What’s lightly sparkling, ginger-flavored, and has a sweet, fiery kick? If you said ginger beer, congratulations! You are right. Of course, if you said ginger ale, you’re also correct.
Though their names are almost identical, ginger beer and ginger ale are, in fact, two different drinks. From their origins, to how they’re made, to taste, to common uses, there are a few subtle differences separating the two ginger-flavored drinks. Here’s everything you need to know.
Ginger beer originated in England in the middle of the 19th century. Early recipes featured ginger, water, sugar, lemon juice, and a bacteria called “ginger beer plant.” Traditionally, the ingredients were fermented to create a drink with an alcoholic content of around 11 percent.
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Ginger ale started in Ireland, but was popularized by Canadian chemist John J. McLaughlin in the beginning of the 20th century. His “Pale Dry Ginger Ale” would later become the brand Canada Dry (owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper since 2008).
Modern ginger beer usually contains less than 0.5 percent ABV, which classes it as a non-alcoholic drink. But its name isn’t a complete misnomer: The term ginger beer refers to the brewing process used to create it. The process helps extract flavor from the ingredients and occasionally adds fizz, though many commercially available ginger beers gain bubbles via carbonation.
Some ginger beers appear cloudy because they’re sold unfiltered, so it’s usually a good idea to invert the bottle before you drink, à la kombucha.
Ginger ale has a much simpler production process. The drink is a straight-up blend of carbonated water, sugar, and ginger flavor extracts.
Of all the factors that distinguish the two drinks, flavor is the greatest. During the brewing process, ginger beer gains a stronger flavor than is commonly tasted in ginger ale, giving it a bracing, fiery punch. Ginger ale, on the other hand, is much milder, with a sweet, gentle flavor.
Given their noticeably different flavor profiles, it’s not ideal to substitute ginger ale for beer or vice versa. Ginger beer’s robust flavor allows it to hold its own when paired with alcohol in cocktails. It is a mainstay in classic drinks like the Moscow Mule and the Dark ‘N’ Stormy.
Ginger ale can serve as a mixer in a pinch, but its gentle flavor doesn’t stand up as well to alcohol. Instead, it’s commonly drunk as a remedy for indigestion and motion sickness, which is the reason you may have been given it when you were ill as a child, and why it’s commonly consumed on airplanes.
Canada Dry and Seagram’s are pioneers of the ginger ale category, while Old Jamaica, Fentimans, and Bundaberg offer industry-leading ginger beers. Artisanal brands Fever-Tree and Q Mixers produce both ginger beer and ale.