A brief history of alcoholic sodas
It’s simple math: more breweries equal more kinds of beer. From tweaking common recipes to adding unusual ingredients or even just resurrecting long-dormant styles, breweries today revel in brewing variety.
One style that’s arisen recently straddles the line between what is and isn’t beer, and that is the world of malt-based beverages.
Brewing beer with the addition of roots, spices, fruit, bark, and all things botanical is as old as brewing itself. When hops took over as the main bittering ingredient about 1,200 years ago, only a few specific beer styles continued to employ the extensive use of fruit, vegetables, and spices.
As beer became more commercialized by the end of the 19th century, the soda pop era was in its infancy, and the two beverages stayed pretty much on their separate paths until the end of the 20th century. Non-alcoholic sodas and breweries have long had a relationship; it was soda production that kept many breweries alive during Prohibition, and it’s also common among today’s craft breweries.
Calgary’s Annex Ales and Canmore’s Grizzly Paw are two examples. The equipment needed to make sodas is similar to that used in brewing beer, and the method of bottling, canning, and/or kegging the final product is exactly the same. To be clear, when one is talking about the two products, if only the name (i.e. root beer, orange soda, ginger beer) is mentioned, it’s the soda pop we are talking about. If the words alcoholic or hard (more common in the U.S.) precede the variety, then it’s the version containing alcohol.
You can blame wine coolers and taxation for the blurring of the lines. In the 1980s, California wineries figured out a way to sell off their, ahem, less desirable product by mixing it with fruit juices and sparkling water. Voilà, the wine cooler was born. Its lower alcohol content allowed it to be sold in multiple locations, but in 1991, U.S. Congress sextupled the excise tax on wine, which resulted in most producers substituting cheaper malt extract for the wine content to keep the prices down. Even so, no one would confuse this product with a beer, nor was it marketed that way.
In Canada, wine coolers continued to be made with wine, and added the spirit-based cooler, which is still the more common version found today. In the U.S., these hard liquor coolers never took off for a variety of legal and taxation reasons, but mostly because the product could not be sold in most states in the Holy Trinity of American Consumerism: grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations.
Enter the craft brewing industry in the last part of the 20th century. In addition to brewing beer styles that hadn’t been produced for over a century on this side of the Atlantic, a little commercialism never hurts. By introducing malt-based “beers” with recognizable flavours and marketing them to the mainstream beer drinker, they expanded their customer base.
To produce flavoured malt beverages, brewers brew a fermented base of beer from malt, and then remove most of the malt character. By eliminating the colour, bitterness and taste of beer, this base can be combined with any flavour, usually in the form of sugars or syrups, to achieve the desired taste profile and alcohol level.
The best versions don’t have any alcoholic taste to them and most are at “beer strength,” (less than 6% ABV). Now offered in a variety of flavours, it’s root beer, ginger beer, and iced tea (non-carbonated) that dominate the market. Not considered “real beer” by most people, their sales figures can’t be ignored, so expect to see more on the market.
Alcoholic sodas available in Alberta:
This beer is spicy with a peppery back end. Tastes very much like the pop they serve in the Caribbean. Often mistakenly used in Moscow Mules (it’s supposed to be the non- alcoholic version with vodka in your copper mug, people!) 4.4% ABV CSPC +741988, $18, 6 pack.
Much sweeter than Royal Jamaican. Also comes in Raspberry Ginger. 4% ABV CSPC +738008, $6, 500 mL bottle.
Tastes like cream soda with a hint of orange. Also available in root beer. 5% ABV. CSPC +782062 $18, 6 pack.
Probably the first malt-based alcoholic root beer, now brewed by Pabst. 4.5% ABV. CSPC +784528 $19, 6 pack.
Calgary’s own Minhas group dominates the Alberta market with multiple flavours produced through their Boxer and Lazy Mutt lines brewed in their Calgary and Wisconsin breweries. While rather sweet, they definitely bring back memories of your childhood soda pop. 5.5% ABV. CSPC +780741 $16, 6 pack.
The Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) has made alcoholic iced tea into a monster stateside, and it’s beginning to take off in Canada. Also available in Half and Half (iced tea and lemonade) and raspberry. 5.5% ABV. CSPC +750232 $17, 6 pack.