Thirsty Throwback Thursday: A History of Ginger Beer

Today is the day! Campus Archaeology is throwing it wayy back with an 1860’s-inspired three-course meal. For my blog post this week, I thought I’d get into the spirit of historic food and drink with a little history—and some of my own, highly professional market research—on ginger beer.

Ginger beer bottle found at Saints’ Rest

Ginger beer bottle found at Saints’ Rest

Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to look at the physical evidence of past consumption. At MSU, archival documents tell us the official records of what the school bought for students and faculty to eat and drink. However, we can learn about what people were actually consuming on campus by looking at the archaeological record of things they threw away. This is how we learned that at least one thing people drank was ginger beer, as evidenced by a stone ginger beer bottle excavated from Saints’ Rest dormitory in 2005.

Ginger beer was a popular drink in Britain and North America from the 18th century until Prohibition. Technically speaking, ginger beer is not a beer. Whereas the production of beer involves the fermentation of a grain (typically barley or wheat) malted to turn its starch into sugar, ginger beer involves the fermentation of ginger and added sugar, typically molasses or cane sugar. Ginger beer is more likely related to the ‘small beers’ popular in Europe from Medieval times until Industrialization. Before the advent of sodas and modern soft drinks, these weakly alcoholic, fermented beverages were typically brewed at home and provided a safer alternative to often-contaminated water.

Ginger beer plant, the SCOBY responsible for fermenting ginger beer.

Ginger beer plant, the SCOBY responsible for fermenting ginger beer. Image source.

Why make a ginger drink? Humans have been drinking ginger beverages for thousands of years, often for medicinal purposes. However, the history of ginger beer is tied to the cultural and economic importance of its two main ingredients, ginger and sugar. Ginger and sugarcane, crops native to tropical regions of South Asia, were introduced to Europe via the spice trade. Europeans brought these crops and others to the New World, where they flourished in the tropical climates of the Caribbean. Powered by the labor of enslaved Africans, French- and English-controlled Caribbean plantations became the world’s biggest sugarcane producers. By 1655, England also controlled Jamaica, the Caribbean’s most prolific producer of ginger, with over two million pounds exported to Europe each year. Jamaican ginger was considered especially flavorful and was a prized ingredient in ginger beer.

Apart from ginger and sugar, ginger beer has two other traditional ingredients: lemon, and a special microorganism that aids in fermentation. The microorganisms responsible for the fermentation in ginger beer are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (a SCOBY) known by the more innocuous name of “ginger beer plant.” A culture of ginger beer plant is added to sugar water flavored with ginger. These microorganisms ingest the sugars and produce carbon dioxide and low levels of alcohol as waste products. While today’s ginger beers are typically non-alcoholic, prior to the mid-19th century, ginger beer was up to 11% alcohol by volume. In 1855, British Parliament passed an act that imposed export taxes on beverages with an alcohol content above 2%. After this, most ginger beer brewers reduced the alcohol content in their products (via reduction of the fermentation time) in order to keep them affordable.

An example of a plain, early stoneware ginger beer bottle. From

An example of a plain, early stoneware ginger beer bottle. Image source.

After it was brewed, ginger beer was corked inside stoneware bottles, like the one found at Saints’ Rest. Early stoneware bottles and those brewed locally in North America at were usually fairly plain, brown in color, and etched with the bottler’s name or city. The Saints’ Rest bottle seems to fit into this category. Beginning in the 1880s, however, sleeker gray bottles with colorful shoulder slips and stamped logos designed to attract consumer attention became more popular.

Part of the reason for packaging in stone rather than glass bottles was cosmetic: ginger beer was usually unattractively cloudy in appearance. However, packaging was also functionally important in the export of ginger beer. England shipped large amounts of ginger beer to the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 1790s through the 19th century. Though ginger beer was brewed regionally, England maintained market dominance in North America because English breweries used superior quality stoneware bottles that better maintained ginger beer’s effervescence and kept it cold. The bottles were sealed with liquid- and gas-tight Bristol Glaze and wired and corked shut to maintain carbon dioxide in solution.

Examples of later, more decorative stone ginger beer bottles

Examples of later, more decorative stone ginger beer bottles. Image source

During Prohibition, ginger beer dipped in popularity in favor of its cousin, ginger ale, and other soft drinks. Unlike traditional ginger beer, ginger ale is made by adding ginger flavoring and sweetener to carbonated water and does not involve the addition of a microorganism. Today, the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is much less clear. Many modern manufacturers use this abiotic process to make or enhance ginger beer, adding flavoring and carbonation without the use of a microorganism. For this reason, modern ginger beers differ from ginger ales primarily in flavor; they are typically spicier and less sweet than ginger ales.

All this research got me excited to try some ginger beers. Naturally, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I had to do our own taste test, you know, for science. We picked four brands of ginger beer that I hadn’t yet tried at stores near us: Regatta, Barritt’s, Q, and Bundaberg. We tasted each ginger beer alone and for science—and because #gradschool—we added vodka and lime to make some Moscow Mules.

Modern ginger beer bottles from our taste test.

Modern ginger beer bottles from our taste test.

In no particular order, the first brand we tried was Regatta. It was spicy with a strong ginger flavor and made an enjoyable cocktail. Barritt’s was up next. This one was much less flavorful so it seemed disproportionally sweet, like a ginger ale. Third, we tried the Bundaberg. This was spicy and sweet and definitely enjoyable alone. Last, we tried Q ginger beer: spicy, very fizzy, but not at all sweet. According to the Q website, it is made with chili pepper and is specifically intended to be used as a mixer. Our highly scientific and definitive ranking put the Bundaberg in first place, Regatta in second, Q in close third, and Barritt’s in fourth.

If you have a favorite ginger beer, please tell us about it! We hope you open one up and think about early MSU students who might have enjoyed a ginger beer in their dorm after a long day of classes and farm work (although this was probably enjoyed in secret as alcohol was banned on campus).


History’s A-Brewin’: The History of Beer and the People Who Love It

In my previous blog, I discussed the history of the Philip Kling Brewing Company of Detroit, inspired by fragments of two Kling beer bottles found in the Gunson house debris last summer. While the story of the Detroit brewing industry was interesting, it was all history and no anthropology. And that makes Susan a dull girl. So this time I will explore how beer can be examined archaeologically and used to look at social relationships between people in the past.

Humans have been brewing beer for thousands of years. Some have proposed that beer-making was the primary motivator for the transition to sedentary, agricultural life ca. 10,000 B.C., although hard evidence of its existence is more recent. Beer is mentioned in some of the earliest writings from ancient Babylon (ca. 4000 B.C.) and earliest archaeological evidence comes from a pottery vessel from the site of Godin Tepe in Iran, which dates to approximately 3400 B.C. But how do archaeologists detect ancient beer, you ask? SCIENCE!! Patrick McGovern, the so-called “beer archaeologist,” is a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and he has made a career out of identifying the chemical traces of fermented beverages in ancient ceramic vessels. He looks for certain “fingerprint compounds,” such as calcium oxalate for barley beer and tartaric acid for wine, which can be identified through elemental analysis. McGovern has used his identifications to trace the history of brewing practices and trade across the Old World.

Gamo pottery from a farmer's household in southwestern Ethiopia

Gamo pottery from a farmer’s household in southwestern Ethiopia

John Arthur, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg, observed that ceramic vessels involved in the fermentation of beer in present-day southwestern Ethiopia showed signs of interior attrition. This means that the fermentation process eats away at the interior surface of the vessel, leaving a distinctive pattern that can then be identified in pottery excavated from archaeological sites. Arthur then uses this information to make social inferences about the past. Among the Gamo of Ethiopia, which is a caste society, only the wealthier households from the high caste can afford enough grain to make beer (farso). Thus pottery with interior attrition could provide insight into socioeconomic differences in certain ancient societies.

This brings us to the issue of access and social meaning. Not everyone has access to either the resources to make beer or to the finished product itself. Chicha, or maize beer, was consumed primarily in the Andes region of South America as long ago as 3000 B.C. Not only was it a sacred drink, but it was available only to elites. In Medieval Europe, however, beer and ale were produced in the home and provided nutrition for the everyday laborer, while wine was reserved for the upper classes. Prior to AD 1000, women in Europe baked bread and brewed beer for their families. After this time, the formation of Brewer’s Guilds moved the preparation of beer from the homestead to licensed brewhouses and under the control of men. By 1700, most beer-making was conducted by large European breweries. In the North American British colonies, ale was considered a “civilized drink” and breweries were built on the grounds of prominent plantations and estates to sate the thirst of their esteemed owners.

Ph. Kling Brewing Company Beer Serving Tray

Ph. Kling Brewing Company Beer Serving Tray – Image Source

The Industrial Revolution allowed for an increase of commercially available beers for public consumption and led to the rise of major beer producers, such as Phillip Kling Brewing in Detroit. I was unable to find information on the public’s view of Kling beer, such as whether it was considered a cheap, “everyman’s” beer or a higher class brew. They certainly seemed to have marketed themselves as the latter, as shown by rare decorative trays that depicts a dolled-up couple “after the theatre” and proclaims to be “A Beer for Guest and Host.”

Throughout much of the 20th century, however, the bland, mass-produced beer, marketed by clever commercials and large horses, made beer the signature blue collar and frat boy beverage, but in the last few decades or so, the rise of microbrews and hipsters have increased the interest and status of beer, which now comes in a broad range of varieties, full of flavor. It has also renewed interest in resurrecting the flavors of ancient brews, which were once complex recipes involving herbs and multiple sources of sugar, as opposed to the simple recipe of your average Bud Light. McGovern’s research has helped Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware create a line of Ancient Ales, the most famous of which is Midas Touch. The Field Museum in Chicago also recently announced they will release a recreation of a maize-and-berry beer made by the ancient Wari people of Peru.

Being a thorough researcher and trying out Dogfish Head's Midas Touch, a recreated ancient ale. You know, for science.

Being a thorough researcher and trying out Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, a recreated ancient ale. You know, for science.

It comes as little surprise to find that people are using a beverage so beloved in modern American culture to connect with peoples of the past. Professor Gunson and his bottles of PH Kling beer comprise but a small piece of the story of the long love affair of humans with beer. This love affair continues at MSU today, evidenced by the beer cans strewn across the campus after a home football game and by the popularity of taprooms like Hopcat. Beer brings us together, but it can also divide us; beer anchors us to the present, and it connects us to our past.



Blum, Peter H.
1999   Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers since 1830. WayneStateUniversity Press, Detroit, MI.

McGovern, Patrick E.
2009   Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.

Michel, Rudoph H. and Patrick E. McGovern
1993   The First Wine and Beer: Chemical Detection of Ancient Fermented Beverages. Analytical Chemistry 65(8):408-413.

Two Bottles of Beer in the Ground: The MSU Connection to PH Kling and the Brewing Barons of Detroit

PH Kling Brewery Bottle Fragment - Gunson Unit D

PH Kling Brewery Bottle Fragment – Gunson Unit D

This past week, Lisa, the Campus Archaeologist, discovered fragment of two different beer bottles in the assemblage excavated from the remains of Professor Thomas Gunson’s household. The embossed words “PH Kling” appear on both fragments, although in different fonts, and an internet search quickly brought up references to the Philip Kling Brewing Company in Detroit. Fortunately for me, Peter Blum wrote a lovely book about the history of brewing in Detroit, in which the Kling company features prominently. I summarize that information here, but I would encourage those of you interested in the topic to give it a read (citation below).

Original Phillip Kling Brewery Building: Image Source

Original Phillip Kling Brewery Building: Image Source

Brewing began in the city of Detroit around 1830, where the industry was run by mostly British entrepreneurs making ale. Beginning around 1848, a large influx of Germans into the area brought with it a new era of brewing in the Detroit—one dominated by German lager brewers. Among these German brewers was Philip Kling, a cooper, who along with Michael Martz and Henry Weber, invested in the Peninsular Brewing Company in 1856, which was located on Jefferson Avenue, near the future site of the Belle Isle bridge. Kling gradually took greater control of the company, which was renamed Philip Kling and Company in 1868. Kling became the first president of the Detroit Brewer’s Association and by the end of the 1870s, PH Kling was one of the city’s most successful and prominent breweries. Their offerings included Pilsener, Gold Seal Export, Extra Pale Ale, and Porter.

Post-1893 Philip Kling Brewery with new and expanded brewhouse: Image Source

Post-1893 Philip Kling Brewery with new and expanded brewhouse: Image Source

After reverting to the name Peninsular Brewing from 1879 to 1890, the name Philip Kling Brewing Company was formally adopted. This year also marked the beginning of the great brewing dynasties, which in Detroit included the Strohs, Klings, Martzes, and Darmstaetters. However, Kling was but a middling competitor amongst the giants. The brewery was severely damaged in a fire in 1893, and a new 6-story brewhouse with increased barrel storage was constructed. After Philip’s death in 1910, his son Kurt took over operations, but business was interrupted by Prohibition in Michigan, which began in 1917. Like other breweries, the company replaced the word “brewing” in their corporate name, becoming Kling Products Company. In the attempt to keep the company running and generate income, Kurt Kling built Luna Park next to the brewery, and amusement park that included a roller coaster. However, the company was forced to close in 1921 and the building was torn down.

Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, Kling purchased Daily Brewery in Flint and resumed brewing by 1936. However, former bootleggers in Detroit still controlled distribution in Detroit, and Kling found it difficult to make his way back into the Detroit market. While the other major breweries were quick to make post-Prohibition recoveries, Kling’s Flint venture floundered and was out of business by 1942.

Postcard depicting the post-Prohibition Phillip Kling brewery in Flint: Image Source

Postcard depicting the post-Prohibition Phillip Kling brewery in Flint: Image Source

Back in East Lansing, we believe that the material from CAP excavations this summer is from Professor Gunson’s house, where he lived from 1891 until his death in 1940. A majority of the examples of Kling bottles online have the large, clear block lettering present on the second bottle fragment, while the first has serif lettering, for which I could find no online equivalent. It is possible that these bottles were from two different time periods, meaning Gunson could have been a long-term devotee of the brand throughout the span of its popularity. I could find no information concerning the distribution of Kling beer to other Michigan markets so it is unclear if Gunson purchased the beer locally or in Detroit. In any case, these small pieces of bottle glass tie MSU into the bigger picture of the Michigan brewing industry, which is a legacy in which the state prides itself today. I will hop into a more in-depth discussion of the social role of beer at MSU, in Michigan, and throughout world history in my next blog. In the meantime, relax and throw back a few cold ones—it will make the wait less brewtal.

Blum, Peter H.
1999 Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers since 1830. Wayne State University
Press, Detroit, MI.