Ginger Beer Review: Squamscot Ginger Beer


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.

squamscot_cropped_v2New 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. new_hampshire_hechenberger


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.

conner_beverages_crateThis 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.


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.





Ginger Beer Review: Timber City Ginger Beer

This just in. I am freshly returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest of the United States. My first. Given fairly extensive previous travel in the Lower 48, my devotion to bicycling, waterfalls, hiking, quality salmon, earth-toned outerwear, Twin Peaks, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, This Boy’s Life, dilettante’s interest in urban planning, susceptibility to the notion of fog as a romantic phenomenon, you might be as surprised as I am that I have put off such a trip for this long.

timber_city_ginger_croppedAnd a tour of the Pacific Northwest is of utmost significance to I Love Ginger Beer. That’s because nowhere else in America is the beverage we admire such a white-hot topic and so burnishing in the radiance of innovation and trade.

It is not as simple as remarking that the inhabitants of Portland and Seattle appreciate their ginger beer. No. In these cities, ginger beer wars (seemingly of a good-natured variety) are sometimes waged neighborhood by neighborhood.

Pick your socially and economically vibrant Seattle zip code. Within the confines of trendy urban subdivisions like Capitol Hill or Ballard you will find restaurants, watering holes, liquor marts, farmer’s markets, and trendy grocers who can be counted on featuring a local and unique ginger beer. Seattle’s ginger beer traffickers in some cases even boast entire storefronts. Customers have proven willing to pay $13 for a single bottle of the choice stuff. Where else would this even be possible?

Regrettably, my time on the far side of the Siskiyou Pass was insufficient. I did not net even close to all the ginger beer varieties I might have. (Alas, I was in town on non-ginger beer business.) And it was with lancing pangs that I realized I had been just blocks from the Rachel’s Ginger Beer outlet in the famous Pike’s Place Market (home to the Starbuck’s that christened a campaign of global domination), a touristy spot I was clearly misguided in not making a priority. Since a solid case can be made that Rachel’s is “the” Seattle ginger beer by which all others must be judged, I pledge to inveigle another way to get my grabby mitts on some soon.

northwest_postcardTimber City Ginger Beer, however, is an offering I was able to track down.


“This is not a soda. This is a tonic; an elixir.”

Timber City Ginger’s website makes this bold claim. A guy could be forgiven, then, for classifying this as a true New Age beverage: non-corporatist in outlook, rejecting artificial additives, celebrating farm-to-table ingredients, and identifying with a lifestyle of enhanced vitality and social responsibility.

Timber City Ginger Beer does not explicitly promise any health benefits. But that’s clearly where the words “tonic”

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 10.07.25 PM

and “elixir”

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 10.07.54 PM

take us.

So thank you very much, dear old OED.

The owner-operators of Timber City Ginger do not hit us over the head with some transporting origin story or annotated narrative of the trials and errors of developing their product for the marketplace. That is already a point in their favor, so far as I am concerned. They are willing to put the drink first. Having come from culinary backgrounds—a key member of the team has an advanced degree in food studies from NYU and both clearly paid their dues in exhausting restaurant and catering work—Timber City Ginger Beer’s creators slogged their beverage through the trial of selling it in farmer’s market in spots like West Seattle and Mercer’s Island. They developed enough of a following to graduate to where they are now, as a small and hopefully growing concern with offerings available in just over a dozen Seattle outlets including pizza joints, brewpubs, and food co-ops. I got mine at the well-curated Northwest Liquor and Wine.

timber_city_batch_from_facebookA gallon of Timber City Ginger Beer requires no less than a pound of ginger. It is a matter of closely-held industrial intelligence how much ginger goes into the other entrants in this New Age/botanical category, such as Luscombe Cool or Fever Tree or Fentiman’s. But that is indisputably a remarkable amount of ginger. And one shivers a bit with the sense of how much manpower must go into batch creation. Ginger ain’t no walk in the park to peel.

What else goes into the elixir? Lemon juice, sugar, and herbs. “Herbs?” Can they elaborate? Douglas Fir tips have been tantalizingly offered as a possibility.

I mentioned before that Seattle takes its ginger beer seriously. In point of fact, it takes all its beverages seriously. “Drinks are how we deal with the weather,” confided a close observer of the Seattle scene I know, who also has the virtue of being a trained anthropologist. So in certain circles it is almost certainly brought up as a point of contention that Timber City Ginger Beer is not fermented, and may therefore not qualify as legitimate ginger beer. (The distinction expounded upon here). Apparently, the team behind Timber City suffered literally explosive outcomes with early recipes using champagne yeast, and now rely on CO2 for carbonation instead of a metabolic process.

Timber City maintains a vigorous presence at the West Seattle Farmer’s Market. And there (as well as at least some of the supplemental purveyors around town) customers can avail themselves to seasonal recipes, where combinations like rhubarb, apple, peach and green chile, and even beet (!) take their turns on the stage. Many of these ingredients are sourced from a family farm in the extreme northeast of the Olympic Peninsula, where quirks of geography produce a sunny, Mediterranean-style microclimate that is one of the world’s best for producing lavender.


Timing wasn’t right to try Timber City in situ at a farmer’s market. So I wound up purchasing and lugging around several of their enormous, chrome 32 oz. cans. These are so voluminous as to be almost comical. They make a brash and ultraconfident statement about ginger beer, and I am way down with that. If nothing else they are a sharp and sure departure from the dinky mixers on offer from Stoli and Q.

(Which is not to suggest the Timber City shies away from cocktail coproductions. Despite the healthy and natural connotations, the company is proud to note whenever their stuff turns up in a noted mixologist’s creation, and they also sell a cocktail syrup as a cornerstone product).

Public Market Center, Seattle, WashingtonThe clerk at the retail shop where I found Timber City quipped that not a few of his customers remark that they don’t know what to do with a can so large, adding that they don’t know how to store the leftovers. Mine, I will say, matured nicely in the refrigerator over 2 1/2 days. Even in an open can, its light carbonation held up admirably.

I have reviewed some dry ginger beers here before. But I wasn’t prepared for Timber City to lack so much as a single atomic particle of sweetness. And this even with sugar as its fourth listed ingredient. (Sweetness is, to be honest, a flavor element I am not always so proud of enjoying; see the rating I saw fit to affix to Frostie, which cannot even come close to Timber City as a labor of love with quality, hand-picked ingredients).

But the pungence and intensity of the ginger (Peruvian?) makes Timber City a drink of distinction. It imparts an earthy, spicy, mouthcoating heat, not as spiky and immediate as Goya.

The lemon juice does not call much attention to itself. Timber City’s secondary flavors are not fruity, but instead strike that chord of familiar “health food” notes: yogurt and kombucha, even a tart, vinegar-like pinch. This is not always my favorite combination, and at first blush I wasn’t certain Timber City was going to be a place I wanted to bed down in for any length of time.

But the ginger hooked me. This earnest farmer’s market aspirant ultimately won me over, and left me even more curious about the other stars in the Northwest’s ginger beer constellation. Malus, Rachel’s, Bee’s Wine, Bedford’s, Bucksnort, etc.? I hope to be gazing your way soon.



Ginger Beer Review: Regatta Ginger Beer

In the 1920s, it was still possible to live “rustically” in Westport, Connecticut — as none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald reported doing in a letter of August that year. In the present boom times of 2015? Rusticity — at least of a genuine sort, rather than a stylish affectation — is not on the menu.

regatta_croppedYou’re not likely to find a detached house in Westport worth less than a cool million. The flock that nests in this enclave on Long Island Sound are a posh bunch. In a town with less than thirty thousand people, there are no less than three yacht clubs within the city limits from which to choose. The boating races held just last year at Cedar Point Yacht Club were the largest in the town’s history, with over a hundred sailboats (up to 37 feet long) in competition.

And as any blueblood knows, nothing goes better with yachting than a good cocktail.

Westport, Connecticut, and premium booze are tight. And this is not only because cocktails are the preferred self-medication technique of the filthy rich. Given its situation on the New England coastline, with Canada not far to the north and New York City even closer, Westport was a haven for bootleggers back in the dry days of Scott & Zelda’s residency in their Compo Road cottage. Smugglers brought illicit liquors aplenty to ground on Westport’s beaches and wharves.

And so thirsty were Westporters for drink that there was a land route for intoxicants as well. The local constabulary were known to regularly forestall Prohibition Agents from stopping and searching suspicious trucks headed into town in advance of the many wild Roaring Twenties parties that some scholars argue had as much to do with inspiring The Great Gatsby as Great Neck, New York, did.

fitzgeraldsIn the case of Q Ginger Beer we saw that hipster tipplers resent mixing their artisinal distillates with subpar mixers.

Well, well-to-do yachtsmen about to set sail for Gardiner’s Bay don’t like that either. Why cut the quality of a top-dollar gin or rum with Canada Dry or the store brand ginger ale from the nearby A&P?

And that’s where Regatta Ginger Beer comes in.


Here, as with other brands we have encountered, the emphasis is clearly not on drinking ginger beer for its own sake but instead on posing the soda’s participation in Dark ‘n’ Stormies, Moscow Mules, and the burgeoning brigades of derivative cocktails.

mixing_with_the_bestDistributed by Westport’s own Affinity Beverages, a small but growing operation run by one Stanley Rottell, Regatta comes ready-branded for the seagoing elite (or at least those with aspirations to be among said elite). Not every ginger beer goes out of its way to associate itself with Bermuda. But this one does. And the aim would seem to be to further identify the product with leisure and luxury.

Is there a note of snobbery to be detected in the ad slogan, “Mixing with the Best?” Parsing the language there, it’s clear that in the main what is being referred to is the premium booze Regatta is targeting. Digging a little deeper arguably leaves you contending with the implication that moneyed nautical types are “the best.”
If these are indeed the intended semiotics, they are only fooling themselves. There is a tendency for the masses to believe that wealthy people actually possess sophisticated tastes, and that the cuisine they indulge in must be as rarified as the air they breathe. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the late, visionary culture critic Paul Fussell put it in his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System

“At the very top [of the social strata], the food is usually not very good, tending, like the conversation, to a terrible blandness, a sad lack of originality and cutting edge.”
Affinity Beverages isn’t front and center with its business model. But there is reason to doubt that Regatta Ginger Beer is actually produced there in Westport. One would hazard a guess that it is made and shipped by third party contract, probably by a place like Polar Beverages or Natrona Bottling Company.

westport_ctNevertheless, Mr. Rottell has done a highly respectable job getting Regatta on shelves. I have found it listed for sale all over the Northeast, at comprehensive retailers like BevMo, and had no problem getting it here on the U.S. West Coast through a distributor. (Although as you can see from the accompanying photo, my bottles arrived with the appearance of having been somewhat roughly smuggled in).

The company’s own literature reports that it “use[s] new distillation techniques to provide greater flavor impact to the beverages consistent with the same technology in the beverage alcohol industry.” But hey, let’s not prejudice the MBAs with the expectation that they should be able to write the Great American Novel.

Fitzgerald might blanch at the quality of this here prose. But how about the drink itself?


I suppose this should be reiterated from time to time. I’m not one to shy away from the alcohol. In fact I have co-authored an upcoming book on the 9,000 year history of beer, having done my share of first-hand research. But the purpose of I Love Ginger Beer is to rate and pontificate about ginger beers qua ginger beers. So I won’t speak to the aesthetics of Regatta as a mixer.

keep_calm_and_love_regattaI will say that Regatta is flavorful and drinkable. Its bouquet is a particular highlight — and should you get your mitts on a bottle (which, from what I understand, probably won’t come in the attractive green glass vessel I procured, but instead, owing to a shortage, in a clear glass version of the bottle) you should make sure you take the time to enjoy that fragrance yourself.

Regatta’s ginger taste, despite coming from extracts rather than fresh ginger or ginger oil, remains robust with no hints of anything obviously synthetic. The flavorists have done their job well. And for the squeamish there are no unsightly particles or sediment in the liquid. This being a cane sugar-sweetened beverage, Regatta is on the sweet side. In the finish I detected something of a tart, green apple personality as well. Other than that, the personality of the drink is not especially complicated.

If you seek the ginger beer afterburn, however, you are best moving on. Regatta is likely formulated not to overpower or interfere with the liquor with which it is meant to be mixed.

So in the end, this is a solid entry. But not necessarily what I would call a distinguished one. True “foodies” and heat extremists can comfortably overlook Regatta. But those who are really just on the prowl for a more robust version of ginger ale should definitely make room for Regatta in the ensuite wet bars and galleys of their Oyster 875s.


Ginger Beer Review: Frostie Ginger Beer

In a corporate environment where we are constantly beset with the twin tactics of narrative and nostalgia (as I groused about in the recent review of Q Ginger Beer) it’s almost refreshing to come across a product about which you can only find the most superficial information.

frostie_croppedSuch is the case with Frostie brand ginger beer. And it’s a little surprising. Because given the county fair funhouse appeal of its “jolly old elf” cartoon mascot, stylized icicles and snow accumulations, off-kilter Googie typeface, and diminutive -ie suffix, you would think it would be ripe for overcranked cutesy commercialization —perhaps with this little number as the perfect accompanying soundtrack.

Metaphorical trip down the amusement park midway of the taste buds aside, Frostie Ginger Beer could also work another marketing angle that it does not play up much. The drink has a solid Midwestern pedigree And unless you have exiled your attention span these past few years to some distant Upper Peninsula of the mind, then you know that the Great Lakes State has suffered some serious economic doldrums these past few decades.

But Frostie, which now seems to be manufactured in Detroit, qualifies for the “Made in Michigan” boosterism campaign that is designed to make the American Rustbelt and beyond feel good about supporting homegrown products and brining jobs to a blighted section of the GNP landscape. But no. Frostie barely hits that note at all. Why are you hiding your light under a bushel, Frostie Elf?maryland-catonsville-frostie-root-beer-sign-3

Ginger beer, we have thus far established on this website, is an all but unique phenomenon of the English-speaking world, principally to be characterized with Britain and its old imperial holdings. But everything about Frostie strikes you as American. The choices involved in its product design (and, as we will discover, flavor) probably wouldn’t fly on the other side of “The Pond.” Posh old-school Schweppes and posh new-school Luscombe this definitely ain’t.


Frostie’s identity starts to make more sense upon the revelation that the brand was originally rolled out as an all-American root beer. Root beer is flavored principally by sassafras and smilax ornata (sarsaparilla). And both of these plants have their strongest footing in the Americas.

The Frostie Company was launched in 1939 by one George Rackensperger, who, early on, is notable for having set up his operation in a disused penitentiary outside Baltimore. (This would be Catonsville, Maryland, in fact: a town famous during the Vietnam War Era as the scene of a radical anti-draft demonstration.) The cells of Rackensperger’s rented jailhouse were used to store sugar and other ingredients, and the bottling equipment itself was housed in the garage where in former days the paddywagons had been parked.

According to some reports, The Frostie Company’s original flagship drink was a cola called “Nickle.” Nickle Cola was abandoned when Rackensperger teamed up with a former employee of 7-Up to develop a root beer recipe. The jailhouse location was used for just a hair under a decade. Afterwards the company moved to a more standard manufactory. Seasoned residents of the Catonsville area recall being allowed to visit the bottling plant in the 1950s and sample their wares right off the assembly line.

Frostie Root Beer hit something of a jackpot. Whether it was the root beer recipe, the appeal of the advertising, or both, the brand enjoyed record-breaking business. Rackensperger responded to the demand by hatching a franchising scheme with bottlers outside Baltimore. By 1958 Frostie was selling in all the (then) 48 states and Canada to boot. The company headquarters were, for reasons I cannot ascertain, moved to Monterrey, Mexico, making the brand pervasively North American.

After the 1958, Frostie’s historical record gets a little more obscure and a lot less personal. Rackensperger sold the company for “personal reasons,” and one source has it briefly becoming picked up by Canada Dry. Wikipedia tells us that in 1979 the brand licensing was purchased by Atlanta, Georgia-based Monarch Beverage Company. This transaction would seem to be our entree into the more modern soft drink economy where licenses to bottle certain drinks and use certain beverage names get swapped around like trading cards. Monarch, which hardly has a recognizable product in its line today, controlled icons Moxie, Nesbitt’s, and Bubble Up for the late 20th/early 21st Centuries. Frostie was then conveyed to a now defunct Central Texas outfit called either “Leading Edge Brands” or “Leading Edge Flavors” (I’ve seen both). Leading Edge at least appreciated the root beer enough to offer cake, barbecue sauce, baked beans, and even a torte recipe to its admirers.

Company founder George H. Rackensperger, however, never lived to see his soft drink empire name get slapped onto a ginger beer product. He retired to Winter Park, Florida, and died in 1975. Who knows if the man ever heard of ginger beer.

The Frostie brand is now owned and made available by Intrastate Distributors of Detroit, Michigan. And they don’t, as I went on about in the lines above, offer much information about it. Intrastate does not, for instance, mention when the ginger beer first became available (I suspect very recently), or where or how the stuff is actually being produced. But besides the root beer, the Frostie brand name has been leant to a rainbow of other sugary flavors, including a strawberry, orange, “blue cream,” and grape sodas. Just thinking about all that sweetener in big, two liter bottles makes my eyes water.

But it gets interesting for me here. Another old-timey soft drink line, Stewart’s “Fountain Classics” (a niche holding of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group conglomerate), used to have a spicy Ginger Beer with which I was quite besotted. In leaner years — and man, were some of them lean! — I carefully budgeted my weekly grocery bill in order to retain the needful cash on hand to pick up a four-pack from the Bristol Farms gourmet grocery store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Stewart’s discontinued this ginger beer several years ago. And it may be my imagination, but Frostie tastes just like that Stewart’s that used to burn my tongue off. Intrastate Distributors also vends Stewart’s to Greater Detroit. Did the disused ginger beer formula get passed along? I would really love to know.frostie_root_beer_1960s_newspaper_ad


Frostie is one of the sweetest ginger beers to be encountered in this comprehensive survey of the industry. And it’s a bit of an embarrassment to admit how appealing that sweetness is. We can credit pure cane sugar for that element of the taste. While cane sugar is certainly not as au courant as Q Ginger Beer’s agave nectar or Coca Cola’s recent experiment with Stevia, at least Frostie’s sweetness is not artificial, cloying, and industrial like Idris “Fiery” Ginger Beer’s.

The ginger flavor is intense enough for the drink to earn the “beer” rather than “ale” appellation. But again, there is no actual ginger, ginger extract, or ginger oil listed in the ingredients. It may be little more than the laboratory flavorist’s dark arts at work here. But at least some quillaia extract imparts some distinct and more sophisticated flavor notes. Along with Frostie’s lighter carbonation, these are the only qualities of the product that contradict its kiddie-themed label design.

In terms of spicy heat, Frostie is really no more than on the high side of middling (which pokes a hole in my theory about the adoption of the Stewart’s recipe, although my own palate may have developed in such a different direction that my old baseline standard for heat no longer applies).

Still and all, Frostie Ginger Beer possesses the charm of a ride on a Tilt-A-Whirl on a midsummer night in some heartland county seat. It’s a great ginger beer to drink with sandwiches, crabcakes, or burgers, and it’s hot enough to drive away the faint of heart. I only wish it was easier to find where I live, because I could see Frostie earning a permanent spot as a guilty pleasure.


Ginger Beer Review: Q Ginger Beer

Vast armadas of marketing gurus, ad agency execs, PR operatives, and consumer strategy consultants all blast their foghorns waggle their semaphore flags about the same thing: that storytelling is key to launching and sustaining a successful brand. That very well may be the case.

q_ginger_beer_croppedBut in the world of trendy, artisinal, idiosyncratic products shooting for an appeal higher than shoppers at WalMart, Costco, and Target, those “once upon a brand” storytelling themes and elements are getting pretty damnably one-note. Do we really need to hear another tale of plucky, young urbanites who have no special experience in the field, but who nevertheless conclude that benign consumer item x is played out? And that, day jobs, social lives, and pricey non-aligning undergraduate degrees be damned, they’re just the ones to reinvent it from scratch? And deliver us all from mediocrity into a shimmering new civilization where we can express ourselves with more creatively fulfilling choices of razor blades, mayonnaise, underwear, and eyeglasses?


The press on Q Drinks reads like any other hipster Horatio Alger tale. Brooklyn-dwelling Jordan Silbert cites that he was hanging around drinking with friends in his back yard, when a “strangely sticky” feeling on his teeth led him to the disheartening revelation that there was high fructose corn syrup in the tonic water with which he had mixed his G&Ts. The next thing we’re told, he was juggling the challenge of mail-ordering cinchona tree bark from Peru and “agonizing” over how to blend it with other natural ingredients to make the most complex and delectable tonic water. And look! Now Q Drinks — the “Q” is for the “quinine” of their flagship tonic water — are available from retailers nationwide. They offer a range of sodas including the ginger beer under consideration here. And the company is chalking up blurbs of approbation from the likes of Gourmet Magazine. Nice work if you can get it.

hipster_horatio_algerMuch as I may enjoy sitting on the sidelines and styling myself Mr. Above-the-Fray, Cut-Them-Down-To-Size Mass Media Critic, I’m damned if this marketing approach doesn’t work on me aplenty. I mean, I’m way past having to hear the stories. But the pretty packaging and hand-picked, unusual ingredients, and refreshingly different flavors still have an appeal. Hang it all, upscaley items like Q Ginger Beer are still a great alternative to everyday consumables that, yeah, might make life a wee bit more enjoyable if they were of higher quality and more interesting.

Here’s the thing about Q Ginger Beer, though, that I genuinely didn’t appreciate. The producing company itself designates that this beverage is “a [cocktail] mixer and only a mixer” (emphasis mine).


My Q Ginger Beer came in a stylish but stingy 8 oz. glass bottle. (It’s also available in a larger bottle and even larger “slim can.”) The first impression it gives is of an almost black peppery flavor intensity. The ginger is quite nice and quite strong, but the pepper dilutes it a little. Q Ginger Beer is the only candidate so far flavored with agave nectar rather than cane sugar or HFCS. It ramps up like it’s going to be sweet, but then backtracks and plateaus. The result is a respectably balanced dryness that still flatters the taste buds with a bijoux of guilty pleasure.

Evidently, one of Silbert’s beefs with sodas not fully conceived as mixers is that their bubbles don’t stand up to the addition of booze. Well, no worries about that here. Q Ginger Beer brings a sharp, stinging carbonation — one that calls up childhood experiences with Pop Rocks from deep recesses of sense-memory. If only Proust had grown up in fin-de-siècle American suburbs he would have understood.

I would not hesitate to drink this again. It’s not as intriguing as Luscombe, neither is it as gratifying and thirst-quenching a quaff as the elite stuff: Goya, Cock ‘n’ Bull, Ginger People, Bundaberg. You can tell Q Ginger Beer is not conceived as a standalone soft drink. It wouldn’t be pleasurable in quantities any larger than it’s packaged in. But I’m looking forward to trying it with a few fingers of select hooch and getting back to you on how it partners up!


Ginger Beer Review: Luscombe “Cool”

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” says Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Evidently, the seed from which this famous early 20th Century crime novel grew was dispersed in the rustic and pocket-sized village of Buckfastleigh in the county of Devon, England.


A notoriously sadistic petty nobleman by the name of Richard Cabbell died and was buried in Buckfastleigh around 1677. Upon Cabbell’s ejection into the netherworld, locals reported that black “hell hounds” flew across the landscape, disgorging smoke and fire from their jaws. This legend kicked around from generation to generation, and ultimately seems to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to pen the third of his full-length novels about his popular short story character.

Apparently, way back in the superstitious mists of the mid 1990s, there was also an “obvious” but yet “unobserved” way to save a struggling Buckfastleigh apple orchard.


Luscombe Organic Drinks began making (hard) cider, as well as plain old apple juice, in 1975. This area of relatively balmy, beachy stretch of Southwest England (there’s a British “Riviera?” Who Knew?) has long been famous for its toothsome produce. But in these days before the Slow Food Movement and the Campaign for Real Ale helped rejuvenate traditional, hand-hewn beverages, cider was roundly seen as a passe tipple of country bumpkins.

Luscombe, as a business concern, was circling the drain. The obvious remedy it was failing to observe was the strategy of doing something else with all those apples.

Gabriel David — who much to our collective good fortune confesses that his latest passion is ginger beer — set about keeping the family business afloat by expanding its line of soft drinks and fitting them out in combinations and with flavors for sophisticated, adult tastes. Here in the states, apple juice is almost exclusively the drink of toddlers. But Gabriel David brought to market a line of minimally processed apple juice drinks flavored with things like elderflower and, yes, ginger. Building on this success, his next opus was a Sicilian-style lemonade recipe — one he says was an entire decade in the making. And he only found perfection in Luscombe’s orange juice when he sourced the oranges from Mexico.

At present, Luscombe produces three different ginger beers: a “cool,” a “hot,” and a “passionate,” the latter flavored with passionfruit juice. On this side of The Pond, the only of these three I have to date been able to get my mitts on is the “cool.” And after sampling it, I’m ready to release hellhounds of my own to scour the landscape for the other two.


From the very first taste, it was instantaneously indisputable that this ginger beer — when it comes to sophistication of flavor — is in a category of its own. Luscombe Cool is special; classy. This is a fizzy soda drink you could order at a Michelin star restaurant or offer at a smart dinner party and preserve every atom of your adulthood. You would not think twice about its being non-alcoholic.

For starters, Luscombe Cool is exceedingly dry. While I appreciate this, dryness is not my “go-to” criterion for a good ginger beer. But wow does it work in this one. Luscombe Cool comes on mildly, but then froths up with carbonation. It has a persuasive, well-balanced citrus aftertaste, the latter owing to the inclusion of 3% Sicilian lemon juice.

This ginger beer is not overamped on heat points. It hits you only with a moderate, lingering spice. There is also something a bit vegetabley to the aftertaste. But even that was lacking in the same bitterness notes that might class this drink in the group of “health food” flavors that I tend to see in ginger drinks like Reed’s that aggressively accentuate their organic, “short chain” production.

Of course, all the ingredients in Luscombe “Cool” are organic. And furthermore, Luscombe Cool is most definitively a traditional English ginger beer in that it’s made with brewer’s yeast (an ingredient found in exactly none of the previously reviewed products) and a full 2% of organic ginger root. No extracts here.

I also found this wonderfully satisfying. It presents such a thorough and novel stimulation of your taste buds that it’s almost “filling,” like a book or movie you need to sit and think about for a while before exposing yourself to a second time. If Luscombe Organic Drinks can do all that with a relatively mildly spiced ginger beer, I don’t know how I’m going to wait until I can locate their Hot variety.


Ginger Beer Review: Goya

It seems we can credit a single shipment of Moroccan sardines from the 1930s for the existence of Goya Foods and its damn good ginger beer. And I’ll salute it now since I’m writing from a subtropical, American zone where Goya ginger beer is far easier to come by than it is on the West Coast.



In the years between World War I and World War II, Don Prudencio Unanue, a man of Basque heritage, left his native Spain for Puerto Rico. Exactly what motivated this move seems not to have circulated outside of the lore of the Unanue family. But one thing seems clear: Unanue, in his new environment, was still seeking the comforts of home. He married a Spanish woman and proceeded to set up a small business importing oils and condiments from the Iberian Peninsula to the Caribbean — presumably so that others like Unanue could still eat as they used to on the considerably less humid other side of the Atlantic.

This was all hunky dory until 1936 when the Fascists and Anarchists started going at it back home. The Spanish Civil War dried up Unanue’s deep well of goodies from the Land of the Setting Sun. The cache of Moroccan sardines, which Unanue managed to acquire from a fellow Spaniard, saved the business.

Unanue later picked up stakes, brought his business to Brooklyn. Puerto Ricans began immigrating in earnest to New York City in the Postwar years, and Unanue found fortune in adding Puerto Rican specialties like pasteles and gandules to his roster of imported foods. Because us notoriously monolingual Yanquis couldn’t pronounce his family name, Unanue renamed the company after the Spanish painter Goya. Its simplicity stuck. And not long afterwards, Goya Foods became the premiere broker of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean foodstuffs in the world. It doesn’t seem to matter if the cuisine is Bahamian or Bolivian, Andalusian, Aruban, or Argentinian. Goya seems to have brought it into the fold.

Like the Hispanic population of North America, Goya keeps growing. Besides a major base of operations in Puerto Rico, it now boasts an enormous headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, and very recently opened huge distribution centers in Sunbelt spots like Houston and Los Angeles.

The allure of ginger beer, as we have noted many times previously, seems mostly peculiar to the English-speaking world and its former colonies — the population of which are largely of African extraction (as in the case of Jamaica). Goya manufactures an entire line of “resfrescos” or tropical drinks. And its ginger beer seems to stick out a bit from the repertoire of fruity flavors like Tamarind, Guava, Strawberry, Sangria, Guaraná, and Pineapple. But that same ginger beer sticks out for another reason too. It’s quite good.


This is a very strong contender for the title of the best going large-scale ginger beer. Given Goya’s provenance, I’m not sure if it is available in the U.K. But it should be.

Although it is (unfortunately) sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, Goya’s flavor is not at all sweet. In fact, once drawn over the palate it evinces something of a tartness — a plain yogurt-like or even kombucha-y note. The existing, subtle sweetness cuts and tempers this just enough to keep Goya from tasting like some kind of acquired-taste health food store product. Unlike many other ginger beers that have survived into modern times, Goya has not only ginger “flavorings” but also ginger oil. This is a more expensive ingredient that is usually nixed in the offerings of other brands. In the yet-to-be-reviewed case of Jamaica’s Finest, which also includes ginger oil, I was anticipating a big uptick in quality. In that case my expectations were not meant. But Goya’s flavorists employ it well.

Goya is also one of the hotter iterations considered here so far. This comes not just because of the ginger but due to the inclusion of capsicum, i.e. hot pepper extract. Goya’s heat experience is not an “extreme” one, ratcheted up for effect. Instead, it brings about a lingering burn that can sometimes seem to peak long minutes after sipping.

Some might consider this cheating, as the capsicum almost surely is a more cost-effective method of infusing spiciness than adding more ginger. But when the results are this good, it’s hard to find fault.




Ginger Beer Review: Kutztown

The lineup of most of our earlier ginger beer reviews here has included the products of companies that are — in context anyway — heavyweights in the soft drink history department. It didn’t make sense to talk about Schweppes or Britvic (maker of Idris) or Saranac or even Goslings and Barritt’s without folding in a goodly amount of their economic and cultural background. After all, we were discussing in those cases corporate entities that have been doing business since well before the turn of the 20th Century.

kutztown_croppedBut as our merry merry-go-round goes around, we inevitably come upon an arc that includes the fruits of some of your less expansive purveyors of ginger beer. Case in point: Kutztown Ginger Beer.


Kutztown lies smack dab in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. (The “Dutch” here, as you probably know, being a corruption of Deutsch. It ain’t about Holland and the like. It’s about Hamburg and the like.)

Your highfaluting hipsters (or gourmands of older generations and more rarified social positions, like the editorial staff of Saveur) aren’t likely to identify this rustic and homey region of quilts, collectible commemorative thimbles, and unfinished furniture with high taste. But who can doubt that the Amish do some things especially well when it comes to food? Anyone who has sampled the local pretzels, potato chips, butters, baked goods, pickled vegetables, or jams and jellies can attest to the toothsomeness of some of these German colonies. Damn good root beers, birch beers, and sasparillas abound in this cornerlet of the globe. So why not ginger beer?

One might expect to dive into a Pennsylvania Dutch Country ginger beer with deserved anticipation.

But a few more quick notes about Kutztown and the attendant Kutztown Bottling Works.

Kutztown, PA, is a tad bigger and more important than you might expect from its name. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still the kind of place that artist Keith Haring, born and raised inside the city limits, described as “suffocating.” But Kutztown had seen its way to getting a regionally-important college, and seems to have boasted enough forward-thinking and educated people to make a Keith Haring possible. At one point in his memoirs Haring spoke of turning over a new leaf and hanging out with the more intelligent residents of Kutztown and transitioning (apparently with their help) from a destructive abuse of hallucinogenic drugs to a more constructive and life-affirming abuse of those same mind-altering compounds. You go, Keith!

In the 1930s and 1940s Kutztown had such a renown Apple Butter Festival that in 1950 the burg was chosen to be the site on an ongoing folk festival — a festival patterned on a style of outdoor museum first seen on Skansen Island in 1891 Sweden. The Kutztown festival was meant to encompass much more than just music and arts and crafts, but instead to exhibit “folklife” and “folkways” in general.

I’ve never had the pleasure of attending this festival. But the sodas from the Kutztown Bottling Works have been available and heartily imbibed at the festival down through the years. Included in this roster of beverages is, evidently, a birch beer that is neon yellow in appearance. It seems fair to construe from this that drinks in lurid and unexpected colors are the signature of Kutztown Bottling Works. Because I sure as heck did not expect a ginger beer to glow like one of Catherine Deneuve’s dresses in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But this one did.

Kutztown Bottling Works sprang from a spring, according to the company website. Pennsylvania is rife with quality spring water, and evidently one Ed Immel began vending beverages from this tap of Mother Nature’s in 1851. (Whether these beverages were flavored, carbonated, or simply undiluted spring water, is unclear). As years passed and the business changed hands, the emphasis of Kutztown Bottling Works became not so much to produce drinks but instead to bottle beer from an advantageously situated brewery down some local railway line. Prohibition, which adversely affected every brewery and distillery from sea to shining sea in the USA, dislodged Kutztown Bottling Works from the malt and alcohol gravy train. Soft drinks were ascendant.


Look. Given my peckish for ginger beer, I’m truly happy that any beverage company decides to make one. I don’t get any joy from writing a negative review of any kind. And it should always go without saying that these sorts of commentaries are inherently subjective. But I had anticipated from the start that this oddly pomegranate-colored ginger beer was going to be a turn-off. And so it was.

As the universal and timeless wisdom of a shampoo commercial once taught us all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. As called out earlier, Kutztown’s color caught me off guard. I suppose I’m open to ginger beers possessing some hue other than clear to whitish (like Barritt’s) or lightly golden. But this competitor’s semiopaque fuschia seemed unmotivated by anything likely to be a key ingredient, like, well, ginger, water, or some kind of sweetener. It also struck the eyes as artificial. Taking into consideration the Pennsylvania terroir of Kutztown, I for a moment remembered how coal mining pollution made some Western PA streams and springs run red. Could you chalk this psychidelic tulip or Technicolor guava shade up to pollution?

Regardless, I was willing to go with it. Maybe this unexpected intermingling of Yellow #5 and Red #40 was just meant to get Kutztown noticed in a lineup. After all, the ginger beer marketplace is getting delightfully crowded. And a marketing department might be forgiven for engaging in stunts just to draw some attention on the shelf.

At first sip, my worries about the water quality fell away. Kutztown’s triple-filtered, carbonated water did strike the senses as refreshing and clean.

The taste, though, was something else.

After drinking Kutztown Ginger Beer, it’s difficult to ponder just what the flavorists over there were even going for. You might anticipate a heavily artificially-colored drink to be sweet. But this was quite dry. You might think a stunt-oriented producer would ramp up the heat content with heavy capsicum or something. But no. Kutztown wasn’t even spicy. (Although if you let a mouthful linger on your tongue for a while, some mild and not unwelcome prickliness does seep in).

Most oddly, what seemed to be missing was the ginger. Kutztown doesn’t even taste like a dry ginger ale. No ginger of any kind is listed in the ingredients — anything meant to impart that flavor must fall under the shady rubric of “natural and artificial flavor.” So maybe that should not have been surprising. There were notes reminiscent of ginger. But these seemed smoky, dirty, and after-the-fact.

I’ll give it this, though. Trying Kutztown was an interesting experience. Coming up with adequate words to describe the taste was a challenge. But not a challenge I would be looking to take another run at anytime soon.


Ginger Beer Review: Schweppes

Do you speak Schweppes? Have you ever been to Schweppeshire, UK — which lies “near Britain’s heart?” Have you ever spent a jolly good fortnight Schwepping around with You-Know-Who and Commander Whitehead?

If you’ve read my history of ginger beer, then you already know the following. That Schweppes, the company founded by a German-born Swiss bijoutier all the way back in 1783 (a date particularly impressive for Americans, most of whom probably don’t think business had even been invented by then), is a cornerstone not just of ginger beers and ales, but of all sodas, full stop.

Schweppes may have remained squarely in the hands of its polymathic founder for less than two decades. But as a capitalist institution, it can reasonably be argued that Schweppes made the soft drink industry what it is today.



The history of Schweppes is long and detailed enough to write a book about. Oops, somebody did.

But to recap from this website’s section on history, the successful experiments of semi-pro scientist Jean Jacob Schweppe in the 1780s made him a pioneer in producing fizzy “soda waters” on a large, commercially-viable scale.

This was an important breakthrough because the medical establishment of previous centuries believed that waters that flowed from mineral springs possessed healing, and what we moderns might call “wellness,” properties.

And actual mineral spring waters didn’t travel well (or cheaply) from their sources. So churning out the stuff in a factory, right within a population center of famously hypochondriacal Georgians and Victorians meant big bucks.

In its infancy, Schweppe took his soda water production concern from Geneva to London. As with nearly any startup, 21st or 18th Century, there were hardships at first. But Schweppe had friends in high places.

These friends in high places included Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of life sciences disruptionist Charles Darwin. Erasmus was a prominent philosopher and physician, and he recommended Schweppes’ waters to other sawboneses of the first order.

Schweppes started getting prescribed to the posh set. And even early on, Schweppes was no slouch when it came to advertising. It has ever since been the prime mover behind many huge, expensive, creative, and game-changing marketing campaigns. Who else is down for an 1880s/1890s reboot of Mad Men?

Word about these products — such as delectable-sounding “acidulous soda water” and “tooth lotion of soda” — got around.

Fifteen years after the company founder went off to see that most Schweppervescent spirit in the sky, the company had come into the hands of a partnership that included a man intriguingly named “William Evill.” william_evill_portrait(He was, no doubt, an ancestor to the Austin Powers villain).

Evill and his partner managed to elevate Schweppes as the official, warranted manufacturer of soda water to Their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of Kent and (then) Princess Victoria.

Schweppes hasn’t shut up about this ever since.

Under Evill, Schweppes first started producing flavored drinks, kicking off with an “aerated lemonade.” By careful examination of yellowing invoices, it seems Schweppes began making ginger beer as early as 1821.

Ginger beer, however, wouldn’t earn a permanent stall in the company stable until 1898.schweppes_ginger_beer_old_label

Ginger ale, on the other hand, has been a Schweppes mainstay since the 1870s. (And I have seen evidence that Schweppes also once sold a product called “Green Ginger Wine,” which was presumably a wine made from fermented ground ginger and raisins and then “fortified” by being blended with brandy. I have never seen such a product in my travels, but it is still available primarily by Stones d/b/a Accolade Wines, Ltd).

Schweppes did gangbusters business smack dab in the middle of the 19th Century at the Great Exhibition of 1851. This World’s Fair type of affair — which, by jingo, celebrated all things British — had at its center point an architecturally innovative glass and iron pavilion known as The Crystal Palace.

(Fun fact? We had our own Crystal Palace here in the colonies too, built in what is now Manhattan’s Bryant Park. It burned to the ground in a fire in 1858). Schweppes operated “refreshment rooms” in the Crystal Palace and sold beaucoup bottles of ginger beer. The Crystal Palace’s central fountain is immortalized in the Schweppes company logo to this day.


(Ah! I hear a chorus of “so that’s what that’s supposed to be” from a great many of you. Yes. I too am glad to have that finally cleared myself.)

Schweppes went international early. But again, outside of the English-speaking world, it doesn’t seem that ginger beer was ever that big an export product. They liked the bitter lemon and orange flavors on the Continent, though, as well as tonic water. Today ownership of the company is quadrisected into four different holdings. Strangely, Asahi, the Japanese beer company, owns the rights to bottle and sell Schweppes products in Australia.


The Schweppes Ginger Beer that was actually quite challenging to come by in the U.S.A., thank you very much, was served up in a cute and even classy diminutive glass bottle that fit in the hand like an exotic little present from a dashing uncle who has just stepped off a transatlantic ocean liner cruise.

This packaging, one might assert, is to position Schweppes Ginger Beer not so much as a stand-alone beverage but as a mixer for the increasingly ubiquitous Moscow Mules and Dark ‘n’ Stormies. (To wit: it says right on the bottle, “Ideal with Vodka.”)

In other words, the Schweppes Ginger Beer bottle is small owing to the expectation that a relatively small volume of the drink will be imbibed. And the compactness would also be well served, you might figure, for the tightness of a limousine or private jet’s wet bar. Moreover, bottle design at Schweppes has long been “a thing.” Early iterations of Schweppes products — partially because of their medicinal emphasis — came in delicate, oviform, egg-shaped bottles designed to lie on their side.

Pigeonholing this ginger beer as a mere mixer, though, doesn’t do this contestant justice. Outside of the heat I like to experience in a ginger beer — which is roundly lacking here — this is about as delicious as ginger beer gets.

Schweppes Ginger Beer attains a highly agreeable balance between dry and sweet. The pinpoint carbonation is spot-on: not overly fizzy like something dispensed from a self-serve machine, not flat like something that is trying to take itself too seriously. The ginger flavor is intense and high-noted. To reiterate, all that is missing is heat.

Schweppes leaves me with two other complaints: the dollhouse-sized bottle left me wanting more. And this ginger beer, which I have yet to see on any American shelf, is too hard to find. You wouldn’t expect McDonalds to make one of the best hamburgers. But industry giant Schweppes comes respectably close to making the best ginger beer. This is one fame that is earned.


Ginger Beer Review: Saranac

“Our Utica proclaimed at birth that she was here to stay.” So goes the alma mater of Utica College, in the heart of the Mohawk Valley, in the heart of New York State. (And once billing itself as the Knit-Goods Capital of the World!).



The F.X. Matt Brewing Company — the maker of Saranac Ginger Beer — might also have proclaimed at birth that it was here to stay. Because this regional, family-owned brewery has been successfully negotiating the ups and downs of the beer business since it began producing suds in 1888.

And remember — that swath of time includes some pretty serious ups and downs. Two World Wars fought against Germany seriously dinged the cultural cachet of Teutonic-tinged enterprises like this one, founded by F.X. Matt, who arrived in Utica by way of the Black Forest. And don’t forget that between 1920 and 1933, Prohibition cashiered scores upon scores of breweries like this one.

During those Dry Days under Harding and Coolidge, the F.X. Matt Brewing Company had to get into the soft drink business just in order to survive. Notoriously nasty, el cheapo party beer Utica Club (a flagship product of F.X. Matt Brewing Company) began its run as a “rejuvenating Malt Tonic” — a beeresque beverage made from malt and hops but with only 2% alcohol. This miserly morsel of intoxicant made Utica Club legal even under the Volstead Act’s stringent prohibitives.

F.X. Matt Brewing apparently began making root beer in-house, as a novelty — and as something to serve kids accompanying their parents on brewery tours. Ten years after saving itself from another series of economic downturns with the creation of a new premium craft beer brand, Saranac, the company in 1995 began bottling and selling this root beer under the same name.

“Soft drinks aren’t exactly a walk in the park,” groused Nicholas Matt, the company president, four years later in 1999. But Saranac’s line of specialty sodas have done well enough to spawn a whole array of flavors, including an orange cream, a black cherry cream, and a Shirley Temple.


Saranac makes a decent ginger beer. It is fairly sweet, but doesn’t go overboard. The ginger flavor is its strongest feature: this is bright and powerful, and distinctive by being considerably less “mellow” than the flavor of most large-production ginger ales. On the other hand, Saranac’s offering does not bring the heat. The chemists must have done torturous things to the botanical original to extract so much taste with so little accompanying spice.

This is a good, drinkable, refreshing, ginger beer that will deliver you an experience with slightly more zing than a Seagram’s or a store brand, but which contains nothing to intimidate a meek palate — along with nothing to tempt an adventurous one.

Let’s call it “entry level.”



POSTSCRIPT: In my review of Idris Hot & Fiery Ginger Beer I spoke about “barley waters” — soft drinks that combine splashes of fruit juice with barley flour — and which at least in some cases may be a brewery’s thrifty repurposing of some of its by-products and leavings.

I speculated about whether or not barley waters ever had or ever could make it as an American beverage — be they specialty health products or otherwise. As it turns out, F.X. Matt Brewing Company tried its hand with this very thing.

The makers of Saranac Ginger Beer introduced their supposedly vitamin-packed “Barlee Farms” line of drinks to grocery store shelves in the early 1990s. Acupoll, a “marketing intelligence service” that surveyed consumers about new products, came up with bad news for barley waters. “Barlee Farms” received Acupoll’s highest negative rating of 1992. So beverage entrepreneurs, be bearish on barley water: it’s probably as bad as it sounds.