It may seem counterintuitive that the co-author of a book on the history of beer feels compelled to write about and review ginger-flavored carbonated soft drinks. But, truthfully, I feel as affectionately — even evangelically — about the one as I do the other.
Simultaneously, I strongly suspect that the book marketplace does not feel the same. All personal passions aside, it is unlikely that anyone is going to read about the closing of a deal for a History of Ginger Beer project in the margins of Publisher’s Weekly anytime soon.
And so here we have this instead.
Soda in general? I’ll pass. My fancy for colas departed my system about the same time as did the notion that a Swanson’s Salisbury Steak TV dinner was an acceptable way to cap off a day’s three meals. While I’ll confess to a high theoretical regard for classic and boutique root beers, I haven’t had one in years and won’t die regretting it if I never sip one again. As fond as I am of Texas, Dr. Pepper never suited my Yankee born-and-bred taste buds. I’m sour to the output of the Big Lemon/Lime lines like Sprite and 7-Up. Orange, cream, grape, black cherry, green apple, bubblegum, key lime… Love the colors, guys. And the bottles, too. But no thanks to the sweet fizzy liquid inside them. I’ll take my caffeine from coffee and tea, and my sugar from pies and cookies. When it comes to soft drinks, all I want, and I do want them oh so very much, are ginger beers and ginger ales. And maybe the occasional Fresca.
Yet the departed (and departing) generations of Americans have succeeded in parasitically implanting in me a nostalgia for a Golden Age of soft drinks I never experienced myself. Maybe chalk it up to a susceptibility to the power of suggestion, but I pine for the age when you could saunter into Mr. Gower’s drugstore in Bedford Falls and order up from the soda jerk a lime rickey or an egg cream.
Strange, that. Because I’m only just old enough to remember the dregs of the Woolworth’s lunch counter epoch. And while my recollections of even this are vague, I’m quite certain that there were only four or five soft drink flavors available, none of them at all exotic.
I’ve wondered why ginger beer is an exception to this. Why did ginger soft drinks emerge as the sole holdover from a youth spent imbibing copious amounts of soda? It could be my not completely debilitating yet still obnoxious proclivity for motion sickness (of which ginger is a centuries-old cure), or the legacy of a strange and strong childhood identification with Charlie Brown that drove me to conclude that all cares, worries, and anxieties have their most natural expression through discomforts of the stomach (also purportedly treatable with ginger).
And (until, arguably, very recently) beer and ginger drinks couldn’t have more divergent personalities. Beer is for the strong, the hale, the virile, the adult man. Beer is an ancient drink, but it has shown an absolutely remarkable capacity to be a drink “of the moment.” With only a few transitory exceptions, beer is always magnificently modern, relentlessly relevant.
Ginger ale, at least, has long suffered from association with the old, the ill, and the fussy. In the early 1990s, Dominic Cadbury was the CEO of Cadbury Schweppes PLC — which at the time produced both ginger ale giants, Canada Dry and Schweppes (the trademarks of both are currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.) Cadbury spent just scads of money and resources to reposition ginger ale. But this was to little practical effect — especially to the key youth demographic upon which many products live or die. It was noted at the time that trying to change ginger ale’s reputation was like trying to change how people thought and felt about prunes. Yes, prunes are a healthy fruit. Yes, they’re a walloping source of beta carotene and phytonutrients. But they just can’t get around that dang caricature as old, arthritic grandma’s go-to laxative.
The big corporate people couldn’t find a way to make ginger drinks “cool” again. But thanks to the conspiring forces of a few hard-bit, small, regional, ginger ale company survivors and the rise of the same locavore, “New Age,” and artisanal foods movement that spawned today’s craft brewing craze, a niche for ginger beer was carved out. From the 1940s to the 1980s, the American palate had undergone a homogenization. Available flavors of both food and drink plummeted. Among the causes of this? Refrigerators got cheaper, driving people to eat and drink more often at home. The science of artificial flavoring and food additives promised companies bigger and more reliable profits. Fast food outlets like McDonald’s infilled from coast to coast. The lure of salt, fat, and of the standardized dining experience squeezed out legions of mom ‘n’ pop competitors on Main Street. And food brands themselves aggressively consolidated.
This march ever further into the dark recesses of blandness couldn’t sustain itself forever. People started wanting something different. And often times those different things could be newfangled, or they could be old — bygone favorites easily dusted off and rediscovered.
In my early 20s there was a point that I hadn’t had a single soda, not of any kind, in years. Persuaded to have a Diet Coke while on a business trip in Chicago, I quickly came down with lancing pains of intestinal gas that seemed attributable to my body’s having lost its ability to handle this level of carbonation.
I was living in Queens, New York, and working at a nonprofit in Manhattan a stone’s throw from the U.N. A colleague thought that I had done an exceptionally good job on some minor product and wanted to throw me some kind of token yet thoughtful salute. That’s when a bottle of Blenheim Ginger Ale landed on my desk — purchased by this breezy, society lady at, if memory serves, Bloomingdale’s.
I had heard of Blenheim Ginger Ale. In what still strikes me as an odd and lazy, phone-it-in choice that I can’t quite believe passed muster with the university department head, a college English professor I’d had obliged all his students to subscribe to The New Yorker. The whole course was subsequently built around spending each class analyzing one article, one poem, one cartoon, and that month’s work of short fiction. Blenheim Ginger Ale typically ran a small print ad in The New Yorker back then. It always struck me as another overly precious, quirky, aspirational item a “cultured person” might set out to buy, like similar ads for French-style berets, drip-dry underwear for adventure travelers on a budget, and vanity portraits done of the purchaser in the style of an Andy Warhol print.
I didn’t drink it right away. It had at once struck me that Blenheim Ginger Ale had a wonderfully subtle, comforting color. A hue that was particularly inspiring amid a dreary New York winter, stuck in the office of an institution you’re keenly aware that you’re going nowhere in. And the smoothness and supple morphology of Blenheim’s glass bottle made a nice novelty addition to my little desk. In line with my paltry “administrative assistant” status, this desk didn’t even rank a cubicle of its own. Therefore every inconsequential personalizing choice of its surface was overtly public.
One upshot of that was that nearby co-workers became increasingly distracted over the question of when I would finally deem it a suitable time to open the Blenheim’s bottle and once and for all have at it. This came only after I had given my notice at the job, was preparing to move on to bigger and better things, and found it suitable to toast a future that would not involve living in Queens.
“A slap in the face from a spurned lover.” That’s how writer and educator at the Ole Miss-based Center for the Study of Southern Culture styled the punch of Blenheim’s Ginger Ale. Likewise, when I tasted it, the earth moved under my feet. This was no dowdy ginger ale. This was no quaff of the faint hearted. My sinuses cleared for the first time in months. I had learned to love spicy things in my day. But it had never occurred to me that a beverage could deliver a gustatory wake-up call like this one. I was hooked.
Blenheim — like many other ginger brews you’ll read about if you continue on with me here — got its start with at least one foot planted in the world of medicine. Its roots are in the 1890s, in a truly backwater South Carolina town. Perhaps this — and the local, devoted audience that came with it — was required to shield Blenheim’s from the social and economic forces that had shuttered so many other regional soft drinks. Like a passenger in a time capsule, Blenheim’s managed survive into a time when consumers were hankering for “authenticity,” novel flavors, and, yes, maybe even a bit of an “extreme” food experience, where, as with the arms race of a widening portfolio of available hot sauces, one could prove one’s mettle by exhibiting a tolerance for heat.