NEW HAMPSHIRE SPECIAL
It isn’t every day that the United States turns its eyes to New Hampshire, our 43rd most populous, and arguably the New England state with the lowest Q Rating. But today’s occasion of presidential primaries is a reliable, quadrennial exception. And so there can hardly be a better opportunity to consider the Granite State’s contribution to ginger beer.
New Hampshire has occasionally been chided as “the South of the North” for its very non-Northeastern low taxes and libertarian policies and lifestyle.
Snuffy Massachusetts elites were even comparing the people of the Granite State to Southerners way back in the 1840s, when the U.S.A. was conducting a jingoistic war with Mexico and annexing Texas as a slave state. Unlike its Puritan brethren’s, New Hampshire’s party politics at the time were dominated by Jefferson-Jackson Democrats who promoted states’ rights and small government. This prompted the “Bard of Concord” (Massachusetts), Ralph Waldo Emerson, to write,
The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land
With little men.
What can all that possibly mean for ginger beer?
Well, if we take as granted that New Hampshire is conservative, and that a crucial element of conservatism is holding the line against speedy and radical change, we can thank the land of Daniel Webster for fostering the steady persistence of a more than 150 year-old soft drinks operation.
SQUAMSCOT: THE BRAND
Like Barritt’s and Blenheim’s, Squamscot Beverages has been churning out its wares long enough for its authentic, hyper-local mode of production to withstand decades of industry consolidation and become trendy again. Conservatism certainly can have its high points. Squamscot even operates out of the same buildings it did in the 1800s, out on the farm behind the family house on Exeter Road.
The Conner family, proprietors of Squamscot Beverages, has admirably deep roots in the town of Newfields, New Hampshire. And they evidently have good genes, too, since “grande dame” of the local “soda pop empire” Caroline Conner lived well into her 90s, and was old enough to remember the town’s soft drinks being delivered by horse and buggy to the hospital where she worked. Adding to that, Alfred Conner Jr., the third-generation business proprietor who took over in 1949, also lived to become a nonagenarian.
What is now called Squamscot started life during the Abraham Lincoln Administration as a brewer and purveyor of (alcoholic) spruce beer—which, if anything like the spruce beer I’ve had (which was based on a historic recipe), probably tasted a lot like beer infused with essence of Christmas tree. Sharp, interesting, and piney. Provocative to sip. But to my mind, of a flavor that could quickly get to be too much of a good thing.
This spruce beer was made available under the name “Connermade,” and was reportedly distributed in glass bottles capped with porcelain and wire stoppers. It’s not clear from where they sourced their water in the early days of the Conner Bottling Works, but an artisanal well was dug on the property in 1927. (This quite possibly could have been in reaction to company expansion under Prohibition. As we have seen in the cases of the older ginger beer companies we look at, the banning of alcohol was almost always a good thing for soft drink companies.)
Conner Bottling Works was well ahead of the curve, too, in anticipating how characteristics of regionalism and racial diversity would someday become a marketing department asset. The company changed its name in 1930 to Squamscot, after a Native American tribe that had been dominant on the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire.
“Squamscot” is actually a Yankee transliteration of the Indian name “Msquamskek,” which I would really love to see on a ginger beer bottle!
Squamscot currently makes a rainbow of 22 flavors of soda, including a lemon-flavored drink with the singularly disarming name of “Yup.” Go across the border into Vermont or Maine, and you’ll probably find hand-tooled local sodas with organic and all-natural ingredients. But in keeping with the whole identity of New Hampshire as less airy-fairy than the rest of New England, Squamscot doesn’t quite brook with the whole craft soda thing. Although it does eschew corn syrup for cane sugar, it’s also not above using artificial ingredients and colors.
And it isn’t clear exactly when spicy ginger beer entered their line of products. It is true, however, that ginger ale has been central to Squamscot’s success since Prohibition days, and today flourishes admirably in a number of formulations. Besides the ginger beer there is also a golden ginger ale, a pale dry ginger ale, and a diet golden ginger ale.
SQUAMSCOT: THE EXPERIENCE
I must confess not anticipating much with Squamscot Ginger Beer. At first blush, my particular set of prejudices lumped it in with the lackluster Kutztown varietal. Although I am certain there are some amazing johnny cakes, local fresh berries, and seafood chowders to be had in New Hampshire, I don’t know the place as a hotbed of gourmandism. In fact I would have ranked it about equal in that regard to Western Pennsylvania.
Why didn’t Squamscot seem promising? For one thing, I was taking a cue from the bottle. The label is no overly overcranked (or overly undercranked) output of a hipster graphic designer. So I did not size the ginger beer up as something specifically formulated to be competitive with the best of the best craft sodas. And then there was the color, which was a dull, somewhat dishwatery brown. Sorting through the various cultural semiotics, I came to Squamscot Ginger Beer figuring it would be an opportunistic also-ran among the current bloom of ginger beers. To expect a quality, legacy product, I thought, would be too much to hope for.
But the people at Squamscot have acquitted themselves respectably with this ginger beer.
I didn’t care so much for the level of carbonation. It was low and unstimulating. These qualities can actually befit an all-natural ginger beer like Rachel’s or that made by Luscombe. But in the case of a more “workshop” rather than “kitchen” ginger beer, fizziness seems called for. And I missed it in Squamscot.
But the flavor is a high point. Squamscot is slightly sweet, keeping this in line with most of the other company beverages, which would seem designed to be thirst-quenching, nostalgia-invoking summer drinks. I personally can only accept a dry ginger beer when the power, synergy, and/or freshness of the other flavors justify a lack of sweetness. Squamscot is one of those ginger beers that employ a lemon oil. So a back-channel acid tartness helps offset the cane sugar in a welcoming way.
This is not an especially spicy ginger beer, and initially I dinged Squamscot a few mental points in that regard. But as the after flavors set in, a burn began to make itself known. Minutes after I had finished the bottle that heat was still hanging around. Like a mellow party guest you’re glad to find still recumbent on your sofa well after midnight when the more exciting yet taxing invitees have moved on in search of a sustained activity buzz.
Squamscot will certainly be more of a challenge to find than some of these other guys. But should you luck into it, definitely do more than try one for novelty’s sake. Stock up on a few. And don’t wait for the next national headline that mentions New Hampshire to drink them. That will take too long.