Most of the waters these well-heeled spa travelers were sipping contained bubbles. They were fizzy. So essentially, fizzy waters became associated with good taste, wholesomeness, and salubrity.
In the consumer market, these qualities were valuable and sought after. Yet clearly, not everyone had the time and money to travel to Bath or Harrogate or, on the Continent, such places as Karlsbad and Baden. So canny capitalists saw potential fortunes in making and selling man-made fizzy mineral water. Many sought a reliable and efficient method of making such bubbly water.
As one well-informed source puts it, the very first man-made, carbonated “soda water” was produced by an Englishman, Richard Bewley, of Norfolk, in 1767. His recipe called for “three drams of fossil alkali” to be added per quart of water as well as “streams of fixed air.” The name for this concoction? “Mr. Bewley’s Julep.”
Another Englishman, clergyman/chemist Joseph Priestley, further cracked the code. In 1772 he published a paper entitled Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air. However, it was German-Swiss jeweler, watchmaker, and scientist Jean Jacob Schweppe — yes, the man who leant his name to Schweppes Ginger Ale — who figured out how to “carbonate” water on a large-scale, commercial-oriented basis. The Schweppes Company, originating in Geneva before moving to London, began selling “soda water.” Bottling it, however, was a challenge. And that’s why sodas were, early on, typically made and mixed in a druggist’s shop. The neighborhood chemist was the only one who had the knowledge and equipment to carbonate water.
Of all the bubbly concoctions English druggists and beverage makers were then able to whip up and vend, something about ginger beer was uniquely attractive to the post-Industrial Revolution English masses. Ginger beer was well up and running as a beverage by the early 19th Century. The April 21, 1809 edition of the London Star ran the following advertisement for a book containing a homebrew ginger beer recipe:
Ginger beer soon became “the” drink of Britain’s middle and lower classes.
In the mid 19th Century, the Great Exhibition of 1851 — a World’s Fair rah! rah! industry and progress! type of attraction — opened in London’s Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace, a lavish, plate glass building was erected to house it. The Crystal Palace’s Victorian Era “Refreshment Room” recorded selling 1,092,337 bottles of ginger beer during the Exhibition, which lasted from May to October.
Nearly all of the characters in the children’s book works of Edith Nesbit — massively popular around the turn of the 19th and 20th Century — drank ginger beer, usually in generous portions referred to as “great lashings.”
In 1890, a Toronto chemist, John J. McLaughlin, began making and selling “Belfast Style” ginger beer. After a trip to France, McLaughlin became enamored of champagne and of dryer, classier flavors in general. It was the product he launched upon his return that became Canada Dry Ginger Ale.
As demand for ginger flavored drinks sharpened, manufacturers looked for improved methods of making it in bigger quantities, and cheaper. The ginger itself was where producers looked to cut corners, employing more profitable ginger powders and extracts instead of its more expensive oil. Many monkeyed with the recipe, adding capsicum (hot red pepper oil) to make up for ginger spice that was lost.
In the United States and Canada, ginger beverages really started to take off around the time of the American Civil War (early 1860s). Flavored “beers,” hard or soft, truly flourished in the U.S. Spruce beer, celery beer, persimmon beer, sorrel beer, and dandelion beer turned up on menus coast to coast. Ginger ales and beers enjoyed an upsurge in part because of the Temperance Movement on both sides of the Atlantic. They were seen as offering a pleasant alternative to alcoholic drinks
In the United States, ginger beverages were indisputably the #1 soft drink between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The entire American soft drinks industry really became what it is today — a $76.3 billion business in 2013, which is actually down for the ninth straight year — because such an early demand for ginger drinks set the stage for infrastructure to scale up. A major spike in ginger drink popularity began during Prohibition. As most will know, the legal restrictions on alcohol that the U.S. government imposed between 1920 and 1933 not only failed to stop the consumption of hard drinks, but actually redoubled the demand for them. Liquor was hard to come by, and many people brewed “bathtub gin” as an alternative — which was often full of impurities and not so easy on the taste buds. Whatever the dicey sort of booze people were drinking during the Coolidge and Hoover Administrations, a swelling number of them found that ginger drinks made the perfect mixers to render them more palatable.
As the 20th Century drew to a close, ginger beer’s prospects — in America, anyway — became bleaker.
With the rise of fast food and corporate consolidation, domestic palates largely turned towards the homogenized, the oversugared, and the bland. While a steady demand for inoffensive ginger ale remained, the fancy for the bite of ginger beer fell by the wayside. A few thick-skinned regional beverage companies, like South Carolina’s Blenheim’s, weathered the difficult years until tastes changed once again.
From there, the history of ginger beer is best told through the stories of the companies that have continued to make it — or are just getting started. So may I warmly refer you to I Love Ginger Beer‘s section on reviews, and invite you to check back as new iterations of this wonderful drink are added. I think you will enjoy that.
Because man, if you have stuck with a history of ginger beer long enough to reach to this sentence, you must really love it too!
SELECTIONS FOR RECOMMENDED READING:
Adjoa Mitchell, Sylvia, et. al. “A Journey Through The Medicinal Plant Industry Of The Caribbean Highlighting UWI Mona’s Contribution.” Caribbean Quarterly 01/2008; 543:27-52.
Damas, Germán Carrera. “New Societies: The Caribbean in the Long Sixteenth Century.” General History of the Caribbean, Volume 2. UNESCO, Jan 1, 1999
De Vos, Paula S. “Ginger’s World Odyssey: A Case of Economic Botany in the Spanish Empire,” presented at the UC World History Workshop, University of California, San Diego, CA, May 7-8, 2005
Prasch, Thomas. “Eating the World: London in 1851.” Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2008), pp. 587-602.
Previtali, Ken. “Ginger Ale’s Irish Roots.” Bottles and Extras Magazine. Spring 2003.
Simmons, Douglas A. Schweppes: The First 200 Years. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books Ltd. 1983.