its list of ingredients failed to include ginger. In the plus column, however, it does contain real cane sugar as opposed to the high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten many ginger beers. With the scent described as medicinal, the appearance as clear, and the spice as lacking (scoring a 1 – very low – on the spice scale) it was obvious our judges were not taking kindly to this batch-brewed soda. A few even felt it was improper to classify this is a ginger beer and likened it as more akin to a flat cream soda.

Due to its clear consistency, a distinct lack of “storm clouds” was observed when mixed into a dark n’ stormy. As a rum partner it faired poorly – seemingly watering down the alcohol rather than enhancing it. Forced to score this drink as a ginger beer, our judges presented Jackson Hole with low marks and quickly moved onto the next beverage.

Squamscot Ginger Beer

Squamscot

[score 5.7]

Dating back to the Civil War Squamscot has been making old fashioned beverages and distributing them to the thirsty people of New England ever since. Lucky for us they also ship their product to Seattle where we found a bottle near Pike Place Market.

Again, absent from the ingredient list was any mention of ginger. Our concerns were further raised when our olfactory senses detected a weak level of spice and a comparison to the smell of Sprite was made. But any worries this would be another tame drink were alleviated after the first sip. A consistent burn begins early and continues rolling through until well past the after taste. Our tasters award a spice score of 5, which would turn out to be the highest of the day.

An amber coloring made for a less exciting cocktail when mixed into a Dark ‘n’ Stormy. The burn that was prevalent while solo is tempered by the rum and the drink begins to sit heavy with the taste of cane sugar. While our jury was not blown away by Squamscot, they enjoyed it declaring it “an average ginger beer”.

Artisan Elixirs Golden Ginger Beer

Artisan Elixirs Golden Ginger

[score 6.1]

Locally brewed in Santa Cruz I discovered Artisan Elixirs Golden Ginger in October and scored it a seven with an unofficial review this past fall. Now our panel of judges was ready to compare notes and put it though an official tasting. A quick review of the ingredient list revealed organic agave and lemon emulsion hinting that we’d be tasting a twist on the classic ginger. With an authentic ginger smell, milky appearance, and chunks of ginger floating through the bottle, the pre-tasting excitement was palpable. But after the first sip many of our judges did not know what to make of Golden Ginger. A strong lemon flavor and notes of lychee left many enjoying the drink but comparing it to non-alcoholic offerings you might find at a trendy restaurant. Our judges were also surprised that a drink with so much ginger floating around lacked almost any spice or burn.

Results were also mixed when partnered with rum and lime. The subtle fruit quality was accentuated becoming a citrus finish. It was distinct enough for one of our judges to declare the drink a “Fruity ‘n’ Stormy.” When the scores were submitted, we found our judges were decidedly split over Golden Ginger, awarding a wide range of scores from a high of 9 to a low of 3. This is one beverage you’ll either love or hate.

Rachel's Ginger Beer

Rachel’s Ginger Beer

[score 4]

We continued our tasting by sampling another locally brewed, small batch ginger, this time from Seattle. Rachel’s ginger beer began in 2010 with an attempt to create a British style ginger beer with a personal touch and has been getting rave reviews from the local papers ever since. The bottle, with its bold logo set in Arial – all caps, jumped out at me while browsing the foodie mecca of Pike Place Market. My excitement only grew when I found the makers had hand-written an expiration date of only two months after brewing. Rachel choose to craft her ginger out of the basics: Filtered sparkling water, lemon, ginger, and pure cane sugar. Appropriately, lemon is placed ahead of ginger on the list of ingredients as it commands your attention while sipping. One of our judges noted that the tart lemon flavor “sucks the moisture out of my tongue.”

When mixed into a D&S Rachel’s was able to provide an excellent canvas for storm clouds. But the rum could not dampen the flavor of lemon, leaving our tasters puckering at each sip. In the end, Rachel’s was a decent soda but our judges felt it would be better categorized as a ginger infused lemonade than a typical ginger beer.

Bruce Cost Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale by Bruce Cost

Bruce Cost is a bit of a legend when it comes to ginger, having written a book on the subject and run successful ginger themed restaurants in both the Bay Area and Chicago. His most recent offering is a ginger ale that has begun to pop up in fine restaurants and speciality stores around the Bay Area. With Cost’s focus on ginger and the appearance of large chunks of ginger floating in the bottle, this beverage had all the hallmarks of a good ginger. But alas, it’s poor score on the spice scale (only a 1) and a sweeter than expect flavor convinced us it would be unfair to include this beverage in a ginger beer tasting and we’ll simply tell you it’s better served straight then mixed into a Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

After all the drinks were poured, our tasters were disappointed to find they had not discovered a high scoring ginger beer. In fact, the overall scoring was considerably low relative to the previous year’s tasting. Some blame a particularly biting panel of judges, while others claim the scores are an accurate representation. In this writer’s opinion the truth is usually found between the extremes. So while I don’t doubt our judges were less than generous with their scores, I will also dispute any claims that we tasted the next great ginger beer.

5 comments

  1. Tee Huff on

    I suggest you try some other rums for D & S’s– namely Blackwell… let me know what you think of it.

  2. Abraham on

    @Tee, thanks for the suggestion of Blackwell Rum. While Goslings is my rum of choice for a D & S I’m always curious to try others. To date I’ve yet to find a better dark rum for the price than Goslings.

  3. Tee Huff on

    Yeah, price is a bit premium, probably $25-$30 for 750ml, but worth it in my opinion. Blackwell is from Chris Blackwell founder of Island Records, the man responsible for Reggae’s worldwide popularity. People used to smuggle this stuff back in their suitcases until now- it’s available stateside.

    Let me know if you’d like a recipe to make your own ginger beer, it’s quite easy and way better than most, plus you can spice it up yourself…