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.
Such 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?
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: THE BRAND
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: THE EXPERIENCE
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.