THE PURIST in me is gagging even as I write this, but the other day I took a perfectly good Sam Adams Boston Lager, poured half of it into a pint glass, then topped it with a can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale.
Gassy and sweet, with the lager’s classic noble hops now completely masked by sugar, it could only be described as beer soda.
Or, as the Brits call this ill-conceived concoction, a shandygaff.
Thus ended my brief experimentation with ginger and beer.
I’ve been fascinated by the spice (or is it an herb? I never know the difference) this summer as more ginger-flavored beers have shown up on shelves. The latest is Magic Hat Odd Notion/Summer ’10, a pale ale whose snappy dose of ginger root complements its tingly Belgian yeast strain. The addition cleans the palate and turns what might have been a cloying, sweet gulp into a refreshing splash.
That was what intrigued me: how adding ginger to beer could be such a thirst-killer.
The root has been used in religious and magical rites for millennia, as a cure-all for everything from gout to infertility. It’s no surprise that beer makers over the centuries would make use of it, too.
Before hops were widely accepted as the necessary ingredient to balance the sweetness of malt, a wide variety of other plants and herbs were used to bitter beer. Wormwood, dandelions, walnut shells, heather – you name it. Throughout 17th-century England and Scotland, among the last countries to adopt hops, brewers often used the soft inner rind of fir bark for a drink known as mumm.
When they couldn’t find enough fir trees, writes John Bickerdyke in his seminal “The Curiosities of Ale and Beer: An Entertaining History” (1886), they resorted to ginger for a “piquant flavour. “
Likewise, in “Every Man His Own Brewer” (1768), Samuel Child notes that colonial Pennsylvania brewers commonly added a small amount of ginger to their “Melassus Beer. “
“To five pounds of molasses,” he writes, “put half a pint of yeast and a spoonful of powdered raw ginger. ” Boil it in water, let it ferment for 12 hours, then put it in a cask for “the better sort of people. “
Frankly, neither mumm nor melassus beer sound very appealing for any sort of people.
And neither, by the way, does merely sprinkling ginger powder atop your ale, as was the custom in English taverns in the 19th century. I tried it with a glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and was left with burning lips and a mild case of nausea.
These days, brewers more often use ginger in combination with other spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg to produce those rich pumpkin beers of autumn and, when it turns colder, delicious winter warmers. Neither of those styles are typically regarded as thirst-quenching, however.
The beer I’m after is more in line with the ginger beer of the Caribbean, a nonalcoholic drink akin to lemonade. You’ll find nonalcoholic versions in Jamaican and other specialty grocery stores, or you can give Carib Ginger Shandy a stab. It’s a light, sweet, ginger-flavored beer with just 1 percent alcohol.
Here are two others I can recommend:
Michelob Ginger Wheat has a bit more pep, at 5.2 percent alcohol, and cooled my palate. But its ginger seems stale and the body is closer to warm soda.
Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew from Japan is a hazy delight, with plenty of malt, citrus and ginger flavors. But at $12 for a 750 ml bottle, it’s a bit pricey to reach for every time the mercury hits 90.