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: THE BRAND
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.
KUTZTOWN: THE EXPERIENCE
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.