Explore Ginger Beer's History and Popular Ginger Beer Cocktails

Ginger root beside two lime slices on bright green placemat

Ginger has been enlivening recipes for more than 5,000 years. For several thousand of those years, its use was confined mostly to China and parts of Southeast Asia where it was first cultivated. During the period of the Roman Empire limited amounts of ginger began making its way to Europe, but getting it from Asia to Rome was extremely time-consuming and expensive. In the 11th century, the globally ambitious businessmen of Venice first established a route that went by boat through the Mediterranean, overland through the Middle East and then once again by boat to India, Ceylon, Java and other of the so-called “Spice Islands”.

In the late 15th century the Portuguese - responding to the disruption of the old Venetian route through the Middle East caused by the Muslim conquest of Constantinople - pioneered a water only route around South Africa and spice mania soon overtook Europe. Other countries then joined in the Spice Trade including the Spanish and British, and to a lesser extent, the French. And as spice flooded the kitchens and restaurants of the day some enterprising folks began to brew a new kind of beer from ginger.

Early Ginger Beer

It doesn't take more than a few minutes of searching on the internet to discover at least a half dozen competing claims about who was the first to brew true ginger beer from ginger, sugar and water. If, however, you are persistent in your research like our natural soda creators, a vague, somewhat pointillist image begins to take shape that enables you to get a foothold on the truth.

And that truth goes something like this: sometime in the early 17th century folks in England began brewing ginger beer for themselves and their family and friends. No one knows exactly who came up with the idea or when. But the evidence points to someone in Yorkshire at some point in the early 1700s. From there ginger beer's popularity spread and by the 18th century, people in the British colonies of North America were trying their hand at brewing ginger beer. At the same time, the practice spread to South Africa, Canada and Ireland.

In time ginger beer became the craft brew of its day. During the 18th century and into the 19th century it reached its peak popularity and could be found in pubs throughout the UK and in restaurants in almost every corner of the US (we've never had pubs, but that's another story). Alcohol content of ginger beer at this time varied and depended entirely on who was doing the brewing and who their intended customers were. But on average it was around 11%, meaning traditional ginger beer had some kick to it.

Non-Alcoholic Ginger Beer

While there are still companies that brew alcoholic ginger beer, the more popular type these days has little to no alcohol in it. But how did that come to pass? After all, for at least a couple of hundred years ginger beer was exactly that; as much an adult beverage as any other type of beer. So how is it that people's tastes shifted so dramatically?

Turns out we can thank prohibition for that. The same prohibition that Joe Kennedy Sr. took advantage of to make his fortune transporting bootlegged alcohol. During prohibition, which began in 1920, people started manufacturing ginger beer using carbonated water to produce the fizz. Surprisingly, unlike non-alcoholic beer, non-alcoholic ginger beer (which still contained trace quantities of alcohol) was a reasonable success, and so when prohibition was finally lifted most people did not make the shift back to “real” ginger beer and stuck with the quasi soft drink equivalent instead.

So Why is it Still Called Ginger Beer if it's not Really Beer?

That has to do with how it's made. The process of making non-alcoholic ginger beer still involves aspects of the brewing process, but the fizziness is added by way of forced carbonation rather than fermentation. Because of that it clings to the ginger “beer” moniker and is distinctly different from ginger ale which is just carbonated water with flavor and sweetener.

Three Popular Cocktails You Can Make With Ginger Beer

If you've picked up some of our Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Golden Ginger Beer, you're in for a treat. It's gluten-free, vegan, kosher and contains no GMOs! And if you're a fan of mixed drinks, that treat will be extra sweet. Here are three popular cocktails that call for ginger beer.

Moscow Mule

The Mule has been around for about 80 years but in the past decade its popularity has gone through the roof. Today there are dozens of variations on the Mule but if you're new to this cocktail you should start with the iconic Moscow Mule recipe of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice served in a copper mug.

Pimm's Cup

This thoroughly British cocktail is a big hit with patrons at the All England Tennis Club. To make it you'll need a tall glass filled with ice into which you'll pour your Pimm's gin-based liqueur, fresh lemon juice and Rocky Mountain Ginger Beer. Great for those hot summer days on the backyard deck and it's vegan!

Dark and Stormy

A Dark and Stormy is similar to a Moscow Mule but uses a dark rum base instead of vodka, and you don't need a copper mug. Just pour some dark rum into a highball glass, top it up with ginger beer and add a lime wedge.