I'm a big fan of ginger drinks, especially since I love that fiery, spicy kick ginger adds. My refrigerator always contains ginger ale or ginger beer.
But what is the difference between the two? And is ginger beer actually beer (and therefore alcoholic)?
The Difference Between Ginger Ale and Ginger Beer
Ginger beer was originally an alcoholic brew made from fermenting ginger, sugar, and water, although most commercial ginger beers nowadays are non-alcoholic.
Ginger ale is a non-alcoholic, sweetened, ginger-flavored soft drink. Ginger beer is stronger-tasting and spicier than ginger ale, but less carbonated.
More About Ginger Beer
Traditional Ginger Beer
Ginger beer is a drink originating from England, where sugar, ginger, water, and sometimes lemon were fermented and brewed with a starter culture called the ginger beer plant, resulting in a brew with about 11 percent alcohol. This also explains how the word "beer" is part of the name. The carbonation occurs naturally from the brewing process, so this form of ginger beer has less carbonation than ginger ale.
Modern-Day Ginger Beer
A lot of today's commercial ginger beers are made differently than the original brew, so what ends up in the bottle can vary widely across brands. Many are actually classified as non-alcoholic because they contain less than .5 percent alcohol or contain no alcohol at all. Some ginger beers are brewed with champagne yeast, and some are finished with forced carbonation. There are even producers that just make a more ginger-intense version of ginger ale and call it ginger beer.
Ginger beer can be clear or cloudy, depending on the filtering process, although it is usually darker in color than ginger ale. It is an integral part of cocktails like the Moscow Mule and the Dark 'n' Stormy.
More About Ginger Ale
Consider ginger ale to be ginger beer's more sedate cousin. It contains no alcohol and is basically a ginger-flavored soft drink. Its roots are rumored to be from Ireland, but it really took off in Canada in the early 1900s, when the Canada Dry style of ginger ale was invented. Most ginger ales are now made in this pale, dry style, resulting in a lighter color and a more delicate flavor than ginger beer, but with more carbonation.
Ginger ale can also be a fermented drink (sometimes containing a small amount of alcohol) made from ginger bugs, which is a culture of beneficial bacteria.
Ginger ale is a popular drink on airplanes, and is also used to combat stomach upsets. It's a great substitute for club soda due to its mild taste — perfect if you want a sweet but not strongly flavored mixer for cocktails.
Both ginger ale and ginger beer are bubbly drinks with a gingery kick, refreshing on their own or mixed into your favorite cocktail. Some drinks rely on the deeper flavors of ginger beer to stand up to other ingredients, but you can really use it interchangeably with ginger ale — as long as you know that ginger beer is more intense in flavor than ginger ale.