Ginger Beer to Ginger Ale: How a Brew Became New

Currently in our fridges at the Black Creek Historic Brewery: Brown Ale, India Pale Ale, Best Bitter, and Rye Pale Ale. The Lemon Balm-Mint is coming soon—keep your eyes open for a post on that!

But sometimes I feel like a temperance drink. In these warm summer months, that often means a ginger ale (although I often yearn, absolutely yearn for a Bundaberg Ginger Beer…but alas). Victorians would have been familiar with these beverages too; and you’d be more likely to find them in a brewery than a temperance hall!

Either I need to go back to New Zealand, they need to distribute this in Canada, or we need to try brewing (alcholic) ginger beer!

Ginger ale derives from ginger beer, which is itself descended from drinks such as mead and metheglin. These were sweet, honey-based beverages, fermented with yeast and flavoured with a variety of spices, including ginger, cloves, mace. Ginger beer was made from water, sugar, and ginger, and fermented with the ginger beer plant. Interestingly, the ginger beer plant wasn’t really a plant at all, but a gelatinous symbiotic composite of yeast and bacteria! From the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, ginger beers were impressively alcoholic, sometimes reaching 11%.

By the 1850s, however, new laws forced English ginger beer brewers to water their product down to 2% alcohol. It still remained incredibly popular. In 1877, writers John Thomson and Adolphe Smith estimated that some 300,000 gallons of ginger beer were being sold in and around London. With the rise of imperialism, ginger beer also went global. Soldiers stationed in the Caribbean and Africa were particularly fond of this spicy brew, drinking it to combat homesickness. Local populations adopted it, though they typically made non-alcoholic versions.

So, what’s the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale? Easy: ginger beer is brewed, ginger ale is carbonated water flavoured with ginger. With some exceptions, ginger beer tends to be spicier, with a more pronounced ginger taste and cloudier appearance, while ginger ale is lighter in taste and colour.

(Courtesy )

Although ginger ale was reputedly invented in Ireland, Canada has a role to play in ginger ale’s history. In 1890, University of Toronto alumnus and pharmacist John McLaughlin opened a carbonated water plant in Toronto by Old City Hall. By adding various fruit juices, he developed sodas to sell to pharmacies. His Belfast Style Ginger Ale was one notable example, and by 1904, he had refined the recipe into a lighter, sharper version he called “Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale.”

The rest, as they say, is history. And as they also say, just don’t drink Canada dry. You might regret it the next day. 😉


3 thoughts on “Ginger Beer to Ginger Ale: How a Brew Became New

  1. I know of ginger beer, but very little – I recall trying a non-alcohol version of it long ago and enjoying the spicy flavour.

    What’s the potential for a Canadian craft brewery to start making one? It seems like the kind of thing that someone would get into.

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