Food & Drink

A Virginia Community Beseeches Coke: Save Our Ginger Ale!

Northern Neck, a homegrown soda with history and a fervent fan base, aims for a comeback

Photo: Courtesy of Chip Jones

Ginger ale, with its nose-tickling effervescence and zing of earthy spice, can be an acquired taste. The people of Virginia’s Northern Neck, it’s safe to say, have acquired the taste more than most. Now they’re fighting to bring a beloved local brand bubbling back to life.

Even in the small world of Southern regional sodas (Alabama’s Grapico and Kentucky’s Ale-8-One are two delicious examples), Northern Neck Ginger Ale is somewhat insulated, barely known to those who did not grow up on the rural, four-county peninsula tucked between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers on Chesapeake Bay. The formula was developed in 1926 by Arthur Carver, who also operated a local Coca-Cola bottling plant. For three generations, the Carver family held that formula and bottled Northern Neck Ginger Ale for their neighbors, who, frankly, got happily hooked on the stuff.

“I was raised on the Northern Neck, so it’s the standard by which I judge all other ginger ales,” says superfan Chip Jones, whose family put cans in his care packages when he was deployed to Iraq. “There’s something distinctive about the flavor profile, a crisper taste and bite. It’s the Goldilocks of ginger ales—this one is just right.”

Even when the Coca-Cola Company purchased the formula in 2001 and shifted production to a plant near Richmond, Northern Neck residents continued to consider the soda their own, proudly keeping cans in the fridge—and maybe an extra case tucked away in the pantry. Then, in July 2020, facing a supply-chain shortage of the aluminum used to manufacture cans, Coca-Cola quietly ceased production of Northern Neck. When it became apparent that the situation wasn’t temporary, forlorn fans began organizing a rescue effort. A “Save Northern Neck Ginger Ale” Facebook group grew to seven thousand supporters, but Coca-Cola declined organizers’ requests to resume production on a seasonal basis, or to sell the formula. The latter option would allow for a smaller bottler, or even a local craft brewery, to make the stuff.

photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Johnson
Northern Neck Foundation board member Stephanie Johnson holds a can of the beloved, now-discontinued beverage.

In December, the movement spawned the Northern Neck Foundation, whose first goal is to revive the brand. Petitions have been circulated, billboard ads have been run, and town and county governments across the region have passed resolutions of support. No less than Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has penned a letter to Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey urging the company to allow, one way or another, the beverage’s reintroduction. In other words, these ginger-ale guardians aren’t messing around, their sights firmly set on having Northern Neck back in time to fizzily toast its centennial.

“We know that Coca-Cola is getting our letters and seeing our billboards, but so far they are saying nothing. Our job is to get a response,” says Stephanie Johnson, a Northern Neck Foundation board member, along with Jones. “But already this movement has brought together a lot of people who didn’t know each other before discovering that they share a love for the same thing. It really is a community drink.”