Ginger beer, a not-so-'soft' drink, offers a buzzy twist on old-fashioned ginger ale
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By Joe Crea, Northeast Ohio Media Group
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Call it a not-so-"soft" drink for grownups.

Unlike ginger ale, its timid cousin, ginger beer has swagger -- courtesy of the natural fire and bite that comes from pure ginger root.

Modern drinkers know it mostly as an ingredient in popular (more often, revivals of) classic cocktails. Ginger beer is an essential part of the famed Moscow Mule, and another drink with roots back to the 1800's, the Dark and Stormy.

Some of its allure could be due to ginger's alter-ego -- as a "medicinal."

Much loved for its distinctive flavor, ginger also ranks as one of the earliest herbal medicines. Technically a rhizome, ginger "root" is especially revered for its soothing qualities. Most commonly, it has long been held as a perfect way to calm an upset stomach and soothe other gastrointestinal ailments. Headaches, flu-like symptoms, colic and even arthritis have been treated with various brews, elixers, powders and other concoctions derived from ginger.

Today, ginger is making its way into an growing range of beverages, from craft-style ginger ales to increasingly popular fruit-based ciders.

But ginger beer, straight-up and unadorned -- except, maybe for a splash of lime other citrus juice and perhaps a sprig of mint -- is taking on newfound fans.

During a recent visit to Columbus, we went to the trendy restaurant Sycamore in German Village and discovered Crabbie's. An import from the U.K., it arrived at our table along with an exceptionally tall Pilsner glass filled with crushed ice. The server suggested we taste before adding a generous splash of lime juice from the garnish that accompanied. The brew's light sweetness was countered by a great ginger bite and terrific crispness that made it equally tasty alone -- and with the spicy dishes we ordered.

Check out these five brands of ginger beer (most contain alcohol, but some don't):

And if you're wondering: some brands are crystal clear, while others (notably, Fever-Tree and Royal Jamaican) have a cloudiness born of natural sediments from the brewing process.

REED'S EXTRA GINGER BREW: This non-alcoholic "all-natural Jamaican style ginger beer" contains 25 percent natural fruit juice (including pineapple, lemon and lime juices, plus honey) and boasts 26 grams of fresh ginger per bottle. If you're looking for a brew that's bears a distinctive ginger flavor but in a soft and well-balanced drink, here's your bottle: flat-out delicious, with good bite without the buzz. We found it at Giant Eagle, sale-priced at $3.50 (normally $4.29) for a four-pack. Visit reedsgingerbrew.com

SPRECHER HARD GINGER BEER: Lucky Midwesterners have long known about Sprecher's, the Milwaukee area-based soft drink bottler and brewery. Their root beer is practically legendary. More recently, a "hard" ginger drink is making its way beyond Wisconsin. Their beer (4.7 percent alcohol) opens with a decided aroma of ginger ale. One sip and you'll pick up on the flavor of malt liquor mingling with ginger ale. It's pleasant enough, but Sprecher's is eclipsed by other brands. We found it at Heinen's for under $2 per individual bottle. Visit sprecherbrewery.com

ROYAL JAMAICAN ALCOHOLIC GINGER BEER: Billed as "beer brewed with ginger," this product of Jamaica (brewed and bottled for a rum and spirits distiller in Kingston), Royal Jamaican was a hit during a neighborhood gathering. Good, true ginger flavor, in a beer with plenty of bite. Its 4.4 percent alcohol content enhanced the brew's upfront ginger "heat." Although it stands up well in a mixed drink, here's one I'm happy to sip straight-up. We found it at Heinen's for $2.09 per individual bottle. Visit rjsgingerbeer.com

CRABBIE'S ORIGINAL ALCOHOLIC GINGER BEER: Just a terrific brew (4.8 percent alcohol), Crabbie's is excellent as a mixer but best appreciated served chilled or on-rocks. Made from a 200-plus-year-old formula, using ginger root sourced from "the Far East," this bracingly spicy beverage is steeped for several weeks to achieve its lively flavor. Four of us who sampled Crabbie's Spiced Orange version thought that though it could make a serious run for fans of Constant Comment orange-spice tea, we'll stick with the original. We found it at Heinen's for about $10 per four-pack. Visit crabbiesgingerbeer.co.uk.

FEVER-TREE PREMIUM GINGER BEER: Although it's priciest of the lot, I'll happily sip one of these cunning little 6.8-ounce bottles for it's sweet-yet-dry true ginger flavor. There's no reference to alcohol content on either the bottle label or the brand website. Spring water, cane sugar, Ivory Coast ginger and natural flavors (plus a little ascorbic acid to hold those flavors consistent) render a pure ginger essence and almost silky texture to the brand. We found it at Giant Eagle stores for $6.29 per four-pack. Visit fever-tree.com