ginger beer

Rocky’s Ginger Beer

History: Rocky’s Ginger Beer is so cute, you almost don’t want to drink it. Sitting there in it’s little stubby 12oz., clear plastic bottle and gold cap, I wonder when I grab it by its chubby little sides if it’ll giggle at me, “hehe!” But I promise, it doesn’t. This isn’t the beginning of some weird, erotic soda fan-fiction novel. Sorry to those of you we let down. Rocky’s is a relatively new company that markets itself as a lower calorie ginger beer that is both crisper in taste and cheaper in price than some of its more mass-produced competitors like Gosling’s or Barritt’s. The ginger beer was created in September of 2015 and named after the devilishly handsome Chicago beverage veteran Rocky Mosele. Seriously, I have no affiliation with Mr. Mosele and I am a heterosexual man, but I’d put a poster of him in my bathroom. The company certainly affiliates its ginger beer more with the craft cocktail scene than craft soda, but it does contain many signature craft soda traits. For starters, it’s made with pure cane sugar and high-quality ingredients like natural ginger extract, triple-filtered water, and is void of food coloring. The last part is what makes Rocky’s Ginger Beer stand out for me. It’s clear instead of hazy or a tint of pale yellow like most ginger beers. Pour it in a glass over ice and you can’t tell it apart from tonic water or Sprite. Beyond the above information, we don’t know a whole lot about Rocky’s Ginger Beer. When reached for comment about this review, Rocky’s did not return our emails.

Where to get: You can purchase Rocky’s Ginger Beer online via the company’s sister website Caffeinated Club or Amazon. It’s also widely available throughout the Chicago area.

Nose: Ginger candies; peppers. Reminds me of those bite-size, sugar-coated ginger gummy candies.

Taste: Ginger; cinnamon; peppery notes. You taste the ginger right away, and it’s accompanied by another interesting flavor you don’t find in ginger beers often: cinnamon. Ginger and cinnamon dominates the first half of each sip, while the back half is a more peppery ginger. This isn’t particularly spicy. Maybe a 4/10 or 5/10 on the heat scale. Rocky’s Ginger Beer also possesses a large amount of carbonation when compared to other ginger beers. The cinnamon influence is a little jarring when paired with the ginger. The peppery notes near the end of the sip taste familiar, but a little too similar to the cinnamon to provide much in the way of contrast. Also, the flavor drops out of the sip very quickly instead of taking residence on the tongue. Slightly unconventional with lots of fizz and conflicting cinnamon and pepper tasting notes.

Finish: Mild ginger and sugar that don’t last long.

Rating: Rocky’s Ginger Beer seems like something that is aiming to be a direct competitor to brands like Gosling’s and Barritts. Both are common ginger beers you can find in most liquor stores. And while you might see them often on the shelves, they don’t really stand out. I’m afraid the same can be said about Rocky’s Ginger Beer. The intense carbonation, mild spice, and high sugar content make this taste more like a ginger-flavored soda rather than a ginger beer. What makes most ginger beers taste great is the fermentation process. It gives the beverages an extra kick. Sometimes it’s a tartness, sometimes it’s even kind of a skunky taste like you find in certain beers. It’s one of those things where you know it when you taste it. It’s not a one-fits-all flavor. I don’t taste that process here. While Rocky’s Ginger Beer may be made with pure cane sugar, it tastes a little artificial when compared with all of the other wonderful ginger beers out there. I think this could do well with bartenders for creating interesting vodka or gin cocktails that simply have the novelty of containing ginger beer. The best asset of Rocky’s Ginger Beer may indeed be that it’s interesting to look at because it’s clear. Make of that what you will, but I didn’t open this bottle to just look at it. The bottom line here is that the flavors just aren’t strong enough to encourage repeat drinking. I think the ginger-cinnamon flavor you taste near the beginning is interesting, but the peppery finish is too similar to that combo. With ginger beer being the current hottest flavor in soda, it’s inevitable that some brands will swing and miss. How many strikes will you give Rocky’s is the question you have to ask yourself.

Two Stars

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True Roots Brewing Company: Ginger Beer

History: Ginger is the Swiss Army knife in a bartender’s back pocket. Drink is too sweet? Add some ginger for a kick. Cocktail is lacking in flavor? Throw in ginger to give it a full-bodied boldness. When he’s not dreaming up cocktails for Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steakhouse like the Mai-Tai-relative “King Hippo Milk Punch” or pickled strawberry and ginger beer combo “Clear Keep Lane Fire,” Ray Fuentes is probably busy working on ways to make his current libations better. Fuentes is a well-known Los Angeles, California bartender, leader of Bourbon Steakhouse’s bar program, and the business partner of True Roots Brewing Company co-founder John Shin. Ginger beer continues to be the hottest beverage in craft soda. It’s downright mandatory these days for any bartender, and with the rapid ascension of choices and quality on the ginger beer market, Fuentes grew tired of the old options he’d been using and decided to try his own hand at ginger beer. “Wow, this is good!” was the first thought Shin had when sampling his buddy’s brew. The two quickly turned it into a product, testing it in a restaurant in San Francisco, perfecting the recipe, and then officially debuting it in July of 2015. Less than seven months later, they were bottling True Roots Ginger Beer is cute-ass stubby, little bottles. The company produces a stand-alone ginger beer for drinking by itself or in cocktails, a ginger beer syrup, as well as the more exotic smoked ginger beer syrup. Looking at the ginger beer’s atypical bottle, you might not even believe it to be a beverage. But there’s a lot of thought and ingenuity the liquid in that little bottle.

“It’s very hard to get a good, robust ginger beer,” tells us over the phone. True Roots brews their ginger beer with cocktails in mind first, and instead of making the bartender add a bunch of bitters and syrups to your drink, Shin and Fuentes wanted their ginger beer to be a one-stop-shop of flavor. It’s for this reason True Roots Ginger Beer is made with a handful of complimentary spices that you won’t find in others. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this stuff is maxed-out to the limits of what we know as artisan. Fans of gourmet culinary experiences: keep your pants on as we go through this list. First this is a ginger beer made without preservatives of any kind, meaning to ensure freshness it needs to be refrigerated. It’s also literally brewed in beer tanks. Next, it’s “very ginger and lime forward,” according to Shin. Typically ginger beers are made with more lemon than lime. True Roots Ginger Beer has no lemon because they felt lime provided a bolder tasting experience. Shin goes on to say, “We’re probably the only ones that cold-press our ginger.” I don’t know what that means and neither do you, but now we’re both intrigued. As for the sweetener? They use both pure cane and brown sugar, something Shin says gives the ginger beer “a bit of a molasses flavor.” Despite multiple sugar types, the total amount is less than a majority of craft soda on the market. This is done to ensure the real flavors in their soda are not masked. Then, of course, there’s those spices we previously mentioned. We tried to pry, but the duo keeps that list close to the vest, though they did divulge the use of cinnamon. The one spice we forgot to put in our photos? Cinnamon. In terms of whether or not this packs a punch, Shin admits they “absolutely meant for it to be a spicy ginger beer,” but also adds that due to a longer carbonation process, it has a bit of “a creamy complexion.” It seems like with True Roots Ginger Beer, for every Yin, there’s a Yang. After our interview with Shin, I’m convinced this will be one of, if not the most interesting ginger beer I’ve ever reviewed. But that’s not the point, he says. ““We weren’t trying to do something different. We were trying to do something better.”

Where to get: True Roots Brewing Ginger Beer is currently sold only in California. To find out where you can purchase some, check out the company’s Facebook page or contact them directly via their website.

Nose: Ah, a complicated smell. A little bit of ginger and several spices. Those are what you’ll smell most. The spices are robust. Cinnamon and clove smells stand out the most. Also some lime too. Very nice.

Taste: Lime; mild ginger; citrus; general spice. This is an especially citrusy ginger beer, and it’s mostly lime you’ll taste. Bold, strong lime. What’s most important to get across here is that this tastes real. You can taste the fresh juices in this ginger beer. Pretty mild carbonation, as well as mild ginger flavor. You actually taste the ginger more near the end of the sip than the beginning. In my opinion, this isn’t particularly spicy in terms of heat. The spice is more in the flavor. I’d call it a 5/10 on the heat index. The spiciness doesn’t hit you hard. It’s more of a lingering effect that builds in the back of the throat. The more you drink this, the more the spice flavor reveals itself. It’s more of a combined effect, meaning you’re probably not going to be able to isolate just cinnamon or clove notes. They work as a whole to impact the ginger beer’s flavor profile. What you’ll likely take away from True Roots Ginger Beer the most is a strong lime influence with subtle ginger near the finish.

Finish: Ginger root, mild spice that lingers, and citrusy lime. Definitely a little more cinnamon on the finish than the body. You also get a little bit of the brown sugar here, even if it’s fleeting.

Rating: If you’re looking to make a stellar dark and stormy or moscow mule, pull out your copper cup and an endearing stubby bottle of True Roots Ginger Beer and go to town. Its intense lime and subtle ginger flavors really work well when paired with a high percentage alcohol. However, on its own, this is likely to be a divisive soda amongst drinkers. For some, the lime flavor, while very authentic, is going to be overbearing. It’s loud and proud like a fat woman in a two-piece on the beach. The ginger flavor isn’t as strong as other ginger beers and mostly hangs in the background while the lime takes center stage. What works best about True Roots Ginger Beer as a stand-alone beverage is the lingering heat that continually builds as you drink the soda. It’s very pleasant and adds a nice kick that should be tolerable for almost everyone and brings an extra layer to the ginger beer’s flavor. On the other hand, the biggest downfall for us was not tasting all the spices in the recipe. You can smell both cinnamon and cloves on the nose, but I don’t get much of that in the ginger beer’s body. What we do taste in terms of spices is very mild. I think if you could taste the spices in this, it would really add something extra for drinkers who want to enjoy it without alcohol. I’d dial up the cinnamon a little more. Cinnamon and citrus actually pair really nicely next to the bitey flavor of ginger. Bottom line, if you enjoy lime and ginger, you should really enjoy this – but you need to like lime or citrus. I also want to add this: don’t give up on this ginger beer if you don’t enjoy it solo after one bottle. I wasn’t sold after one go ’round without booze. A couple days later I came back and the flavors seemed more pronounced. Sometimes complicated soda complicates things for your mouth and brain. They need time to warm up to it. It’s a grower for sure. True Roots Ginger Beer won’t be for everyone on its own, but I’d certainly recommend it over almost any competitor a cocktail. And trust me, we did the market research. We woke up at noon the next day. Cheers.

Four Stars

 

Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer

History: Bette Jane’s is a little west coast bottler filling a large gap for a great cause. Founder Kirk Pearson is the man behind the bottles and launched the company in July of 2014 after believing his home-brewed ginger beer deserved a larger audience. A portion of proceeds from all company sales go toward finding a cure for breast cancer, the disease Pearson lost his mother to at a young age. Pearson is a veteran of the spirits industry and “saw a need for high-quality mixers with a local twist,” he says. Bette Jane’s is probably most known for their ginger beer, but also makes a tonic water and club soda, in addition to the blood orange ginger beer we’re reviewing today. Pearson considers his biggest competitors to be Fever Tree and Q Tonic (whose kola we’ve reviewed in the past), but the former is from England and the latter from Brooklyn. He decided the best coast needed to up its cocktail mixer game. “We are the only full line of cocktail mixers made on the West Coast and we are all-natural,” he tells us. And with ginger beer being the hottest craft soda on the market right now, bottlers are trying to find ways to put a new spin on the flavor before it loses its steam with the general public. Enter Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer.

Pearson says blood orange was the logical next step, adding “When I first started making ginger beer at home as a hobby, it was the first flavor I started toying with…. It was always going to be our first extension off the ginger beer.” He also believes the fruit itself just has a nice verbal aesthetic. “The consumer can really relate. They love the name ‘blood orange.’” And I’ll admit, I’d want one even if I didn’t know what it was. Blood orange? Sure. Blood strawberry? Give it to me. That’s not a real thing, but it’s amazing what one word does. Blood orange a self-promoting fruit. Pearson concocts all Bette Jane’s drink formulas himself and uses a blood orange concentrate to give the ginger beer its signature flavor. His vision for this particular soda was all about balance. It’s designed to taste like a blood orange soda on the front and a ginger beer on the back end “with longevity of spice,” he says. It was critically important for Bette Jane’s to differentiate its take on blood orange from other sodas that attempt the flavor. Because what’s trendy isn’t always what’s good. Pearson said he believes other blood orange ginger beverages are usually “too chemically or too sweet.” He added that his version “needed to have the punch of blood orange, but not be too sweet.” Again, all about balance. Clearly a lot of thought was put into this flavor. So it’s time for us to drink in the knowledge.

Where to get: Bette Jane’s is distributed throughout all of California and starting in April 2015, it’s heading to Arizona. If you’re outside those areas, April 2015 is still the date you want to watch because that’s when Real Soda will start selling Bette Jane’s Ginger Beers online. Don’t mind the website looking like it’s from the 90’s. We’ve ordered from it before. It’s legit and its owner is one of the most eccentric, knowledgeable people on soda you’ll ever encounter. You can also contact the company directly here.

Nose: Ginger; orange popsicle. Lots of citrus going on.

Taste: Light orange; ginger juice; sugar; heat. Very soft orange up front with mild acidity and tartness. The flavor is kind of like what I imagine an orange popsicle made from real orange would taste like. Soon after the ginger beer namesake flavor wells up from of the bottom of the bottle to join the orange and it creates a heavy citrus flavor. This is the best part of the soda, which is nice because it’s also the most prominent flavor you’ll taste. Finally, after the ginger fully washes away the orange flavor, you’ll taste some fire that hangs out in the throat. It’s got some solid burn to it. I’d say probably a 7.5/10 on the heat scale. If you’re sensitive to spiciness, that number probably balloons up to 8.5. Sweet with soft, juicy blood orange up front and a gingery kick in the pants on the way out.

Finish: Lingering spiciness that slowly fades, leaving notes of ginger juice along the back of the tongue.

Rating: Blood orange is such a great flavor idea for soda. Why people haven’t thought to combine orange and ginger until around 2015 blows my mind, and despite this fact, most of these hybrid ginger beers still suck. Look, I’m just keeping it real. But I guess even two beautiful things don’t always work on the first try. Look at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston. But Bette Jane’s has figured out the recipe for taking two great concept flavors in soda and turning them into something you need to put in your mouth. The orange and ginger together are refreshing, crisp, and full of spicy citrus. The sweetness and mildness of the blood orange combine perfectly with the peppery, spicy nature of the natural ginger used in Bette Jane’s Blood Orange Ginger Beer. What really stands out is that blood orange flavor. It’s so soft and light on the palate, but it has a nostalgic taste to it. Think orange popsicle made with real oranges. It takes me back to childhood. This soda is a perfect blend of flavors from the past and flavors of the present. The sugar levels are just right and don’t render the ginger’s heat barren of flavor or potency. You can’t beat the balance of fruity citrus and spicy ginger here. It’s exquisite. I wouldn’t even mind to crank the heat up one more notch, but I think you might run the risk of thinning out your audience by doing that. There’s no reason you shouldn’t buy at least four of these, enough to pair with an excellent dark rum and get drunk off of share with your friends. And to top it all off, the money goes to a great cause. Even non-ginger beer lovers should find this appealing. Delicious.

Five Stars

Cannonborough BevCo.: Ginger Beer

History: As craft soda continues to evolve and enter a new realm of artisanal quality, freshness is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword. And if there’s a model for fresh soda, look no further than Charleston, South Carolina where the gents at Cannonborough Beverage Company (hereby referred to as CannonBevCo) have been concocting seasonal fresh fruit sodas since 2012. These three dudes grew up together playing soccer and now they’re competing in a different arena that America actually cares about: beverages. CannonBevCo has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table soda movement since the company’s inception. To create their sodas, they get fruits from local farmers and blend a mixture that balances the sugar and acidity of the fruits. “Sometimes you feel a little guilty drinking soda. We wanted to take the vehicle of soda we loved and elevate it a little bit,” says co-founder Mick Matricciano. But it’s their methods that really set them apart. The company uses the same equipment used to brew craft beer. A couple of them actually got their start in the bar scene mixing cocktails, a trick of the trade that’s come in handy when crafting recipes for their soda using fresh fruit and herbs. CannonBevCo is also one of the only soda bottles in the nation that uses force carbonation. Let me explain this to you like you’re an eight year-old. They blast CO2 into their liquid, which bonds with water, and when the CO2 dissolves you get bubbles. I get that a few of you still didn’t get that. It’s fine. One of you is probably an ex-girlfriend of mine. A more recent innovation is finding a way to keep their soda shelf-stable without the use of preservatives by using bottle pasteurization. It’s a method more commonly used with other juice beverages like ciders. Matricciano likens it to canning jams.When they’re not making soda, they’re winning awards for the soda they already made. Recently CannonBevCo was awarded “best beverage in the south” by Garden and Gun, a southern United States travel, food, and culture magazine.

CannonBevCo specializes in sodas using real, local ingredients, meaning most flavors have a limited seasonal run with the exception of Grapefruit Elderfower, Honey Basil, and Ginger Beer. Those are year-round. You’ll notice one of those flavors doesn’t sound like the other. For those of you who need some help: ginger beer is a very common flavor of soda and often utilized in cocktails. That was actually the appeal of making the ginger beer. “It’s a classic style,” says Matricciano, before adding that ginger beer gave the guys the chance to show them “working within the box” as opposed to their more artisanal offerings. This is a ginger beer recipe with ingredients you’re not used to seeing. In addition to real ginger juice, the company uses lime juice instead of lemon juice in addition to vanilla beans, cloves, and habanero peppers. Matricciano explains “We wanted ginger to be the main attraction of the soda, but use the clove and vanilla to soften it.” He adds that the cloves provide a warmth to the flavor, while the vanilla helps prolong the ginger’s flavor. They also chose lime over lemon juice because they felt like ginger’s flavor was already aggressive enough and that adding lemon would overdo it. That idea sounds frighteningly like my love life. CannonBevCo’s ginger beer was designed to be used both as a mixer and a stand-alone soda, something many ginger beer brewers don’t take into consideration. The thought of a ginger beer made with vanilla certainly has us intrigued.

Where to get: CannonBevCo Ginger Beer is available in bars, restaurants, and cafes throughout South Carolina. You can also order their sodas in 750ml bottles for $10 + shipping at their online store.

Nose: Ginger with maybe a little pepper. Smells more sweet than spicy.

Taste: Lime; vanilla; ginger; mild heat. Let’s start with the basics – this tastes good. Surprisingly, you taste lime right off the bat. It’s a softer lime, blended with notes of vanilla. You can taste the real lime juice Cannonborough used and it’s a refreshing flavor. Definitely not too acidic, which is nice because the ginger comes in next and it has a lot of flavor character. The ginger flavor is crisp and has a little heat to it, but the real burn comes from the habanero pepper in this – and that’s what you taste near the end of the sip. I’d give this maybe a 6.5/10 on the heat index. The lime provides a nice citrus contrast to the ginger. There’s equal parts harmony between the ginger, lime, vanilla, and spiciness. Easily one of the most refreshing and flavorful ginger beers we’ve ever tried.

Finish: Lingering pepper-like heat that you feel on the back of your tongue and in the throat. Maybe some herbal notes in there as well, which is most likely the clove used in this recipe. The habanero heat slowly fades and the lime juice and vanilla bean flavors remain. Really nice.

Rating: We used to say that root beers were a dime-a-dozen in craft soda, and they are, but you can make the same argument for ginger beer now. 2015 was the year of ginger in soda. Unfortunately, many companies are now making ginger beer just to say they have the flavor in their line with little regard for making a unique product. It’s refreshing, literally and figuratively, to drink this one in. CannonBevCo perfectly walks the line of “natural” and “classical” sodas when it comes to taste. Their ginger beer is a prime example. It’s made with real ginger juice, lime juice, vanilla beans, and habanero peppers, while simultaneously being sweet enough to taste good. So often “natural sodas” are like when dudes hit on girls out of their league – admirable in their inspiration and unenviable in their execution. It usually comes down to sugar content. Natural sodas are often earthy in flavor and taste more like a flavored carbonated water than anything else. They usually sacrifice taste for lower calories. Cannonborough pulls off a nifty trick with their ginger beer, coming in at 90 calories/12 oz while still being packed with flavor. Oh yeah… we should probably talk about the flavor more. First and foremost, everything tastes real and fresh. The use of lime juice in CannonBevCo’s ginger beer is alarmingly good. It pairs well with the sweetness of the vanilla beans for a soft vanilla-citrus combination, and also provides a nice citrus contrast to the ginger. The heat on this is right where it needs to be. Strong enough to make an impact, yet not so fiery to distract from the ginger, lime, and vanilla flavors. I even think they could turn the heat up one more level and still be fine. But that’s a personal preference thing. I think what really makes CannonBevCo’s ginger beer stand out is the use of vanilla. It’s very uncommon in ginger beer, yet extremely common in most soda. Sometimes the best ideas don’t fall far from the tree. This is undoubtedly one of the best ginger beers available in America – crisp and refreshing, full of citrus with notes of pepper, and anchored by a perfectly executed use of real vanilla. This ginger beer is out of your league. Fortunately, if you throw a few bucks her way, they’ll let you have a go with her.

Five Stars

Top Hat Provisions: Ginger Beer

History: Ginger beer – so hot right now. Ginger beer syrup is even hotter because it’s easier for bartenders to make cocktails with and allows consumers to pour drinks to their own liking. San Francisco native Shane McKnight recognized this popularity and accessibility as an opportunity. McKnight is a veteran in the cocktail scene and at his day job, he “activates cocktail programs for bars at the national level.” He’s the founder of Top Hat Provisions. The name isn’t by accident. Since 2011, McKnight has worked an event in San Francisco called “The Edwardian Ball.” For those wondering, the Edwardian Period generally refers to most of the first decade of the 1900’s. Well there’s a shop at the event where you can buy clothing from that period from long coats to canes. And top hats. There’s top hats all over the place. McKnight notes “I made it a tradition to buy a top hat every year…. I have a lamp that has five top hats on it.” The whole thing is basically a drunk theme party. I guess when you wake up surrounded by top hats, you name your business after it. Based on that logic, my uncle should start a business recycling old Playboy magazines. Top Hat also provides ginger beer to major music festivals, like Coachella. There’s a lot of drunk moms at those things – someone’s gotta quench their thirst. He recalls ordering 1,500 pounds(!!!) of ginger beer for Coachella 2015. As demand continued to rise, McKnight realized making a ginger beer concentrate needed to be done “out of absolute necessity.”

In talking to McKnight, you can tell he knows his stuff and cares about his product. He resisted making a syrup until he found a company that was able to organically extract the vegetal and the heat. I know you don’t know what that really means, but basically it allowed McKnight to create and launch the ginger beer concentrate he envisioned in June of 2015. “The thing that was holding me back was that most ginger beers are spicy in the throat,” he says, adding that he feels many ginger beers on the market are just “ginger ales on steroids.” “Our spice stays in the mouth and a little bit close to the lips,” McKnight says. Top Hat Ginger Beer has three important elements to it that McKnight believes provide balance. The first is the heat of the ginger that we just mentioned. The second is the sweetening agent; Top Hat uses organic cane juice as opposed to pure cane sugar or something like honey because McKnight believes it provides the best taste. The third important element of the ginger beer is it’s acid balance. Like most ginger beers, Top Hat contains citric acid and lemon juice, but it mixes in a little bit of apple cider vinegar to keep the lemon flavors subtle. Based on the balance of sweetness, acidity, and spiciness, McKnight tells us he believes you’d have a hard time ruining a drink regardless of the amount of the ginger beer concentrate you use. In that regard he calls it “very, very forgiving,” which is also what I can already tell one of our staff members will hope we will be tomorrow as he continues to drink moscow mules while we write this review.

Where to get: Top Hat Ginger Beer is growing quickly on the west coast from California to Oregon, but the most reliable way to get your hands on it is ordering a bottle via Amazon (small – 375ml or large – 1L). (At the this this review was written, Top Hat Ginger Beer was just being introduced by Amazon, so if it isn’t available yet, check back in a few days.)

Nose: Ginger; acidic. Smells like it has a bit of zip on it. Maybe the word I’m thinking of is sour. The smell indicates you might need to wear the seat belt for this one.

Taste: Lemonade; ginger spice; pepper; grape. You taste the normal ginger beer elements, and I’ll get to those, but there’s one flavor that really stands out as unique – grape. The label doesn’t list grape as an ingredient, so the flavor is likely a result of how the other ingredients pair together with the apple cider vinegar, but it’s definitely there. It is actually kind of a grape-apple flavor. Very different. The signature flavor in Top Hat Ginger Beer is lemon. It’s a sweet, lighter lemon, like a shrubbed lemonade. The grape and lemon flavors work in tandem together to impart a very different flavor to this particular ginger beer. In fact, the ginger itself isn’t that strong in the flavor profile. You get a little bit of the ginger’s spiciness in the nostrils on the initial few sips. The spice mostly stays on the tongue. The flavors that stick here are aside from ginger are tart, sweet lemon and mild grape that’s reminiscent of sparkling grape juice.

Finish: Tart lemon; lime; spice. You’ll taste the lemonade flavor fade into a more tart lime flavor. The end of each sip is where the ginger beer’s spicy notes seem to take up residence.

Rating: Top Hat Ginger Beer isn’t your average take on the category. This is ginger beer for non-ginger beer drinkers… if that makes sense. What I mean is that this doesn’t taste like a traditional ginger beer, despite containing all of the typical ingredients. It isn’t particularly hot and spicy. The ginger isn’t overly powerful. If you’re looking for a ginger beer full of citrus tasting notes, Top Hat Ginger Beer should be right up your alley. This is light and tart. It’s bright and sweet with a lemon flavor tinged with apple and grape notes, as well as a little bit of spice on the finish. It can be enjoyed on its own, but in small doses at a time. This seems to be tailored more for cocktails. The grape flavor most likely comes from the apple cider vinegar. It’s unexpected, but it works well with the lemon. This will probably be a little tart for some craft soda drinkers. I’d also prefer to taste a bolder ginger flavor, since it is of course, a ginger beer. But all and all, this is too different not to give a try. The use of apple cider vinegar in this is really a home run. Top Hat Ginger Beer is one of the strangest ginger beer I’ve ever tried, but also one of the most fun. If you’re a craft soda fan that also dabbles in the spirits, try Top Hat Ginger Beer in a Kentucky Buck.

Four Stars

P.S. By the time this review was completed, our staff member we mentioned in the beginning is, indeed, drunk.

Spruce Soda Co.: Ginger Beer

History: It is almost impossible not to be tempted by Spruce Soda Co. simply based on their appearance. Their marketing is as crisp and clean as the Minneapolis, Minnesota air they inhabit. Just look at the bottle. It exudes a modern coolness. Matthew McConaughey is probably drinking one of these in his Lincoln commercials out of frame. If we haven’t been clear enough, it was the appearance that drew us to Spruce Soda Co. It’s still a young company, the product of Bryant Scannel and Jordan Hubred in the fall of 2014. The two had worked together at the now out of business Parka restaurant in Minneapolis where in 2013 Scannel began brewing up house cocktail syrups and ginger beer to serve. The ginger beer took off and after about a year of perfecting the recipe, it was clear to Hubred that “this could become a broader soda company.” Part of that realization was geographic. “We’re in Minnesota and there’s not a whole lot of local soda companies that are making soda from real ingredients,” dontchaknow. I added the last part because I’m funny and also eight years-old. Using natural ingredients is what Hubred says matters most to Spruce Soda. And while the company has already had up to three flavors and is working on more, the ginger beer will always be its foundation. It’s made with real ginger, real lemons, and surprisingly – salt. Scannel has always been a big believer in sodium when it comes to cooking and he figured why not apply the same concept to soda, adding it’s about “balancing the sweet with a little savory.” Hubred tells us he believes ginger beer is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of drink, so Spruce Soda’s Ginger Beer tries to sit somewhere in the middle of the flavor spectrum. He explains they want it to be “approachable” and adds that it’s a little more citrusy than normal ginger beer because that’s a comfortable flavor to most drinkers. It was also designed to pair well with alcohol. Shocker, I know. Currently the company is working on new flavors with perhaps the most intriguing being a (potentially) barrel-aged root beer. Sign us up for that. Until then, get out your copper mugs.

Where to get: Spruce Soda Co. is still a small operation. They distribute all their sodas themselves and are mostly found in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The company has plans to expand to online sales, but as of this review, has not. Don’t let that discourage all you non-Minnesotans. Hubred says the company is happy to fulfill individual orders. Just contact them at enjoy@sprucesoda.com.

Nose: Authentic ginger root and lemon. Smells fresh and artisanal.

Taste: Ginger; cane sugar; lemon juice; mild pepper. Definitely more of a sweet than spicy ginger beer, but still has a nice little bite to it. Not overly acidic. You’ll taste sweet lemon and peppery ginger the most in the flavor profile. In fact, if you swish this around in your mouth, you get a slight lemonade flavor before the ginger finds its way to the back of your throat. That’s pretty unique for ginger beer. The lemon tastes fresh, as does the ginger. The more you drink this, the more of a unique ingredient you’ll taste: salt. It’s subtle, but you’ll definitely taste it along the back sides of your tongue. A ginger beer that errs on the mild side.

Finish: Tart lemon with subtle ginger notes for a mild bite.

Rating: For the curious soda adventurer unsure about the notion of ginger beer, Spruce Soda Co. offers up a mild version that should appeal to a wide range of drinkers. It would be a good first step for ginger beer beginners. It isn’t overly spicy; rather, it has more of a pepper bite. I’d give this a 3/10 on the spicy scale. It’s the cute girl in class who’s outgoing, but not stuck up. Definitely approachable. The only difference is this soda won’t date you for eight months and make a severe long-term impact on your bank account. Right, Heather?? Spruce Soda Co.’s Ginger Beer is an excellent mixer. It’s got a good amount of sweetness and absorbs the burn of the alcohol, yet has enough a bite to give a Moscow Mule or Dark and Stormy a signature ginger beer taste. This should appeal to fans of more artisanal sodas because of its authentic lemon and ginger flavors. It’s light and crisp. On the flip side, hardcore ginger beer enthusiasts may be looking for something more advanced that’s spicier and has greater acidity. I, too, wouldn’t mind seeing the heat dialed up to about a five. Something to make the lemon notes pop more and zing the tongue. Spruce Soda Co.’s Ginger Beer is a safe bet. It’s not going to let you down. Whether in a cocktail or on its own, any craft beverage connoisseur would be remiss not try this peppery Minneapolis import.

Four Stars

 

Timber City Ginger: White Peach Ginger Beer

History: “I’m sick of being in kitchens,” Kyle McKnight told Kara Patt in 2014 inside a Seattle bar. He was explaining his homemade ginger beer recipe to her that he came up with two-and-a-half years prior and hinting that maybe they could do something with it. Back then, McKnight was selling the ginger beer in a restaurant and it was going faster than the food. Patt also came from the food industry. She had 18 years of experience and received a masters from NYU in food studies. She wanted something new as well. She told us over the phone, “I wanted to start my own business and do it in the right way…. This ginger beer tasted like the right ticket.” Shortly after their encounter, they both quit their jobs to devote themselves to Timber City Ginger. The independent bottlers started in Seattle farmer’s markets, growing from two to seven and then to online sales. This is a sassy ginger beer, one with attitude, defiant even. The company proclaims on its website, “This is not a soda – This is a tonic: an elixir.” Hmm. Sometimes I put on a Kobe Bryant jersey, go to the Y, and get hot from the 3-point line. But at the end of the day, I’m still just an un-athletic white dude who writes about soda on the Internet. Point is, we think it’s still safe to call this soda. But we understand why they prefer the term “tonic.” Timber City Ginger produces a ginger beer that is noticeably less sweet, made with local Washington produce and herbs. Sage and thyme are used in every batch, and according to Patt, “The herbs are what really make it stand out.” The ginger itself does not come from Washington, as it’s not grown there. But don’t worry, you’ll get your money’s worth; there’s almost a pound of fresh ginger in every gallon of ginger beer. As you might imagine with a beverage this artisanal, there’s no preservatives or artificial flavors used. The use of local ingredients also leads to lots of seasonal favor variations on their signature ginger beer, including today’s review, white peach. They call the majority of ginger beers on the market today “formulaic” and “sugar saturated.” They’re certainly proud of their more botanical approach. “People will come in a cold rainstorm and buy the ginger beer,” says Patt. That’s a lot confidence to drink in. Let’s see how it tastes.

Where to get: If you aren’t in the Seattle area, you can buy Timber City Ginger Beer in 32 oz. cans, swing top bottles, or in syrup concentrate at the company’s website. Eventually, Patt and McKnight would like to expand Timber City Ginger down the west coast and perhaps open a branch in Colorado, where Patt is from.

Nose: Lemon; pink lemonade; earthy ginger. This is a beautiful desaturated pink hue and has the matching pink lemonade smell. Olfactory heaven.

Taste: Bitter lemon; crisp ginger; faint peach; mild sugar. This is definitely an earthier ginger beer, tinged with a mild peachy sweetness. Everything here tastes very authentic. You’ll taste the lemon first. Very fresh and definitely bringing a bitterness. The ginger has light savory notes on its own and gives off a little bit of a pickled ginger (the stuff you get with sushi) taste when combined with the peach. That savory aspect tastes familiar. It’s unquestionably sage, an herb Timber City Ginger uses in every batch. The sweetness in this ginger beer really comes from the peach. It elevates the sugar in the flavor profile and gives the ginger beer a signature flavor. It’s not too sweet, but enough to make this easily drinkable without rum or vodka. I’d say a 5/10 on the sugar scale. The peach also imparts a little bit of a floral taste when combined with the botanical ginger flavor. This gets mildly sweeter as you continue to drink it, and the peach flavor really elevates to the top of the flavor profile.

Finish: Bitter lemon notes with peppery ginger that lingers until the next sip. The ginger sticks around long after the peach flavor has faded to remind you just who owns this soda tonic soda.

Rating: Ginger beers are a dime-a-dozen these days, but what separates Timber City Ginger’s concoctions from the rest of the market is the signature freshness they capture in each giant silver can of ginger beer. The ginger tastes like you chopped off a fresh piece and ate it. The peach flavor is real and not from a candy store. Together, the two work well. Now, in addition to being extremely popular, ginger is a flavor that can really vary in character from soda to soda. Timber City Ginger went with an earthier, slightly floral take with mild sweetness. If you’re someone who likes a lot of sweetness in their moscow mule, this probably isn’t the ginger beer for you. Sugar isn’t where this ginger beer shines, but there are some sweeter elements. The peach notes blend with the sugar to create sweet, floral flavors. These contrast with the peppery, savory ginger notes to form a little bit of a pickled ginger taste. This is probably the best flavor in the entire drink. You’ve seen pickled ginger on those sushi dates you overpaid for and didn’t take the girl home on. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the cane sugar upped just a little bit to open up those peach notes more. I also think if the ginger had more heat, both the ginger and peach flavors would stand out more on the palate. Lovers of earthier, more natural sodas will almost certainly enjoy this take on ginger beer. Its versatility allows it to be enjoyed on its own as a sipper or as a great peach-infused dark and stormy. Start with the first, pass out with the latter.

Top Note Tonics: Ginger Beer

History: Mary Pellettieri was growing increasingly tired of the soft drink selection in restaurants. It was always the usual brands. No creativity. No variety. And seemingly no room for improvement. She disagreed. She wanted to dial the clock back and return to the days of flavored tonics, something a little more bitter on the palate. Italian sodas, another bitter soft drink, were a major inspiration. When you think tonic, let’s be real, you think alcohol. But based on her background in beer, her desire might not seem so surprising. In 2014, Pellettieri founded Top Note Tonics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an all-natural artisanal tonic and soft drink mixer company. “People forgot tonics could be used in the soft drink category,” she notes over the phone. Top Note Tonics lives the best of both worlds, serving both the craft cocktail and soft drink markets, though admittedly, it gets more mileage from booze. If you’re a soda fan, Ginger Beer and Bitter Orange are the two flavors most likely to stand out. Just add a couple ounces of syrup to eight-ish ounces of seltzer water and you have a do-it-yourself craft soda. If you’re into booze, try the exotic spice-infused Indian Tonic or the company’s most popular Gentian Tonic. Pellettieri recalls how difficult of a process it was making all-natural syrups with premium ingredients. Often soda companies work with what are called “flavor houses” to get their syrups tasting just right without using expensive ingredients. Pellettieri says many flavor houses are hesitant to innovate and that Top Note Tonics was unwilling to compromise on the quality of its ingredients, making any kind of partnership difficult. “We don’t use any fake ingredients. Everything that we use is derived directly from an herb or a natural extract we work with,” she adds. You also won’t find any preservatives in Top Note Tonics. Because Ginger Beer is so hot right now, and because it seemed like the syrup with the most logical connection to craft soda, we chose that one to review. The ginger beer came in the company’s second wave of flavors and is made with lots of fresh ginger, prunes, grapefruit peel, and a Belgian candy sugar often used in beer brewing. Sign us up. We’ll sign you up too. Maybe.

Where to get: Top Note Tonics are available to purchase online here. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, you can buy Top Note Tonics at Sendiks, Groppis, and Outpost stores.

Nose: Out of the bottle, there’s a musky ginger smell going on. When mixed with the seltzer water, the smell becomes much sweeter and more like a traditional ginger beer.

Taste: Citrus; ginger; spice. There’s a definite citrus note to this on the first sip. Yes, you can taste the ginger immediately, but it’s paired with a citrus element. Top Note Tonics’ Ginger Beer is made with grapefruit peel, so that’s likely what you’re tasting. The ginger has a little bit of heat to it, but nothing that’s going to overpower anyone. Like on the smell, the ginger flavor to this is a bit musky, but it’s accompanied by an unusual sweetness. Likely, this is simply due to the way the ingredients interact, but I taste a little bit of burned brown sugar in here to go along with the ginger. That could be the Belgian sugar coming into play. It’s a different type of sweet. Definitely an earthier ginger beer with a little bitterness.

Finish: Bitter grapefruit and ginger notes.

Rating: Let’s just call it like it is: most soda purists approach craft soda syrups with a lot of hesitation. Bottled soda feels safer, and more importantly, it’s less work. I have to walk all the way to the fridge and add WATER to this? What if I mess the proportions up? What if I don’t even like the recommended recipe? People are willing to think out strategy, but much less inclined to actually take a few more steps to ensure refreshment. It’s just the way we are. Why do you think Netflix and pizza delivery are so popular? That said, Top Note Tonics has managed to make a ginger beer syrup that when added with seltzer water, forms a very serviceable soda. If someone poured the right combination of water and syrup into a bottle and served it to you, I’d seriously doubt you’d know this began as a bottled soda syrup. The ginger spice is mild, probably a four or five on the heat scale. That gets paired with some semisweet grapefruit notes and a distinct, earthy sugar flavor. You’ll taste a little bit of bitterness at the end of every sip. When paired with rum, this makes a tremendous dark and stormy. On it’s own, it’s solid. I’d prefer the ginger to be a little bolder and the sugar to be crisper. But the more and more you drink it, the more you like it. Here’s what I did would do: drink one on its own as a soda, then four one with rum and pass out see what you think. The grapefruit goes a long way in supplementing the lack of heat in the ginger. It really adds some nice citrus flavor to a ginger beer that needed a companion flavor. The two elements work well together. Even we at Five Star are cautious when it comes to soda syrups, but we’re here to tell you that this one can come over and stay the night. Let it show you a good time.