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Keeping your ginger up


Fresh from a rare fortnight’s leave, Whitey plunges back into print with a mouthful of ginger.

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Ginger is the new black.

It may not be in your short black yet, but it’s won the hearts of the sweet tooths and professors of likkerature at Coca-Cola. Or its vital statistics have. Reacting to the news that ginger-flavoured drinks increased 6 per cent in sales in Australia in the last year, Coke is releasing a new product here and in New Zealand: Coca-Cola Ginger.

As the sales of non-alcoholic fizzy drinks slump, the kiddylikker shelves sway on from the weight of the sugary alcoholic monoculture in liquor barns everywhere. While even the bursting cider fridges offer three or four new brands each time you visit, they’re pretty much the same old same old flavours concocted hyper-sweet from frozen apple juice concentrate from China.

Apple in Coke? Nah. These Very Big Cokefolk are banking on ginger.

Without alcohol, for starters.

Imagine the conversations the marketing haircuts had around that big table: Ginger!?! In Coke? “But look at the numbers, Xzayvianne, the numbers … ”

The bottle looks pretty much like a Coke bottle, but the maker points out that “it’s distinct, with premium gold used throughout the labels and bottle caps to both highlight the exclusivity of the product and also to differentiate it from the core Coke range … this summer our focus is on helping Aussies make those special moments even more enjoyable and the launch of Coca-Cola Ginger is the first step towards this goal”.

This is what transnational wine companies call “premiumising”. It’s like “weaponising”.

Australia’s largest ginger producer, Buderim Group, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, is flush with fresh funds from companies owned by Kevin Rudd’s son-in-law, Albert Tse. Welcomed as an aid to “chase a bigger share of the Chinese retail sector”, that injection of $A26.1 million bought Tse 23 per cent of the listed company.

While their ginger is among the best in the world, wildly-ranging prices and bad farming weather – like floods and cyclones – have given the Queensland ginger growers hell in recent years. As housing eats into the scarce free-draining volcanic loams required for growing the tricky rhizome, Buderim’s suddenly changing gears, adding value to the local ginger it can get with a range of condiments, sweets and drinks, both alcoholic and not.

It has non-alcoholic Ginger Beer & Pear and Ginger Beer & Guarana, which it’s backing up with 4.5 per cent alcohol Ginger Beer & Vodka and Ginger Beer & Spiced Rum.

It has even adopted a racy cursive logo whose font reminds me of Coca-Cola.

I’m keen to see how sweet they are. Queensland has lots of sugar. I suspect new products at standard kiddylikker sweetness would make more sense if the drinker had a more austere, perhaps more overtly gingery drink to aspire to. It seems to me that as well as most of the new products emergent, a drier, more grown-up sort of offering would appeal to a market already accustomed to gingery Asian cuisine.

“We use real ginger roots to get our flavour,” Buderim’s marketing manager, Jacqui Price, promises. And when I push: “Coke’s not buying any ginger from us.”

Which Angove’s certainly does. As the longstanding licensed Australian maker of Stone’s Green Ginger Wine, the big Riverlander buys endless tonnes of semi-dried Buderim ginger root in bales which it steeps in its own neutral wine spirit to extract a powerful essence used to fortify its sweet base wine.

That wall of sultry, slightly fiery ginger seems to dry the finish as it warms the gizzard and spirit

Pushed by the new beverage industry interest in ginger, I bought a bottle of the old fisherman’s stalwart, Stone’s Green Ginger, in BWS for $10. Contrary to popular suspicion, your standard Stone’s is not all that strong. It’s only 13.9 per cent.

While it smells of sweet, fresh-harvest ginger, it seems to have a lot more overt primary grapey fruit than I recall from the olden days. I suspect the base wines were more oxidised in the past, like in vermouth. While still very sweet, that wall of sultry, slightly fiery ginger seems to dry the finish as it warms the gizzard and spirit.

Stone’s favour among fishermen is not simply due to its remarkable capacity to give one that comforting illusion of warmth, but because of ginger’s historical efficacy in easing motion sickness, while its vitamin C combats scurvy.

I could still schlück it eagerly from the bottle in a chill stiff sea, but on ice in a whisky glass, Stone’s seems too sweet. Try adding some soda and/or vodka or whisky to suit your taste. Lemon juice makes it seem drier. Garnish with slices of lemon and fresh ginger.

Pity, I think, to have a drink you like that you need to take away from, not add to.

It seemed an obvious step on from the fortified Stone’s when Angove’s launched its sweet alcoholic ginger beer 15 years back. Maybe 20. From the start I loved it on the rocks with vodka or gin but I found its bouquet tickled the old asthma: perhaps all its healthy natural yeast got up my nose.

Many of the current ginger beers which have been brewed do the same. Having inhaled live yeast in my line of work for 40 years, I’m growing an allergy to it.

The current Stone’s Ginger Beer (4.8 per cent alcohol) seems barely gingery to my blistered hooter, but triggered no asthma. The Matso’s Ginger Beer (3.5 per cent alcohol), brewed in Perth for the Broome Brewery, seems less yeasty, more gingery while still gentle, and perhaps less sweet. I like it.

Speaking of “premiumising”, there’s also the Stone’s Sparkling Ginger Joe from Angoves, at 8 per cent alcohol. This has a more pickled gingery edge, a sort of honeyed, autumnal fragrance which carries smoothly through the aged ginger marmalade nature of its flavour. Its heat comes more from alcohol than ginger.

“Our new ginger beers are not brewed but are made by steeping the ginger roots,” Jacqui says of the new Buderims.

Apart from its fortification against motion sickness, the medicinal attributes of the Zingiber officinale rhizome and stalk are many. Depending on the research you prefer to accept, ginger’s natural gingerols, shogaols and zingibain can assuage colds, flu, fever, tetanus, leprosy, vertigo, indigestion, abdominal cramps and arthritis. It’s a sedative, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory.

You can see some of this here.

In the meantime, trust Unca Philip. Zingiber is good for you. Along with chilli and garlic, it is an essential part of my standard medicinal vegetal diet. Sometimes, I munch fresh ginger root like apples.

When it comes to cooking, or drinking, I love to keep some fresh ginger juice in the fridge. Buy the early-harvest, fresh root with the smoothest skin: the more aged, gnarly stuff is so high in fibre it’ll fry your juicer but it’s good sliced in cooking.

Splash some raw juice in the wok with your stir; add some to your chicken broth. Ask Cheong.

I have seen no research into how much of these good bits survive steeping in alcohol or indeed brewing, or what sliver of Zingiber’s efficacy might have found in its way into the new Coke, but I can promise you a shot of fresh raw juice leaves nothing to the imagination.

Or the constitution.

In lieu of sugar-free pre-mixed ginger drinks, try using a teaspoonful of the juice of fresh Buderim ginger here and there in your cocktails. Ice, ginger juice, vodka, soda and a dribble of melted honeywater with lemon, lime and a fresh ginger garnish may not frighten you off. Play around. You can do it.

But be warned: it’s dragon milk for well-blazed hellbillies. Specially with a dribble of nuclear chilli juice.

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