When I think of ginger, I usually think of two things. First, the little paper wrapped candies you can pick up at Trader Joe’s that are equal parts addicting and mouth-burning. Second, the strange yet ever-present pink stuff on the side of sushi plates. I don’t normally immediately think of beer.
Of course, those are the two examples I’ve mention are often seen but farthest from ginger itself. The “pink stuff” is a pickled variety, and the candies feature the crystalized kind. If you don’t mess with ginger, it looks like this:
Back a long time ago, in the days before I knew much about beer, I had a ginger-laden beer called Juju Ginger (now sold as Good Juju) from Left Hand Brewing from Colorado, and found it intriguing but hard to understand. I settled on, what is admittedly a lame description of:
“…You can taste the ginger… it is not just a feeling. This is savory, not sweet, and is really refreshing as well.”
Not very helpful.
The addition of ginger to beer – which can be a labor-intensive and sticky endeavor – can pull out some existing flavors to enhance and play with them, or can serve as a contrast to sweeter beers and make them more crisp. At worst, though, it can dominate the aroma and coat the tongue, hampering more complex flavors from being registered by the taste buds.
Since my first tastes of beer with this mysterious ingredient, my world has been mostly quiet on the ginger front. That is, until this year when I started to notice a little surge in Maine beers brewed with ginger.
The first one I want to mention is the one that’s been around the longest. Atlantic Brewing Company’s Mount Desert Island Ginger is a beer that I feel is underestimated by many. According to Atlantic, their first brewery (which opened in 1990) was located next to a Thai restaurant that supplied a persistent ginger aroma to the brewery. The spicy notes, mixing with the normal brewery smells inspired the brewers to attempt putting it into beer.
Using fresh, Hawaiian ginger to do the work of most of the “hopping” – the result ends up very crisp, and definitely outside of what you’d expect to see from a brewery in somewhere like Bar Harbor, as opposed to their quintessential Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale. The base style used for the Mount Desert Island Ginger features light but sweet malts, and the ginger here just brings this to a great place. Since the six packs have begun to seep into Portland, I’ve found myself bringing this home more than once on a hot night, and it is a very easy pairing for most foods. The ginger is balanced enough to be present, pleasant and not intimidating.
Another one that’s popped up as a summer seasonal is the Peak Organic Ginger Saison. In this case, the saison style seems to be a perfect compliment to the spiciness of the ginger. You don’t get a ton of the ginger in the aroma, but instead, it takes over as one of the prominent spices once you’ve taken a few sips. This is a great one when you might be overheated and just want something a touch more interesting than your typical summer beers. It is also versatile with food – I had some with some grilled pears and it was awesome.
Allagash Brewing Company, Foundation Brewing, Atlantic Brewing and Gneiss Brewing Company have also brewed limited-edition beers with ginger this year. In Allagash’s case, they released the Ginger Wit earlier this year on draft only, and Foundation Brewing Company of Portland has included a ginger-infused Saison in its fun infused series of beers available at the brewery. Gneiss Brewing Company, breaking from the lighter trend, released Cenezoic Ginger Porter over the winter, and has plans to release a barrel aged version soon. Atlantic also released a limited-edition spring seasonal in April called Spring Ginger Kölsh that was both light, refreshing and chock-full of fresh ginger.
Summer can be dominated by fruits – lemon, blueberries and anything else spunky and sugary and bright. To me, these ginger beers are like taking a little break from the sweetness, and can seamlessly enter my rotation in any season.
I haven’t heard anything on the wire about additional ginger beers coming out in the next few months (other than the Gneiss), but keep your eyes – and taste buds – tuned.
Updated to include the Gneiss brewing beer!