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.
GOYA: THE BRAND
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.
GOYA: THE EXPERIENCE
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.