Ginger ale? Ginger beer? What precisely is the distinction between these two drinks?
As it turns out — practically speaking — today there isn’t much of a distinction. Instead, what gives each beverage its individuality is at this point more technical and traditional.
In essence, ginger beer is made by introducing a culture of microorganisms into sweetened water — sweetened water that is flavored principally by ginger, and which typically also contains lemon and cream of tartar. The microorganisms ingest much of the sugars present and, as an organic waste product, leave behind a low level of alcohol and some carbon dioxide to impart a pleasant fizz. Essentially, ginger beer is created through the same sort of natural fermentation process that brings us beer and wine. (Although it is the practice of ginger beer brewers to halt the fermentation process much earlier on than with wine or beer).
Interestingly, though, the microorganisms responsible for fermenting ginger beer aren’t simply yeasts. They are instead a symbiotic organism known not very colorfully as “ginger beer plant.”
Ginger beer plant is composed on the one hand of a yeast bacteria, Saccharomyces florentinus, a pathogen that infects strawberries. On the other hand it is composed of Lactobacillus hilgardii, a bacterial species found in wine and dairy products). My research has been insufficient to crack the question of how ginger beer plant came to be. But if you want to get some today, you have to go to a yeast bank for the best stuff.
Ginger ale, on the other hand, leaves the whole microorganism thing out of the equation. Ginger ale is simply a soft drink created by combining ginger flavoring with carbonated water, sweeteners, and other natural or artificial ingredients. Because it is not the result of a complex biological process, ginger ale resists spoilage — and is a far more attractive product for big beverage manufacturers.
Regardless of the differences between ginger beer and ginger ale, it would be the English-speaking world that would become both beverages’ most ardent fancier. So let’s, borrowing a phrase from the memorable 1980s tourism campaign that remains a stubborn earworm to me all these years later, “Come back to Jamaica.”