From left: Parker's organic ginger beer, Gingerella ginger ale, Bundaberg ginger beer, Mojo Kombucha organic ginger tonic, Phoenix organic ginger beer.
Something hot and spicy, often homemade, has become summer's go-to mixer or must-have bubbles on ice. Ginger beer is rivalling cider as the warm season's cool beverage, and it's appearing on bar menus and in cafes everywhere.
Ginger beer has become a bit of a blurred term encompassing anything containing ginger and bubbles, reaching into the ale and soda genres with one broad brush.
It was the English in the mid-18th century who started brewing the spicy drink, and it quickly caught on in the US and Canada. But a range of variations has since cropped up.
Some bars are brewing their own ginger beer to ensure the flavour is right for mixing with other drinks. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove
Purists will explain ginger beer is technically a fermented, brewed drink containing fresh ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a fungal-bacteria symbiote known as a ginger beer plant – essentially a live culture that can be made with yeast or the likes of lactic acid bacteria.
Shaun Byrne, manager at the Gin Palace bar in Melbourne, which makes a non-alcoholic ginger beer, says the yeast will eventually "eat" the sugar and turn it into alcohol, which is how alcoholic ginger beer is made. Ginger ale, he says, is dryer and contains less sugar, with less ginger flavour. In essence it's a carbonated soft drink flavoured with ginger.
Ginger soda is also appearing in cafes and restaurants in bottled form – a kind of sweet, peppery soft drink.
Bundaberg Ginger Beer used to have the local market captured but a number of new players are entering the market. Byrne says consumers are interested in locally sourced drinks and food, and that has created a burgeoning market for boutique ginger beers.
Grandma's Bar in Sydney started making ginger beer to use as a mixer three years ago. General manager Dean Simpson makes about 20 litres a week.
"Ginger beer is one of those drinks that's quite expensive to buy. It's expensive to make but it just tastes so much better. Now it's one of the most popular things on the bar menu.
"A lot of venues have started making their own. But we wanted ours to be a little spicier."
Good ginger beer has a "great citrus element, a good amount of spice and is not overly sweet", says James Snelgrove, bar manager at Miss Peaches in Sydney. The bar does house-made ginger beer flavoured with lemon grass, chilli, orange zest and lemon zest, "so there's definitely heat in there".
The production process at Miss Peaches runs from steeping ginger, sugar, water and a natural fermenting yeast for 25 hours, which levels it somewhere between a ginger beer and a ginger soda, not completely fermented (so no alcohol content).
At Gin Palace in Melbourne, Byrne uses a cold press to extract the ginger juice and combines that with fresh lime juice, sugar and water.
"We always have a ginger beer cocktail on the menu. It pairs well with gin and becomes a kind of ginger beer on steroids."
At Grandma's Bar in Sydney, the drink is poured into a syphon to dispense. It comes out frothy with a "lovely beer-like head" says Simpson. "It's spicy and it's just great."
We popped open a handful of bottles to weigh up the bubbles and spice (and all things nice). These are some of the best commercial ginger beers on the shelves.
Phoenix organic ginger beer
330ml RRP $3.29
This New Zealand-based, organic ginger beer is slightly sweet, with a gentle bubble and a tiny touch of yeast. There's a spicy ginger kick to this beer. It smacks of real ginger and has a homemade taste. This one is for ginger beer lovers and could just as happily work as a mixer or straight up.
Mojo Kombucha organic ginger tonic
300ml RRP $4.30
Marketed as a kind of health tonic, this gentle drink is all about the Kombucha, a fermented black tea packed with living yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
Add to that fresh pressed ginger and the result is an earthy drink with medium bubbles, a slight apple cider vinegar tint. It's low in sugar, a happy relief for those who find ginger beer too saccharine.
Bundaberg ginger beer
375ml RRP $2
This Australian staple has a kick of heat, with sharp bubbles that give it a pleasing punch. It is sweet but the ginger heat balances it. Lemon flavours are a savoury addition that cuts through the sweetness. This is the ginger beer for ginger lovers, a local drink that brews for up to four days. The label advises that the bottle be inverted before drinking, so the real ginger deposit moves through the drink.
Parker's organic ginger beer
330ml RRP $3.50
Another organic, preservative-free soda with fresh ginger taste, this very sweet drink is gently flavoured. Lightly carbonated, the drink has a little ginger sediment so should be carefully upturned before opening. It's not a complex drink, there's no yeast and nothing is fermented. One for the sweet tooths.
Gingerella ginger ale
300ml RRP $3.90
Dryer than its ginger beer counterparts, this mild drink is for those who want less hot ginger bang with their brew. The New Zealand drink is like a ginger soda, pleasing for not being cloyingly sweet. A good option as a mixer, this pairs well will gin and lots of ice.