The word "ale" has a variety of different specific meanings (e.g. beer brewed without hops, or beer brewed using warm fermenting yeast, or beer with a higher alcohol content than lager, or sometimes just any kind of beer). But all of those definitions refer to a type of beer -- an alcoholic beverage brewed via fermented grains.

I can see why ginger beer is called that: it was originally brewed and fermented like beer, just with ginger instead of a grain, and did contain as much as 10% ABV (though these days it's not brewed anymore and is non-alcoholic). But I can't find any evidence that ginger ale ever contained alcohol, or was ever brewed like ale.

So how did it get the name ginger ale?

  • 2
    I occasionally make ginger beer (using ginger, sugar, lemon, water, and champagne yeast), and the drink, when uncorked, is mildly alcoholic—and very effervescent—owing to fermentation of the sugar used in the recipe. There is no grain involved in the fermentation process, however. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '17 at 4:38
  • There are commercially available brewed (alcoholic) ginger beers in the UK. There's also a culture known as a ginger beer plant which isn't just a simple yeast (unlike @SvenYargs' recipe) and gives a drink with a lower but still non-zero alcohol content – Chris H Dec 19 '17 at 7:50
  • Unlike with actual beers, ginger ale (at least of the Canada dry type we get here) are clear and very fizzy, while traditional ginger beers are more like ale in appearance and texture. It should be called ginger lager if a direct comparison with beer is the intention. I suspect that it was a marketing decision - "we need a term for something similar to beer to differentiate our product but not too much" – Chris H Dec 19 '17 at 7:59
  • It's a Bombay Duck. – Kris Dec 19 '17 at 10:14
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    If it turns out the correct answer to the question is (as Clare suggests) that the ale in "ginger ale" emerged decades ago as a marketing gambit, it wouldn't make the question any less interesting, nor would it make the documented answer any less useful to people who might wonder, as KutuluMike did, where the term came from. The origin of the term heroin is no less interesting for being (as I understand it) a creation of the Bayer company. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '17 at 19:10

Probably because it was originally a beer as the following extract suggests:

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.


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    I must say, Huffington post have odd ideas on what constitutes small alcohol content. – Mr Lister Dec 19 '17 at 12:27
  • @MrLister - I agree, but apparently beer in the past used to be stronger: Small beer and small ale can also refer to a beer made of the "second runnings" from a very strong beer (e.g., scotch ale) mash. These beers can be as strong as a mild ale, depending on the strength of the original mash. (Drake's 24th Anniversary Imperial Small Beer was expected to reach above 9.5% abv. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_beer – user067531 Dec 19 '17 at 12:34
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    I read something similar to this but I'm not sure it explains why ginger ale was called ale from the beginning; it was clearly different from ginger beer, but whoever named it picked a word that meant beer. – KutuluMike Dec 19 '17 at 13:57

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