The History of Ginger Beer

Written by stephen venneman
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Pop open a bottle of ginger beer, and you may instantly embark on a mental vacation to the Caribbean, with dreams of steel drums and jerk chicken on a sandy, warm beach. Knowing the history of ginger beer, though, may make you rethink your vacation destination.

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Origins

Ginger beer actually traces its birth to Great Britain in the 1700’s. There, ginger beer was an alcoholic beverage similar to traditional beer in method of production, although with different ingredients. British soldiers who wanted a taste of home but were stationed in faraway places like Africa and the Caribbean brought the beverage with them. The soldiers eventually left, but the ginger beer remained, often losing its alcohol as it evolved. In some parts of the world, it has become a regular part of the local cuisine.

Ginger Beer Around The World

Influenced by the drinking habits of colonial British soldiers, who brought their ginger beer with them, many of the locals who lived near the British outposts adopted some of the British customs, incorporating them into their own local culture. In parts of Eastern Africa, ginger beer is still served as a popular soft drink. The Coca Cola Company even produces a local brand called “Stoney Tangawizi” in Kenya and Tanzania. Tangawizi is Swahili for ginger.

In the Ionian Islands, ginger beer first appeared with British soldiers in the 19th century. The drink is still produced as a local speciality in some areas.

Ingredients

The most basic ingredients of ginger beer include water, sugar, ginger and “ginger beer plant.” Ginger beer plant is a gelatinous substance made up of fungus, yeast and bacteria. The ginger beer plant helped in carbonation and fermentation. Modern variations replace the ginger beer plant with honey and spices for flavour, and use forced carbonation rather than relying on natural carbonation from the yeast. As a result, most ginger beers have no alcoholic content.

Bottles

The stoneware bottles used to ship the beverage to the troops facilitated ginger beer’s spread throughout the British Empire. The British had developed a new glazing technique that added strength to the bottles, which were filled, corked, then wired shut to maintain pressure. This method also kept the alcohol and carbon dioxide mixed. The alcohol and carbonation helped preserve the beer during transport.

Ginger Ale vs. Ginger Beer

Modern ginger ales and ginger beers really only differ in flavour, but the origins of the two terms may stem from the brewing process. Beer can be brewed using any type of yeast and in just about any temperature. Ale yeast is more specific to temperature, and produces a particular flavour signature.

Because most modern versions no longer contain alcohol, the one distinction between ginger ale and ginger beer is the degree of ginger taste. In beer, the ginger taste is pronounced and it may even appear cloudy. Ginger ale is generally clear with a softer ginger taste, often used as a mixer in cocktails.

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