As Told By Ginger (Beer)

Family of Ginger Beers

Chuck’s Note: This is a guest post by my best friend Sean Nelson and his girlfriend Ashley Bowersox. They are both really into ginger beer and mentioned they were doing a tasting and writing a review. They graciously let me publish it here. Fun fact: CookLikeChuck.com was born on Sean’s couch in Boston two years ago. He and Amanda convinced me to buy the domain and start this blog.

I love ginger beer, and I don’t mean any of that wimpy ginger ale stuff. I’m talking about punch you in the back of the throat, clean out your sinuses, not safe for children ginger beer. An elegant drink for a more civilized time.

Ginger beer started its long journey to beverage superstardom in the 18th century. France and America were involved in their respective revolutions, the city of New Orleans was founded, and thanks to Britain’s persistent attempts at world domination (save for America), their spice trade with the Eastern world and sugar from the Caribbean helped kickstart our beloved drink. (Side note: This is probably why you find so many varieties of Jamaican and Bermudian-style ginger beers.) Traditionally brewed by fermenting ginger spice, yeast, sugar, and the “Ginger Beer Plant” (a SCOBY, for my kombucha drinking readers), modern ginger beers are manufactured either as ginger soft drinks or ginger lies. I’m looking at you, ginger ale. You’re just dirty Sprite.

I’ve had a favorite brand for a while now, but I’ll admit it was mostly determined by what I could easily get my hands on in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now that I’m living in Chicago through the end of the year, I thought I’d use this opportunity to introduce my mouth to new flavors and brands. After a week of searching, my girlfriend Ashley and I lined up 10 varieties of ginger beer, constructed a mock photo studio, and drank until our heads suffered through the high and subsequent fall of sugar rush.

We thought a lot about how best to do this review and made a few decisions up-front. Because taste is subjective, it would be misleading to rely on a numerical scale for judging. So we instead focused on metrics like overall taste, ginger flavor and bite, sweetness, carbonation, and taste story (a probably made up term that refers to how the flavor moves and settles in the mouth and throat). Since ginger has such a strong spice element, choosing an effective palate cleanser was also important. As it turns out, the most popular choice is actually ginger, which in our case would be a bit like putting out a fire with gasoline. Additional searching suggested using a lemon sorbet, a popular palate cleanser used in French meals, because its citrus flavor and cold serving temperature help prepare you for another course. This didn’t take much convincing.

Sharon's Lemon Sorbet

Sharon’s Sorbet also happens to be very photogenic

Ginger beer is also a common ingredient in cocktails like the Moscow Mule or the Dark & Stormy, but since mixology isn’t really my thing, I’ve enlisted the help of this blog’s namesake, Chuck. Look for his comments in the “Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note”. Now, onto the reviews!

Maine Root Ginger Brew

Maine Root Ginger Beer and Glass

Maine Root is up first only because it happened to be closest in the fridge, but boy did we start on a high note. If you like a spiciness and bite that lingers in your mouth for upwards of ten minutes after finishing the bottle, this is for you. Maine Root starts sweet before quickly hitting you with a lasting and delicious ginger burn that settles in the back of your tongue, molars, and throat. It’s never as strong as the first sip, presumably because your mouth has already started its coping mechanisms, but the heat slowly builds the more you drink. In this 12 ounce bottle you’ll find 40 grams of sugar, but it doesn’t taste overtly sweet or too much like soda. Just enough to take the edge off, but still not for the faint of heart.

Maine Root is caffeine free, fair-trade certified, and made with carbonated water, organic cane sugar, ginger, and spices.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: Given the spiciness of this brew, I’d use it in a Dark and Stormy. The lime juice will cut it a little bit and the complexity of the dark rum will complement the ginger flavor. 

Belvoir Organic Ginger Beer

Belvoir Ginger Beer and Glass

After enjoying a few spoonfuls of our lemon sorbet, we moved onto the Belvoir. I’ve never heard of this brand before, but their site features a nice array of beverages. This ginger beer really surprised us by how refreshing it was. There’s a great ginger kick, but the lingering flavor is softer and not as challenging as the Maine Root. Also unexpected was the citrus twist, which contributes to the refreshing taste. Imagine a lemon San Pelligrino flavored with ginger. That lemon is the first thing the front of your tongue recognizes before the ginger pushes through to the back. Minimally carbonated and not very sweet, this would make a great summer drink.

Belvoir Organic Ginger Beer packs 26 grams of sugar into an 8.4 ounce bottle with carbonated Belvoir spring water, organic sugar, organic lemon juice, organic fresh ginger infusion (2%), ginger extracts, citric acid, and capsicum extract.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: Given the citrus in this ginger beer, I think it would make a great Mayan Mule, a variation on the Moscow Mule that uses tequila instead of vodka.

Q Ginger Beer

Q Ginger Beer and Glass

Ashley straight up coughed after her first drink of Q. It rushes straight through your sinuses and disappears just as quickly, and if there is an aftertaste, it would be that of flat lemon lime soda. Similar to the difference between whole milk and skim, this ginger beer is really shallow and tastes as if something was removed and replaced with water (flavor). As written on the bottle, the creators wanted a big ginger punch with none of the syrupy sweetness, so I’ll award kudos for achieving this goal, but honestly neither of us enjoyed this one. Unfortunately it’s purchased as a four pack, so now we just have to find something to do with the remaining two bottles.

As listed, the ingredients include carbonated water, organic agave, ginger extract, extracts of lime, coriander, cardamom, and chile peppers, and citric acid. If you’re surprised by those unexpected extracts, so we’re we. It’s a shame you can’t taste the chile peppers or other spices at all. 22 grams of sugar in this 9 ounce bottle.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: Substitute this for ginger ale in your next rum highball for a spicier kick that won’t overpower the rest of the drink. This is also a good way to use up the rest of the four pack if you don’t particularly like it. 

Bundaberg Ginger Beer

Bundaberg Ginger Beer and Glass

Bundaberg needs to spell check their label, because they seemed to have misspelled ale. I don’t know how this could pass as ginger beer. It’s very sweet (40 grams of sugar), has no bite, and doesn’t smell or taste anything like ginger. This Australian brewery proclaims Bundaberg a cloudy bottle of old fashioned ginger beer, but I’m not convinced. The bottle and label design certainly pushes the old fashioned look and because of this, I was expecting a heavy and strong ginger beer, aged in a barrel found in the hold an old whaler surrounded by chests of old spices and Old Spice. False.

This 12.7 ounce bottle of crushed expectations is filled with carbonated water, cane sugar, ginger root, natural flavors, citric acid, yeast, preservatives, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, antioxidant ascorbic acid, and lies.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: Since this is so sweet and not very strong, try it in a Ginger Fizz. Cut the added sugar down to 1/2 or 1/4, depending on your taste preferences. The sweetness might also mix well with a spicy rye whiskey. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond is my go-to.

Filbert’s Ginger Beer

Filbert's Ginger Beer and Glass

I was really rooting for this one. Filbert’s is a local Chicago brewery probably best known for their Root Beer, so when I came across this very generic looking bottle with ginger beer typeset in Papryus, I expected one of two things: 1. This is an old local favorite with no graphic design sense but makes a killer ginger beer, or 2. Papryus was just a foreboding of what’s found inside. Turns out it’s sometimes okay to judge a drink by its label.

The taste is overwhelming syrupy and they must have gotten carried away with the caramel coloring because there’s nothing else in the ingredients to justify the nice amber color. Seriously, unless they hid the ginger under “Natural and Artificial Flavors,” there’s not even any ginger in this ginger beer. I just hope the 29 other flavors of soda listed on Filbert’s website fare better, or at the very least they remember to put sassafras in their root beer.

Inside this 12 ounce bottle of Filbert’s you’ll find carbonated water, not ginger, pure cane sugar, not ginger, natural and artificial flavors which probably don’t include ginger, citric acid, not ginger, caramel color, not ginger, and finally sodium benzoate. Oh, and not ginger.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: This is best mixed with Koval vodka and called a Chicago Donkey, for which the folks at the Signature Lounge will charge you $18 each. 

Cock ‘n Bull Ginger Beer

Cock 'n Bull Ginger Beer

I should disclose that Cock ‘n Bull is what first got me really interested in ginger beer. I could easily get my hands on it where I lived in Cincinnati and it has a nice bite that took my hand and pulled me into this gingery world. But after trying the Maine Root, Belvoir, and others, I’ve got to move on. Cock ‘n Bull seems to exist entirely as a mixer for cocktails, going so far as asserting “We Invented the Moscow Mule™” on the label and defining themselves as “the extra ginger soft drink.” And that’s exactly what this is: a very sweet soda (35 grams) that’s more spicy ginger ale than ginger beer. Additionally, and I’m ashamed for not noticing this until now, but ginger is also not listed among the ingredients in this. What a let down.

What you will find in this 12 ounce bottle is carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, caramel color, natural flavors (are you there, ginger root?), and less than 1/10 of 1% of sodium benzoate. That last bit is best read in Bernie Sanders’ voice.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: This is easy to find and somewhat sweet, grab your copper mugs and make a Moscow Mule for tradition’s sake. If you have a discerning guest, skip this brand and choose Maine Root or Fever Tree for your Moscow Mules instead. 

Fentiman’s Ginger Beer

Fentiman's Ginger Beer and Glass

Like Q, our first taste surprised us with a sinus-clearing kick and finished with little more. There’s an obvious botanical/flora thing going on here which is a nice angle to take with ginger, but unfortunately Fentiman’s is shallow and watery in aftertaste and offers no lingering bite or satisfying ginger flavor. Honestly, the only interesting thing happening here is the pear juice they use which is a cool touch. Their website speaks to their natural botanical drinks—traditional with a complex taste and full of fiery flavor and The Guardian even reviewed this as being “very superior, with a real kick.” I wish I found any of that true. This is the only ginger beer we reviewed that claimed using real fermented ginger root extracts, so bonus points for living up to tradition.

Ingredients include carbonated water, fermented ginger root extracts (ginger root, water, yeast), cane sugar, glucose syrup, flavors (ginger, speedwell, juniper, yarrow extracts), pear juice concentrate, cream of tartar, and citric acid. 29 grams of sugar in this 9.3 ounce bottle.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: With its botanicals, I think this would make an interesting variation on the Fog Horn. Use a dry gin to let the botanicals from Fentiman’s shine.

Barritts Ginger Beer

Barritts Ginger Beer and Glass

When I read “Bermuda’s Favorite Ginger Beer” on the label, I can’t help but assume that Barritts must also be Bermuda’s only ginger beer. The taste is round and sugary like a carbonated simple syrup and offers a zing of ginger, but the aftertaste is pure sugar (49 grams of the stuff in 12 ounces). There’s no two ways about it: this is straight up ginger ale, just less carbonated.

One thing worth mentioning is an ingredient used called Neutral Cloud because it’s just so weird. According to a tariff classification filed in 2000, Neutral Cloud is a thick white liquid composed of a few solutions and citric acid that is used to make clear citrus drinks appear more cloudy. Presumably without this Barritts would be fully transparent, but thanks to Neutral Cloud (which has been added to my list of Cool Band Names) we can enjoy an opaque drink consumers apparently expect from their ginger beers. Adding ingredients for the sake of aesthetics, like caramel color, doesn’t sit right with us, so whatever points Barritts had left after this review were lost in the clouds.

The complete ingredients include Carbonated Water, Sugar, Natural and Artificial Ginger Flavouring, Citric Acid, Neutral Cloud, Sodium Benzoate, Natural Extract of Quillaia Bark, and Caramel Color.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: I can’t in good conscience recommend buying this for a mixer given Sean’s negative review, but if I had some in the fridge and didn’t want to waste it I’d probably put it in a Pimm’s Cup since it isn’t much stronger than ginger ale.

Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew Ginger Beer

Reed's Extra Ginger Brew Ginger Beer and Glass

Bermuda didn’t fare well with its ginger beer, but maybe Reed’s and its traditional Jamaican style will impress us. This is a pretty common brand to find in grocery and beverage stores and might be the first brand many think of when it comes to ginger beer. I’ve enjoyed their ginger ale in the past, and their ginger beer variety isn’t too bad. It’s got a caramel taste with a strong, almost candied ginger flavor but without much kick. They make a big deal on the label that there’s 26 grams of fresh ginger in the bottle—no other brand specified exactly how much ginger was used, so this was pretty informative.

There was something familiar with how this one tasted that was hard to place, but after noticing that they added pineapple juice to the mix, it was obvious: Reed’s tastes just like a pińa colada with added ginger and carbonation. While interesting, it’s not really what we were looking for. But if piña colada ginger soda is your thing, definitely check this one out.

This 12 ounce bottle is full of Sparkling Filtered Water (Sweetened by a blend of Cane Sugar, Pineapple Juice from concentrate, and honey), Fresh Ginger Root, Lemon and Lime juices from concentrate, and Spices.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: Grab a bottle of overproof Jamaican rum and make a rum variation on a mule.

Fever Tree Ginger Beer

Fever Tree Ginger Beer and Glass

We were fortunate to begin on a high note with Maine Root’s and Belvoir’s offerings, so it’s only fitting to end on a high note. Fever Tree, while a bit shallow overall, starts off with a great gingery bite that lingers in the back of your throat for a while. This one is also marketed more as a cocktail mixer, so it’s going to be pretty sweet—20 grams of sugar in a tiny 6.8 ounce bottle.

Their website offers detailed tasting notes (especially useful for mixologists) about the three varieties of ginger for this beverage: fresh green ginger from the Ivory Coast that exhibits a lemongrass freshness, Nigerian ginger that adds intensity and depth, and finally a rich and earthy ginger from the Cochin area of India. Lots of respect to Fever Tree for going the distance (or at least making the effort to tell people about it).

Ingredients are simply Carbonated Spring Water, Cane Sugar, Ginger Root, Natural Flavor, and Ascorbic Acid.

Chuck Mix-a-Lot Note: This is a solid strong ginger mixer and will work in any Mule variation or a Dark and Stormy. If any drink calls for ginger beer, you can’t go wrong with Fever Tree.

Wrap-up

In the end, we were most impressed with two of the ten ginger beers we reviewed: Maine Root, for fans of an unapologetic smack of ginger, and Belvoir, for those looking for a refreshing citrus drink with a big gingery kick. You’ll still find us drinking Fever Tree and Cock ’n Bull, but don’t expect to see a bottle of the remaining six brands in our hands. Thanks for joining!

Aged Negronis at Home

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This weekend I had one of the best drinks I’ve made in months. It takes a little bit of patience, but it is totally worth it.

I bought some charred oak staves from Tuthilltown when we were up there two weeks ago and promptly put one to work aging a Negroni.

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I mixed up 8oz of Plymouth gin, 8oz of Campari, and 8oz of Carpano Antica, my favorite sweet vermouth, and poured it all into a bottle. I tossed one of the staves and put it in the cabinet.  I left my typical addition of orange bitters out because tincture bitters don’t scale as easily as other liquors. Instead, I add a few dashes directly to each glass before serving.

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Every 2-3 days I got the bottle out and inverted it a few times to mix it up. It got slightly darker of the course of two weeks, but not a ton. After about a week, the stave got saturated and sunk to the bottom.

I tested out the taste after two weeks with a friend who came to visit and I was very pleased. The bitterness of the Campari was rounded out a bit by the caramel/oak/vanilla flavors and the carbon took the edge off the alcohol.

As usual, I served it in a Mazama Negroni glass with clear ice from the Studio Neat Ice Kit, added 2 dashes of orange bitters, and garnished with an orange peel.

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I have two more of the small charred staves to use, but I’m thinking of buying a few toasted and raw staves from Add Oak to experiment with. I’ll cut them down to size here at home and add varying levels of char.

There’s More Than Just Whiskey at Tuthilltown

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Amanda and I drove up to Tuthilltown Distillery this past weekend. I’d been there once before a few years ago with my friend Jason Kelly for their gin launch party, but they’ve really stepped up their game since then.

Tuthilltown is best known for their fantastic line of whiskey: bourbon, rye, and unaged corn. Any liquor store worth its salt carries at least one of their five varieties:

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When I say their line of whiskey is fantastic, I mean it. I’ve tried the whole line at least once and have had four out of the five on multiple occasions. I even keep a bottle of their unaged corn whiskey on my shelf to show people what whiskey is like before it goes into charred oak barrels.

Their whiskey has won many awards and accolades, but Tuthilltown isn’t resting on its haunches. Their distillers have been busy trying out some new things: Cassis, Cacao, Triple Sec, and bitters.

The Cassis is made from locally harvested blackcurrants and is less syrupy than the more common Creme de Cassis liqueurs you might have tried. It is aged in their whiskey barrels and has an incredible depth of flavor: tart, earthy, toasty, jammy, and packed full of berry flavors.

The chocolate notes in the Cacao Liqueur rival high-end dark chocolate. It is slightly syrupy but easy to pour and it is good enough to drink straight. This was my favorite sample of the day. I was blown away by its flavor. Every other chocolate liqueur I’ve tried seems to be grain alcohol with chocolate favoring added in at the end (i.e. chocolate-flavored rubbing alcohol), but not this. Tuthilltown distills their Cacao Liqueur directly from Peruvian and Dominican cacao beans. It is incredible.

We didn’t get to try the Triple Sec, but we were told that it has a wonderful citrus flavor, having been distilled from bitter orange, lime, and valencia orange zest. It is also a lot stronger than most triple secs I’ve seen. This clocks in at 80 proof, whereas the stuff you usually toss in your margarita is 40-50 proof.

I tried a few dashes of Bitter Frost, the first release in their soon-to-be-growing line of bitters. It is nowhere near as strong as your typical Angostura, but it does have a nice warming flavor. It can be added to many different cocktails without fear of overpowering lighter spirits. I tasted hints of sarsaparilla, maple, cardamom, and vanilla. Maybe a hint of clove, too.

Did you know that the state of New York considers bitters a food product instead of an alcohol? That means you can buy Tuthilltown’s bitters on their website.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their Half Moon Orchard Gin. It is distilled from local apples and wheat with 8 other botanicals, including elderberry and almonds. It is still a dry-style gin, but the hints of apple, bergamot, and caradmom make it unlike any other gin you’ve tried. After tasting it Amanda said, “Let’s get a bottle of this. It makes me want to become a gin drinker!”

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We were fortunate enough to get to meet one of Tuthilltown’s cofounders, Ralph Erenzo. He came into the tasting room while we were there. He was incredibly nice and hospitable–taking the time to pour us tastes and chat with us about what he’s made–even while his family was visiting. When I asked him what his favorite thing to do with the Cacao Liqueur is, he paused, smiled, and said, “Pour it over ice cream with espresso.”

Amanda and I tried just that a few days later and Mr. Erenzo is right; it is delicious.

In addition to picking up three new bottles of liquor (gin, cacao, and cassis), I impulse purchased a set of charred oak staves that fit down inside a bottle. I’m currently using one to age 24oz of Negroni. I’ll report back in two weeks on the taste!

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If you get a chance to visit Tuthilltown, you can’t pass it up. The tastings are enlightening, the tour is informative, and the grounds are gorgeous. They converted a gristmill built in 1788 into a restaurant. The old sluice is a perfect place for a panoselfie:

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Salsa Verde Revisited

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I looked back at my salsa verde post from last year and decided I could improve it. I tend to only make it once a year because that is when I get a big bunch of tomatillos in my CSA share. That doesn’t leave much room for rapid feedback loops, but let’s see what we can do.

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Last year’s version was all done on the stovetop. That is a fine method and gets the job done, but it relies heavily on the taste of the raw ingredients and doesn’t develop them very much. Surely we can do better.

If you don’t care about how something looks at the end, one of the best ways to develop a greater depth of flavor in veggies is to roast them. Salsa verde ends up getting pureed anyway, so the appearance of the tomatillos and peppers doesn’t matter.

I roasted this batch for an hour at 350F. Some of the juice from the tomatillos carmelized on the pan (which I scraped up, of course!) and both the tomatillos, onions, and peppers took on a sweeter, richer flavor. The garlic had the best transformation, though. Instead of the sharp, pungent flavor of raw garlic, roasted garlic has a gentle nutty caramel characteristic to it. There is nothing like it.

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I scraped all of this off the pan and then pureed it in the food processor with some fresh oregano out of one of the window pots.

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Last year’s recipe used fresh cilantro, but I didn’t have any on-hand and I didn’t want to go to the store on Labor Day. Oregano definitely doesn’t have the same flavor as cilantro, but it is delicious of its own accord. Cilantro isn’t essential to salsa verde and I think organo works well with onions, peppers, and lime juice, so I used it instead. I think it turned out wonderfully.

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Tampers for the ROK Espresso Maker

Espresso Tamper for ROK

I had trouble finding this info when I first got the ROK Espresso Maker, so I’m posting this here for others to find.

The tamper size you want for the ROK Espresso Maker is 49mm.

Why not just use the little plastic one that came in the box?
The one that came with the ROK is significantly smaller than the portafilter, so it pushes grounds up the sides when you push down on it. It has no heft, so it is left up to you to push evenly. This leads to uneven pressure, which can lead to channeling. Plus, regular tampers are just plain cool. Unnecessary, sure, but cool.

Here are a few options for all price ranges and styles:

RSVP Stainless Steel Espresso Tamper 49mm

RSVP Stainless Steel Espresso Tamper, 49mm. $14.95 at time of writing.

 

Zoie + Chloe Stainless Steel Espresso, 49mm

Zoie + Chloe Stainless Steel Tamper, 49mm. $17.99 at time of writing. (This is the one I’m currently using. See photo above.)

49mm Stainless Steel Tamper

49mm Stainless Steel Tamper. $21.79 at time of writing.

Jimei Calibrated Coffee Tamper,49mm

Jimei Calibrated Coffee Tamper, 49mm. $37.00 at time of writing. Clicks when you reach 30lbs of force.

 

Espro Calibrated Convex Tamper, 49mm

Espro Calibrated Convex Tamper, 49mm. $113.67 at time of writing. This cool but expensive contraption clicks after you reach 30lbs of force.