Imagine cracking open a drink menu at just about any restaurant in Seattle. It’s not hard to predict what you’d find: $10-ish cocktails, double- or even triple-digit bottles of wine, $5 to $10 drafts. But that's okay; you're used to forking over for alcohol.
Time was, nonalcoholic drinks were shoved to the bottom, buried under the desserts or in a footnote if they were listed at all. They kept the kids and pregnant women and teetotalers from revolting, but nobody showed them off. In recent years, many restaurants’ booze-free drink lineups have gone from conventional to curated—with prices to match.
Costs as much as alcohol, but won’t get you drunk? Seems like a hard sell. But Seattleites, accustomed as we have become to starting our days with craft coffee and ending them with craft cocktails, seem uniquely amenable to shelling out for artisan soda. Combine that with the city's penchant for home brewing of all kinds, and you end up with Seattle’s latest beverage obsession: ginger beer.
“It has everything to do with our customers,” said Rachel Marshall of the success of her Rachel's Ginger Beer. Her enterprise began as a farmers market stall but has generated enough love to sustain thousands of Facebook fans, two dive bars, a flagship emporium in Pike Place Market (with more on the way), and a legion of bartender devotees with its simple four-ingredient formula.
“It’s badass of them—that they would spend $13 on a bottle of soda blows my mind.”
According to soda maker Anna Wallace, who cut her teeth on ginger beer brewing and now sells her acclaimed Seattle Seltzer Co. celery soda by the glass at a handful of local restaurants, Seattle’s burgeoning craft soda industry owes a lot to Marshall. Other companies like Jones Soda and Dry Soda successfully marketed premium sodas first, but RGB’s popularity proved that customers were willing to pay for them.
“I don’t have to worry about walking into a Whole Foods or a PCC or DeLaurenti and saying, ‘Oh gosh, I have this really crazy handcrafted thing that’s going to be a little more expensive than Mountain Dew or 7 Up,’” Wallace said. “People like Rachel have paved the way.”
Along with this newfound sales potential has come a new crop of hobbyists and career brewers—all of whom now have to find ways to make their product distinctive from the rest.
Rain or shine, Malus Ginger Beer’s John Struble wakes up every Sunday and readies his wares for his own stall at the Broadway Farmers Market. He makes his product stand out by underscoring its medicinal qualities, lent by traditional fermentation and his use of Belleville wildflower honey instead of cane sugar. Champagne yeast goes to work on his ginger beer for a few days before bottling, leaving it with a negligible 0.49 percent ABV, not high enough to merit regulation.
Architect by day Paul Hanson is more of a minimalist. He produces 10 gallons of Paul’s Boutique Ginger a week, each containing only limes, sugar, water, and ginger. He eschews special flavors for his yeast-fermented brew, which he sees as the perfect blank slate for bartenders and restaurateurs.
Timber City Ginger Beer is quite the opposite. Co-owners Kara Patt and Kyle McKnight make regular treks to Patt’s family’s land in Sequim, sourcing unpolluted botanicals for weekly special flavors like apple cedar and Douglas fir, putting part of the land into their product. (The moniker, Patt was quick to point out, is borrowed from an old nickname for Seattle, not the Portland soccer team.)
They’re hoping that a storefront of their own may be in their future, and they’re going to need one: They regularly sell out of the kegs they haul to the West Seattle Farmers Market every week. Timber City's wares were initially fermented with champagne yeast, but after a few bottles blew up in the company’s early stages, Patt and McKnight figured it wasn’t worth the hassle and switched to forced carbonation.
For Standard Brewing’s Justin Gerardy, though, it’s all about the fermentation. He’s one of the few ginger beer brewers in the world who uses ginger beer plant, an ancient bacterial culture that was once thought to be extinct. (Think kombucha mother, but more granular. Yum!)
Nowadays most brewers use champagne yeast or forced carbonation to give their product its requisite fizz, but Gerardy was determined to track down a ginger beer plant of his own. A sample he bought turned out to be bogus, and Gerardy was determined to track down the real deal. Long story short, he did, and now the culture is his brewery’s proprietary secret. And the resulting brew—fizzy, floral, and clear as champagne—was what made him want to open his Central District nanobrewery in the first place.
Unlike most of the ginger beers that are coming out of Seattle these days, his Bee’s Wine is alcoholic—but at a meager 2 to 3 percent ABV, about half that of your average beer, nobody’s drinking this stuff to get drunk.
Opinions do differ on whether fermentation is what makes a ginger beer a ginger beer. If we’re being technical, unfermented ginger soda is actually ginger ale—but the term, most associated with sugary-sweet Canada Dry, doesn’t capture the heat and complexity of Seattle’s new artisan sodas.
Judging by the success of the unfermented Rachel’s Ginger Beer—current production numbers hover around 600 gallons per week—Seattle consumers don’t seem to be too hung up on semantics. Rachel Marshall is gearing up to open a Capitol Hill store (and french fry bar) in the spring, and she has four to six new stores in the works, potentially as far afield as California.
And if artisanal ginger beer has done this well in Seattle, just think of how popular it will be in a city with actual sunshine.