Browsing through the Bindley Pharmacy exhibit in the Education and Research Center at the Vigo County Historical Museum, I was immediately intrigued by a box labeled “Hires Ginger Beer Extract.” Beer in the pharmacy? As I ever so gingerly pulled out the glass bottle from inside the aged, green and white cardboard box, I was again puzzled by the unidentifiable clumps remaining at the bottom of the bottle.
But lo and behold, research would quickly shed light. For example, the original ingredients for ginger beer included ginger, sugar, water, lemon and a starter kit known as “Ginger Beer Plant.” The kit contained special microorganisms that aided the fermentation process, by which ginger beer accumulates the small amount of alcohol it contains. Hm, the clumps may have a purpose.
Ginger beer, which has been used medicinally for centuries to treat nausea, indigestion, inflammation, as an antibacterial, and a preventative against viruses, was likely to have been created as a relative of the “small beers” popular in Europe during medieval times. These were lightly alcoholic beverages, typically home-brewed, to be consumed in place of water in order to avoid contamination.
First publicly introduced ca. the mid 1700s in Yorkshire, England as a Victorian alcoholic beverage, ginger beer served as a national English favorite until the 1930s when another, perhaps more shrewdly marketed American concoction, Coca-Cola, hit the global scene.
The Charles E. Hires Company was founded in 1870 in Philadelphia. Hires first presented his root beer recipe in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Convention. While he was the self-proclaimed inventor of root beer, the beverage had actually been produced by other manufacturers as early as the 1830s. Hire’s eventually lost the root beer patent, but his entrepreneurial skills paved the way for the establishment of his root beer product as the most successful and popular of its kind early on. Other products manufactured by the Hires Company included Fullers Earth Clay, condensed milk, stoneware bottles (intended for home brewers of Hires Root Beer), Hires Cough Cure, Hires Ginger and Birch Beer Extracts.
Despite its original healthful associations, ginger beer is less likely to be encountered by modern consumers as a refreshing, healthy beverage to be enjoyed on a hot summer day, than it is to be encountered as a mixer for a refreshing “not-so-healthy” beverage to be enjoyed on a hot summer day-off. Moscow Mule anyone? Bottoms up!
The Vigo County Historical Museum will open at the new History Center at 929 Wabash Avenue this summer. Volunteer applications are now being accepted. Follow Vigo County Historical Society and Museum on Facebook or join the mailing list online at www.vchsmuseum.org to stay up to date on the progress.