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 GinsengLangers Gourmet
Bedford'sLimonitz Ginger Lemonade
Begley's And Bill'sMrs.
Big KNatural Brew
Big K DietNaturfrisk
Black Bear Old Faithful
Blenheim DietOlde Brooklyn
Blenheim HotOoGave
Blenheim Not As HotPangleheimers
Blue Sky JamaicanQ Ginger
Blue Sky Jamaican - with SteviaR.W. Knudsen Spritzer
Blue Sky OrganicRed Rock
BoylanReed's Cherry
Bruce CostReed's Natural Energy Elixir
Bruce Cost 66Reed's Original
Bruce Cost Blood Orange and Meyer LemonReed's Premium
Bruce Cost Jasmine TeaReed's Raspberry
Bruce Cost Passion Fruit & TurmericReed's Spiced Apple Cider
Bruce Cost Pomegranate & HibiscusRefreshe (Safeway)
Caamaño Bros HawaiianRio
Canada DryRock Creek Pale Dry
Canada Dry 10Santa Cruz Organic
Canada Dry BlackberrySchweppes
Canada Dry CranberrySeagrams
Canada Dry Cranberry DietSeagrams Diet
Canada Dry DietShasta
Canada Dry Rich BrownSipp
Canada Dry with Green TeaSmart Sense (K-Mart)
Crooked OakSodaStream Diet
Dr. Brown's Extra DrySprecher
Dream Lode GoldenSquamscot Golden
DrySquamscot Pale Dry
Empire Bottling WorksStarbuck's Golden Ginger Ale Fizzio
EngiferdrykkurSwamp Pop
EvervessThomas Kemper
Excel GoldenThomas Kemper Spiced
Fever TreeThorncroft Pink Ginger
Fizz Probiotic Ginger LemonadeVernors (Cane Sugar)
Foxon ParkVernors (HFCS)
Giant (Giant Food Store)Vernors Diet
Ginseng UpWestern Family
Great Value (Walmart)White Rock
Great Value Cranberry (Walmart)Whole Earth Organic
Great Value Diet (Walmart)Wild Poppy Grapefruit Ginger
Great Value Raspberry (Walmart)Wilkinson
Hansen's DietZuberfizz Raspberry
Harris Teeter
Harris Teeter Cranberry
Harris Teeter Diet

AJ Stephans Jamaican StyleGoya Jamaican Style
Anchor Ginger Root BeerGrace
Archer Farms (Target)Hosmer Dangerous
Avery's GoldenIdris Fiery
Barritt's Bermuda StoneJackson
Barritt's Bermuda Stone DietJamaica's Finest
Bedford'sJamaica's Finest Hot! Hot! Hot!
BelvoirJCS Reggae Style
Big Ben'sJed's Barbershop Strong Ginger Lime
Big Island Organics Gingerade MatéKutztown
Big Island Organics Hawaiian GingeradeLive Kombucha Spark Soda
Buderim Ausie StyleMaine Root
Buderim Yank StyleMaine Root Ginger Lemongrass Lemonade
BundabergMatilda's (Wallaby's)
Bundaberg DietPimento
Capone Family SecretPortland
Capt'n Eli'sPresident's Choice Jamaican-Style
Cock 'n BullQ Ginger
Cock 'n Bull DietRachel's
Cock 'n Bull CherryReading Draft
Craft (Chef's Line) SpicyReed's Extra Ginger Brew
D&G Old Jamaican - brown bottleReed's Extra Ginger Brew Light
D&G Old Jamaican - green bottleRegatta
D&G SpicyRegatta Diet
DrizzleRiver City
Empire Bottling WorksRocket Fizz Gingerbread
Fentiman'sRocky Mountain Soda
Fever TreeSaxbys Original Stone
Fever Tree Naturally LightSchweppes
Filbert'sSioux City
Frank Damn TastySt. John Virgin Islands
Garwood'sStoli Fire and Spice
Garwood's SpicyStoney
Ginger PeopleTaylor's Tonics Gingerbread House
Ginger People EnergizerTiger
Ginger People SootherTrader Joe's
GingeronaTrader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew
Goose Island SpicyZevia Ginger Root Beer

200! 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.

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 and Sheri.