I have been on a bit of a rant against High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) lately. It started some time ago when I made my first batch of orgeat and compared it to the Fee Brothers’ Orgeat. The Fee’s was foul stuff, and I dumped the entire bottle down the drain. Since then I’ve been occasionally destroying the kitchen making a number of homemade ingredients like orgeat, more orgeat, passionfruit syrup, grenadine, and rock candy syrup. In all cases I’ve been using organic cane sugar, and have seriously begun to appreciate the taste of a quality sugar in a beverage.
I began to notice some of those “artisanal” sodas, like Jones Soda and Stirrings Ginger Ale, and have been checking the ingredients. If it was a flavor that sounded interesting – and it contained cane sugar – I bought a bottle. My wife has been going crazy since I’ve been packing the fridge with this stuff lately. Sheesh. I could have worse habits.
Some of these sodas have been quite good, and some mediocre. The Jones Sodas are simply fantastic. If you have not tried one yet, please do so. I love vanilla cream soda, and Jones is one of the best, along with Polar Premium Classic – or something like that. The Polar website does not list this exact soda, though it does list the typical version with HFCS. They are not the same, not in the slightest. Many of the others I’ve tried – like Boylans, Mercury, and a few others from the local Whole Foods Market – have been decent but I haven’t found anything that comes close to the Jones. Yet. I’ll keep looking.
Until then, I’ve been exploring making my own sodas. I’ve got a little studying to do, since most of the information out there has to do with fermented sodas and I’d prefer to have more control over the carbonation. I love carbonation. I love those big fat sharp bubbles that almost cut my tongue. So I’d prefer to carbonate by forcing carbon dioxide into the soda rather than experimenting with yeasts and temperatures until I get it right. Maybe I’m fussing for nothing, but I have a habit of over-studying a subject before starting something. Oh well, I do enjoy the knowledge-gain.
While these sodas are good or great, none have sounded too appetizing if mixed with rum. And it’s all about the rum, and a rum & ginger with a squeeze of lime is a simple, quick, enjoyable mix. So I went out looking for ginger ales made with cane sugar, and managed to find just a few. I decided to compare these against some of the typical ginger ales, and some of the not so typical ones.
Alas, so many ginger ales are regional. I seriously wish that I could find Vernors around Boston, or Blenheim’s.
The High Fructose Corn Syrup Selection
Oh, boy. I get to swig down some HFCS. And I do it willingly! All in the name of science…
(I’m not going to mention prices on these HFCS ones since they’re fairly typical prices.)
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate, caramel color.
Sweet, tiny sharp bubbles, small amount of ginger, very crisp feeling but a mild taste. HFCS isn’t too noticeable – at least it’s not horrid. Overall, not bad, but definitely not enough ginger by a long shot.
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate, caramel color.
Much softer than Schweppes in the bubble department. Drier, but not by much. The ginger amount is about the same, but the ginger seems a tiny bit sweeter.
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, citric acid, sodium benzoate, caramel color, and natural flavoring.
Bubbles are almost as sharp as the Schweppes, but there’s very little taste. Really, why bother? This is a waste of good carbonation, and I’m left feeling sorry for a bunch of ginger plants that gave up their existence for nothing. It’s sad that this contains more preservative than natural flavor.
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavoring, and caramel color.
Not a lot of taste here. Bubbles are mediocre – smooth and tiny. Somewhat sweet. Pretty much a waste of time though. No sodium benzoate though, which has got to be better for the taste – if there was more taste…
The HFCS isn’t so terrible is all of these. Granted, none are as sweet as a Coke or a typical Cream Soda, so maybe I was afraid for no reason. But none have much taste, in my opinion. The ginger is quite mild in all of them, like an afterthought – or an active thought that this stuff needed to taste different when compared to seltzer. My pick is the Schweppes, but I primarily chose that because I love the bubbles. They are all equally boring in taste, so I have to pick for some reason, right?
The Cane Sugar Selection
As I mentioned, I was not able to find too many ginger ales made with cane sugar. Well, not “pure” ones at least – I did find some Jamaican-style ginger ale, some ginger beers, and a ginger ale seltzer. I’ll get to these “oddball” ginger ales after I go through the “typical” ginger ales.
Outrageous Ginger Ale from Natural Brew
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, evaporated cane juice, brewed ginger, natural flavors, citric acid.
I bought a single 12oz bottle of this, but I seem to remember that a 4-pack was about $4.50. Don’t quote me on that though. Natural Brew is a division of Smucker’s – http://www.smuckers.com/fc/brands/default.asp
This stuff has lots of ginger taste, is fairly sweet, with very smooth carbonation. It’s got a hint of oddness to it, not unpleasant at all, just different. I’m going to take a wild stab and guess that this might be from the use of Jamaican ginger. (Note: After tasting the Reed’s below, this guess is more of a hypothesis.) It is very good, but I can imagine better. And the carbonation is too soft for me.
Stirrings’ Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Triple filtered carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, ginger extract and other natural flavors.
Update: Interestingly enough, the Stirrings’ website says “Our Ginger Ale is made with triple purified water, real ginger, Mexican lime and cane sugar. ” Lime?
This soda comes in a 4-pack of 6.3oz bottles, for about $5. That’s quite expensive for a ginger ale, but if it’s worth it…
This has an incredible punch of ginger, far more than the Outrageous above. The ginger is mildy sweet in itself – perhaps because they use ginger extract? Beyond the ginger itself this is a bit sweet – sweeter than the HFCS ones above but still far from a Coke. The bubbles are tiny, but still a bit sharp. (The bottle calls the “Champagne bubbles.”) This is very good, though the ginger itself is slightly imperfect. http://www.stirrings.com/
365 Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Filtered carbonated water, pure cane sugar, natural ginger flavor, citric acid, and caramel color.
This is Whole Foods Market store brand, and is priced quite aggressively at $2.29 for a 6-pack of 12oz cans. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/
This has a decent amount of ginger flavor, but it seriously comes across as the quality of a store brand. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just that it not quite as refined as the two above. It’s a little sweet, and the bubbles are very smooth – barely above the Outrageous. Chances are good that I’d grab this if I were throwing a party – it’s about 1/6 the price of the Stirrings’.
Boylan’s Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Carbonated water, cane sugar, citrus oils, natural ginger flavors, citric acid, caramel color, sodium benzoate
I bought a 4-pack at Trader Joe’s and seem to remember it being about $4, though it could have been $4.50. This is in line with most others in this area, like the Outrageous. This company from New Jersey makes a number of sodas made with cane sugar, and also produces a small line called “The Natural Kind” without artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives. Alas, no ginger ale in this line. http://www.boylanbottling.com/
Small bubbles, but crisp. A bit sweet but not too far at all. Decent ginger taste, but still milder than I’d like. It has a much milder taste than the Whole Foods’ 365, but the Boylan’s does taste a bit more natural. The bubbles in the Boylan’s are much better though, which isn’t too difficult against the 365. The Boylan’s has noticeably more taste than the Schweppes, and actually has better bubbles, too.
Though none of these are perfect, they are all above the HFCS selection. They have more natural tastes, far more ginger taste, and are simple better tasting all around. Stirrings’ wins this round easily. The Boylan’s comes in second, but it might actually be preferred by many since it tastes more like a typical ginger ale than the others. The 365′s bargain price is not to be missed at the right times though. And if you might prefer the Outrageous, if you happen to like its slight oddness that I guessed was Jamaican ginger.
The “Atypical” Selection
These are not what I consider to be typical ginger ales in the style that I grew up with, so I call them “atypical.” They certainly have their own categories, so categorize them how you like. One is made with 80% fruit juice and I just can’t call that typical. Another is a Jamaican ginger ale, and having tasted it in the past I can not file this along with Schweppes or even Stirrings’. The last two are ginger beers, which are typical less sweet than ginger ales and pack more ginger flavor.
Knudsen Ginger Ale Spritzer
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, white grape and apple juice concentrates, ginger root, natural flavors.
I got this at Whole Foods Market. A 6-pack of 12oz cans was $4.69, so it’s about in the middle of the cane sugar ale pricing. This one is certainly unusual because it contains 80% fruit juice. Yet they call it ginger ale. And the can also says its a “flavored sparkling beverage from juice concentrate.” How typical is that? Even though it doesn’t contain cane sugar at least it has natural sweetening from the fruit juices. http://www.knudsenjuices.com/
The smell of the pear juice hits as the can nears my mouth. It’s sweet, and there is ginger in it. The bubbles are very small and far between so I’m not a fan of the carbonation. If you wanted a different taste to your fruit juice this is the way to go. It is quite good but it’s just not a ginger ale, and I would be hard-pressed to use this in for mixing. (Though some mixologist might put this to good use in a cocktail.)
Reed’s Premium Ginger Brew
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, sweetened by a blend of Canadian white water clover honey and pineapple juice from concentrate, fresh ginger root, lemon and lime juices from concentrate, and spices
A 4-pack of 12oz bottles was $4. This bottles uses the phrases “ginger brew” and “Jamaican style ginger ale” so categorize it however you like, but I can’t directly compare this to Canada Dry. Also, it’s sweetened with honey and pineapple juice, so it doesn’t really fall in with the sugar cane drinks. http://www.reedsgingerbrew.com/brews.html
This packs some strong ginger tastes, but not the same type of ginger as those above.Between the Outrageous above and this bottle I will attribute this difference in taste to the use of Jamaican ginger. Then again, this contains a whole bunch of ingredients that aren’t in the other ginger ales, so I can’t be too sure. This is fairly sweet, with tiny smooth bubbles. Luckily there’s a good deal of those bubbles so my desire for carbonation is satisfied. Overall, this is a very good drink, and the taste difference will probably grow on me and I’ll like it a lot more. There’s no doubt of the quality in this one, it’s just that the taste is a little different right now.
Reed’s makes several variations of this ginger ale. I’ll have to try some of the others.
The Ginger People’s Ginger Beer
Ingredients: Water, cane sugar, naturally pressed ginger juice, natural ginger extract, citric acid, natural flavor.
Another Whole Foods Market purchase, a 4-pack of 12oz bottles was $5.50 putting it at the high end of these sodas, though still far cheaper than the Stirrings’. Apparently this won an award – Most Outstanding Beverage – from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. The Ginger People make a whole slew of ginger products – I even purchased some of their ginger extract today. http://www.gingerpeople.com/
There is quite a bit of ginger in this, by far the most so far. The aroma hits before the bottle touches my lips. This has so much ginger that it gives a bit of a spicy burn at the back of the throat. And this stuff kinda tastes like they roasted the ginger – though this isn’t possible given the ingredients. Perhaps they age it? Vernors ages some (or all?) of their ginger drinks.
This is not very sweet, very tiny bubbles and a decent amount though I’d wish for more. Very high quality. I’m not sure what else I can say about it other than I simply *must* try a “Darkn Stormy” with this ginger beer. Outstanding.
Barritt’s Ginger Beer
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavoring, citric acid, sodium benzoate, gum arabic, caramel color, guar gum.
This seems to be available at most good liquor stores around me. I have no idea how much I paid for it. Let me be upfront by stating that I am *very* depressed that the beer I got was made with high fructose corn syrup, not sugar. And canned in Florida. And look at those other ingredients – guar gum? I did not get the real thing. I’m very depressed. http://www.barrittsgingerbeer.bm/
This has a very good amount of ginger in it. Not as much as Stirrings’ or The Ginger People’s, but more than the Reed’s. So for ginger strength, this comes in third. It’s fairly sweet, but does have the tinge and burning sensation of HFCS. The bubbles are very good – medium seized, slightly sharp, and plenty of them. It is quite good. I can only imagine how good the sugar version is. Even still, this is good enough to continue buying.
This is an easy decision – The Ginger People’s Ginger Beer is outstanding. Simply fantastic. The Reed’s is very good, too, though it has that blend of ingredients that make it quite unique. The Barritts, despite the HFCS, is quite good and comes in a close third. The Knudsen’s fruit juice stuff is simply out of the running. Though it’s very good and high quality, it just does not belong here amongst the others.
Well I’ve spent almost 3 hours now sampling 11 carbonated ginger beverages and I’m not quite burnt out yet. But I’m tired as hell, so I certainly can’t continue.
This entire comparison was intended to pick a ginger ale suited for mixing in a Rum & Ginger. To that end, the Stirrings’ is probably my first choice. I’d probably pick the Whole Foods 365 next, unless I wanted some powerful bubbles and then I’d grab the Schweppes. Go figure on that last one. But this choice for mixing is a bit of a guess at this point, and I’ll have to do some comparisons with rum. Hopefully very soon.
But another wildly different cocktail is the Dark n Stormy, traditionally made with Barritt’s and Gosling’s Black Seal. The ingredients are almost identical to a Rum & Ginger – rum, lime, and ginger beer instead of ginger ale. I can’t help but think about a Dark & Stormy made with The Ginger People’s brew, and I’ll get right on that as soon as possible. I’m curious too, about making one using Gosling’s Old Rum. Hell, it’s the same rum as the Black Seal – just aged longer. Will a Ginger People and Gosling’s Old make for an upper-crust Dark n Stormy?
Not to skip it in the end, I have to mention the Reed’s again. This stuff is very good, but a bit unique for mixing. For me. One of the talented mixologists out there should be able to create something using this ginger ale.
Edited 11/16/07 – Added Boylan’s Ginger Ale.