Monday, January 18, 2016

The World's Ultimate Ginger Ale/Beer Taste Test

The Preface:

Ginger Ale Taste Testing

Ginger Ale. A beverage that most people probably don't think much of until the flight attendant lists it off as one of your drink options as you fly over the country (this comic by The Oatmeal sums it up well). What most people don't realize, though, is that there are more ginger ales/beers done by more soda companies than any other flavor of soda (for those who are unaware, ginger beer generally has a stronger ginger flavor and is usually more spicy than its ale counterpart). In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, ginger ale was the most popular soft drink in the U.S.

Brian and I love ginger ale and ginger beer. Our feelings toward this golden nectar echo those spoken in 1893 by WB Keller, the editor of the National Bottlers Gazette:
"It should be the aim of every bottler to bring its brand of ginger ale to the highest possible perfection, since a bottler's products are judged for better or worse by the merit or lack of merit possessed by its ginger ale."
Before doing this taste test, we had each tried several different brands, some of which we liked, and others that we didn't. We even attempted to make our own ginger ale, using champagne yeast (it did not go well). But which is the best? We had to know. Therefore, we decided that the world's ultimate, most in-depth and complete taste test would be needed to determine once and for all:


The Competitors:
(Click on the names to see pictures of each drink. Many come in great bottles with nicely designed labels.)

365 (Whole Foods)Hi✩Ball
Ale 8-1Hosmer Pale Dry
Ale 8-1 DietIzze
Ale 8-1 Diet Caffeine FreeJohnnie Ryan
Americana Honey LimeJoia Blackberry, Pomegranate & Ginger
Australian Style Hot (Rocket Fizz)Joia Ginger, Apricot & Allspice
Avery's GoldenKrisda Natural Soda
Barons GinsengKimura Wasabi
Bedford'sLangers Gourmet
Begley's And Bill'sLimonitz Ginger Lemonade
Big KMrs.
Big K DietNatural Brew
Black BearNaturfrisk
Blenheim DietOld Faithful
Blenheim HotOlde Brooklyn
Blenheim Not As HotOoGave
Blue Sky JamaicanPangleheimers
Blue Sky Jamaican - with SteviaPok Pok Som Sipping Ginger Soda
Blue Sky OrganicQ Ginger
BoylanR.W. Knudsen Spritzer
Bruce CostRed Rock
Bruce Cost 66Reed's Cherry
Bruce Cost Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon         Reed's Natural Energy Elixir
Bruce Cost Jasmine TeaReed's Original
Bruce Cost Passion Fruit & TurmericReed's Premium
Bruce Cost Pomegranate & HibiscusReed's Raspberry
Caamaño Bros HawaiianReed's Spiced Apple Cider
Canada DryRefreshe (Safeway)
Canada Dry 10Rey
Canada Dry BlackberryRieme Spicy
Canada Dry CranberryRio
Canada Dry Cranberry DietRock Creek Pale Dry
Canada Dry DietSanta Cruz Organic
Canada Dry Rich BrownSchweppes
Canada Dry with Green TeaSeagrams
CelsiusSeagrams Diet
Communal Restaurant (house made)Shasta
Crooked OakSilk Road Ginger with Mint
Dr. Brown's Extra DrySipp
Dream Lode GoldenSmart Sense (K-Mart)
Empire Bottling WorksSodaStream Diet
EvervessSquamscot Golden
Excel GoldenSquamscot Pale Dry
Fever TreeStarbuck's Golden Ginger Ale Fizzio
Filbert'sSwamp Pop
Fizz Probiotic Ginger LemonadeThomas Kemper
Foxon ParkThomas Kemper Spiced
Giant (Giant Food Store)Thorncroft Pink Ginger
Ginseng UpVeri
Great Value (Walmart)Vernors (Cane Sugar)
Great Value Cranberry (Walmart)Vernors (HFCS)
Great Value Diet (Walmart)Vernors Diet
Great Value Raspberry (Walmart)Western Family
GusWhite Rock
Hansen'sWhole Earth Organic
Hansen's DietWild Poppy Grapefruit Ginger
Harris TeeterWilkinson
Harris Teeter CranberryZevia
Harris Teeter DietZuberfizz

Zuberfizz Raspberry

AJ Stephans Jamaican StyleHosmer Dangerous
Anchor Ginger Root BeerIdris Fiery
Archer Farms (Target)Jackson
Avery's GoldenJamaica's Finest
Barritt's Bermuda StoneJamaica's Finest Hot! Hot! Hot!
Barritt's Bermuda Stone DietJCS Reggae Style
Bedford'sJed's Barbershop Strong Ginger Lime
Bedford's DietKutztown
BelvoirLive Kombucha Spark Soda
Big Ben'sMaine Root
Big Island Organics Gingerade MatéMaine Root Ginger Lemongrass Lemonade
Big Island Organics Hawaiian Gingerade         Matilda's (Wallaby's)
BoylanP.F. Chang's (house made)
Buderim Ausie StylePimento
Buderim Yank StylePortland
BundabergPresident's Choice Jamaican-Style
Bundaberg DietQ Ginger
Bundaberg SpicedRachel's
Capone Family SecretReading Draft
Capt'n Eli'sReed's Extra Ginger Brew
Cock 'n BullReed's Extra Ginger Brew Light
Cock 'n Bull DietRegatta
Cock 'n Bull CherryRegatta Diet
Craft (Chef's Line) SpicyRiver City
D&G Old Jamaican - brown bottleRocket Fizz Gingerbread
D&G Old Jamaican - green bottleRockstar Ginger Brew
D&G SpicyRocky Mountain Soda
Empire Bottling WorksSaxbys Original Stone
Fée d'OrSchweppes
Fentiman'sSioux City
Fever TreeSpindrift
Fever Tree Naturally LightSquamscot
Filbert'sSt. John Virgin Islands
Frank Damn TastyStoli Fire and Spice
Garwood'sTaylor's Tonics Gingerbread House
Garwood's SpicyTiger
Ginger PeopleTrader Joe's
Ginger People EnergizerTrader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew
Ginger People SootherWBC Spicy Ginger
GingeronaWild Spur
Goose Island SpicyZevia Ginger Root Beer
Goya Jamaican Style

217! That's a lot of ginger!

Some of these can be found at any local supermarket/grocery store. Others we found at specialty stores like Good Earth Natural FoodsWhole Foods, Pop 'n SweetsTrader Joe'sSproutsPirate O'sWorld Market, and others. And others are not sold at all in Utah, and required trips to Colorado, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland Oregon, California, Ohio and Washington DC. Some had to be shipped to us through Amazon and the Old 52 General Store. I got several bottles when traveling to Iceland and Canada, and we have great family and friends who purchased for us as they traveled to other places in the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Japan and Russia!

You'll notice we decided to include a few drinks that don't quite technically qualify as an ale or beer, but are close enough, so we felt they should be included in the testing. These include a few non-carbonated drinks that are more like a juice, and a few beverages that, while they include ginger as a main ingredient, have other flavors that are more prominent so they don't feel like an actual ginger ale. On the spreadsheet linked below we highlighted these in green text.

The Participants:

The Methodology:
Canada Dry (henceforth known as CD) is bottled by the Dr. Pepper/Seven Up company and, therefore, seems to have the biggest market share of any ginger ale out there. Most people have tasted CD, and anybody who has ever had any ginger ale has likely had CD. Therefore, it seemed like the best brand for us to judge other ales/beers to, hopefully allowing non-ginger ale lovers to understand the baseline for our scores. 

We bought a 12 pack of CD and gave it a score. Then, each day we'd pour a glass of  CD along with a glass of another ale or beer, and decided whether the competing ales/beers were better or worse than CD, and gave it a score accordingly. (NOTE: After downing 24 cans and one 1-liter bottle of Canada Dry, we decided we'd had enough CD to be able to accurately judge and compare new brands to the CD without having to actually drink another can of the stuff, so we stopped.)

When testing each one, we took note of smell and color, however the only thing that we based our decision on was taste. Unlike other ginger ale/beer taste tests that we've seen on the web, we were trying to determine the best ale/beer to drink on its own, NOT which one is best to add to a Moscow Mule or a Dark n' Stormy.

The Results:
There are too many to list the results individually like we do for all of our other taste tests, however you should checkout this spreadsheet that shows all of the scores and tasting notes for every single drink. Overall, we found that we preferred beers to ales (average score of 7.3 vs 5), even though many of our very favorites (Blenheim, Bruce Cost) are ales. I think it's because there were so many terrible ales, which brought the overall score down.

The Stand-Outs (scored a 9 or 10 from both of us):

Bruce Cost Fresh Ginger Ales are amazing. The drink is unfiltered, leaving a thick amount of ginger sediment at the bottom of the bottle, which requires inverting the bottle before opening, to mix up the ginger bits. The bits are very soft, though, and you don't even really notice them as you swallow. There are several flavors, including limited time offerings (like the Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon). Overall these are simply outstanding beverages, and I think they're probably about the best introductory ginger beverage there is because it's a lot of ginger with some burn, but also very sweet. And fortunately, the distribution seems to be improving as the years have gone by, as when we first started we could only find this in California, but now it's available at many places all throughout Utah.

Blenheim is a South Carolina brand. Brian lived in S.C. for a while, and for years he's been telling me how amazing Blenheim is, how hot it is and how delicious it is. Once we found it for sale at Pirate O's, we had to try it out. Brian was a bit nervous that perhaps he had talked it up too much and that maybe it wouldn't live up to his memory. He was wrong. Blenheim is really, really good, and very hot. As in, "make-your-nose-burn-and-have-to-cough hot". We both preferred the "Not As Hot" (Gold Cap), and it's not because the "Hot" (Red Cap) was too spicy for us, it just tasted better. We were actually expecting it to be hotter than it was, and maybe that's why we dropped it a point.

Q Ginger is a very unique and self-described "superior" ginger ale & beer. We'd have to agree. Both the ale and beer are wonderful. The ale is very dry, not too sweet, but sweet enough (and it's sweetened with agave, so it's low calorie). What makes it special is that it has layers of additional flavors, including coriander, cardamom, rose oil and orange peel that you only notice if you take your time and think and pause after each sip. The beer is sweeter, but has a much stronger ginger bite. Q Ginger is what the GUS brand (which stands for "Grown-Up Soda") should have been. You can purchase these in 8 oz bottles, 12 oz cans, or in a large 750ml bottle. The smaller bottle shape is really unique, and the artwork on all of them are beautiful.

Maine Root: strong burn with a strong "dirty ginger" smell, very gingery. Almost like you're sucking on a piece of dirty ginger. It's fairly easy to find at Good Earth and probably other natural/organic-type grocers.

Sioux City: nice burn, good creamy flavor along with the ginger. This would be another good introductory ginger beer because it's tasty, easy to find and not too expensive.

AJ Stephens: strong "dirty ginger" smell, nicely sweet with a long-lasting burn. It's a New England brand that you'll probably have to special order. Reminded us a lot of Maine Root.

Hosmer Dangerous: this was a complete surprise to us. It comes in a very non-distinct, boring bottle with a boring label, but it's flavor was fantastic. It's got a cloudy light color, amazing carbonation that gave it a nice head, great dirty ginger smell, very yummy and familiar flavor, great burn, very spicy and is an excellent sipping beer. It's a small-label Connecticut brand that has been around for 100 years, but difficult to find outside of that state, so good luck finding it, but if you live on the East coast, it's worth hunting down.

Grace: this is a Canadian brand. It has a nice ginger and lemon scent, little carbonation, strong ginger flavor, nice fruity flavor that's not too overwhelming, and it gives a very strong burn in the back of the throat. It burns like a Blenheim but has a more sophisticated taste. This one is amazing, and we both gave it a perfect 10.

The must avoids (scored a 1 or 2 from both of us):

Zevia: Not very sweet, not much of a smell, terrible after-taste. We found we were not fans of drinks that used stevia as a sweetener.

Big K and Diet Big K (Kroger brand): All of the generic store brands were pretty bad, but Kroger was the worst of all of them. Absolutely no ginger flavor or smell, only a slight creamy flavor.

Blenheim Diet: Disappointingly, the Blenheim Diet is absolutely terrible. No sweetness, no smell, only a blast of nasty diet flavor upfront with a weak burn afterward. If you ever have the option, no matter how much you're trying to watch your weight, ignore the Diet and go for the real stuff.

WBC Spicy Ginger: This stuff was the worst we tasted. It smelled terrible and stale and mildewy, and it tasted just like it smelled. There was no ginger flavor and no spiciness. The weird thing is that this is the exact same labeling and bottling as Goose Island (which was pretty good). Perhaps we should have known, because we bought it at T.J. Maxx. Don't get soda at T.J. Maxx.

The surprises:

Goya: This stuff is probably the hottest of them all. It's insanely hot. Too hot. It has a great flavor that gets covered up by the heat. We both gave this an 8.

Canada Dry Diet: The surprise here was that the diet version is better than the non-diet (I gave the original a 4, Brian a 3). It actually has a ginger flavor that was non-existent in the non-diet version. I gave this a 5, Brian a 6.

Archer Farms: This is the Target brand and for a store brand it's really delicious. It's brewed in small batches, it has a great ginger flavor and is very sweet (maybe just a little too sweet). I gave this an 8, Brian a 9. I'm a little worried, though, because I think it may have been discontinued, as I haven't seen it in over two years. If it was discontinued, this was a major mistake on Target's part.

Rocky Mountain Soda: This was a difficult beer to purchase, but it was worth trying to track it down. It comes from a small bottler in Colorado, and is sweetened with beet sugar! This gives is a very unique flavor, and it has a nice burn. I absolutely love the labels on the bottle and will definitely be picking up a 4-pack any time I visit Colorado. Brian and I both gave it an 8.

Vernors: What surprised us about this is how many reviews we read about the amazingness of this soda, how incredible of a burn it has, how delicious it is, etc. when we wouldn't even qualify it as a ginger ale. It's a cream soda. There is no ginger to it. We even tried three different versions of it, the one sweetened with cane sugar, another with high fructose corn syrup and a diet, but none of them had any ginger. The people that love this are people from Michigan who grew up with it, and drank it when they were little and had no idea what good ginger ale is. Fools! (Or it's also possible that the recipe changed when the brand was purchased and distributed by the Dr Pepper company, in which case, I redact my "fools!" designation.)

Joia: This brand makes fantastic, all-natural sodas. They come in really unique flavors with spices you wouldn't expect in a soda, like allspice, nutmeg, clove and cardamom. We first found the Ginger, Apricot and Allspice flavor and after trying it, we had to get the five other flavors they offer. Initially, when we saw the Blackberry, Pomegranate and Ginger flavor, we weren't planning on including it in the taste test, because we assumed that the ginger wouldn't be prominent enough, but we were wrong. It's there, and it's strong, and it's a great soda. My favorite, however is the Lime, Hibiscus and Clove. If you ever see this brand, you gotta check it out.

President's Choice Jamaican-Style: This one is frustrating. It's one that I got in Canada. Brian gave it a 9, I gave it an 8. What's so frustrating is that it's not a "specialty" brand. It's the equivalent of the Wal-Mart Great Value brand that we have here in the US, but instead of being terrible like Great Value is, it's actually really good! When you consider this one, along with the amazingly delicious and easy-to-find Grace brand, Canadians are really lucky with their ginger beverage options. I really wish the US had such great brands at our big chain grocery stores. That way Americans could better understand the joy that is a great ginger beer.

This is, by far, our most time-consuming and expensive taste test ever. It took over four and a half years, and cost us over $300. What was a pleasant surprise was that over the time that it took to find and drink all of these beverages, many of these became easier to find. There seems to be (at least in Utah, possibly nationally) a resurgence in specialty sodas. Brands that we initially had to travel out of state to find are now readily available here. Hopefully this means that smaller bottlers will be able to produce and distribute their sodas on a national scale, and people will be able to get their hands on them easier. There are, however, still a lot of other brands out there (we know of 165 more!), but we haven't been found any reasonable way of getting them to us. (Soliciting help from anyone willing!)

Celebrating our 200th Ginger ale/beer!
Finally, this list wouldn't be as long as it is if it weren't for the help of good friends who were willing to go out of their way and stop at stores for us while they were traveling. So a very special thank you to Jenny, Wen-Di, J B, Danielle, Katherine, Collin, Trevor, Quinette, Kris, Trina, Sheri and Morgan.