A bottle of Griffin Ginger Beer next to a copper mug with ice and mint

How Much Alcohol Is in Ginger Beer, and What Does Lindsay Lohan Have to Do With It?

It's natural to wonder if Ginger Beer is alcoholic, and the answer is not straightforward. For Sprecher Griffin Mixer Ginger Beer, the answer is no, but the same is not true of all ginger beers.

In fact, ginger beer used to be as alcoholic as beer or wine. That changed in the prohibition era, but for decades ginger beer continued to have some alcohol content. Then, two scandals in the early 2010s--one of which involved Lindsay Lohan--changed ginger beer in the U.S. forever.

What changed, and why? Could your favorite ginger beer still have trace amounts of alcohol in it? Read on to find out. 

The Days When Ginger Beer Was Really Beer

The trusty Encyclopedia Britannica states that ginger beer was originally made "by fermenting a mix of ginger, water, sugar, cream of tatar, and yeast," and sometimes "[l]emon peel and juice or citric acid." The result was a "carbonated and mildly alcoholic" beverage that was popular in the United Kingdom and its North American colonies.

In this fascinating video by the educational YouTuber Townsends, you can learn how Ginger Beer was made in the 18th and 19th century United States. Basically, it was made by mixing ginger and other flavorful ingredients with spring water and molasses. Then it would be fermented with yeast overnight, bottled, and typically drunk fresh. 

A pewter bottle of ginger beer

Alcoholic ginger beer used to be bottled in strong ceramic bottles that wouldn't explode from trapped carbonation. Via Wikimedia Commons 

Back in the 19th century, ginger beer was a great way for regular people to get the best bang for their buck on ginger, which was a relatively expensive ingredient.

Ginger beer was also a great way to get buzzed. Ginger beer was typically drunk "green," that is, as soon as possible, at a relatively low alcohol content. However, the Huffington post notes that ginger beer could (and can) reach an ABV of around 11%, roughly twice the strength of a typical light beer. 

Now, it's possible to bicker about whether 19th century ginger beer was really beer, strictly speaking. It wasn't made with malted grain and hops, which many consider to be essential beer ingredients.

I'd say that ginger beer was more like small beer--a type of low alcohol beer that was a part of European brewing tradition in the Middle Ages and Colonial Era. Root beer evolved from a type of small beer, and in many ways the story of ginger beer is similar.

Bickering about definitions aside, 19th ginger beer was a boozy delight that many homebrewers still seek to replicate. What changed?

Prohibition.

In part of North America, the sale of alcohol was prohibited in 1901. Wait, didn't prohibition happen in the 1920s? In the United States, yes, but in Canada, no. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian prohibition was enacted on a regional basis, and mini-prohibitions rolled through Canada from 1901 until the early 1920s, peaking during the end of World War I.

During this sobering period of Canadian history, a little company called Canada Dry started producing a soft ginger ale. This syrupy-sweet ginger ale was, ironically, perfect for covering up the taste of low-quality illegal liquor, and it took off.

Canada Dry Ad from 1916

Canada Dry Ginger Ale took off during Canadian Prohibition. Not only was it a good soft drink, it was a great mixer. Via Wikimedia Commons

When Prohibition began in the U.S., more soda companies followed suit with their own soft ginger ales and ginger beers. As Americans did their best to drink as much illegal liquor as possible, they mixed a lot of ginger beer in with their bathtub vodka and potato-peel gin.

The Post-Prohibition Hangover

The day after the prohibition, the good people of the U.S. woke up with a literal hangover, but also, a legal one. According to Business Insider, prohibition law considered any beverage below 0.5% ABV a soft drink. That law still holds. 

In the 1920s, this law made good business sense. Big brewing facilities that could no longer make beer or wine wanted to keep using their brewing equipment somehow, and brewed soft drinks were an easy product to pivot to. 

I speculate that brewers used their lobbying power to get the government to overlook the trace amounts of alcohol in brewed ginger beer, and the government held them to a legal limit of 0.5% ABV so they could shut down any brewery that got funny ideas about how strong a "soft drink" could be.  

FDR in a car

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition ended. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "what America needs now is a drink." But soft drink regulations did not change. Via Wikimedia Commons   

After prohibition ended, ginger beer manufacturers using traditional brewing methods had no reason to change. ABC's Rachel Rasker notes that an ABV below 0.5% is too low to get drunk off of, so brewed soft ginger beer was non-intoxicating. For generations, the practice of brewing some soft drinks with alcohol-producing yeast went largely unquestioned.

Then, in 2011, Lindsay Lohan drank some Kombucha while on probation.

The Kombucha Scandal

Kombucha is a fermented tea beloved by hippies and hipsters alike. Like all soft drinks, kombucha must be under 0.5% ABV to be sold legally. Kombucha manufacturers seemed to pull this off just fine, until two scandals in 2010 and 2011 turned the industry inside-out.   

Business Insider reports that in 2010, a bottle of kombucha in a Maine Whole Foods was found to have an ABV of 2.5%, five times the legal limit. This NBC report from the time confirms the story.   

Cynthia Graeber and Nicola Twilley of the Gastropod Podcast attribute the kombucha crisis to this story about Lindsay Lohan failing an alcohol test while on probation. Lohan blamed the Kombucha she had been drinking, which drew renewed attention to the product from regulators and the public.

Giant Rubber Duck

I am not here to pass judgment on Lindsay Lohan, or to repost paparazzi pictures of her. In lieu of that sort of thing, here's a giant rubber duck. Via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever started the problem, it only ended after months of scrutiny, huge amounts of kombucha pulled from shelves, and a slew of failed kombucha businesses. Nowadays, kombucha manufacturers spend loads of money making sure that every last bottle is under 0.5% ABV.

Third Wave Ginger Beer

Kombucha-gate raised the stakes for anyone selling brewed soft drinks in the United States. Those committed to traditional ginger beer brewing methods had to make sure they were doing everything in their power to comply with the law and avoid a PR disaster like the one that shook up the kombucha industry.

Others avoided traditional brewing methods altogether to avoid the risk of scandal, or simply to avoid the costs and risks of brewing. 

Sprecher prefers to invest in quality ingredients to produce a delicious craft ginger beer that isn't brewed with added alcohol-producing yeast. While a 0.5% ABV is not high enough for most people to feel an effect, we understand that many people have personal beliefs, health reasons, or religious convictions that lead them to avoid alcohol entirely, and we think everyone should be able to an enjoy a delicious ginger beer made with real ginger.

a 4 pack of Griffin Ginger Beer Mixer

Griffin Ginger Beer from Sprecher Brewery

If that sounds good to you--whether you're a teetotaler or a cocktail enjoyer--I encourage you to try out our new Griffin Ginger Beer in mocktails, cocktails, on the rocks, or neat in a chilled glass. Ginger beer has come a long way since the 18th century.  

Since you read this far, why not enjoy yours at a discount? Click here or use code GINGER10 at checkout for 10% off one purchase of Sprecher Ginger Beer! Ships FREE to anywhere in the United States except HI and AK.

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1 comment

Luv ginger beer

Mekea Henderson

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