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.
SCHWEPPES: THE BRAND
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.” (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 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.
SCHWEPPES: THE EXPERIENCE
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.