This just in. I am freshly returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest of the United States. My first. Given fairly extensive previous travel in the Lower 48, my devotion to bicycling, waterfalls, hiking, quality salmon, earth-toned outerwear, Twin Peaks, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, This Boy’s Life, dilettante’s interest in urban planning, susceptibility to the notion of fog as a romantic phenomenon, you might be as surprised as I am that I have put off such a trip for this long.
And a tour of the Pacific Northwest is of utmost significance to I Love Ginger Beer. That’s because nowhere else in America is the beverage we admire such a white-hot topic and so burnishing in the radiance of innovation and trade.
It is not as simple as remarking that the inhabitants of Portland and Seattle appreciate their ginger beer. No. In these cities, ginger beer wars (seemingly of a good-natured variety) are sometimes waged neighborhood by neighborhood.
Pick your socially and economically vibrant Seattle zip code. Within the confines of trendy urban subdivisions like Capitol Hill or Ballard you will find restaurants, watering holes, liquor marts, farmer’s markets, and trendy grocers who can be counted on featuring a local and unique ginger beer. Seattle’s ginger beer traffickers in some cases even boast entire storefronts. Customers have proven willing to pay $13 for a single bottle of the choice stuff. Where else would this even be possible?
Regrettably, my time on the far side of the Siskiyou Pass was insufficient. I did not net even close to all the ginger beer varieties I might have. (Alas, I was in town on non-ginger beer business.) And it was with lancing pangs that I realized I had been just blocks from the Rachel’s Ginger Beer outlet in the famous Pike’s Place Market (home to the Starbuck’s that christened a campaign of global domination), a touristy spot I was clearly misguided in not making a priority. Since a solid case can be made that Rachel’s is “the” Seattle ginger beer by which all others must be judged, I pledge to inveigle another way to get my grabby mitts on some soon.
TIMBER CITY: THE BRAND
“This is not a soda. This is a tonic; an elixir.”
Timber City Ginger’s website makes this bold claim. A guy could be forgiven, then, for classifying this as a true New Age beverage: non-corporatist in outlook, rejecting artificial additives, celebrating farm-to-table ingredients, and identifying with a lifestyle of enhanced vitality and social responsibility.
Timber City Ginger Beer does not explicitly promise any health benefits. But that’s clearly where the words “tonic”
So thank you very much, dear old OED.
The owner-operators of Timber City Ginger do not hit us over the head with some transporting origin story or annotated narrative of the trials and errors of developing their product for the marketplace. That is already a point in their favor, so far as I am concerned. They are willing to put the drink first. Having come from culinary backgrounds—a key member of the team has an advanced degree in food studies from NYU and both clearly paid their dues in exhausting restaurant and catering work—Timber City Ginger Beer’s creators slogged their beverage through the trial of selling it in farmer’s market in spots like West Seattle and Mercer’s Island. They developed enough of a following to graduate to where they are now, as a small and hopefully growing concern with offerings available in just over a dozen Seattle outlets including pizza joints, brewpubs, and food co-ops. I got mine at the well-curated Northwest Liquor and Wine.
A gallon of Timber City Ginger Beer requires no less than a pound of ginger. It is a matter of closely-held industrial intelligence how much ginger goes into the other entrants in this New Age/botanical category, such as Luscombe Cool or Fever Tree or Fentiman’s. But that is indisputably a remarkable amount of ginger. And one shivers a bit with the sense of how much manpower must go into batch creation. Ginger ain’t no walk in the park to peel.
What else goes into the elixir? Lemon juice, sugar, and herbs. “Herbs?” Can they elaborate? Douglas Fir tips have been tantalizingly offered as a possibility.
I mentioned before that Seattle takes its ginger beer seriously. In point of fact, it takes all its beverages seriously. “Drinks are how we deal with the weather,” confided a close observer of the Seattle scene I know, who also has the virtue of being a trained anthropologist. So in certain circles it is almost certainly brought up as a point of contention that Timber City Ginger Beer is not fermented, and may therefore not qualify as legitimate ginger beer. (The distinction expounded upon here). Apparently, the team behind Timber City suffered literally explosive outcomes with early recipes using champagne yeast, and now rely on CO2 for carbonation instead of a metabolic process.
Timber City maintains a vigorous presence at the West Seattle Farmer’s Market. And there (as well as at least some of the supplemental purveyors around town) customers can avail themselves to seasonal recipes, where combinations like rhubarb, apple, peach and green chile, and even beet (!) take their turns on the stage. Many of these ingredients are sourced from a family farm in the extreme northeast of the Olympic Peninsula, where quirks of geography produce a sunny, Mediterranean-style microclimate that is one of the world’s best for producing lavender.
TIMBER CITY: THE EXPERIENCE
Timing wasn’t right to try Timber City in situ at a farmer’s market. So I wound up purchasing and lugging around several of their enormous, chrome 32 oz. cans. These are so voluminous as to be almost comical. They make a brash and ultraconfident statement about ginger beer, and I am way down with that. If nothing else they are a sharp and sure departure from the dinky mixers on offer from Stoli and Q.
(Which is not to suggest the Timber City shies away from cocktail coproductions. Despite the healthy and natural connotations, the company is proud to note whenever their stuff turns up in a noted mixologist’s creation, and they also sell a cocktail syrup as a cornerstone product).
The clerk at the retail shop where I found Timber City quipped that not a few of his customers remark that they don’t know what to do with a can so large, adding that they don’t know how to store the leftovers. Mine, I will say, matured nicely in the refrigerator over 2 1/2 days. Even in an open can, its light carbonation held up admirably.
I have reviewed some dry ginger beers here before. But I wasn’t prepared for Timber City to lack so much as a single atomic particle of sweetness. And this even with sugar as its fourth listed ingredient. (Sweetness is, to be honest, a flavor element I am not always so proud of enjoying; see the rating I saw fit to affix to Frostie, which cannot even come close to Timber City as a labor of love with quality, hand-picked ingredients).
But the pungence and intensity of the ginger (Peruvian?) makes Timber City a drink of distinction. It imparts an earthy, spicy, mouthcoating heat, not as spiky and immediate as Goya.
The lemon juice does not call much attention to itself. Timber City’s secondary flavors are not fruity, but instead strike that chord of familiar “health food” notes: yogurt and kombucha, even a tart, vinegar-like pinch. This is not always my favorite combination, and at first blush I wasn’t certain Timber City was going to be a place I wanted to bed down in for any length of time.
But the ginger hooked me. This earnest farmer’s market aspirant ultimately won me over, and left me even more curious about the other stars in the Northwest’s ginger beer constellation. Malus, Rachel’s, Bee’s Wine, Bedford’s, Bucksnort, etc.? I hope to be gazing your way soon.