Getting the hang of hoppy yellow beers has had a down side, which is that I’ve gone off some of the sweet beers I used to enjoy. I’ve had some unhappy experiences with ginger beers, in particular.
But what is a ginger beer? When I was a kid I made ginger beer one summer using a ginger beer ‘plant'; it’s the closest I’ve got to home brewing (and there is yeast involved, which I guess makes it a distant relation of proper brewing). The trouble with making ginger beer is that at the end of the week you find yourself with a lot of ginger beer, and the end of the next week you make as much again: you need to drink it pretty hard just to stay on top of the production process. When we went on holiday that year we left a week’s worth of ginger beer in the shed; while we were away the (residual) yeast got to work on the (plentiful) sugar, and we came home to several bottles of something not particularly sweet, very fizzy indeed and quite noticeably alcoholic. I don’t know how he made it, but Brendan Dobbin’s alcoholic ginger beer reminded me of nothing so much as that accidental experiment with fermented ginger beer; it wasn’t especially hoppy but it wasn’t sweet, either, and it was a serious thirst-quencher.
So that’s one way to interpret “ginger beer”: as an [alcoholic ginger beer]. Alternatively you could go down the alcopop route, effectively make a ginger beer and spike it: alcoholic [ginger beer]. Or you could do a Ginger Marble, make beer and flavour it with ginger: that would be ginger [beer].
Lately, a lot of ginger beers I’ve tasted have tasted more like alcoholic [ginger beer] than like ginger [beer] – and, having effectively lost my sweet tooth, the former is a style I struggle with these days. The spring version of Robinson’s Ginger Tom fell right into this category; the bottled version was a bit better – more fire, less sweetness – but still rather sticky and cloying in a way that’s not true of either Old Tom or Chocolate Tom. More recently I had the bottled Robinson’s GB; better – more beer-like – but still a bit on the sweet side.
With the Ginger Tom disappointment in mind, I studied the label of Wychwood’s Ginger Beard long and hard before I put any money down: did it mention sweetness? did it mention ginger beer as an ingredient or additive? No and no; I was reassured. The beer, sadly, was a crashing disappointment: less like Ginger Marble, more like the light Ginger Tom (which is specifically described as a mixture of Old Tom and ginger beer).
But there’s hope, in the form (oddly enough) of Wychwood’s Ginger Beard – on cask. I had a third today in the local Spoons, just to give it one more chance, and I was apprehensive that I might end up bolting it and turning to one of the others to take the taste away. To my surprise, there was no sweetness or ‘ginger beer’ flavour at all – just a fairly brown, fairly malty session bitter, very pleasantly overlaid with a ginger burn. Refreshing stuff, and definitely ginger [beer] rather than [ginger beer]; I could drink quite a lot more than a third of a pint of that.
All I need now is for someone to get hold of Brendan Dobbin’s recipe for [alcoholic ginger beer] and revive it. Any volunteers?