It all started with ginger beer, which originated in England in the 1800s. Eventually the popularity spread across the pond and Americans were also enjoying this refreshing beverage. Ginger beer was brewed with ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a bacteria called "ginger beer plant" -- the final product did have a small alcohol content of no more than 11 percent. Ginger ale was purported to be first invented in 1851 in Ireland, but modern-style ginger ale came about many years later in 1907 when Canadian John McLaughlin invented it and it eventually became Canada Dry. The ginger ale was available in two versions, golden and dry (golden is rare today). The golden variety is, as it sounds, golden in color and has much more ginger flavor. The dry version is what we recognize today as ginger ale -- it's pale in color and has a mellow ginger flavor.
The big difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is that ginger beer is brewed (fermented) but ginger ale is just carbonated water that's been flavored with ginger. Today's brewed ginger beers are categorized as non-alcoholic drinks because their alcohol content is less than 0.5 percent, which meets FDA requirements. Since ginger beers are naturally fermented, they have less carbonation and often develop a beer-like head when poured into a glass. Some ginger beers are sold unfiltered and appear cloudy, so it's recommended the bottle be inverted before drinking to reincorporate any separation.
However, the difference isn't so clear cut anymore. Many small soda companies like Reed's naturally brew both their ginger beers and ginger ales. And some large-scale soda companies that still produce ginger beer actually make it by adding a stronger ginger flavor to carbonated water. So really the difference becomes merely one of taste.
The Main Difference:
In the past ginger ale was made along the same lines as a soda, unlike ginger beer, which was allowed to ferment into an alcoholic beverage. At 11% alcohol, I’m sure that it was tasty and packed quite a ginger punch. There are companies that still produce an alcoholic style of ginger beer and we were fortunate to have tried one at Tales of the Cocktail this year. Crabbie’s Ginger Beer weighs in at 4.8% alcohol content and is tastes just like a Bundaberg or Goslings Ginger Beer (both with little to no alcohol).