Mixers in a cocktail have just as much impact on the end result as the spirits, but reviews and comparisons are a bit less celebrated online. Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to look into the differences between some pretty widely-available brands of ginger beer. Don’t worry – I’ll be looking at plenty of other mixers in the future (I’m particularly interested in fresh fruits and bottled syrups).
Ginger beer is traditionally a fermented drink, with yeast, ginger, sugar, and other spices. This differentiates it from ginger ale, which is basically a sweetened, ginger-flavored soda. Ginger beer usually has a significant spice note, and rarely contains alcohol (although apparently it historically did). Contemporary ginger beers are often manufactured and carbonated, rather than brewed, but they still maintain the ginger-forward and spicy flavors.
I had to pick up these ginger beers across a few different locations, including grocery stores, Binny’s, and fancy little convenience stores. For the comparison, I decided to have two friends help do a blind taste test to evaluate the nine ginger beers I ended up with. This had two benefits: provide a wider range of opinions on each drink, and also allow me to offload some of the bottles and cans at the end (since these were almost all sold in four or six packs). My wife did the blind pouring and tasted with us, although she didn’t provide notes.
We picked out an Overall Winner, a Best Value, as well as which ginger beer stood Best On Its Own. We also took down tasting notes for all the competitors, which can be found at the end (The Competition).
For being at the high end of our comparison (with 4 packs of 6.8 ounce bottles coming in at $7.99, or 29 cents an ounce), you’d hope that Fever Tree would be good. And it turns out they are. Our testers called out Fever Tree’s ginger-forward scent and taste, pleasingly strong carbonation, and crispness. Descriptions such as “overall great” and “would mix well” were thrown out. Basically, this was a slam dunk, but you’ll pay for it.
Fever Tree was founded to make high end mixers, and they seem to have a pretty strong hold at the high end of the market in bars and stores. I’ve seen this in specialty stores and Binny’s, with the occasional nicer grocery store carrying it. Fever Tree is made in the UK, and each 6.8 ounce bottle contains 18 grams of sugar and 80 calories. If price were no object, I’d pick this one every time, no issues about it.
Barritts snuck into the top rankings for all three of our blind taste-testers. I’m personally a bit surprised at the reception of this one, since it was among the cheapest in the comparison, and uses High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) for a sweetener. Testers noted that it had high carbonation, a pleasantly spicy ginger bite, and was sweet without being overwhelming. Considering the wide distribution of Barritts, this would make a good default choice for most people.
Barritts ginger beer is made in the USA, although the company originates in Bermuda. I got a 4 pack for $5.99, which brings it to 12 cents an ounce (on the cheap end of the spectrum). Each 12 ounce can had 48 grams of sugar and 192 calories. You should be able to find it in decent liquor stores and grocery stores.
Best On Its Own
The bottle from Top Note was pretty unique in this lineup, which was called out by all of our testers. We variously noted grass, hay, or mossy notes, as well as the classic ginger spice and finish. Top Note also has a uniquely dark color, and would change the look of a drink substantially. However, everyone enjoyed it and two of us made notes about its higher complexity (as compared to others we tried).
Top Note is manufactured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and as far as I can tell it is regionally distributed in the midwest. This one came in pretty high since I purchased the bottles individually, at $2.50 per bottle (29 cents per ounce), although it can be had cheaper in packs. The Top Note was sweetened with cane sugar and date sugar, and had several other unusual ingredients (sienna juice, galangal extract). Each 8.5 ounce bottle contained 21 grams of sugar and 93.5 calories.
Gosling’s is another widely-available brand of ginger beer, and they also own the trademark to the “Dark and Stormy” highball. This means you can’t call your ginger beer, rum, and lime juice cocktail a “Dark and Stormy” unless it contains Gosling’s rum. This is another one that is canned in the US for a Bermuda company. It range in at $7.99 for a 6 pack, or 11 cents an ounce, tying it for the cheapest in our comparison. There are 47 grams of sugar and 180 calories per 12 ounce can and it also uses HFCS as a sweetener. Everyone in the panel noted the Gosling’s was pretty mild in taste and somewhat sweet, but otherwise unremarkable, putting it in the middle of the pack.
Reed’s “Extra” falls in the middle of Reed’s lineup in terms of ginger included in the process, and seems to be pretty widely distributed and available in grocery stores and the like. The bottle claims the recipe is Jamaican-inspired, but I couldn’t find any info to pin down exactly where it was made. I was able to pick up a 4 pack of bottles for $5.49, which came out to 11 cents an ounce (tied with the Gosling’s as the cheapest). It’s sweetened with cane sugar, and contains 35 grams of sugar and 145 calories per 12 ounce bottle. This was our bottom pick – there was little carbonation and little ginger taste, and it could probably be swapped in for a ginger ale with nobody the wiser.
Bundaberg sits in the mid range of the ginger beers we tasted price-wise. It’s also a bit more difficult to find than the brands above. Bundaberg is brewed in Australia and exported to the US, and uses cane sugar for sweetening. I paid $6.99 for a 4 pack, bringing the per-ounce cost to 14 cents. Each 12.7 ounce bottle of Bundaberg contains 40 grams of sugar and comes out to 170 calories. This one was not a favorite, with reviewers noting that it was fruity or had some vanilla, and I personally noted that it reminded me of a dreamsicle. The overall conclusion was that it was too sweet and didn’t have enough ginger.
Trader Joe’s makes their own house brand of ginger beer, much like they do for most products. I brought this one in because I was particularly interested in whether it was as good as the “name brands.” There was not a lot of info about where and how it was made (again, it’s Trader Joe’s). I paid $7.98 for a 4 pack, which came out to 17 cents an ounce. Trader Joe’s ginger beer is sweetened with sugar, and comes in at 140 calories and 36 grams of sugar per 12 ounce bottle. The panel rated this one similar to the Reed’s – it was mostly just sweet bubbles, with a little big of ginger, and not worth drinking.
Q’s, much like fever tree, is a brand that plays at the high end of cocktail mixers. Their ginger beer cost me $4.99 for a 4 pack, although it typically retails for $5.99 (bringing the normal per-ounce price to 22 cents). Q’s is distributed from Brooklyn, New York, and is presumably made somewhere in the US. Unusually, Q’s is sweetened with organic agave, rather than the sugar or HFCS used in most of these products. Each 6.7 ounce bottle rang in at 80 calories and 18 grams of sugar. The panel enjoyed this one, noting that it had a straight ginger profile and strong spice; however, everyone agreed that it had a relatively simple flavor profile compared to our top picks. This one would be a solid choice for mixing, but the value proposition isn’t really there for the price.
Fentiman’s is another brand of Ginger Beer made in the UK, and also comes in at the high end of our comparison at 24 cents an ounce. The company does a pretty wide range of fancy sodas (a few of which I tried when in the UK), and they can be found at some specialty stores in the US. The 4 pack I purchased came in at $8.99, which put it at 24 cents per ounce, and each 9.3 ounce bottle contained 110 calories and 21 grams of sugar. This one also used unusual sweeteners, with both beet sugar and glucose syrup listed. This one was rated as dry and peppery as compared to the other bottles, but mostly unremarkable.