The rise and rise of ginger beer

Ginger beer is becoming the brewers’ choice of “near beer” alternatives, as seltzers and other RTD-style drinks pervade Australia’s drinks industry.

Brewers like Brisbane’s Aether Brewing, Gage Roads-owned Matso’s Beer, Billson’s Brewery and Badlands are among the craft beer brewers who have their own versions, and customer tastes are following suit, with The Welders Dog’s Farmhouse Ginger Beer becoming the first ginger beer to have ever made it onto the Hottest 100 in 2018.

The big players have also jumped on board, with James Squire recently launched in an attempt to head off CUB’s Brookvale Union Ginger Beer.

According to analysts at IBIS World ginger beer is one of the fastest-growing alcoholic drinks segments in Australia – growing 80 per cent in the past two years – which it said was part of a continuing trend away from high-strength traditional lagers like VB and XXXX.

Meanwhile on the retail side, BWS told Brews News it had seen “significant growth” in ginger beer sales, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and gave some insight into why ginger beer and other alternatives are gaining popularity with customers.

“More and more Australians are discovering and enjoying lower alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks,” a spokesperson said.

“[Ginger beer] is an exciting category that sees many customers exploring brews through this ‘near beer’ category.”

It’s part of the rise of alternative drinks made by brewers. With the evolution towards more elaborate and innovative beer styles, which resemble less and less the traditional clear amber liquid, the floodgates have opened for brewers to stretch their skills even further beyond beer, and in turn, grow their customer base.

Popularity of ginger beer

Ginger beer has clearly seen major growth as a “near beer” – an alternative for drinkers who are not into the bitterness of traditional beer flavours. It can also be made with low or no alcohol and gluten-free, which makes it a viable option for non-beer drinkers or those with dietary requirements or driving responsibilities.

Broome-based Matso’s has been around for 20 years, before the latest resurgence of ginger beer, and brand lead James Purcell said they were “excited” to see continued growth in packaged ginger beer.

“It’s not only our own growth but our growth of competitors in retail liquor and what, in part, is the main driver for that resurgence in alcoholic ginger beer is that it’s become a very accessible choice.

“It’s appealing to new drinkers, going well beyond traditional beer drinkers and tapping into cider, RTD and wine drinkers,” Purcell said.

This is just the audience brewers are trying to capture with diversification into other styles.

“They are looking for something different, something a bit sweeter than traditional beer – ginger beer is for everyone, even if you don’t like beer, which is particularly good for breweries that have brewpubs and restaurants catering for a more diverse crowd.”

“We’re seeing those brewpub opportunities coming up with ciders and ginger beers, and things like hard seltzers, as well as beers by name but not by nature like Stone & Wood’s The Gatherer. People are blurring the categories between beer and other drinks.”

Brew or seltzer?

When it comes to making ginger beer, there are a “million ways to do it,” according to Aether Brewing’s Dave Ward, owners of the Ginger Beer’d brand which the Brisbane brewery launched in 2018.

Like other brewers, Aether was looking for a beer-adjacent option to meet the needs of customers – in Aether’s case, a demand for gluten-free options.

“We wanted to keep it gluten-free as there were lots of calls to have a gluten-free beer on the market and I personally have never enjoyed gluten-free beers. But the ginger beer, I knew I could pull it off,” explained Ward.

“It’s our gluten-free option instead of going into seltzers just yet.”

There are multiple ways to make ginger beer with different implications on cost and excise.

“We ferment ours, it is produced the same way we produce a beer,” Ward said.

“We don’t believe in RTDs and would never want to pay an RTD tax because it’s ludicrous!”

This raises the excise question. Depending on how ginger beer is made and its sugar and alcohol levels, it can fall into different categories. Anything over 8% abv for example could fall under the Wine Equalisation Tax (WET) regime.

“That’s a much nicer regime, but you might need a whole other licence, and producing an 8 per cent ginger beer, that’s just not going to be a consistent-selling product by volume,” explained Ward.

But there are a number of other options to create ginger beer, all with different tax implications. Drinks manufacturers can use a a sweet neutral wine base with added ginger flavours, bringing the drink into the wine category, or use a seltzer-style production method with a spirit base and ginger flavouring.

This may prove easier and quicker than a long fermentation, but it could also fall under the RTD category and therefore taxed at a much higher rate than fermented products.

But Aether chose the fermentation method for a reason.

“Fermentation is our jam as brewers, and I don’t want to take that away from the products we produce,” Ward explained.

Aether’s Ginger Beer’d starts with a base of sorghum and corn, which is then put through the brewhouse “like any other batch”.

“Then we use a ginger beer base, it is a flavour but it makes a small component of ginger beer flavour, and it does provide some depth to the ginger character. We ferment it out like any other beer, and there’s a small amount of hops in there too.

“Like with a fruit beer, we then add a shit-tonne of fresh ginger juice.”

Ward explained it was important to Aether to source its ginger locally, even if it was more expensive than other options.

“We’re contracted to Buderim ginger, so Queensland Sunny Coast ginger. It is expensive to do it, and ginger juice makes such a big component that to make it it’s our highest cost per production beer that we make.

“So our gross profit isn’t what it is on other beers, but what we lose in GP we make up in volume.”

Ward said it was their highest-selling beer, with the brewery selling more ginger beer than any other product in their range, but he had never intended it to work out like that.

“I fought it for a long time. I thought it didn’t fit with our brand and our style, but quickly I’ve come to love it, because it’s all the challenges of a normal beer, plus some more; getting yeast to play with gluten-free products is hard, there’s a long fermentation time. A few things like that we’ve struggled with, but I get excited by any challenge and it makes it worth it.”

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