Remember when we contemplated how, among other rivals, England was spring-loaded to compete with Spain for dominance of the high seas? It was the English who dislodged the Spanish from Jamaica in 1655. (The saber-rattling Brits were actually on a mission to invade Hispaniola. They failed — and so they took Jamaica as a consolation prize. Later on, they got the Cayman Islands from the Spanish, too, for their trouble).
With Jamaica now also firmly among London’s portfolio of New World tropical possessions (like Bermuda), the barrier between ginger and the Englishmen and women who craved it was more permeable than ever.
Ginger beer’s exact invention, though, remains a murky spot in history. One source I investigated claimed ginger beer initially came about for this reason: free-flowing ginger making its way to England from old Spanish territories started appearing in salt-like shakers in pubs up and down the countryside. And merry beer drinkers began flavoring the pints they procured at their local public houses with it. If this is true, then ginger beer really and truly earned its name.
It is true that there is a passing mention in a 1702 edition of A History of the Royal Society of London that its members had investigated methods of brewing beer with ginger instead of hops. Wikipedia would seem to tout that this is evidence of the invention of ginger beer.
I, however, have to raise the red card of doubt on this one. Hops are used to flavor beer. They are not necessary to beer’s recipe, and beer is not brewed from hops. Plus, over the ages, nearly anything any brewer could get his or her hand on has been experimented with as flavorings or additives for beer. This includes such toothsome dainties as bog myrtle, acorns, oyster shells, the skinned feet of oxen, and yarrow.
But what remains the same is that when you make beer, you’re fermenting a grain like barley or wheat — barley or wheat that has been malted to turn its starch into sugar. With ginger beer, sugar is already a key, early ingredient. There is no grain, or the malting thereof, involved.
So ginger beer is never really and truly a beer — even if it is “hard” (i.e., retains a substantial amount of alcohol). Believe it or not, this classifies it as a wine.
And indeed, ginger beers used to have a lot more alcohol than they currently tend to. Quite a bit more, in fact. According to one industry source, they were about 11% alcohol by volume. (Compare that to a 12 oz. bottle of, say, Budweiser, which stands at 5%). But an 1855 Act of (British) Parliament imposed an excise tax on beverages with alcohol levels of more than 2%. So the lion’s share of ginger beer brewers cut the hard stuff in order to keep their products affordable and competitive.