Is ginger beer the same as ginger ale?
Cookie is right on. Ginger ale is a very light, sweet, fizzy mild drink. Ginger beer is darker, not as sweet, and very intensely gingery/spicy. It is often slightly less carbonated. Sioux City Ginger Beer is a good brand, but buy it from a place that turns over its stock regularly - the higher level of real ginger makes it good, but prone to developing an off taste if stored improperly or too long.
Vernor's-style ginger ale -- golden and aggressively aromatic -- is often called ginger beer. "Ginger ale" usually means the more light-greenish "pale dry" Canada Dry style.
Ginger Ale - at least the major brands - has been made from carbonated water and syrup for as long as I can remember.
Most ginger beer today also seems to be made like this. It tends to be, as mentioned, much spicier than most ginger ale brands. (This isn't true across the board - I recall tasting the spicy version of Blenheim once, and I've never had a "ginger beer" that spicy.) But sweetness ranges from "dry" to extremely sweet.
Much ginger beer seems to derive from Caribbean recipes. Also, it is possible to actually brew ginger beer. This can have some natural carbonation and, conceivably, an alcoholic content. I'm not aware of any "ginger ale" made in this manner.
I posted this a couple of weeks ago. But technically, you could carbonate the ginger ale just like one carbonates homebrew, but it is risky because the residual sugar not used during carbonation has the potential to turn the bottles into bombs.
Here's my old post:
I make my own because I have a bunch of cornelius kegs lying around for homebrew and I can force carbonate without using yeast. Draft ginger ale.
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
2 lemons, sliced ( use the whole lemon )
4# turbinado sugar
20 oz organic ginger, sliced
5 gallons of RO water.
Boil the ingredients in 1/3 of the water, strain into a keg, repeat twice more. Also, divide the sugar among the 3 boiling steps. Seal the keg and allow the GA to settle for a week. Rack GA off the sediment into another keg, chill to 40 deg F, and force carbonate. Ready to drink in about 3 days. The carbonation will improve over time.
Good ginger beer is spicy, refreshing, and sweet but not cloying. Bad ginger beer tastes like Pine Sol.
One of the only mixed drinks I enjoy regularly is the dark & stormy: ginger beer & spiced rum over ice. I'm always on the lookout for a good brand. Saranac is the best I've found so far.