Rachel’s Ginger Beer

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rachel ginger beer

BY KURT B. REIGHLEY
PHOTOS BY KELLY CLINE

Take it from one who’s been teetotal for years: tasty non-alcoholic options are few in Seattle bars. That shortage was one of the first things Rachel Marshall noticed when she returned home in 2008, after five years of working in the German resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and countless weekend trips to London, where she’d gotten hooked on ginger beer, the tart, spicy cousin of the tepid stuff peddled by Shweppes in the States. “All the pubs in the UK brew their own ginger beer and have it on draft, and it’s so delicious as an alcohol-free option,” she says.

At first, Marshall tried to satisfy her craving with whatever commercial varieties were available at specialty food shops. But in summer of 2009, two things prompted the founder of Rachel’s Ginger Beer to go the D.I.Y. route: she read a magazine article about the rise of Austin’s iced tea brewers Sweet Leaf Tea, and a co-worker at Oddfellows Café came in with a bottle of homemade ginger beer. “I realized I should stop looking for it and just make my own.”

Marshall had modest experience concocting infusions and other craft bartender staples, but mastering ginger beer involved lots of trial and error. Rachel’s Ginger Beer only contains four all-natural ingredients—water, organic cane sugar, lemon, and ginger—so getting the proportions right was crucial. “I bet we changed the recipe a hundred times or more, making it perfect.” Champagne yeast was rejected as a carbonation agent when it made the ginger beer taste bready. In February 2011, just days after Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson profiled Rachel’s Ginger Beer, an entire batch was tainted by a bit of undetected mold and had to be tossed.

Marshall’s bubbly beverage tempers the fiery flavor of ginger with plenty of fresh lemon and just a modicum of sweetness, for a light, refreshing taste with a delayed kick. Rachel’s Ginger Beer might even be good for you, too. “I don’t market this as a health food, but I’ve worked hard in the development of the recipe to keep the calories low and the nutritional benefits high. There’s tons of potassium in the ginger, and it’s packed with B vitamins and vitamin C.”

As simple as its components may be, brewing Rachel’s is painstaking work. “This product is so handcrafted,” says the 32 year-old. She gestures at a modest industrial juicer. “Until about six months ago, when we finally got that machine, I was actually hand-juicing all the lemons.” A meticulous approach to carbonation ensures she gets a regular upper body workout, as chilled kegs of flat ginger beer are stacked on trolleys, hooked up to CO2, and pushed back-and-forth 300 times until the liquid effervesces.

Even as she and business partner Adam Peters grew Rachel’s Ginger Beer, Marshall continued working at hot spots like Lark, Oddfellows, and Delancey. Thanks to her industry connections, demand for her product escalated quickly. First a friend who tended bar at Licorous asked for a bottle to experiment with cocktails—”and then they put it on the menu!” Barrio soon followed suit. “I was just tinkering around, thinking let’s have Dark ‘n’ Stormys for a birthday party,” she admits, still astonished by the success. “And since then? Not one moment of rest.”

Her associates have been supportive behind the scenes, too. Early on, in desperate need of a Health Department-approved kitchen, but with no operating budget, she asked Lark owner and chef Jonathan Sundstrom, if she could use the space at Licorous during off hours, and he agreed. When Licorous closed in June of 2011, she made a similar arrangement with Brandon Pettit of Delancey. Finally, a few months ago, Rachel’s Ginger Beer moved into its own storefront on East Olive Way.

Dozens of bars and restaurants now serve Rachel’s, but for many Seattle locavores, the point of entry has been one of the three farmers markets—Queen Anne, University District, and Capitol Hill—where she started selling both bottled and draft ginger beer last year. “I thought, ‘Gosh, it would be so cool if I could have a little lemonade stand with ginger beer.'” Making friends with other vendors soon led to limited edition specialty flavors including cranberry, raspberry, and rhubarb, as farmers offered her surplus fruit at the season’s peak for pennies on the pound.

The seasonal offerings provide a break from the routine for Marshall as well as her customers. “It gets boring making the same recipe every week, but obviously I can’t deviate from that because it has to taste the same. Being able to make other flavors is a creative outlet.” It poses new challenges, too, as a recent mishap with nectarines underscored. “I wanted to keep the nectarines as uncooked as possible, so it didn’t taste like baby food. But since there’s so much sugar in the nectarines—much more than in rhubarb or berries—it turned.” Once again, she dumped a whole batch of ginger beer, rather than risk disappointing customers. “How terrible if someone walked away thinking ‘I just paid four bucks for this?'”

That integrity is also why Marshall refuses to use citric acid or natural flavorings in Rachel’s Ginger Beer, even though a more shelf-stable recipe would allow her to sell in greater quantities. “I can’t put my name on a bottle that takes shortcuts like that,” she concludes. “It blows my mind that people put out junk and charge a lot for it. I just can’t imagine doing that.”

You can find the ever-growing list of farmers markets, shops  and restaurants that carry Rachel’s Ginger Beer at www.rachelsgingerbeer.com. For the seasonal specialty flavors, bring your own growler to her farmers market stands

 

Kurt B. Reighley is the author of United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties and Handmade Bitters—A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. As DJ El Toro, he can be heard playing a wide variety of music every Wednesday night from 9pm to 1am on KEXP 90.3 FM and kexp.org.

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